This is the story of three turkey hunters, and the wild turkeys they did not kill in Virginia a fortnight ago. The story begins in the middle, in a smelly trailer parked in a dark forest on a night when the owls hooted too often and small birds cringed in their nests, disturbed by the howling laughter below. What provoked the howls was a cacophony of these sounds: gobbles and clucks, whines, purrs, waddles and putts, and Kee-Kee runs, all of them turkey calls, all failures. One of the hunters had said, "Learn to yelp in the spring and Kee-Kee in the fall, and you'll get birds." But there were no birds. There was only bacon grease soaked into everything, garbage strewn on the trailer's tiny floor, bodies starved for sleep, and frustration now verging on delirium.

It was a typical turkey hunt. The hunters, moderate men as a rule, had turned as wild as the turkeys, and though few turkeys were actually seen, there were plenty of signs. Droppings decorated every trail, and the hunters picked them up and sniffed and kneaded them. "Fresh," they would say, peering into the brush, or "yesterday's" or "I never bother to taste it anymore."

They were hunting for America's largest game bird and, in many ways, its toughest hunting challenge. Turkey hunters say their bird has the keenest sight of any wild thing, and that by comparison deer are blind. So the search can be a strain, calling for sacrifices. A favorite story all week was that of the Mississippi turkey hunter who boasted, "I'm the best damn turkey hunter in the South, but I've lost my wife, my kids, my family, my house, my cars and my bank account." What a man, the three hunters would say, what courage. But they had impressive credentials, too.

One of them was James F. Brady of Peekskill, N.Y., author of Modem Turkey Hunting (Crown, 1973). He had recently received a call from a soul mate in Newport, Pa., Harry Boyer, the current national turkey-calling champion. They had an odd conversation, with very few words, and arranged to hunt together in Virginia. Several weeks later, after a five-hour drive down from Peekskill, Brady pulled into Boyer's driveway, gobbling, yelping and Kee-Keeing. A Newport milkman named Glenn Fleisher was there, too, a fine down-home turkey hunter, and the four of us then piled into Boyer's 1965 Studebaker, a turkey in its own right. The headlights kept going out at intervals on dark Virginia highways, putting all in a nervous snit and setting a mad tone for the trip.

At 5:30 a.m. Brady, who had been traveling for 18 straight hours, and his pals arrived in Wythe County, the best in Virginia for bearded wild turkeys, going by last spring's record when 114 were shot. The hunters immediately dressed up as woodsmen—or menwoods, rather—in camouflage pants, jackets, hats and masks with eyeholes, and they trudged off to kill turkeys. Dawn passed. Dawn is the magic hour for turkey hunting in spring, which is the turkey mating season, the time when the male turkey earns his nickname of gobbler. High in his roosting tree he gobbles away, then flutters down to gobble some more, all in hopes that girl friends will hear and begin lining up. But the gobbler will do the chasing if necessary, homing in on the yelping hen, gobbling as he goes, giving away his location to the hunter. This is the essence of hunting in spring, when only gobblers may be killed. The hunter hears a gobbler and he begins yelping what is technically known as "the cry of a love-sick hen," keouk keouk keouk, a high-pitched, barking sound made with one of two metal-and-rubber mouth calls. If this does not draw in a gobbler the hunter gives him a gobble with a wooden gobble box or with another mouth call. As Boyer says, "Awaken his desire, then make him jealous."

So our hunters held their breath and waited for gobbling to begin, but none did. They said it was the most thrilling sound to be heard in the wild, and they waited some more, for days. The alarm rang each morning at 3:30 a.m., to groans. Someone usually tripped in the dark clutter of the trailer. The gas lantern sent out its fumes, and the sea of bacon grease began to sputter and rise. It was cold, and a good time for sleeping.

A spring turkey-hunting day in Virginia ends at 11 a.m., and in the afternoons and evenings Brady, Boyer and Fleisher drove through the countryside, stopping at the edges of roads to gobble toward hills and woods, hoping to locate turkeys for the next morning.

One evening Fleisher said hopefully, "The longer you go not getting one, the better you feel when you do."

"Yeah," replied Brady. "When I finally do, in three years, I'll be wild."

"If I have to wait that long, I'll be in the funny farm," said Boyer.

But then, at Leon's general store they met a gentleman farmer named J. C. Callahan. He said he had been hearing gobbling in the hills behind his house. The hunters gathered round. Eyes narrowing, Callahan asked Boyer what church and what political party he belonged to, and if he played cards, drank liquor or ran around with women. Apparently Boyer's answers were satisfactory. That evening Boyer stood in Callahan's lower pasture, looking toward a tall hemlock on a hill, listening to sweet music. Back at the trailer he said, "Boy, do I feel great." Having said little all week, Boyer now was a torrent of turkey talk:

"Last year I putted a turkey all the way down the side of a mountain.

"Turkeys are just like people. Some talk fast and some talk slow. Some are loud and some are quiet.

"Turkeys are just like women. She wants to know she's pretty, you tell her she's pretty.

"He wants to know you're a hen out there in heat, you tell him so."

And plans for the morning: "We know he's in that hemlock, and it's a dark night so he's not gonna move. In the morning we're gonna get up there before light and listen for him. He should start gobbling five minutes after the birds sing. Soon as he hits the ground we'll hit him with calls, and if they're quality calls he's not gonna fly off the mountain."

And then it was morning. Both Boyer and Fleisher hid away near the hemlock. They waited, breathlessly. The birds sang, and they waited. It got light, and lighter; they waited some more, and still there was no gobbling. Finally they gave up, and Boyer moved up the ridge, stopping under trees to yelp and gobble. He had hiked for more than three miles—at one point he heard a distant shot—when he stopped to call again. It was a desperate act of faith now. He had heard no gobbling all morning, and he was yelping for nearly an hour when suddenly he leveled his shotgun. A big gobbler was moving silently toward him, and now it stood 20 yards away behind an oak tree. It was moving into the clear, but then without warning it flew off through the trees. Something had scared it.

The distant shot Boyer had heard was Fleisher's. He had been hiding in a thicket, calling patiently, and suddenly there was a gobbler only 20 feet away. Fleisher raised his double-barreled shotgun, aimed for the turkey's head and hit him, he thought, in the chest, a shot that should have produced fricassee. Fleisher bolted from the brush. There were feathers everywhere, and blood, but no turkey. Fleisher searched for it for more than three hours, but to no avail. He named it The Phantom Gobbler of Callahan's Ridge.

It was that kind of hunt; the wild turkey is that kind of bird. But Boyer's, Fleisher's and Brady's disappointment was short-lived. They were all thrilled just knowing there were wild turkeys to hunt; they knew that once not long ago their bird was headed for extinction.

Heavy hunting was the villain, that and the woodsman's ax. True wild-turkey habitat—mature forests for roosting and for the turkey diet of fruits, nuts and buds—was disappearing. A few turkeys did survive in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the swamps of the Deep South, but they were too far apart to repopulate the species. Nature, though, was on a course of recovery. Farms were being abandoned. Their fields reverted to brush, then to early-growth forest and more and more in recent years to mature forest again.

Meanwhile, stockings with domestic turkeys were failing. Hybrids, from the interbreeding of wild and domestic stocks, did only slightly better. Wild birds from game farms were not wild enough, and live trapping of truly wild birds proved nearly impossible because they were just too wild and too smart. But then wildlife experts tried the mortar-thrown net, a device originally designed to capture waterfowl, and the most successful wildlife restoration project in recent history was under way.

Now 37 states have turkey-hunting seasons—some that never had turkeys before—and only four states have no turkeys at all. But increased populations do not mean that turkeys have become easier prey for hunters. Not wild turkeys, at least. As Harry Boyer said last week, happy once more, "If I live to be 90, I may turn out to be a good turkey hunter. But it's a challenge just to try to call him in, to be on the same terms with the smartest game bird there is."