To a degree arguably not found in any other type of hunting, the quest for America’s big-game bird, the wild turkey, seizes the sportsman’s heart in relentless fashion. After all, going for gobblers is chancy business in many ways. It embodies magic but is a pursuit filled far more often with mistakes, mischance, missed shots, and abject misery.
The likelihood of failure is in reality part of turkey hunting’s allure, because any true, dyed-in-the-wool outdoorsman — as opposed to pantywaist poseurs — relishes grand challenges. Yet over time, especially when the hunter experiences one of those inevitable runs of misfortune that seem to be a salient characteristic of dealing with wily old longbeards, what has long been deemed a passion can approach the status of becoming purgatory. That’s when the thinking Nimrod should remind himself that the hunting is only part of the overall experience, for springtime in the turkey woods affords an abundance of fringe benefits.
For serenity — and indeed at times for the sake of sanity — it’s well to keep those “extras” in mind. Here’s a look at some of what should be part and parcel of the totality of turkey hunting. As someone who long ago lost a corner of his soul to wild turkeys, I’ve found them a comfort in times of despair and a way to send spirits soaring even when, day after day, I leave the woods without the makings of a sumptuous feast featuring a glorious gobbler.
The first treat awaiting the early rising turkey hunter focuses on his sense of hearing. Frequently you read references to “the silent woods” or “peace and quiet” in connection with being afield. To put it bluntly, such statements are pure malarkey. As night yields to light in springtime woodlands, you have a crescendo of sound that sometimes seems like a cross between the biblical Tower of Babel and Bedlam. A chorus that starts with the lonesome, repetitive pre-dawn calling of whippoorwills soon swells with the sound of many avian choristers.
Raucous crows, cantankerous, endlessly argumentative, and always vocal, greet another day. Perhaps they are ranting at a red-tailed hawk screaming to the heavens or maybe just rejoicing in the troublesome cacophony that seems to be second nature to them. Then, from somewhere deep down in a hollow comes the eerie eight-note refrain of a barred owl, and if the crows start laughing, the uninitiated could readily be convinced they are in a woodland madhouse. Or maybe the more subdued but nonetheless distinctive voice of its cousin, the great horned owl, will chime in. Soon pileated woodpeckers get busy with their morning chores and breakfasting, and the sounds they make flying from tree to tree readily explain why one colloquial name for them is “Lord God Bird” (as in “Lord God, what was that?”).
Far sweeter are the notes of the first songbird to tune up, the cardinal, with its cheery cries of “pretty, pretty.” This seemingly trips a switch for a myriad of other songsters, and soon the forest rings with mating calls or maybe mere expressions of the joy of another day in their little piece of paradise. Whatever the case, when all the birds of a Carolina spring get tuned up and going in full voice, the turkey hunter has a front-row seat for a musical performance that transcends anything offered by the New York Philharmonic or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Should perchance a lovelorn gobbler, perhaps driven by the “surround sound,” decide that it is time for him to remind all within earshot that he is the ruler of this dominion, so much the better.
While boisterous and bellicose, sweet and soothing, and always pervasive, bird sounds and songs by no means completely monopolize the woodland stage. There’s always the possibility of hearing coyotes yipping and howling in the distance, the bark of a fox, and sometimes the knowing ear even detects vocalizations from that elusive predator of our wild places, the bobcat. Among animal sounds it is a virtual certainty that the chatter of squirrels will be thrown into the mix. Maybe fussing at a hawk or barking for whatever reason sets bushytails off (and if you figure out a cogent explanation let me know — I’ve hunted and observed them all my days and still don’t fully understand what gets them going), or just making a racket jumping from one tree to the next, these treetop tricksters are endlessly entertaining and noisy. Finally, on the sound side of things are the soft, seductive thermal winds of early morning whispering through the greening-up trees of spring with a lover’s gentle caress. I know of few things sweeter to the ear or more soothing to the soul than these spring breezes.
A Visual Feast
Turning to the sense of sight, spring in the turkey woods means an ever-unfolding feast for the eyes. It’s the peak time for wildflowers abloom, and the array of colors adorning meadows, the forest floor, woodland understory, and lofty trees surpasses the spectrum of the most imaginative artist’s palette. Among the most striking are the vivid pinkish purple of redbuds, the splendor in white of dogwoods in full flower, bushy painted buckeye with its reds and yellows, and the soft gold of spicebush blossoms auguring red berries a few months down the road. At one’s feet are violets in all their many hues; dainty winterberry; phlox; bluets; May apples with shiny, umbrella-like leaves hiding a single delicate bloom; trilliums; jack-in-the-pulpit; dwarf iris; and enough more to send the observant woodland wanderer straight to a wildflower identification guide once he returns home.
For me though, the favorite feasts for the eye involve spotting wild bounty available for immediate harvest or heralding fine vittles in months to come. Pride of place in this regard must go to morel mushrooms, and they are far more widespread in the Piedmont and Upstate regions of South Carolina than is generally realized. To my enduring delight, this was revealed to me a couple of decades ago while I was turkey hunting on property I own in Chester County. I had settled in comfortably at the base of a good-sized elm bordering a trickling branch. The idea was to do some sporadic calling in an effort to get a gobbler’s attention, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the lightly wooded bottomland in front of me, just to see what developed.
In such situations you soon find yourself meticulously assessing everything within eyesight, and that involves not only watchful waiting for movement from a turkey but observing other wildlife and the flora around you. It took me a full half-hour, and during that time I had twice offered what I hoped were dulcet tones from my wingbone call, before I belatedly noticed what was gracing the forest floor all around me. There were morels, lots of them, and once they registered on a brain overly focused on wild turkeys, all immediate ideas of remaining in place were abandoned. I pulled a gallon Ziploc bag from my vest in which I normally carry some snacks and immediately began gathering what are, in some sections of the country, known as woodland trout or “merkles” (i. e., miracles).
For the wild gourmet, morels are indeed miraculous, and every turkey hunter should keep a keen eye out for them. They are well camouflaged and difficult to find, but once you develop a knack for spotting them and recognize likely habitat, your hunting horizons will expand to include morels. A feast of them sautéed in butter, made into a creamy soup, or featured in a fluffy omelet is enough, in the expressive words of my paternal grandfather, “to bring tears to a glass eye.” A quick lesson on identification of real morels and what are actually called “false morels” via the internet or an outdoor reference manual will explain the difference so that you can enjoy this wonderful taste instead of possibly experiencing the false one’s digestive complications.
Telltale signs of wild treats to come are visible as spring gives way to summer and fall. Look for the slick-barked bushes (they never quite attain tree status in size) of a pawpaw patch. They tend to like damp feet, and the blooms, which appear before any foliage emerges, are a lovely deep maroon hue. The readily observable white of blackberry briars in bloom heralds treats to come in late June, and if you are fortunate you may also spot the white blooms of dewberries or wild strawberries. Both are delicacies of the first magnitude meriting careful filing in memory’s food bank. Add persimmon trees, black walnuts (among the last trees to put out leaves), and wild muscadines, and you have reasons aplenty to remain alert to everything about you as opposed to becoming so obsessed with wild turkeys all else is forgotten.
Nature’s Sweet Perfume
Even your sense of smell can add to the overall turkey-hunting experience. Several wildflowers are aromatic, and the scent of honeysuckle wafting through the air far transcends anything the most talented perfumier can concoct. Rub a stem of spicebush between your fingers and there’s no doubt whatsoever about the origins of its name, while doing the same with sassafras congers up images of old-time stick candy or, for the privileged few who have been participants in such enduring folkways, a soothing drink of “sass” tea laced with a bit of honey.
Hopefully by this juncture the message is clear. Those who journey to the spring woods in the quintessential “One Man Game,” as the late author and expert in the sport Kenny Morgan styled it, have a world of wonder awaiting them. To become so obsessed, so single-mindedly relentless, with the effort to harvest a grand gobbler is to miss a special blessing in the form of myriad extras. If you leave the woods toting a bearded old man that had long called pine ridges and hardwood sloughs home, you are unquestionably blessed. But that’s merely the lace on the bride’s pajamas, because even those days devoid of so much as a distant gobble at daybreak are marvelous and mystical.
The English Romantic poet John Keats may not have been a turkey hunter, but rest assured his vision embraced the wider ramifications of the sport’s experience when he wrote, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” In the greening-up woods of a Carolina spring, earth is alive with a vibrancy that stirs all the senses. The complete turkey hunter knows and recognizes that as he embraces the experience in its totality. Conversely, those who fail to do so and think killing a turkey is all that matters are missing a great deal and perhaps have holes in their souls. That’s something on which to pause and ponder while you wander hills and hollows, ridges, and river bottoms.
Jim Casada is a “recovering” history professor who has, since early retirement, been a full-time writer specializing in subjects related to nature, outdoor sports, cooking, and regional history and folkways. He is the author of 18 books, the latest of which is A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings, and More.