A common misapprehension is that hunters go out in the woods and fields and shoot things.
Actually, weekend hunters usually go out in the woods and fields and walk around all day telling each other how much better it is than being at the office.
A more serious breed of hunters takes the sport as the crucially important thing it is. They walk around in the woods and fields before the season opens. This is called scouting. Then, on opening day, they go to the best place and walk around all day telling each other how much better it is than the office.
Some people's office is the woods and fields.
Jim Clay, for example, gave up a career as an English teacher and football coach in Winchester, Va., three years ago to start a company called Perfection Turkey Calls.
Now he and partner Tommy Duvall work full time manufacturing and marketing diaphragm-type turkey calls. Part of the job is to make sure the calls work, so (poor chaps) they spend 125 days a year in the woods testing them.
Like all others who hunt a lot, Clay and Duvall are victims of the declining-yield theory. That is: actual yield of game from a day's hunting declines in direct proportion to the optimism of one's sources of information.
As Duvall put it, "The worst thing anyone can tell you is, 'The place is crawling with turkeys and nobody's hunting them.' If they say that, we won't even leave the house."
Fall turkey season opened in West Virginia eight days ago. Clay and Duvall headed early for four mountain tracts on which they lease hunting rights. They completed scouting a week before the season began and were convinced the woods were crawling with wild turkeys that nobody was hunting.
Clay went so far as to say that if I joined them Tuesday I had a 50-50 chance of killing a turkey. "We'll find a flock and scatter them Monday," he said. "Then when you get here all we have to do is call one in."
I've been hunting turkeys for five years and have yet to draw a bead on one. My heart started palpitating.
But by the time I got to Winchester, the projected odds had dropped to 15 percent. Clay couldn't figure what happened. "They're gone," he said, "and we don't know where." He said he and Duvall had hunted Saturday and Monday and had seen "not a turkey scratching, not a feather, not the first sign of a turkey."
So we walked around the woods all day -- covering eight miles over 1,600 acres of high ground in golden autumn perfection -- and never saw a feather or a fresh scratching. Clay did find one rather antiquated turkey dropping.
It sure beat the office.
As I've written at least a thousand times, there is more to hunting than killing. Conversely, there's more to killing than hunting.
By just about everyone's assessment, fall turkey hunting is about twice as hard as spring turkey hunting. In the spring, only gobblers (males) may be taken, but they make the job easier by being hopelessly consumed by lust.
They are tormented by the mating urge, and all a hunter must master is a half-decent imitation of the clucks of a love-starved hen and he will shortly be assaulted by a bloated tom.
In the fall, either sex may be taken but the sharp-eyed, sharp-eared turkeys have no weak points. The idea is to find a flock, rush at it while shooting, whistling and screaming and thereby break up the flock.
Once dispersed, the turkeys seek to reassemble. The caller duplicates the cry of a lost young one, which lures in the mama hen, or the cry of the mama hen, which lures in a young one. These cries are documented on Clay's tape, "Mastering the Mouth Yelper," and can be duplicated by the talented hunter after only a few decades of practice.
Clay, of course, insists it's easier than that. In fact, he and Duvall are too good on the callers.
Early Tuesday, Clay and I headed off in one direction and Duvall went another. Moments after we split up, Clay heard what sounded like a turkey. We figured it probably was Duvall, calling. Five hours later when we regrouped Duvall said it hadn't been him at all. He thought it was Clay. Evidently it was a turkey, the only one we'd hear all day.
In the afternoon, Clay and I walked down a woods road. He was clucking away on his caller when we noticed some movement 50 yards away around a bend. Another hunter.
"Don't move," said Clay.
The hunter stood stock still and started to raise his gun. Clay began whistling "Anchors Aweigh" and after awhile the other guy put his gun down. Getting too good on a turkey call is a way of becoming a statistic.
In the evening, we saw a perfect maple tree, brilliant October gold bathed in setting sunlight, and walked within 20 yards of a doe and her fawn, which were eating grass in an abandoned field. They scented us and lit out with a snort, white tails flapping.
Driving back to Winchester, Clay bet we'd see 60 deer feeding in fields along the roadside. I said that was impossible, so we started counting.
We counted 92, not including ones we only glimpsed. That's a confirmed figure.
And nobody was hunting them.