WINCHESTER, VA. -- "Do you see the turkey, man? Can't you see him?" Jim Clay sounded like a teakettle about to burst, he was hissing so loud. Twenty yards out, in the pine litter and waist-high tree stubble, a huge gobbler was running wild. It was opening day of fall turkey season in Virginia. We'd hunted 10 years for this moment and I couldn't see a thing. Nothing.
"My Lord, man, he's right in front of you," Clay hissed hysterically. "Can't you see him?"
Ah, the delights of hunting the elusive wild turkey. My heart pounded like a one-lung diesel, my eyes strained for a glimpse of movement in the thick stuff, my feet ached from two days' walking and my mind careened along a familiar, pessimistic, roller-coaster path: "Not again," I thought. "Not this again."
We'd arrived at this dizzying juncture by hard work. For a decade I'd come to the turkey woods with Clay and walked and walked and walked, but had yet to fire a shot. This time, with the dogs to hunt over, he swore it would be different.
So six of us met Sunday on the mountain. Gary Kirksey and 75-year-old Mort Sutherland drove up from Charlottesville with their turkey dogs, Bea and Rip. Clay brought Tommy Duvall, his longtime business partner. Jim Wilkins, who owned this lovely ground, was our host. We looked like an assault group in our camo' gear.
The plan was to work the dogs over hundreds of acres of prime turkey woods Sunday evening until they whiffed fresh scent, lit off after a flock and scattered the birds by barking at them.
On opening day Monday morning, the script went, the flock would try to regroup. But we'd have filtered back in the woods before dawn to perform on our turkey calls, drawing the scattered birds back to an ambush instead of a reunion. Owing to my fruitless 10-year struggle, I was "designated shooter," Clay said. Piece of cake.
But it wasn't simple. It never is. We saw turkey sign Sunday, but none fresh enough to earn Clay's ultimate accolade, "smokin' hot." The dogs were unmoved by the old "scratchings," where turkeys had scraped the leaf cover for bugs and seeds. By nightfall, the only dog that had barked was Rip. Once. At a tree stump.
Morning brought more of the same. We tramped a hard, high, rocky stretch of mountain from dawn till midday without incident, unless you consider nearly being trampled by deer an incident.
First came a buck, which shuffled and grunted across a ridge in pursuit of three does and was within 15 yards before Clay shooed him off. Later came a doe, barreling through the high woods with three barking mountain dogs nipping at her heels.
But no turkeys. Not a hint. No clucks. No peeps. No fresh scratchings. Clay kept his spirits up anyway. "It can happen any time," he said. "Just hang on."
After lunch, he, Duvall and I took one side of a high knob and the others took the dogs to the other side. It was Indian summer hot. We worked hard, saw nothing and were back at the meeting point an hour later when Wilkins hurried in with sweat on his brow and that look in his eye.
Rip, he said, had struck a trail and fired off through the woods like a cannon shot. Wilkins pursued and saw one turkey fly off. Others certainly had gone before. A flock was broken. We had all afternoon to work them back in. Show time.
Sutherland and Kirksey hurried back with the dogs, which had to be put in pens. Rip had done beautifully, Kirksey said. "You should have seen him take off." But the dog work was now done.
A turkey dog is way too wild to hunt over, Sutherland said. You can't keep him still. Once he's broken the flock, his usefulness is finished.
With the dogs put away we hiked back over the knob to the site of the scatter and split up. I followed Clay to a big oak overlooking a tangled hillside. "Perfect," he said. "We'll build a blind."
But before he had the sticks and stems in the ground, he heard Duvall calling to a turkey nearby. He and Clay make Perfection turkey calls for a living and both call beautifully. The turkeys evidently thought so, too, because a minute or two later came Duvall's shot.
Hearing it, Clay clucked a few times and the brush rustled below. Something moved. My heart pounded. I straightened against the tree and the butt of the gun knocked lightly against the trunk. The turkey, a hen, took off running.
"How many times have I told you, keep still!" said Clay.
Boom! Another shot echoed above us. After a decade of waiting, the woods were crawling with turkeys. What to do?
"We're moving," Clay said. "Up the hill."
There in the pines we heard the big gobbler tearing around. Clay stopped short and put a hand up. I stopped.
Clay was peering through the trees, head bobbing like a prizefighter as he sought a visual confirmation. He had a turkey call ready and let out a couple of clucks. His eyes widened.
"Do you see him?" Clay hissed. "He's running right at you. Can you see him?"
The seconds slid by agonizingly until the gobbler popped from behind a tree -- a huge thing, great long beard sticking out front. Gobbler! I was paralyzed. No time to think.
"Shoot him!" Clay shrieked.
I threw the gun up. The gobbler took off running. Bushes everywhere. No time to think. Where is he? There. No. There. No time to think.
"No chance!" said Clay. "Way too thick to shoot in there." But he took off anyway in pursuit, just in case.
"My Gosh!" he yelped.
"You got him!"