By Kyle Bennett
Today is the first day of March.
Across the South, a cool dawn gives way to a warm morning sun. The early spring woods reveal the slightest hint of green. Redbuds show off in full bloom. Most importantly, wild turkeys can be heard singing to the heavens from the treetops, signifying the daily commencement ceremony of their annual mating rituals.
Spring turkey season is special to many hunters across a wild turkey’s range, but it is perhaps most special to those here in the South. Although we Southerners tend to cling to our long-held, well-earned biases, anyone from anywhere who has ever chased gobblers below the Mason-Dixon Line can agree that an Eastern Wild Turkey and a Southern Eastern Wild Turkey are two entirely separate species.
The exact cause of what makes Southern turkeys so different from other turkeys is hard to place a finger on.
It may be the great variety of habitat the bird calls home; the stretching pine plantations of the Alabama “Flatwoods”, the rolling bluffs and hills along the Mississippi River, the maze of moss-laden cypress trees, muck, and waterways in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin or South Carolina’s Savannah River Swamp, the longleaf pine savannas of south Georgia, the sprawling Bluegrass hills of Kentucky, the fabled Arkansas river bottoms.
It could be the pressure of the many, many hunters who chase the bird each spring, marching into the turkey woods like legions of fire ants; the old timers, veterans of their own distinction, quiet, secretive, with faded camouflage overalls and wing bone yelpers hanging from their necks by a piece of old string; the eager new hunters, vests weighed down with every high-tech gadget and gizmo from the local sporting goods store, trampling through the dry leaves with the nonchalant air of an unconcerned herd of elephants; the impatient fathers with their squirming children and the patient grandfathers with their squirming grandchildren; the lousy callers; the leaf scratchers; the tree stump snoozers; the businessmen trying to sneak in a quick morning sit before slipping into the back door of the office, still wearing snake boots, forty-five minutes late to their meetings.
It is a mystery, but what we do know is that the Southern strain is hatched with a Master’s Degree in Hunter Evasion Tactics and a Minor in Humiliation Studies.
Differences and longitude aside, we Southern turkey hunters are all drawn to the bird in a way that is both beautiful and frustrating. We wake well before dawn and arrive in the woods before the first hint of light. We listen. We wait. The first groggy treetop gobble from two ridges over stops our hearts every time. We creep forward through the bottom, silently weaving through the understory, finally settling at the base of an old hickory trunk. Two hours pass, and still we sit, legs asleep, the tom gobbling from first the left, then behind, then to our right, answering every owl, crow, woodpecker, cow, bumblebee, and far off ambulance siren, yet somehow ignoring our lonely hen yelps and seductive purrs. Bored, the gobbler finally makes his way exactly away from us to the next hollow to chase looser women.
We trudge home, head hanging low, cursing the bird, and threatening to sell off our shotguns and calls and camouflage. On the drive to work, we consider taking up golf or tennis. The next morning, again we wake before dawn to chase the morning gobble, leaving yards unmowed and fences unpainted and duties forgotten. For reasons we cannot quite describe, we relish the constant punishment.
Then, on an occasional spring morning, we wake with an extra bounce in our step, the bird makes an unlikely (and fatal) decision, and we get a heavier walk back to the truck and a celebratory stack of pancakes. It is in these rare moments of achievement that we truly understand that the constant frustrations are all part of the chess game with the bird himself, a game he is much better at than we. In the words of one of the South’s greatest outdoor writers, the poet laureate of turkey hunting, Colonel Tom Kelly, “You don’t hunt turkeys because you want to; you hunt turkeys because you have to.”
With only a few short weeks until opening morning in most Southern states, many of us can’t stand the anticipation. We find ourselves waking a little earlier for work than usual, hoping that on our way to the office we can pull off on an old dirt road and listen for a spell. Diaphragm calls and binoculars litter the console of our trucks; boots, shotguns, and our old tattered turkey vests have taken up new residence in the backseat. Neighborly conversations in the driveway after work instantly halt at the distant sound of a hoot owl, with unlikely hopes that a faint gobble might follow.
So, as opening morning arrives and we finally march forward into the spring turkey woods, camouflaged, sweaty, smelling of Deet and tobacco and that morning’s frosted honey bun, remember to be thankful. We are fortunate. Many hunters get to chase turkeys every spring, but not every hunter gets to chase them in the South.