Spring is the season of love and leisure for most birds and animals. The woes of winter are past, the promise of summer lies ahead and, for a few months, even man is no more than a minor nuisance. But try telling that to a turkey. Thanksgiving may still be half a year away, but as far as the hunters in those states with early turkey seasons are concerned there is also a spring version.
The fact that there is turkey hunting at all in this country, in spring or fall, is ample reason for thanksgiving. Fifty years ago wild-turkey populations in the U.S. hit bottom. What birds the market and meat hunters did not kill off were wiped out, along with their habitat, by loggers. The few turkeys that managed to survive seemed destined to be national curiosities. That they could ever be nurtured back to shootable population levels was a dream beyond hope.
The very hopelessness of the wild turkey's plight was, in a sense, what saved it. By the '20s and '30s the public had at last begun to develop a conscience about wildlife, prompted in part by the fact that several native species were already gone for good. The turkey, so distinctively American and so decidedly in the final stages of decline, was a logical subject for a crusade.
The nationwide campaign that followed did much to save the bird, but only after World War II were any serious attempts made not simply to protect the turkey but to propagate it. In the two decades since, game-management agencies across the country have more than made up for the late start. Through research, education, experimentation, the development of new techniques for trapping and restocking, large-scale habitat improvement and development, and the cooperation of sportsmen, the wild turkey has made a most spectacular comeback.
Today the bird Benjamin Franklin believed more qualified than the eagle to be our national symbol has returned in grand style to every corner of its original range, and has even moved to a lot of places it had never been before. California, which previously produced no turkeys gamier than the supermarket variety, now has some 6,000 wild birds roaming its forests and expects double that number before long. Washington, which planted 17 birds from Wyoming in various parts of the state six years ago, opened its first turkey-hunting season five years later, and estimates put the current population at close to 1,800 and still growing. On the birds' original 39-state range, turkey populations in some areas are higher today than at any time previously recorded.
Driving along a country road in the Texas hill country about a month ago, I counted 53 birds in seven different flocks in the first hour after sunup. The toms were performing before their assembled harems like soft-shoe dancers on a vaudeville stage. Not too many years ago, the sight would have brought news photographers rushing to the scene. It is still a spectacle worth recording, but today even a dozen flocks of turkeys are no longer news.
What is news to a great many people, including a surprising number of sportsmen, is the idea of hunting turkeys in the spring. The logic behind spring seasons is both sound and simple. It is based on the fact that turkey populations have a turnover each year of approximately 50% whether or not the birds are hunted; that turkeys are polygamous and in any polygamous species at least 75% of the males can be harvested safely without interfering with normal reproduction; that the least wasteful, most practical and most selective means of harvesting is by sportsmen; and that the best time to harvest is immediately after the mating season when the hens are nested and the males have already fulfilled their primary function.
It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between male and female turkeys, since about 10% of the hens have the unfeminine habit of growing beards. But in spring a mature old gobbler goes through something of a courtship metamorphosis. The wattles beneath his chin become swollen and pendulous and brilliant red in color, his head takes on a splendid scarlet hue and he struts like an Indian chief in full feather, spreading and fanning his plumage before the ladies. He is at his best—fatter, stronger, healthier than at any other time of year.
And as a trophy, the wild turkey is at no other time so challenging, so maddening and so exciting to hunt as in spring. At any season of the year a wild turkey, unlike its barnyard relative, is the wariest of birds. Certainly it is the most difficult prey for a hunter to outwit. It hears better than a deer, sees better than a mountain goat, and is more suspicious than a horseplayer's wife. A gobbler in spring offers all these challenges and one more: he will answer a call. Or, more accurately, he is supposed to answer a call.
Turkey-calling requires great skill, reasonable luck, innate self-confidence and a certain deviousness of spirit. Few but the most daring turkey hunters gamble on mouth-blown calls anymore, although the hollowed turkey bone and the metal-and-rubber half-moon are probably the most devastating calls of all. They are also the most difficult to master. Since one false note can end a turkey hunt before it properly begins, most hunters do not try.
Easier to use, but equally ruinous if used wrong, are the hand callers that imitate either the hen or the gobbler. These are usually small boxlike affairs made preferably of cedar, sometimes with slate, which are scratched and shaken, or rattled and rubbed. The hen call is a love-sick plea for company; the gobbler call is a challenge to combat. The choice is purely a matter of personal preference.
During New Mexico's spring gobbler season this year I saw more hen calls than gobbler calls in use, but the success ratios were about the same. The real turkeys were seldom being fooled by either, although one hunter in our party managed to call another hunter to within four feet of him. They never did decide which fellow was the more surprised when, gobbling and putt-putting, they finally came face to face with each other across a log.
There are few moments to match the experience of calling a turkey in. This is doubtless the reason turkey hunters treat their calls with the kind of reverence normally reserved for Persian miniatures and the Hope diamond. Even transporting the calls involves certain formalities. Some are taken afield encased in plastic-lined bags or zippered cases. Others are carefully wrapped in handkerchiefs.
My hunting companion, Bill Huey of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, prefers a hen call, which he carries in a soft flannel square. Periodically he would touch his pocket while we hunted, as if checking that the call was still there.
It was not long before Huey got to use the call. We were walking through a wooded canyon. Suddenly Huey stopped, frozen in midstep. Partway up the canyon wall was a turkey, visible for an instant before it disappeared among the tree trunks. Huey signaled me down behind a fallen log. In slow motion he removed the call from his pocket and carefully unwrapped it on his knee. It consisted of two small, rectangular blocks of wood held together by a rubber band and separated by a piece of sandpaper. He slid off the rubber band and lightly caressed the slate surface of the larger block with the sandpaper. Then with quick, erratic strokes, he rubbed the head of a wooden peg projecting from the smaller block across the slate. The sound was a short, sharp screek—about like the exacerbating sound of chalk scraping on a blackboard.
We could not see over the log and dared not raise our heads. If the turkey had seen us, it would have been on the next mountain by now. If it had not, our chances of luring it within range depended entirely on Huey's ability to sound seductive. If he sounded a wrong note, or scraped too loudly, or called too frequently, that would end the game. The temptation to peek over the log was almost overwhelming. The waiting was interminable.
Huey scratched on the call again. Again we waited. The morning was absolutely still. Then, from what seemed directly on the other side of the log, there was a putt. I jumped involuntarily. The sound had completely unnerved me. Huey held up one finger for me to be still. He made a single answering screek on the caller. It was very short and soft. On the other side of the log, the turkey said putt. There was a long pause, then another putt—closer.
I could stand the suspense no longer. Slowly, carefully, I pushed the safety off my gun and inched upright. Not a dozen feet from the log a yearling torn, its beard just a tuft of stubble, was pacing back and forth like an expectant father outside a delivery room. For a startled instant he stopped, as if not believing what he saw. Then, with a putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, he whirled and started up the hill. I pushed the safety back on my gun and watched him vanish into the trees.
"He won't forget that experience in a hurry," Huey laughed. I knew I would not, either.