Noted turkey hunter and author Tom Kelly once wrote, “I do not hunt turkeys because I want to. I hunt them because I have to. I would, really, rather not. But I am helpless in the grip of my compulsion.”
Anyone who has ever spent a glorious Tennessee spring morning leaning against the base of an oak tree, using a box call to lure a gobbling tom turkey to within gun range — strutting and drumming the entire way — can attest to the addiction of the sport.
Tennessee’s spring turkey hunting season opens Saturday. For the next six weeks or so, turkey hunters will pursue the bird referenced by legions of sportsmen as the “King of Spring.”
Having hunted deer since I was barely old enough to tote a gun, I started hunting turkeys in 1995 as a way to help pass the time between December and October, those dreaded deer-less months that fall between the start of archery season and the close of gun season.
In those days, the turkey population in these parts was just beginning to thrive. Despite spending countless hours on deer stands, I had never seen a wild turkey in the woods — much less hear one gobble.
But it seemed like a good idea, so I gathered some mismatched camouflage, purchased a couple of calls at Walmart, watched all the hunting videos I could get my hands on at Betty Brown’s video rental store in Elgin, read a few back issues of Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazine and attended a small turkey seminar put on by the Harriman chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
I felt like I was ready to slay the biggest, baddest turkey in the spring woods when I trotted into the mist on that cold April morning toting my single-shot New Englander 20-gauge shotgun with an ultra-modified choke and a pocket full of squirrel shot.
I didn’t hear a turkey on that dreary morning but I did see a few hens scratching in the leaves shortly after lunchtime. That was enough to whet my appetite and keep me going back. And when I heard that first thunderous gobble — felt it shake the leaves on the trees around me — at the break of dawn a few mornings later, I was sure I had just seen the face of God.
Pretty soon, I was heading to the woods every chance I got. What had started as a pastime quickly became an obsession. An ill-equipped, poorly-prepared, wet-behind-the-ears turkey hunter versus one of nature’s wiliest critters. I was destined for failure, and I failed a lot during that first year . . . and for several years to follow. But I had fun doing it.
Two springtimes later, I was spending a week in the turkey woods while the rest of my class was in Florida and the Bahamas on our senior trip. I was hopelessly hooked on hunting wild turkeys.
I graduated high school and started college and the lure of those gobbling tom turkeys nearly proved to be the undoing of my education. More than once I left home with good intentions of going to class only to wind up sitting at the base of an oak tree on my favorite ridge-top. More than once I snuck out of class when a passing thunderstorm cleared and the sun popped out, knowing that there would be a turkey out there somewhere gobbling his fool head off.
Stomping the hills and hollers of the Cumberland Plateau and Middle Tennessee, I harvested enough birds to make me feel like I knew what I was doing and blew enough opportunities to make me feel like I didn’t have a clue.
And like every other hunter who has ever pursued the King of Spring, I have never tired of hearing the sound of a longbeard gobbling at first light, or hearing the tell-tale sound of a strutting tom spitting-and-drumming just over the hill.
There are plenty of turkey hunters who share this addiction, and not one of us can explain to those who have never experienced it for themselves just what it is about chasing a bird that is lucky to weigh much over 20 lbs. soaking wet and has a brain roughly the size of a peanut that makes it so much fun.
Sometimes we become so fixated on a bird that has given us the slip that we’ll spend the entire season chasing a single tom turkey. “Season-wreckers,” we call those birds, an inference to the likelihood that we’re going to come up empty-handed.
We’ll trudge through weather of all sorts. Spring features the msot volatile weather of the year, with mother nature throwing everything from freezing weather to strong thunderstorms — even snow — at anyone who ventures outdoors. A turkey hunter who doesn’t have a story to tell of being caught out in a severe storm is a turkey hunter who hasn’t been hunting very long.
We can’t explain it, but when a classic hunt sets up — a longbeard coming to the call as if on a string, strutting and drumming all the way home — everything else ceases to matter. It’s man vs. turkey in a country that still belongs to God and reflects His handiwork. The fact that He filled up man’s melon-sized gourd with brains and had only a smidge left over to fill the turkey’s skull doesn’t stand in the way of a thrilling hunt. Matching wits with a wild turkey is often humbling and sometimes humiliating . . . but always exhilarating.
That’s why we’ll do it again this year. That’s why we’re willing to spend the spring dodging lightning bolts and strong wind gusts: for the sound of that first gobble echoing through the woods on Saturday morning. And the hope that the first sight of a red-headed tom turkey strutting towards the call will soon follow.