Jim Clay has had his three hours sleep. It's 5 a.m. and he's rapping urgently on the motel door. "Come on, man, we're late. Turkeys are gobbling right now."

When the serviceberries and redbuds bloom in the Blue Ridge, as they did last week, Clay is a kid again and everything is new and lovely. "There," he said, braking hard on a mountain road and directing his high-beams at a pale lump on the shoulder, "see that? A white skunk. You'll never see one whiter than that."

We were rushing to the turkey grounds, not because spring gobbler season was on us but because it was the week before opening day and Clay couldn't wait.

Instead of shotguns, we carried cameras. He wanted to make turkey videos and I was to shoot stills, but I should have known it was all futile, that the first time a gobbler gobbled Clay would drop everything and run off through the woods. That's how he is.

"We built a blind to photograph from," said Clay, "but a bear's been tearing it down every night. Something about it he just doesn't like. Claw marks all over the place.

"What I'd like to do is get a salmon and hang it from a tree about 10 feet high, just so he can't reach it, and drive him crazy. Bears will do anything for salmon."

Into the bear's woods we plunged in the dim first light, trampling blossoming Dutchman's Breeches on the way down a rocky draw between two ridges. "This wind's gonna kill us," said Clay, cocking an ear to the dull roar of a warm southeaster in the trees. "Turkeys might not gobble in a wind like this. Can you believe it? Clear and still as it was last night? But we'll wait 'em out. We're going to see turkeys today. I know they're here.

"Who-who, who-whooo! Who-who, who-whooooo!" His rendition of a barred owl's hoot rang through the woods, but no turkey answered.

"That should get 'em if they're going to gobble," said Clay, who quit teaching English in Winchester to take up full-time turkey hunting and the production of his own brand of turkey call -- perfection diaphragm calls.

The bear had indeed visited. "Look what the little unprintable did," said Clay. The burlap was torn, the steel stanchions askew.

We erected a portable blind and Clay began calling. He keeps a different call in every pocket -- calls made of turkey wing bones, calls of cedar wood and a dozen diaphragm calls, which are little bits of rubber stretched over metal frames. He slips the diaphragm between tongue and palate and makes turkey sounds by forcing air through.

The idea is to duplicate a lovesick hen. The flowering of the woods is proof of spring, when wild turkeys mate. Normally, hens come to the gobbler; Clay tries to short-circuit the system, drawing gobblers to him by sounding like a lost and lovesick female.

"Early in the season it's easier because gobblers are still establishing harems," he said. "Then it gets harder while they're busy servicing their hens, and then toward the end of the season it gets easier again, when the hens drift off to make their nests."

From 5:30 to 6:20, we heard no gobbles. Then, as we pondered a move, a gobbler called raucously from about 100 yards away.

"We've got him," said Clay. But the gobbler never came. He stayed in a deep thicket, where sneaking up on him would have been impossible, and gobbled 100 times, taunting us. After a frustrating hour of this, Clay elected to move.

"But let's don't take the cameras," he whispered. "We'll just move down here 100 yards and see what happens."

We moved.

He called.

The woods ignited.




It was at least two gobblers. "They're comin' in," hissed Clay. "Sit down."

It happened fast and it was hilarious. There were three gobblers in a gang, all young jakes hatched last spring. "They're like teen-age boys," Clay said.

The jakes came charging up the hill, rattling dry leaves. One by one their brilliant white and blue heads and blood-red wattles appeared over a crest at our feet. "Give 'em a shot," I whispered to Clay.

"Kyow, kyow, kyow, kyow," he tweeted, seductively.

"Gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble!" said all three boys, frantically searching for the hen.

The biggest puffed himself up, fanned his tailfeathers and drummed a love song from deep in his breast. "Phhhhhht-booommmmmm."

The three paraded along a ridge 20 yards in front of us and headed away. "Hit 'em again," I whispered. "Drive 'em wild."

He chuckled and gave the trio another yelp. They fell apart, gobbling, strutting, searching frantically. Where is she?

It went on this way about five minutes, I guess, but seemed much longer. You could have sold tickets -- called it a comic opera. The hardest thing was to keep from laughing. Each time they slipped away, Clay would hit a lick on the call and they'd come thundering back with lust in their beady little turkey eyes.

Finally they were gone and we burst out laughing.

"Now that," said Clay, "is what you call hot."

Virginia's gobbler season opened yesterday and will run through May 10. Maryland season is April 21-May 17. Spring hunting in both states is for bearded turkeys only.

Virginia is considered one of the nation's better turkey-hunting states, and officials predict another good spring season after last year's record kill of more than 9,000 gobblers.

Game Commission Chief Jack Raybourne said the kill might be down slightly this year, because the most vulnerable gobblers are 2-year-olds, and 1984 was not a good "hatch" year. But the overall turkey population continues to boom in Virginia after an extraordinarily good hatch last spring.

"If you have a good hatch, as we did last spring, you look for excellent hunting two years down the road, so the '87 spring hunt should be great," said Raybourne.