Last turkey season began with the typical dawn chorus of bird songs, greeting the hunter hoping to score on opening day.
An owl hooted from down on the creek, causing the hunter to stop and listen for a gobble. There was none.
Seconds later, another owl, this one up the creek, repeated the question — a hoot that sounds like “who, who, who cooks for you?” But, again, no gobble.
Then a squirrel started squabbling with some unseen adversary and a cardinal announced it was awake. From the pines to the right, a hen sounded off with a limb yelp, then another, and another. Turkeys had been roosting in the area in deer season, and six weeks later it was great to hear they were still here.
Still, there was no responding gobble.
The hens soon left the roost, each sounding a fly-down cackle as they dropped to the ground. I spotted three through the open woods in an old logging road. They preened and shook off the night — stretching and beating their wings, getting their feathers fixed just so, for the day ahead.
Still, there was no gobble.
A logging truck, perhaps a half a mile away on the main road, roared as it used jake-braking to slow down. This loud noise brought the desired reaction of two gobblers, who sounded like each was trying to out-gobble the other.
As the truck started working back through the gears to regain speed, the gobblers responded steadily.
In my vest’s pockets were a dozen mouth calls, a wing-bone yelper, a box, two slates, three strikers, a woodpecker call and an owl hooter. Nary a one imitates a 1989 Mack logging truck, so I was thankful for the assist.
With the woods back to normal I used a slate to make a few yelps.
The hens were to my right and the gobblers to my left. Thickets were behind me, and open woods to the front. Several days of scouting had allowed me to choose what I thought was the best set-up point, but 50 years of hunting had taught me nothing about turkey behavior is normal.
The hens were moving away in a group, a sure sign they were not nesting, but I had to convince a gobbler that just one wanted to talk.
With a slate I scratched out a few yelps and it was answered by a quick gobble.
Game on! Or, so I thought.
I went dark for 10 minutes and repeated the yelp sequence. Nothing.
Then down the road I saw a gobbler’s red head bobbing and looking. I knew it had to know the hens were up ahead — they had been clucking and scratching and doing all those things a flock of hens do. With the gobbler just out of sight in a swale, I added a little whine followed by a cluck, which apparently was exactly what the gobbler wanted to hear.
He appeared from the swale in full strut.
This was going to be a slam-dunk morning. The turkeys had read the script.
I readied the shotgun, a Remington 11-87 Special Purpose, while the gobbler was out of sight. The safety was off and a load of Hevi-shot was prepped and ready. It was then I decided the beard was short of my expectations, a hair over five inches. As far as I was concerned, this bird would live to strut another day.
Just then, there was a blur in the open woods.
A bobcat, obviously not as selective, made a leap at a turkey breakfast. The gobbler took wing barely escaping the cat’s surprise attack.
Bam! I hammered the cat with a load of No. 4s.
I wonder if that gobbler knows just how close he came to dying, and I wonder now just how long that beard might be.
Success this season is all about preparation, so veteran turkey hunter Paul Meek said you should be out in the woods leading up to opening day.
“Killing a bird on opening day without scouting or prior knowledge of the area is a little like winning the Powerball lottery; it can be done, but the chances are mighty slim,” said Paul Meek, a longtime call maker and turkey hunter who recently moved his operation from Raleigh to Morton.
Those odds can increase, according to Meek, if turkey hunters talk to as many deer hunters as possible and then scout accordingly.
“Deer hunters see lots of turkeys,” he said. “As long as a food source is available, the turkeys will remain there. As the winter advances and acorns and crops are depleted, turkeys will move.”
But there’s no replacement to time in the woods.
“Prior to opening day, hunters should spend as many hours in the woods as possible,” Meek says. “Look for scratching, tracks, and droppings as winter transitions towards spring.
“Look for tracks anywhere mud or dirt is soft enough to allow an impression to be made. At this point it doesn’t matter if the track was made by a hen or a gobbler — it’s enough that it places turkeys in the area.”
One thing Meek says hunters should never do is calling to birds while scouting. He suggests leaving calls at home so temptation cannot lead to action.
“The reason to not call when scouting is simple,” Meek said. “It conditions the birds to hearing other turkeys they never see; thus, they discount the calling as being bogus. Gobblers may never gobble but respond to the calling.
“They will never find the hen — or, worse, they will identify the calling with a human. In either case no good comes from the effort.”