Anyone who has hunted turkeys knows it's an achievement just to see a gobbler in the wild, let alone get close enough to shoot at one. So when George Rippey said he could talk one within a 40-yard shooting range some April morning before work, he had himself a deal.
Not only did Rippey promise delivery of one gobbler on order, he said he could produce it in Montgomery County, within 20 miles of Washington. "I can show you turkeys on state hunting land up there," he said. "I'm working by the river and I hear them gobbling every day."
Rippey, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, was sticking his neck out a country mile, and by 6:30 Thursday morning it looked as if he was going to have it chopped off. Not a gobble had been heard after an hour of searching his favorite woods near Poolesville on a calm morning ideal for gobbling.
"I don't get frustrated," said Rippey, "because I know that somewhere a turkey is gobbling right now. Let's move."
This was turkey hunting strictly for fun. The only shooting we could do was with a camera, since spring gobbler season doesn't open in Maryland until April 22 (April 13 in Virginia). But his protestations notwithstanding, Rippey was clearly having no fun as he owl-hooted into the empty woods and heard nary a cackle in reply.
"Patience," he said.
Rippey stopped the car on a gravel road not far from McKee-Beshers Wildlife Refuge and hooted his owl hoot, which he performs extremely effectively with his natural voice. At last, there came a reply -- a faint gobble in the distance.
"Now let's turkey hunt," said Rippey. And off he took through the woods, leaving his girlfriend's Oldsmobile half-blocking the road with the keys in and one door ajar.
Rippey believes in wasting no time to get near a turkey once he hears it. "That gobble means he's vulnerable," he said. "We know where he is and what he wants."
What spring gobblers want is spring hens, this being mating season. To that end, Rippey and I wore camouflage, head to toe, and he was carrying a half-dozen assorted gadgets to make lovesick hen sounds. When we got close, we would hide and yelp and hope a gobbler came prancing in looking for love.
Rippey stopped in the woods and called, but got no answer. After 200 yards more, there still was no answer. He sat, waited, and owl-hooted. No answer. He moved and called again, and this time the gobbler gobbled loud and clear, 100 yards off to the right.
Crouching, we moved 40 yards closer and scrunched down next to a tree. Rippey was silent for about five minutes, then scratched a plaintive love yelp on a mechanical caller. He did it again, then scratched the leaves around him to imitate a turkey hunting for acorns.
The morning was still and you could hear geese in a pond nearby, and dogs barking, and cars from the road. Then the woods erupted with a cacophonous "Gobbblegobblegobblegobblegobble."
"Don't move," said Rippey. "That turkey's coming in."
He was right, in the end. But before that turkey marched into view, another gobbler came crashing in from the left. This one didn't announce himself until he was 25 yards away, when he gobbled so loud and unexpectedly that the hair stood up on a neophyte outdoors writer's neck.
"Lord, there's two of 'em," said Rippey. "Get ready for a fight."
On hearing the intruder, our original prey crashed down from his tree roost like a cinder block. Then the new arrival strutted in, tail feathers splayed, chest puffed, his head bright blue and wattles red with passion.
"He's a little one, and he's going to lose," whispered Rippey. No. 2 gobbler strode in just as boldly as No. 1, but a good deal heavier and evidently plenty mad.
The turkeys stalked each other briefly, 25 yards in front of where we sat, then charged each other and had it out, fast and neat. Feathers flew on impact, and the next thing we saw was the smaller jake making tracks, with the big boy in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Rippey whispered that he was hearing hens clucking from behind.
Then, just as quickly as they had arrived, all the turkeys were gone.
These are the sorts of experiences you expect to enjoy on educational television, not in person in the close-by suburbs of a major metropolis.
But Rippey said wild turkeys are expanding their range throughout the nation. They are on the rebound after becoming nearly extinct during the 1930s, when they were hunted mercilessly for food.
Wild turkeys are taking hold particularly well in Eastern Maryland as a result of an aggressive state program to trap and transplant birds.
Hunting season for turkeys reopened in Montgomery County in 1972, Rippey said, and the annual kill in the county has increased from about 15 to over 40 in recent years. The state also is transplanting flocks into Calvert and Charles counties and on the Eastern Shore, where the big birds are flourishing, Rippey said.
So there are turkeys around. All the same, wasn't the president of the Maryland chapter, National Wild Turkey Federation, a bit worried as 7 a.m. approached and he still hadn't delivered on his bold promise?
"Not really," said Rippey, stripping off his camouflage coveralls and getting ready to go to his carpentry job. "I just kept reminding myself: 'Somewhere a turkey is gobbling right now.' "