It's a rare day indeed that a fellow can walk 10 miles in the woods without a surprise or two. Sometimes the best surprise comes last, which puts a nice cap on the day.
So it was on Washington's Birthday, when two other hunters and I tramped across the ridges and draws of West Virginia, purportedly looking for ruffed grouse but really just poking around.
It was what the hikers would call a leg-stretcher, in honor of the approach of spring. We jumped a rabbit and startled three whitetail deer which crashed off through the woods. We found the remains of a red-tailed hawk that had died recently from who-knows-what and been scavenged by carrion-eaters.
It wasn't till dusk was approaching and we were packing out that the mountains gave us a good show.
Mr. Omps down at the general store said he was surprised we hadn't seen any grouse.
"We've got plenty of grouse," he said. "Great big black ones." He pointed across the road to a corn field a few hundred yards away. There, traipsing around as big as life, was the largest flock of wild turkeys any of us had ever seen.
There were 18 turkeys in all. I counted them as I skulked across the meadow. Mr. Omps said he didn't mind if I flushed them out of the corn field, since they'd be leaving soon for the evening roost anyway. When I was 100 yards or so away they all flew, giant birds erupting from the ground like a covey of quail and gliding into refuge in the woods.
"Eighteen, huh?" said Jim Ruckel, head of game management for the state. "That's great, because this season is the population low point for turkeys. If there are that many still in a flock it really looks good for turkeys this year."
Turkey flocks won't be wandering around together much longer. Bust-up time is fast approaching for these families. The hens have done their raising job and soon will be abandoning the yearlings they hatched last spring in favor of making new ones.
Next month the old hens, which have been squiring their young around since May, will cut the ties that bind and head off to build new nests. The young jakes and hens for the first time will have to fend for themselves.
In April, when the mating season has peaked, hunters will go into the woods in search of one of the most exciting quarries in the woods -- the spring gobbler.
Shep McKenney, who has never been turkey hunting but who had shared our day chasing grouse, wondered about that. "Why is it that every other game species is protected during the mating season, yet they let hunters go after turkeys right in the middle of it?" he asked.
It's a good question that's been asked before. Many mountaineers have strong views on the matter and simply won't hunt turkeys in the spring. They say they like having turkeys around and don't want to interrupt the reproductive process that keeps them flourishing.
Game managers like Ruckel, regard the April-May gobbler season, which is the only spring hunting season hereabouts, as harmless to the reproduction of turkeys.
Gobblers are polygamous. When mating season begins in late March and early April they seek out as many hens as they can.
The spring hunting season is scheduled to coincide with the peak of gobbling activity, when the males are soliciting the hens' attention by gobbling racously in the woods. But the peak of gobbling generally comes after much of the reproductive work has been done.
Most of the hens have retired to their nests and are laying and incubating their clutches of eggs. They have no more use for the gobblers.
The gobbler finds his harem disappearing. He becomes vulnerable to the hunter, who hides on some ridge or in a glade and duplicates the sounds of a lovesick hen with a call.
If all goes well the desperate male responds to the hunter's clucks with a thunderous gobbling, and then starts marching in to the hunter's range.
It is the most exciting wait in all of hunting. I've sat hunched against a blown-down tree under a canopy of spring green and heard strutting males coming in, gobbling louder and louder as they drew nearer. So far they've all been too smart and turned off before they were in range, but I'm no great turkey hunter yet. My day will come.
"The beauty of spring gobbler hunting," said Ruckel, "is that you have a bird that has already served its purpose in reproduction, and its harvest will have no ill effect on the succeeding year's population. He's surplus now. There's no reason not to hunt him."
Spring gobbler season runs from April 12 to May 10 in Virginia and April 28 to May 17 in West Virginia. Populations in both states are prospering after two straight years of good reproduction.
"We had a survival rate of 5.5 young per hen this year," said Joe Coggin of the Virginia Game Division. "That's excellent. We've seen it as low as two per hen." Females generally lay about a dozen eggs per year.
Good turkey hunters will be in the woods a week or two before the seasons open, scouting out areas where gobblers are making a ruckus and calling them in, if they can, just for the pure delight of seeing them.
Spring season has the bonus of getting better, unlike most hunting seasons which are best on opening day. Gobblers get more desperate as fewer and fewer hens need their services. dVeteran turkey hunters figure the best invitation to hope for is to join in on a closing-day spring-turkey hunt, and the worst often is opening day.