The sign on the bank in Charlottesville kept blinking its insistent message at the rush-hour piles of cars and trucks:

"It's dogwood festival time. ENJOY!"

But in the high hollows of the Blue Ridge, where dogwoods and redbuds should be filling the woods with color and redolent aroma, it's as bleak as New Year's morning.

"We haven't seen the first dogwood blossom," said John Metzger, a fervid turkey hunter. "That's bad."

Spring gobbler season opened in Virginia Saturday. There was nothing wrong with the Game Commission's selection of dates, based on past performance.

But the weather follows its own rules and spring is taking its sweet time arriving.

It doesn't bode well for Metzger, who is hiring himself out as a turkey guide this season, the first known attempt to capitalize in that fashion on the Old Dominion's steadily increasing populations of wild turkeys.

Metzger has spent most of his time in the Blue Ridge high country since he graduated from Virginia Military Institute 10 years ago. His autumns lately have been consumed by a passion for big-game hunting out West, where he guides hunters to elk, mule deer and mountain lions.

Springtime he saves for Virginia gobblers.

He offers no guarantees.

"I'd say the best you can hope for in turkey hunting is one bird for every week of serious hunting," Metzger said, just to start things off on a positive note.

And the odds get worse if the hunt is conducted in circumstances that smack more of dead winter.

Spring gobbler season is designed to capitalize on the mating urge of male turkeys. Normally among the wariest of game birds, the big jakes get careless when consumed by lust.

It begins with the hens, who sense the ground warming to temperatures that will support their clutches of eggs. They begin looking for a mate, and the gobbler couldn't be more willing.

"They'll mate till they reach a state of exhaustion." Metzger said. "I've seen them surrounded by as many as 20 hens, and they will take care of them all."

The hunter's advantage increases as spring wears on. After the females have mated, they retire to their nests to raise the eggs. The gobbler is still on the prowl, but mates are hard to find.

He goes looking, and if he's not careful he ends up peering down a shotgun barrel.

"Late in the year, it's not unusual to hear them gobbling right through the day, trying to find a hen." Metzger said. "But this time of the season you'd better be out at the crack of dawn. You're lucky if they gobble then.You don't get any second chances."

He was up at 3:30 on opening day and high atop Painter Mountain, which is owned by a timber company, before 5. He walked along a logging road as first light suffused the cloud cover. Metzger was pretending to be an owl, hooting on a wooden whistle.

He had a hollow where he knew there was a gobbler, but the owl call, which often rouses a turkey to gobbling, raised no response.

He tried a second hollow, then a third. His walking pace was impossible to match. "Got to cover ground now," he said.

On the third pass through the first hollow, he scratched a wooden turkey call box to imitate the yelp of a lovesick hen.

The woods rang with the gobbler's piercing response.

"There he is," Metzger whispered.

He called again, got another response and pinned the big bird's location down.

Then he set off through the brush, tramping fast and silently as if he were a hen on the way to her wedding day.

Our hearts were pounding in the damp underbrush. Maybe that's what gave us away.

We got too close, driven on by the bird's fearless gobbling. As we neared a ridge, the woods fell silent and then there came a tremendous whooshing sound and the rattle of dry branches.

In an instant, the bird was airborne from its tree roost and then gone, not to be seen again.

"That's it," said Metzger. "Time to go fishing."

It doesn't bother me. You're supposed to get one a week. Saturday's effort left me 0-for-5, lifetime. Next time out, I'm due.