A full moon was shining on the cornstubble fields outside the auction barn. Inside, 200 turkey hunters were sitting on folding chairs and church pews watching two men call to each other with the clucks, coos and cackles of lovesick birds.
"What this is all about is romance," said Ed Dentry, who was playing the part of an amorous gobbler for an audience paying the kind of attention any preacher would envy. "You've got to sound interested, but not too eager."
To shoot a wild turkey in the spring, a hunter has to know as much about love as guns and ammunition. Only the most beguiling, those who can convince wild and notoriously wary turkeys that they are not hunters but feathered objects of affection, have any success. And that, say enamored hunters, is what gives the sport its appeal. The turkeys always play hard to get.
"The turkey is the most challenging game there is," said Arthur Peck, a Westminster veterinarian who has bagged only three in 18 years of trying. "The real thrill is getting one to think you're a real turkey."
When spring gobbler seasons open this month in Maryland and Virginia, hunters will sneak into woods before dawn with shotguns, camouflage outfits and a variety of artificial calls. When both seasons end in May, most will still be empty handed. And many will have to defend that failure to family and friends who won't understand how something as big and dumb as a turkey could be hard to shoot.
"The difference between a domestic turkey and a wild one is about the same as the difference between a house cat and a mountain lion," said Tim Strather, a Baltimore County backhoe operator, at the turkey seminar. "But I gave up trying to explain that to people a long time ago."
There are few animals dumber than pen-reared, domesticated turkeys. Let one loose in a forest and it's liable to drown in a mud puddle or break its neck flying into a tree stump. Wild turkeys wouldn't win any intelligence contests, either. They often lay their eggs while standing up. But they are strong, capable of flying 50 mph and can average 18 mph on the ground. Their eyesight and hearing are so acute, they have prompted quite a few tall tales.
"I had an old turkey hunter tell me once that a turkey can see you blink your eyes at 100 yards," said Peck.
"I think that's wrong," countered Dentry, who is an avid turkey hunter and the outdoor writer for the Baltimore News American. "They don't see you blink, they hear you."
Only in the last 15 years have there have been enough wild turkeys to argue about in the Northeast. At the beginning of this century, the wild birds that Pilgrims described in flocks big enough to blot out the sun, and Ben Franklin championed as our national bird, were close to extinction.
Periodic attempts to restock the woods with pen-reared birds proved futile. Then, at the start of the 1970s, wildlife biologists in a dozen eastern states developed an efficient method of trapping wild birds and transplanting them to turkeyless places. In 1980, for example, Massachusetts held its first wild turkey hunt in 130 years. The following year New Jersey opened its first gobbler season in a century.
"It looked like the wild turkey was going the way of a lot of animals," said Joseph C. Shugars, a regional biologist with the Maryland Wildlife Administration, who played love-sick hen to Dentry's tom turkey at the seminar. "But they have made a dramatic comeback."
Shugars and Dentry spent some of the three-hour seminar telling the audience how to dress (completely camouflaged, including a face mask), what firepower to pack (12-gauge shotgun and No. 6 shells) and how to approach the quarry. A hunter following their advice would look like a cross between a paratrooper and a punk rock star and be able to sit motionless for a week.
But most of the time and attention was focused on the different calls needed to entice a male turkey. Females cannot be hunted during the spring season. Those calls, which can be made with hand-held friction devices or leather and reed diaphragm devices inserted against the roof of your mouth, include clucks, yelps, whines, screeches and cackles.
While Shugars and Dentry clucked in the front of the auction hall, six of the most successful turkey hunters in Maryland were gathered in back.
"We go out together every year since 1976," said Larry Klein, a 22-year-old carpet installer from Odenton, Md., whose mounted, 19-pound turkey was being used as a backdrop at the seminar. "I guess we've gotten 15 turkeys since then."
The Klein gang, all of whom are in their 20s, say the secret to hunting turkeys is knowing where to look. Despite their success, perhaps because of it, the hunters claim that shooting wild turkeys is harder than rolling uphill.
"If turkeys could smell," said Bob Carney. "You'd never get one of them."
Another turkey-hunting seminar will be conducted Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Seneca Creek Park in Gaithersburg.