No hunter gives thanks more sincerely than the one who can put a wild turkey on the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Nor does anyone eat better on the big day than the successful hunter's family and guests, because wild turkey flesh is like that of the domestic turkey only richer and finer.
The difference is the same as with the farm over the factory chicken. The one scratches around on the ground for bugs and seeds while the other is force-fed all sorts of processed garbage, among which is the ground-up remains - including the feather and sometimes the droppings - its ancestors, along with a jawbreaking list of chemicals.
The only trouble is that you can't hardly bag a wild turkey nohow.
Many thousands of Maryland hunters will be setting off into the woods Monday for the fail turkey season, and their Virginia brethren will proceed the following week. By all reports it has been a bumper year for meleagris gallopavo silvestris , which means that two of three hunters in a thousand may kill one.
In the old days, according to the early colonists, the wild turkey was so tame that Indians plicked them from roosting trees like so many apples. The modern turkey, although more abundant than ever in some areas, is so alert and wily that dedicated hunters have gone all their lives without every seeing one.
No one tells sadder tales of the ones that got away than the turkey hunter. Bird that stand out here in the open at 100 yards and mock him; birds as big as ostriches that march almost into range and then vanish into the ground; flock that flush while he's zipping his pants . . .
"Don't listen to any of those stories," said Charlie Titus of Arlington. "If you want a turkey all you have to do is go out with Boug Mays and do what he tells you."
Carl (Boug) Mays, it turned out, is a 43-year-old Pennsylvania millwright who takes his vacation every fall to hunt turkeys. He tunes up his technique in West Virginia in October, hunts his ancestral lands in Bedford County and then moves on into Maryland, Virginia and sometimes North Carolina as the seasons open. In 20 years he has taken 100 turkeys (and could have taken as many more). He is equally content to go out gunless and call up birds for other hunters or just to watch them, and stories of his powers are mainstays of the Appalachian Hot Stove League.
"Aw, I've had a little luck sometimes." Mays said modestly. "And it happens that my mouth is right for the mouth call, which is the best one because of the sound and because it leaves your hands free. I never promise to find anybody a turkey, but you come on up to Bedford opening day and we'll see what we can do."
The talk in Titus' vacation cabin the night before Saturday's 9 a.m. season openings was of turkeys past present and the turkey buzzard a man named Kenney shot once and never will be permitted to live down.
Mays listened to this and that opinion as to where the turkeys were and offered none, but in the morning everyone stood around respectfully and waited for him to give the marching orders. "Talk is cheap," Titus said. "Boug is good."
Eight hunters fanned out to stalk toward one another from either end of a pair of parellel ridges and the swale between. The idea was to find and flush a flock and then try to call the birds back individually. The visiting hunter, placed in what Mays thought was the most promising spot, promptly lost track of the rest of the party.
A flurry of shot sounded from where the visitor judged Mays and Titus had gone, so he sat quietly and listened as they worked to call them back. After an hour or so the visitor became aware of a lone turkey scratching through the leaves for acorns.
The bird, which seemed unconcerned and young and somewhat small - a "small" turkey is the size of a Canada goose - gradually worked its way closer to the hunter, who sat unmoving as his cramped muscles quivered. "Turkey can't see and hear as well as people say," Mays had said. "But they're pretty slick." (One respected biologist suspects a turkey can see the hour hand on a clock move.)
The bird came within what the hunter later paced off as 45 to 50 yards, reasonable range for a full-choke 12-guage loaded with 1 1/2 ounces of No. 4 shot. It was the first fair chance he had ever had at a wild turkey and he didn't take it because, well, the big ugly-headed bird was beautiful in the thin bright sunshine, which showed her plumage as brown or black or bronze or green as she turned this way and that. He had not hunted hard enough to earn the right to shoot.
The bird's search for acorns took her gradually away, and then one moment she was standing in a sunlit opening and the next she was gone, although the hunter was sure he hadn't taken his eyes off her for a moment or even blinked.
He stood and stretched and nearly fell off the ridge as a five-point buck bolted from its hiding place 75 feet away. The deer stopped and stared for a moment as the hunter speculated on what had deformed its left antler, and then trotted off.
The visitor still-hunted for four more hours along ridges, taking 10 or 20 steps and then listening for a few moments. He saw three more bucks and a dozen does. He managed to stalk within 30 yards of a buck with a gray coat and antlers reminiscent of a pronghorn antelope. He flushed seven grouse. But he saw no more turkeys nor any sign of them.
About the time the sun was slanting down behind the mountains he ran into Mays. "I guess you better come with me," Mays said, leading the way with short quiet steps down the west side of a ridge that he and his fathers before him have hunted.
"I saw five of them fly down here this morning," he whispered. "It's getting on for dark now, and I expect they'll be working their way back up to roost. I'm going to put you in likely spot and try call 'em in."
Ten minutes later, as Mays was approaching the point of the ridge, he stopped short. Fifty yards away were three turkeys, one of them a hen that had seen us first. A very long short moment later one of the birds flew away down the ridge and another wheeled past Mays on his left. The third ducked behind a tree, then peeked out to become Thanksgiving dinner.
"They do funny things sometimes," Mays said. "That's a nice hen, about 9 or 10 pounds when she's dressed. You are going to have some eating."
The lumbering flight of the bird to Mays' left would have been an easy shot of no more than 35 yards. He shrugged."I'm not in any hurry," he said. "And besides, I didn't call these birds in."
Until dark fell, just for fun, Mays sat and tried to call back the other two birds. His clucking and keening sounded something like this in the chill woods:
Somebody shot my mother. I'm lonely and afraid. It's getting dark and I don't want to roost alone. Where are you?
It made Mays's student moist-eyed, but fetched no turkeys. Mays didn't seem to mind. "You ought to hear it in the spring, during mating season," he said. "You get a gobbler thinking you're messing with his hen and he'll come storming right up to you, all puffed out and mad. There's no other sight like it."
Back at the cabin the six other hunters were cleaning their squirrels and rabbits and grouse and waiting for Mays to come in with his turkey so they could see whar one looked like.
"Any of us could do what Boug does if we worked hard enough at it," Titus said. "Anybody could, if he'd take the time to' study them. But hardly anybody does, which is the difference between us turkeys and a turkey hunter."