There are a lot of myths about wild turkeys and the pursuit of them. People who get hooked on turkey-hunting tend to overstate the intelligence and physical powers of these black, feathered cinderblocks.
After all, wild turkeys are the direct forebears of farmyard turkeys, which sometimes drown because they keep staring at the sky with their mouths open in a driving rain.
Wild turkeys are quite different. They can see and hear much better than a human. They can also run extremely fast through thick cover and fly so powerfully that they break off dead tree limbs as thick as your wrist. "If wild turkeys could smell," said John Metzger, who guides turkey-hunters in Virginia, "I don't think anyone would ever shoot one."
But wild turkeys are mortal, and every spring and fall some are killed by hunters, some of whom don't know what they're doing and just luck onto one in the woods."
But to kill wild turkey on purpose, because you have outsmarted it on its own turf, is as impressive an accomplishment as there is for an Eastern hunter.
Tom Kelly, an Alabama timber cruiser and superb turkey-hunter, writes in his wonderful, easy-reading book The Tenth Legion that they key to consistently successful turkey hunting is knowledge of the land.
Other turkey-hunters will claim that ability to duplicate turkey sounds using calls is most important, or the strength to get up before dawn and scale mountains in the dark and trail turkeys late into the day in the autumn.
But Kelly says it's mostly knowing where you are and how to get where you think the turkey is. After two futile days pursuing spring gobblers across West Virginia mountain land I thought I knew, I'm beginning to understand what he means.
The best Eastern turkey habitat is hard-scrabble high ground. Turkeys like to soar more than they like to fly, and they can jump from ridgetop to ridgetop easily in the tall hill country. They feed largely on acorns, which abound in the mountain oak woods.
The West Virginia mountains I hunt are like the fingers of a hand spread flat on a tabletop.You walk the ridges (fingers) and call and listen for turkeys in the hollows and across the draws. When you hear one, the problem is getting near it is in knowing how deep the hollows are -- how far back they go before they reach the main ridge (the knuckle on your hand).
If a hollow is not deep, you can get around it by walking the high ground back to the main ridge, then crossing over to the next ridge. But if It's a long, deep hollow, that exercise could take hours.Better to plunge down the hollow and up the other side.
The only way to know is to have spent time there, and to be able to tell by the sound of a turkey's gobbling which ridge it's likely to be on and what the quickest and quietest way to get there is.
Then, when working close to a turkey, it's important to know the specific lay of a very small section of land, to know where slight dips provide cover or where heavy underbrush is likely to be.
That's really knowing the land. Not many people do, including me.
I felt proud this year because for the first time I could set off from the cabin in the dark and work my way through unmarked woods to places that appealed to me on the map, and when I heard a turkey gobbling I could set off in pursuit without worring about straying so far I'd be unable to find my way back.
I had a sense of the land, to the point that I was unconsciously keeping track of ridges and draws and creeks the way a cabdriver records alleys and shortcuts in his mind.
But it wasn't enough. I was still feeling my way, and each time a turkey gave away its position by gobbling raucously, I was unable to deftly get close enough to hunt it effectively.
One partner had much the same problem working the other side of the 2,000-acre tract, and when he came back to the cabin after the second day of hunting, he looked miserable. "I'm completely exhausted," he said. "I did everything I could do. I walked through the woods for hours with my gun at high point. I ended up staring a gobbler in the eye. I've concluded that we just aren't good enough to kill a turkey."
I, for one, hope that if I ever bring home a turkey from the West Virginia woods, it isn't because I stumbled on one by accident: I hope it's because I heard one out in the back country, tracked him down, sneaked up on him and called him in with a turkey call.
This might sound maudlin, but I would consider that like a diploma, an affirmation that I'd grown close enough to the land to move around as a quiet part of it. Until the gun goes off, anyway.