The Sedentary sport of hunting turkeys in the spring is like no other, for it is unnerving and exhausting though little physical effort is involved. The game is to talk like a hen turkey to a gobbler in a forest at dawn so he will come to the gun, strutting and unsuspecting. This sounds simple to people who have never tried it, and perhaps it would be if a wild gobbler were a simple bird.
In the woods a wild gobbler is a thing of unparalleled beauty. Its blue head with white wattles is streaked with red. When the head is down it will appear to be white; when up it will look blue and the wattles will show red. When the bird struts, its head is crimson. The flank feathers show all the iridescent coloration of a peacock. The tail band is a deep reddish brown.
The wild turkey is also the most exasperating bird in creation. It is at once watchful yet stupidly vain, in a hurry for a conquest yet with all the time in the world to pause and stare and listen. I have had the pleasure of observing dozens of gobblers in a lifetime and, trying though they are, they fascinate me, so that when opening day comes in southern Alabama on March 20 I am under a spell in which I do not really want to kill a wild turkey right away.
Besides, you can't count on killing a turkey just when you want to anyway. A member of a hunting club to which I have belonged went seven years without getting a gobbler in the spring. He learned the stealth of an Indian and the stillness of a stump. He learned to call convincingly, progressing through the various devices with which a skilled operator can imitate the small talk of a hen turkey in want of comfort. He advanced through the box caller, the slate and corncob-handled stylus, the wingbone amplified by a trumpet of telescoped pieces of cane, to finally the present-day rubber calling diaphragm used in the roof of the mouth.
Why, with the ardors and disciplines of seven years of spring turkey hunting my friend was never able to kill a gobbler I cannot say. Perhaps, as we accused him in camp, he failed by fidgeting, though he denied this. A recent spring hunt of my own illustrates the need for absolute immobility when a gobbler is near.
I had spent a morning near a gobbler's roost, watching him come almost within range and then disappear—while coming toward me—behind a log. There was a long silence, and when next he gobbled it was 400 yards away, going away for good. When I went to investigate I found a slough I had not known about behind the log. The turkey had walked down it, and away.
The second morning before dawn he gobbled from the same roost. I crept into a little cave of briers where there was a log at my back. He gobbled several times in answer to owls, an amusing habit of turkeys. I waited, until I was sure hens were on the ground. I was close enough to hear them fly down from their roosting places out over the pond. Directly between me and the gobbler a hen yelped a little, the gobgler answering. "Ah," I thought, "this will help me; this will insure that he flies down in my direction."
I heard a hen behind me, which complicated matters. Besides a feeling of being watched, it also gave me a fear that the gobbler might make a longer descending flight than I had anticipated, go behind me and come up from behind. The hens yelped their complaisance; I yelped, and the gobbler generously answered us all. As day broke, I heard turkey footsteps in the leaves all around. The number of hens increased the likelihood of my being seen, thus paralyzing me.
The tension in this phase of turkey hunting is hard to appreciate unless one has experienced it. The hunter must remain agonizingly motionless. Turkeys in the normal routine of their lives have all the time in the world. A gobbler may just stand, still as a stump, for 10 minutes, until you believe that your eyes have deceived you and what you thought was a turkey is a stump. Meanwhile a tick may be crawling up your leg, and the mosquitoes hungry enough to ignore heavy dosages of repellent will be feasting on your face and hands. But if you make the slightest movement to scratch, your hunting will be over for the day.
A GOBBLER APPROACHES
I heard him drum, to my left. When you can hear this low but impressive sound, veroom, veroom, the turkey is just about in gun range. With my gun pointed out the opening in the briers before me, there was nothing I could do but wait. The movement of retracting the gun and poking it out through the briers in his direction would scare a hen which would spread the alarm.
He gobbled behind me, closer. As imperceptibly as possible, I turned around. This maneuver took about 10 minutes. By then the gobbler had gone, and I found myself looking a hen right in the eye.
"Putt," she said, her blue head upraised in alarm. "Putt!"
I had the gun half raised to shooting position. I didn't dare lower it. I was so tired I couldn't hold it up. The hen was determined to watch whatever she had seen of me until satisfied it was harmless. I was determined in anguished strain to wait until she was satisfied.
Finally the hen decided I wasn't there and lowered her head to feed. A sound in the leaves out in front of my blind caused me to suspect that the gobbler was there, with me in the fix, achieved by ordeal, of having my back to him. I ventured to look by shrinking down, bowing my head, and peering upside down under my arm. There he was, with a hen. I was helpless.
It is at such a point that the real turkey hunters are separated from those who go season after season without killing a gobbler. Inexperience thinks, "Why not just whirl around and shoot him before he can get away?" Any man who has tried this at times during a lifetime of turkey hunting knows it does not work. Such a shot might require only an instant, but in less than an instant there would be a tree or trees between the gun and a vanishing gobbler. Besides, his thick feathering requires a neat head shot, and the head of a running gobbler wouldn't be erected.
A HEN PREVENTS A SHOT
The hen smoothed her feathers and walked away. Another hen came up. The old turkey gobbled and strutted. In time the maneuvers of turkey domestic life placed the gobbler and his hen a little to the right, in a position so that between us there was a density of my brier blind and some underbrush, enabling me to change position unseen. I got my gun retracted from the briers and half turned around, and then the gun slowly poked out again.
This time when the gobbler was in view the hen with him was in such a position that if I fired I would kill her too, which would be illegal. By the time the hen was out of the way, the gobbler had moved. And by the time I was ready for his new position, he had moved again. However he was still strutting, and so, during his period of preoccupation, I would move my gun toward him. He would stop strutting, throw his head up and say "Putt," scaring the life out of me. That went on and on, accomplishing nothing.
Time, it seemed, had begun to run out. Most of the hens had left, feeding away. When all were gone the gobbler would go lagging along behind, diffidently feeding, pausing to strut. At a time when he was out of my sight in the underbrush I did hear him at an increased distance. That was when I nearly conceded defeat. I ventured a little yelp, however, and he answered. In this situation you freeze still as a jar of clabber, not knowing whether the gobbler will come to you.
In time a hen came up from my left, the gobbler from my right. I first saw him passing at an angle from my then position toward the hen, which I could hear but not see. He would pass before the opening of the blind, and there would be an instant when a tree would be between us. I was ready. Just as he went behind the tree I shifted my gun, more than half expecting the hen to see me or him to hear me and, as wild gobblers have done, disappear behind a tree never to emerge in my sight.
But this time he did not run off. He stuck his head out, upraised, listening and looking, and uttered an alarmed "putt!" As he saw me I fired. He began flopping in violent death throes.
I flopped right where I was, in exhaustion. I couldn't even get up and go out to pick him up for awhile. I looked at my watch. It was 5 after 7. I had crawled under the briers at 5, just before gray daylight. For two hours and five minutes that gobbler had been in close gun range, so far as distance was concerned.
When he heard the shot the camp watchman, who had helped me paddle out through the swamp, came to me and said, "Why did you wait so long?"
Of course, it isn't always that difficult. In fact, sometimes a comparative neophyte will go out and knock off a turkey with almost ridiculous ease. Take the time my friend Dr. Lucius Gooch killed a gobbler by doing everything wrong. He was no turkey hunter, although for many years he had aspired to become one. I had been trying without success to call one up for him. Then one morning he decided he would go by himself. I tried to dissuade him, feeling sure he needed more coaching. But the doctor came back with a nice gobbler, the first of his life.
"I got out of the boat by a ridge that came out across the swamp, not over 100 yards wide and maybe half a mile long," he said afterward.
"Don't tell me!" I cried, as his turkey-hunting mentor. "You should never have got out of the boat until you had your turkey located. You could pole along there before daylight a lot quieter than you can walk through the brush."
"Well, I had stopped the boat," he explained, "and it seemed a good idea to get out. I walked up a way and there was a turkey gobbling almost right over my head. I had to back up from him to hide, and then I sat down and yelped."
"That was an even worse mistake, yelping before the hens came down from the roost. Any turkey with any sense would know that was a hunter and not a hen. Why'd you yelp?"
"Well, I did. And he flew down, within 30 yards of me. I took dead aim and cut him down with my rifle."
"Rifle? That was the worst mistake of all, shooting at him with a rifle. That was shotgun range! Why didn't you use the shotgun part of your three-barrel gun?"
"Well, I used the rifle. I shot him in the head with it."
"Oh, Lord! Nobody is a good enough rifle shot to hope to kill a wild turkey by a head shot with a rifle. You aim for the head with a shotgun, but for the body with the rifle. You did everything wrong, every move!"
"But," said Dr. Gooch, "I did one thing right."
"What," I asked, "was that?"
"I killed the gobbler."