WINCHESTER, VA. -- Jim Clay peered through his camouflage mask, looking confused -- something I'd not seen from him in the turkey woods before.
"What do you think we should do?" he asked, which is like Pete Rose asking the batboy for hitting advice in the World Series. Take two and hit to right, maybe?
"Look," I said, "we know there are turkeys around. We just saw them. And we know they roosted in the pines last night. We've got an hour left till dark. Let's walk over to the pines, take a seat and call 'em in on their way back to the roost."
"Right," said Clay. It was a long shot and he knew it, but we headed off anyway through the spitting rain, found a tree trunk to hunker against and watched gray day fade away while he clucked and tooted on his array of calls.
"Everything's against us," Clay grumbled beneath his breath. "Turkeys don't call in the evening this time of year, they hate to call when it's windy and we didn't scatter 'em enough to respond to a call anyway."
Sure enough, when night fell we'd struck out again, and once more the only turkeys at the Phillips house on Thanksgiving will be the plump, $17 Giant-brand butterball on the platter and the balding one with the carving knife at the head of the table.
Ah well, only pilgrims hunt wild turkeys for food. If you tried it, you'd starve. Trust me. Unlike their domestic kin, wild turkey are clever and wary as jewel thieves -- able to hear a muffled sneeze from two ridges away or spot you blinking from 100 yards. "If they could smell," one gobbler chaser told me, "nobody would ever kill one."
Even Clay, with his boundless enthusiasm for turkey hunting and optimism at the start of each hunting day, concedes there are limits.
"You can't come up here for one day and expect to kill a turkey," he always says. And every year I come up here for one day expecting to kill a turkey and go home instead with a bushel of fresh-picked Thanksgiving apples, crisp as ice, and a hatful of memories.
I'm no goal-oriented turkey hunter anyway. This sport is an excuse for a vigorous tromp through the autumn hills -- a reason to get happily, wearily lost in high country. If by some miracle a turkey happens by, as one did a few years ago, I consider it a stroke of astonishing good fortune.
So it was with humble aspirations that I set out in the morning with Clay's friend Jimmy Wilkins, whose 240-acre woods almost always harbors birds. He parked at the gate, gobbled down a breakfast apple and led me through the predawn blackness to the edge of the same pine thicket in which Clay and I wound up ending the day.
"Listen for them to fly down off the roost," he said. We stood in the dark while he clucked on his calls. Nothing. He put about 10 minutes of silence on them, and just as dawn broke we heard the "WHUP-WHUP- whup-whup-whup-whup" of massive turkey wings as the first bird of the day flew down from its overnight perch to scratch up food on the ground.
"Go!" said Wilkins, and he sprinted left and I right, hoping to flush more birds from nearby trees. But we heard only one more fly.
Wilkins and I trudged up hill and down for hours seeking a trace of those two, but they'd vanished like vapor. Eventually we met up with Clay and Tom Duvall, who'd endured a like fate in the next woods.
Since Duvall and Wilkins had to go to work, Clay and I teamed up for the rest of the day and did our best to walk across Frederick County.
We saw interesting things, but none with feathers. On a windy ridge littered with green periwinkles, a gravestone marked the resting place of a woman named Phebe who'd died in 1908 after a hard life. "Here lies mother, fast asleep," read her dour epitaph, "She never knew anything but trouble and grief."
At a field edge, we inched up on three does sniffing at a place where a buck had scraped the ground and left his scent. As the last doe fled, Clay snorted like a buck, stopping her in her tracks, where she stayed until a stray breeze bore our scent down and she bounded away, white tail flagging.
About midafternoon, Clay suggested we head back to where Wilkins and I had scared the birds off their roost. "I bet they'll come back tonight," he said.
We were driving up the dirt entrance road when he hit the brakes. "There they are!" Clay shouted. "Get your gun!"
The idea was not to shoot at the poor, defenseless birds from the road, of course, but to shoot in the air to scatter the flock so we could try calling them back individually. But by the time Clay got the tailgate down, his gun out and a round in the chamber, the turkeys were skittering down the mountainside like schoolkids playing hide and seek.
We ran after, but turkeys have a way of disappearing, which is how Clay came to be peering out from behind his mask, seeking advice from me (heh, heh).
Well, you throw it and I'll take a swing. I came up with a plan and as far as I'm concerned, it worked as well as most turkey hunting plans. It involved a place to sit down and we were out of the woods in plenty of time to get those crunchy York apples before the roadside stands shut down.
I'm eating one right now, as a matter of fact, and friend, it's reason enough to give thanks. Trust me.