During turkey season much of the young male population of Tuscaloosa, Alabama underwent a peculiar metamorphosis. Men who at other times of the year would be so trusting as to give you the combination to their home wall-safe became evasive and shifty-eyed if you so much as mentioned the word “gobbler.” All kept their favorite hunting spots secret.
It was 4:30 am and I was driving with my friend Noble Johns, a car dealer, in his Dodge pickup. “I know a place where we can kill a turkey. Only two days left in the season, but we’ll get you a big tom this morning if it kills me.” With that, Noble let out a high-pitched noise that sounded like an ape with his testicles caught in competing pair of incisors. “That’s your hen yelp.”
“How do you do that?”
Noble dropped his jaw and stuck out his tongue, revealing a half-moon of plastic about an inch across. He popped it back in, took his hands off the wheel and cupped them around his mouth to make a series of short squeaks. “That there’s your yip. And here’s your cluck: chock-chock-chock-chock!”
“What’s it made out of?”
“Trojans. Make ’em myself every season.”
“Turkey hunting’s a long education, brother. They’re weird birds. Once I left the Bronco door open and went into the woods. Came out and found this turkey sitting behind the wheel—like a human—eating my glazed donuts!”
“What did you do then?”
“He hopped out and I nailed him. Twenty-three pounder with a ten and a half inch-long beard. Biggest I ever killed.”
The highway was deserted except for a lone truck ahead of us. We drove for half an hour, then turned off an exit that shrank to a gravel road. Low dark hills received us. The sky still held a handful of stars.
“Now we’re in Hutchinson County. Moonshine country. You see anyone in the woods other than me, don’t say hello. Don’t say nothin’. You walk away. Might be a moonshine still nearby. Main thing is watch out for snakes. Ground’s warming up and snakes hunt at night. Saw a rattler as fat as a small alligator once. Cut him open and found three baby turkeys inside. A big snake is nothing to mess with.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
The sky was still dark when we bumped onto the dirt track. Minutes later we eased up to a gate and parked. Noble cut the engine, and the hum of the woods entered my window. The light of the moon illuminated a sign with lettering obliterated by sun and rain.
“Turkeys hear about seven times better than we do.” Noble whispered. “So don’t slam the door.” We uncased the shotguns. I was using my grandfather’s Browning over-and-under and eased number four Remington Express loads into the chambers.
“Now, there’s a spring season on deer in these parts,” Noble said. “It’s actually in Willoughby County, which is over that ridge.” He pointed over his shoulder in the darkness. “But I got my deer tags and the deer wander back and forth into Hutchinson County, and they ain’t going to know the difference. If we don’t get a turkey, or even if we do, I’m going to get some meat for the freezer.”
We left the vehicle. Whispers and sign language got us through the barbed wire fence. The red clay road was soft and wet from a two-day-old rain. On my left, a rat or lizard scuttled through the leaves. The air was warm and I started perspiring in the spring heat. I smelled the wet earth and heard insects trilling. Walking carefully in the dark, I remembered what Noble had said about snakes.
In the distance came a faint cry. Noble stopped me with his hand. The gobbling came louder, more insistent. It stirred the blood. Noble tapped my shoulder. We moved towards the sound, circling a hill, stepping off the road onto a path. Earlier, he had explained to me that a male turkey will only come to a hen’s call if it is downhill from him. Crossing a sluggish creek in one step, Noble’s left boot sank and he fell forward on the bank, reaching for an exposed root. His shotgun’s muzzle raked the bushes. I picked a spot downstream and crossed easily.
The gobbler sounded again, closer. Noble motioned for me to hunker down with my back to a tree, then he left me. In the natural theater, the yellow light of the rising sun gradually gave definition to every leaf and branch. Inquisitive bugs with long antennae crawled among the leaves while mosquitoes hovered, searching for the chink in my armor of repellent. The turkey’s call grew faint and my attention wandered.
Close by came the cry of a female turkey, ready to mate. This was Noble performing his seductive repertoire. First came a few flinty clucks, then a pause. Another series of urgent clucks expanded into a raucous squawk. Almost immediately, from somewhere in the night, the gobbler responded. Noble clucked twice and the gobbler’s voice came closer.
Two sharp clucks from Noble, then silence. The lover’s moment of truth.
For five full minutes, there was no sound except the trilling of insects, and the eternal rhythm of my racing heart. I positioned my shotgun across my knees at what seemed the optimum angle for a quick bead. I was a novice at hunting turkeys, but I knew how to be still in the woods; I knew how to shoot.
A dozen yards away, a scrim of leaves parted to reveal an eye and beak fixed into a hairless head covered with waxen blue and pink skin. As the gobbler pushed his long naked neck and immense body though the brush, I heard his claws, nearly as big as my fingers, pressing into the foliage. He gobbled loudly, a chilling cry. Noble gave one coquettish squeak and the giant turkey went into a trance of desire. The gobbler dropped his iridescent wings and flared his tail into a copper and bronze fan. He tucked his head down into his breast and rumbled huskily. His eyes grew half-lidded, like a much-decorated general who blushes when a cocotte tells him not that he is brave but simply beautiful. Noble had done all this with the magic call.
The bird turned and strutted, feathers glistening bronze, green-gold, rust and violet. My heart pounded and my mouth was dry. My hands trembled as I raised my gun slowly, but the turkey had his fan turned towards me. Noble had insisted I shoot only for the head, as a body shot might ruin the meat. When his eye disappeared behind the wavering ivory bead of my shotgun, I squeezed the trigger. The great bird hopped in the air, his body temporarily unaware of the brain’s death, wings still flapping as it fell over. I leapt up to claim my prize.