Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Season's Greetings (or) How To Kill A Turkey

Jason upon hearing the first gobble of the scouting season.

There are lots of ways to witness the coming of Spring. Some folks pick dandelion greens and toss them in salads. Others go birdwatching in search of neotropical migrants on their way back to the northern breeding grounds. Some struggle into neoprene waders and try to catch the first trout of the year. I go looking for wild turkeys.

With the North Carolina wild turkey opener just two and a half weeks away, it was high time I got into the woods to do some scouting. The real turkey hunters have been at it since February, but with an hour-long drive to my hunting spot, I waited until after the clocks moved ahead so I could wake up at a civilized hour and still be at my listening posts before dawn.

What am I doing there? I'm listening to the turkeys as they prepare to start their day and trying to pattern where they are and where they like to go during their morning rounds. Wild turkeys roost in trees at night to avoid predators. As morning approaches, the male turkeys often vocalize from their perches to rally the troops and let the hens know where they can find a boyfriend if they're in the mood. By listening to the toms gobble in the morning, a hunter can figure out where the birds are and how to be in position to intercept them once they fly down from the trees to start the day.

For the first scouting trip of the season, I invited my neighbor, Jason, who has expressed some interest in learning how to hunt. With hot coffee mugs in hand, we left Black Mountain at 5:30 a.m. and drove over the Eastern Continental Divide, then ESE, all the way to the northwest corner of Cleveland County. The pre-dawn air was mild and the moon was almost full and we drove most of the way with the windows down, talking about turkeys, strategy and why it is I love to hunt.

We parked the truck at the bottom of a ridge and hiked up past the spot where Sue and I will one day build our house. We reached the top with about 20 minutes to spare before dawn - a little tardy for my taste, but good enough for scouting. As we waited in the pale illumination, a rustling down the hill made me consider telling Jason about the valley's resident black bear. With time, the rustling drew close enough to discern individual footsteps and we stared wide-eyed into the heavy brush below us, trying to catch a glimpse of the mystery creature. Whether the deer finally saw us or caught a whiff of our scent, it panicked and took off up the valley, blowing while we chuckled with nervous relief.

A few minutes after that, the first songbirds started to call; a northern cardinal, then a towhee, then a crow and then, far up on the next ridge over, the crack and thunder we'd been listening for. The gobbler was a good ways off, certainly on the next property over and maybe beyond that, but his intermittent calls sparked responses from his rivals from up and down the valley.

We figured there were at least three, maybe four different toms gobbling on the ridge. If we had been hunting, I would have chosen to sit right where we were and try to call them down the hill to us. It was a good start, but none of the birds were as close as I would like them to have been, since we won't be able to chase any of them across the property line.

Then it happened; a gobble just down the slope to our right, so loud I practically jumped. There in the thick pine stand roosts the tom turkey I intend to kill on opening day. He only sounded off a couple of times before going silent. I figure he must have quit talking when he flew down, but I have a pretty good idea of which way he must have gone, since he didn't walk past Jason and I up on the hilltop. Setting up on this bird will be a challenge I think. The trail up the ridge passes near the edge of the pines and I don't want him to see me creeping by in the twilight as I try to set up above him. The best spot might just be the small area we cleared out during a work day on the property with a gang of friends a couple of years ago. We call it "Homesite A" because we thought for a long time that it would be where we'd build our home. At the moment, Homesite A has been bumped by Homesite B in terms of desirability for a dwelling, but it's close to the pine stand and might make a perfect spot to ambush the turkey of my desire.

As the sun finally peeked over the hills to the east, Jason and I listened on as the gobblers on the ridge above us continued to sound off. One bird seemed particularly enthusiastic and it wasn't long before we figured out he was heading down the hill in our general direction. I wanted to stay and find out where he was going, but then it became all too clear that this tom turkey was going to eventually end up in our laps if we didn't pick up and head down to the truck. We left just in time I think, as his thunderous gobble followed us down the hill until he finally stopped, I imagine right where we'd been standing with our hands in our pockets only minutes before.

The fact I now know where at least four - probably five - male turkeys like to hang out at night is no guarantee of success. Any bravado you may detect in my writing is merely that. I've been at this game long enough to realize the myriad things that can and probably will go wrong when I try to take down one of the wariest game animals on the continent. During the next two weeks, I'll be practicing with my calls and making a few more scouting trips to help tip the odds in my favor, but even so, this endeavor is a little like UNC Asheville taking on Pitt in the NCAA tournament - and I'm the Bulldogs.

To you non-turkey hunters, I both envy and pity you. I envy your civilized sleeping hours, your ambivalence toward mandatory tick checks, your blissful ignorance of the rage that comes with getting outsmarted by a bird with a brain the size of an acorn. I pity that you will  never know what it's like to see the leaves shake and hear the drumming of wingbone on breast just over your left shoulder as he struts in full fan and there's nothing you can do but wait and hope your heart doesn't explode.


  1. Great post! Another month until we're in. I'm going to start scouting in another 10 days or so. No one else hunts the property (for turkeys) so it should be pretty low impact. Oh and it's on the coast, so no hills to climb!

  2. Salinda was creeping around the house today as if she was dressed in cammo, holding a make-believe gun, stalking the wild turkey. It must be spring.

  3. Swamp - I'm jealous of your flat land. All of my turkey hunting success to this point has been near the coast. I'll tell you I am looking forward to the challenges of the mountains though. I think it's going to be fun using the topography as part of the chess match.
    Brian - whuh-whuh-whuh-whuh
    Nate - You need to do something about that. For God's sake will you help her kill a damn turkey already?

  4. You know you're close to a tom when you see him puff up and hear him go,

    I've been lucky enough to hear that spit-n-drum twice during my short turkey hunting career...can't beat it.

  5. Jamie, how far are you from Nantahala Nat'l Forest? I believe if I were gonna go back to NC for turkeys that's where I'd go right now (besides my brother's place near Wilmington). Had some awesome deer hunting trips there.

    Brian, I heard the spit-n-drum last year for the first time. Didn't even realize what it was until two huge, Texas toms came strolling out so close I literally could have clubbed one with the rifle butt. Of course I didn't have a TX turkey tag, so all I could do was enjoy the show.

  6. It would take me about an hour and a half to get to Nantahala. I'm about half that to Dupont Natl. Forest - a permit hunt w/ some good habitat. You should've see all the birds puffed up and in full fan on our drive through SC late last week. That state is covered in turkeys.