From 60 yards away, a long roll of feathered thunder emanated from the canopy, raising the hair on the back of Nathan Howell's neck as he continued his best impersonation of a root ball.
When the snooze alarm went off again in the neighboring tree, Howell slowly unfolded a preserved turkey wing from his pack and rapidly fanned the wing to imitate the sound of a bird flying down from the roost.
After a couple of minutes he added some scratching and a few choice hen yelps on his tube call to bolster his charade of a hen turkey starting her day. He was rewarded by the sound of the wily gobbler, whose roosting tree he had identified nearly a month earlier, gingerly flapping to the ground with as much grace as a 20-something-pound bird could muster.
In most fairy tale scenarios, the gobbler comes in on a string, perhaps pausing for a short time to build suspense and dramatic effect. Afterward, he hurries over to the hen turkey decoy the hunter has strategically placed within the old bird's line of sight.
While the bird is whispering sweet nothings into the rubber floozie's ear, the hunter delivers a package of copper-plated 5's to the gobbler's neck before doing his own strut back to the truck.
Of course, it doesn't happen this way in real life. In this harsh reality, the old bird hits the ground, eyes the decoy for a second and then heads in the opposite direction toward his harem of live hens flying down from an adjacent tree.
Howell takes it all in stride. The season is still early.
Howell has been hunting turkeys in the north-central portion of Mississippi for nearly 20 years. In that time, he has amassed a large number of beards and spurs for his wall, and even a few trophies while competing in sanctioned National Wild Turkey Federation calling competitions.
He knows that, sooner or later, the morning will come when the old bird decides to come his way.
"Late March is generally going to be full of henned-up turkeys," Howell said. "The bigger, older turkeys are with hens, while the subordinate gobblers are in small bachelor groups.
"Those younger birds tend to be easier to kill, and a lot of hunters get those birds early in the season."
Howell is what might be considered a trophy turkey hunter. He is in the woods every day of the season. His objective at the beginning of the season is to identify the dominant bird on his property and work that bird until he kills it, and then move on to the next one.
He admits that style of hunting is not for everyone.
"Usually, after 10 or 12 days, it gets aggravating," Howell said. "On a controlled, private piece of property where nobody is tampering with your birds, you'll have one dominant bird that has whipped every other bird. Once you kill the dominant turkey, the whole cycle starts over. The flock will run through the whole pecking order again, and that requires a lot of gobbling, a lot of strutting, a lot of visibility during the day time - and that starts a whole 'nother season opener, so it does get easier once the old bird is down."
As direct as Howell's intentions are for taking the flock out in order of dominance, he's also highly disciplined in his tactics for hunting each bird. Howell targets birds by keying on the morning fly-down, or at least by working that one bird through the morning after initial contact is made.
The most important tools of his trade are patience and scouting.
"Once you set up on the turkey, you're in his land and on his time," said Howell. "Turkey time. He don't have anywhere to be. Nobody to see. Nowhere to go or answer to.
"A lot of times, sitting tight is the main key to success."
For Howell, knowing the lay of the land is very important. Sure, a few hunters might hunt a piece of property for the first time ever and call a bird straight to them and kill it. Most of the time, however, the prize will go to the hunter who has done his homework.
"I spend a lot of time patterning turkeys to find definite roosting areas and travel corridors," Howell said. "I like to set up on the roost of turkeys in the morning, well before daylight, and try to catch them when they try to fly off. Once the turkeys hit the ground in this part of the world, they're much less responsive to the call. They're always going to follow the hens and, if you're not where they want to come, they're not going to come.
"It's all about (that) first thing. If I miss a turkey after the fly-down, the rest of my day is going to be scouting, not hunting."
Howell's scouting regimen begins well before the season starts, and continues bit by bit with the hunter trying to fit pieces of the puzzle onto the board throughout the season.
He said a typical day of scouting would be scanning fields with a good pair of binoculars and looking for tracks, drag marks, strutting zones and areas where hens like to dust.
"I prefer to scout on a day after we've had a morning rain," he said. "Turkeys like to come out in the open because they don't like to be wet. Plus, with their dark coloration, the sunlight helps dry them off.
"I also do a lot of pre-season scouting before daylight, just listening for where the turkeys are. I'm using a locater call - owl or crow - not a turkey call.
"I'm making mental notes of where all the turkeys are on the property and keeping a running track of them from mid-February all the way to the season opener, and then till the end of the season."
As far as having turkeys to hunt on his land, Howell, who's in the northern part of the state, claims to have an abundance. That fact has been verified by an upward trend in turkey surveys over the last several seasons. State turkey project biologist Adam Butler claims the key to this season's success will be borne by the class of 2011.
"Turkey populations in Mississippi peaked in the 1980s," Butler said. "But over the last couple of years, people are comparing the numbers of birds we have now to that heyday prior to the '80s."
Butler's predictions, based on the data collected from the annual brood surveys and last year's hunter survey, indicate the northern part of the state should have an even better season than last year and the southern portion of the state should have an equally good year as last.
"The drought of 2011, when it got real hot down south, affected both the forage availability and the survival rates for our turkeys," Butler said. "North Mississippi didn't get as a bad a drought during that period so they are in better shape, plus we had a widespread outcropping of the 13-year cicadias, which provided a whole bunch of food for turkeys."
The only drawback in the state, according to Butler, were some Delta areas where flooding from 2008, 2009, and again in 2011, took their toll on the Delta counties' bird populations.
"The good news is that the Delta showed a good hatch this past season," said Butler. "Hopefully that area will be quickly on the road to recovery."