It was a week after Thanksgiving, days after most stuffed turkeys had taken their last bows.
You might have expected Virginia's wild birds to be a little careless, let their long-necked guard down and do a little gobbling. But the only sound in the wooded ridges of Fauquier County was the staccato sound of the morning's dew dripping off tree limbs onto leaves that had dropped a few weeks before.
"This late in the year they've been shot at and scared so much, they are just wary as can be," said Wiley P. Sale, a 51-year-old turkey hunter who is as good as his name. "That's how the old gobblers get to be old gobblers."
There are two kinds of turkey hunting. The most popular happens in the spring, when hunters hide in brush and imitate the calls of lovesick hens. The idea is to get a tom in such a romantic frenzy he will puff up his neck, throw out his chest and strut his stuff close enough to get shot. Given his acute hearing and sight, as well as his chauvinistic expectation that the hen should run to him, the turkey is about as easy to bag as a rabbit with a fishing net.
Fall and winter hunting is harder. Except for a few minutes each morning when the toms let out some gobbles to rally the troops, the turkeys move in quiet bunches, scratching under leaves for food and listening for strange sounds. The call of a lovesick hen in the fall, no matter how authentic, is no competition for a good acorn. And with the leaves off the trees, getting close enough to cause a panicked flight is impossible in some terrains.
"A turkey can see a grasshopper at 100 yards," said Tom Yarbrough, a Gainesville, Va., dentist who carries five different artificial turkey calls, but prefers a turkey hen's hollowed wingbone that dangles from his neck.
The fourth hunter in our group is Dick Goode, a 43-year-old veterinarian from Haymarket, who has the body of a college linebacker and thick brown hair that is streaked with a vague suggestion of gray.
Collectively, the three friends have been turkey hunting more than 60 years. Yarbrough began stalking wild turkeys when he was 13 but didn't kill his first until he had entered dental school. When these three start talking turkey, there is passion in the telling.
"There is an old Indian saying," says Sale, who has spent the morning climbing some of Virginia's most beautiful, and steepest, hills. "Any Indian brave can kill a buck, but it takes a chief to kill a turkey."
Sale has brought his 3-year-old dog, Samantha, to help with the hunt. If all goes according to plan, Sam should do the yelping and scattering after we have located the turkeys.
With morning mist thick enough to hide cows in a field at 80 yards, Goode and I hear a tom turkey, still sitting in his tree roost, make a low call to his fellow birds. His gobble is answered by others. Quickly we hike back to the truck to get Sam. But by the time we return, the turkeys have disappeared, leaving only fresh scratchings to show where they've been.
"They sure made monkeys out of us, and with a dog too," says Sale, who is smiling as he says it. "Like I said, that's how old gobblers get to be old gobblers."
We move to a new ridge, spotting a dozen deer along the way. At one point we hear Sam yelp on a hill just above us. A small button buck bounds down in a series of high, graceful leaps while we stand perfectly still. Fifteen yards from us, in midjump with his hooves 3 1/2 feet above ground, he sees the men with shotguns. The deer skids three feet to a halt on his front hooves, gives one quick look at the dog behind him, and bounds to his right and away while we look impressed.
There are signs of turkeys, many of them, but we get no closer than stooping to look at their marks in the wet dirt. In the afternoon we drive to another mountain. The weather has cleared. Though the ground is still wet, there is no more dripping to muffle sound.
Goode and Yarbrough begin climbing almost straight up from the bottom. Sale and I drive his four-wheeler up a dirt road to the top and begin climbing down. Suddenly, in the seam between us, Sale hears the sound of turkeys running.
"I knew they were getting away so I came over the ridge pretty fast," said Sale as we stood over the copper- and slate-colored hen he downed. While Sale took the turkey back to his truck, the rest of us set out again, knowing that the odds were stacked even higher against us and not caring one bit about it.