April marks the season of renewal and rebirth. Leaves unfurl and blossoms bloom, driven by the warmth and longer light. There is new green everywhere and feathered ornaments clad in yellow, orange, blue and red, suddenly dangle and dart, perched on every limb. Migrating songbirds find their way back to familiar haunts. Birders mark the days eagerly as the first Prairie warbler sends a buzzy song stepping up the chromatic scale from some scrubby spot. Will the wood thrush that flutes the three part harmony all by himself return to that pretty, fern-full place down by the creek again? As the songbird choir fills in by the day, I anticipate the return of another tradition that pulls me into the woods to watch in a different way. It is time for turkeys.
In my twenty- something years of hunting, it is has always been a dual season deal for me. Autumn is the time for whitetails. I climb high to wait and watch their world unfold. A rub and a scrape or a grunt and a flash of gray are the treasures sought. A clear shot is almost anti-climatic. There have been many times I simply watched, even when the shot was there.
Spring is for feathered quarry. Beyond the birds I watch through binoculars, I hunt wild turkeys. There is no climbing to wait for the glint of polished antler in new light or flip of a white tail in the setting sun. Instead, I awaken even earlier to beat the dawn so that I can sneak past the hens and longbeards roosted in the tall pines. In the eerie dark the newly arrived whippoorwills whine their identity to weariness. A barred owl’s bark from the bottomland shocks a gobble from somewhere on the ridge. Somewhere out there in the blackness, a wild turkey gobbler claims the hens roosted across the creek and I tune my ear and turn my steps towards him.
As I walked the overgrown woods road toward the pine glade that was probably once a piedmont prairie, I picked my way as carefully as I could, trying not to alert the big birds on high that were watching and listening. Wild turkeys hear and see at levels beyond our comprehension. Pinpointing a sound to within inches and a seventh sense that tells them something is there before it isn’t is a valuable asset when you’re the main course on some coyotes menu. Cautiously clumsy, I snapped a minimum of sticks and stumbled only once as the softening eastern sky was greeted by early-rising cardinals and anxious hermit thrushes. Not wanting to get too close, I found my way to a spot on the pine and oak strewn ridge and nestled into a trio of post oaks, my back to sun and my hopes rising with it. I peeled soft yelp and before the second one split the cool air, a gobble broke the rhythm.
Hunting is part skill and mostly luck. In a fair chase deal, where you bring nothing but your five senses and a killing tool to the game, failure is the norm. Because we humans can’t see, hear, smell or sense the unseen like wild things can, we are largely at a disadvantage. Absent a bullet or an arrow that gives advantage, a one on one human versus wildlife due should be an uneven match with hooves, hide, feathers and flight winning out more times than not.
This morning though, luck and the little skill I’d gained over the two decades of striking out seemed to be in play. As I sat there trying my best to be a post oak, a blue head attached to a dark feathered form appeared out of the dark that was trying to be light. But then another one appeared, and another. Before I could re-swallow the heartbeats that were trying harder and harder to spill out of my mouth, a half-dozen wild turkey gobblers stood less than thirty paces from me and the 12 gauge shotgun barrel that was pointed in their direction. I blew softly across the diaphragm in my mouth and let out a soft cluck. Immediately, as if someone had turned on some hormonal switch, three of the birds went into full strut, their tail feathers erected into brown fans and their heads glowing red and blue and white in the shadows. Here I was, in a dilemma of choice; to shoot or not to shoot. But then, each bird’s fan bore a telltale sign that kept my trigger finger still and the safety on. The central feathers on all of them were longer than the rest and instead of the long, hair-like “beard” of feathers I’d hoped for, each gobbler's breast was adorned with little buttons and finger length tufts that told me these birds were "Jakes", first year males full of more wanna be than wisdom. These were April’s fools.
As I sat watching the show, the birds strutted, hissed and postured. More like boys at a prom who’d been fooled into believing the homecoming queen was theirs for the asking, they twirled about and generally looked confused. It was the first day of the season and I didn’t have the heart to take advantage of such foolhardiness. Perhaps I was thinking a little about my own hormone-heavy son who at eighteen looks the part but is still learning. Somewhere not too far away from the party I was watching, an older bird—potato- sack –heavy; black as coal with a paintbrush of a beard dragging the ground and spurs like hanging hooks was making off with a flock of hens for the morning’s fun in some secluded glade.
The gang of six was eerily silent as if not wanting to arouse too much suspicion or attention. The Boss Tom who rules the woods around here could very well kick all of their fanned tails. I imagined that earlier in the season, they all had their share of encounters with “Boss” and didn’t care for further humiliation. Should they survive the gauntlet of bobcats, coyotes, feral dogs and human hunters, next year would see them wiser and better prepared to pass on their genes to the next wild turkey generation.
I watched them make their way off and I sat there in the new day, listening to the songbird chorus in full morning throat. A bobwhite quail, an increasingly rare wild treasure that I treat as endangered species on my Ninety –Six Home Place, name-called from the colonnade of tall pines. It reminded me that even though a prescribed burn is way overdue that perhaps I was doing a few things right on the management side to hold “Gentleman Bob” and a covey or two on the place. Louisiana waterthrushes, northern parulas, yellow-throated warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-eyed vireos and a host of other choristers made the day a success. I took a walk into the little bottom, half-heartedly hunting but more caught up in the new green of ferns and wildflowers that made the place seem surreal.
Huge loblolly pines and an old warty hackberry were mirrored in the creek’s black water as a wood thrush threw his song into the morning air. I caught it with my ears and saved it to my soul. The trophy today was in the watching, the listening and the being.
There would be other days for pulling the trigger....maybe.