A few years back I took Bill and Dick Kimbrough, two dedicated bird hunters from Houston, out after mountain quail in the Cascade Mountains near my home in southern Oregon. To their great satisfaction, they bagged the two birds they needed to complete their collection of mounted pairs of every species of quail in North America. The brothers were eager to return the favor.
"You damn sure have to come down to hunt spring turkeys with us," Dick told me before they headed home. "It's some-thin'! We're talkin' the absolute best!"
"It's the greatest bird hunting there is," Bill said. "We'll get you down there someday for sure."
And this year they finally did.
I arrived at Houston Intercontinental Airport late on the night of April 11, two days before the opening of the spring turkey season. The next morning the Kimbrough brothers and I flew to Dallas, and from there on to the West Texas town of San Angelo, where we were met by Donny Hughes and Tip Hargrove, local ranchers and fellow turkey hunters. By noon we were bouncing along the roads of Donny's ranch, 20 miles west of town, heading toward the Middle Concho River.
The spring countryside was lovely: lush prairie grass dotted with wildflowers, live oak and pecan trees dark against a clear spring sky, mesquite and pale-green prickly pears growing everywhere.
Bill and I rode in the bed of the truck, along with an ice chest of Lone Star beer. Bill talked about hunting. "One thing that can royally screw up a turkey hunt is wind," he said. "Two years ago it was blowin' so damn hard you could hardly stand up. We never saw a bird. Tomorrow'll be a great opening day. We're talkin' perfect weather this year. Here, Baughman, hold my beer. Listen to this." He took a small, horseshoe-shaped piece of blue rubber out of his shirt pocket and slid it into his mouth, the open end of the shoe forward. He dropped his lower jaw and raised his head and began making noises that to my untrained ear sounded like the barking of a baby seal.
"That's your basic hen yelp," he explained. "That's what a female turkey ready to mate sounds like. I've got box calls, slate calls and shaker calls, and this is a diaphragm call. The diaphragm's the hardest to use—you have to have excellent breath control to get the right sound out of it—but I like it best because it leaves your hands free for the gun." Bill took his beer back. "Today we'll figure out where the males are roostin', and tomorrow morning we'll hide and call them in after first light. On a quiet morning you can hear a gobbler coming from a mile away! That is exciting! When they get close—if they get close—the main thing is to stay perfectly still. Their eyes are supposed to be 10 times stronger than ours, and I believe they can see a man blink from 50 yards away. And if they do see it, they're gone."
Bill finished his beer, dropped the can to the bed of the truck and reached for another. "They open spring hunting toward the end of mating season, so when you kill a few gobblers it won't affect the population. Most all the hens have already been bred—but the gobblers'll still come in if the call's done right. Not many hunters do it right, though; through a whole season only 10 to 20 percent get a turkey. Turkeys are the most elusive birds alive. But we'll do O.K. I've been practicing! Dick, too!" He took a swallow of beer and smiled. "Wait'll you see one come in with those wings spread wide and dragging on the ground and the tail fanned out all the way and that long neck stretched ahead and those beady eyes lookin' around! We're talkin' full strut! When you see that, you might just get buck fever. Or turkey fever, in this case, I guess. It happens sometimes."
A few minutes later the truck braked to a sudden stop.
"Turkeys!" Bill said, pointing.
Dick handed a pair of binoculars back through the window, and I stood to look. About 150 yards away, four huge birds were walking in and out of patches of brush and mesquite.
"It's a boss gobbler and three apprentice gobblers," Bill said. "See those pecan trees down there along the river? That's likely where they'll roost tonight. You can see why you have to get them in the head. The feathers are so thick they blunt the impact. If you only wound one, he'll be gone quick as a shot. And you have to get them in to 40 yards."
We spent most of the afternoon scouting out possible roosting areas by analyzing the freshness of turkey droppings. Though we found plenty of sign, none appeared to have been produced within 24 hours. We did spot five more birds grazing along through the brush. Everyone agreed that there were a lot of turkeys in the area this year and that hunting conditions were ideal. When we finished scouting we drove back to Donny's ranch and made plans for the morning.
"All together there'll be eight of us hunting," Donny said, "and I predict we'll get four birds. At least four."
"I'll take Baughman with me," Dick said, "I'll call in that first big gobbler we saw. What about you, Bill?"
"If it's O.K., I want that hillside by the water tower."
"Plenty of room for everybody," Tip said. "Plenty of birds."
Later, eight men and three wives sat down to a dinner of steaks broiled over mesquite and weighing about two pounds each. Soon beer gave way to whiskey, and the talk grew quite rough, but the women held their own—easily.
The beer was strong enough for me, and I drank it slowly. I'm not a great shot, and I didn't want to get up at 4 a.m. with a headache. I figured I would be lucky to get a single shot at a turkey, and I certainly didn't want to mess it up.
Toward the end of the meal the talk turned to Yankees. I asked whether I was one, by Texas standards. "Nope," Bill assured me. "A Yankee comes from east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. New Jersey makes you a damn Yankee. And anybody from New York, why he's a goddam Yankee."
I was glad I hadn't mentioned I was born in Buffalo.
Dressed in camouflage from head to foot, including gloves, and with camouflage makeup smeared on our faces, Dick and I were out long before first light, sneaking among the mesquite and prickly pears where we had seen the gobbler with his three apprentices. The bright quarter moon gave little light, and I kept stumbling over roots and stones and stepping on sticks that snapped under my boots.
Dick had his favorite box call with him, and I had a 12-gauge pump-action gun with a magnum six shell in the chamber and two magnum fours in reserve. The plan was for Dick to conceal himself a short distance behind me and call a bird into range.
As soon as it was light enough to see the outlines of the trees against the sky, we hid behind patches of brush about a quarter of a mile back from the river. When we were settled, Dick yelped softly with the call. Nothing answered. After a couple of minutes he tried again, and again there was no response. We stayed there for half an hour, with Dick calling every few minutes, but we never heard a turkey.
Finally, Dick walked up behind me. "Well," he said. "We're screwed. Semi-screwed anyway. Nothing roosted down there last night. Now we'll hike around and try to find one."
We walked about three miles, and every few minutes Dick coaxed five or six seductive yelps from the box call. Finally, around eight o'clock, a gobbler answered from a long way off.
"Hear it?" Dick asked, grabbing my arm and squeezing hard. "You hear that? Let's go!"
He led the way toward a thick stand of mesquite, stopping after a couple of hundred yards to work the call again. This time the answer was easier to hear.
We veered slightly left and went another 200 yards. Out of heavy cover now, we stopped to listen. Another gobble came, and it was much closer.
"This is it!" Dick whispered. "Down! You get over there!" He pointed. "Remember," he hissed, "stay still!"
I lay on my stomach in foot-high grass behind the trunk of a mesquite no bigger around than my arm, and Dick hid himself behind a patch of brush slightly behind me and 10 yards to my left.
The most agonizingly suspenseful half hour of my bird-hunting life followed. Dick lured the turkey in, answering every gobble with a series of six or seven yelps. It approached us very slowly, back and forth. I would hear it off to my right, then to my left, then directly in front of me again. I kept shifting the gun so as to have it pointing in the right direction if the bird came into range.
As I lay there, pressed flat against the fragrant grass, I could see only the nearby wildflowers, a few mesquite trees and a line of brush about 30 yards out. Two feet from my head, off to my right, there was a dead branch on the ground. When a pair of tanagers swooped in and landed on it, I was so startled I almost jumped. The scarlet male and yellow-green female sat so close I could have touched them. They stayed for several seconds, then flew off without seeing me. Obviously, I was well concealed.
Just then a gobble came from dead ahead, so close now that it seemed to shake the ground beneath me. Dick answered with his call, and now I saw the bird through some sparse brush, 60 yards out and coming straight toward us. My heart began to pound. When I eased the safety off, my hands were trembling.
The gobbler was in full strut, his wings spread wide and dragging along the ground, his tail fanned out and showing brown, black and brilliant orange in a shaft of sunlight, his head as white as polished ivory. Veering right, he disappeared behind the line of brush, but he was still moving toward us. If he kept coming in this direction at the same speed, he would emerge from the brush in perfect range in 25 or 30 seconds. The next gobble that came from behind the brush really shook the ground. Dick answered with three very soft yelps.
I leveled the gun barrel, lining up the sights where I thought the turkey would appear. The grass was moving in a slight breeze, which would help conceal any movement I might have to make to adjust the gun. I breathed deeply. My hands weren't shaking now.
Finally the white head appeared, exactly where I thought it would. I took another deep breath, let it out slowly, aimed carefully, then squeezed. Thirty seconds later we were standing over the loveliest bird I have ever seen anywhere.
"We're talkin' classic!" Dick said, pounding me on the back. "We called him in from half a mile, and we put the perfect shot on him! He dropped and never moved, and it's a damn fine bird!"
I stood and stared. He lay on the green grass in the sunlight, his body feathers changing from dark green to gold to blue as they riffled in the gentle breeze. The tips of his barred wing feathers were worn ragged from all the strutting he had done. I knelt and ran my fingertips along the silky feathers.
The turkey weighed 20 pounds, and he had 1-inch spurs and a 9-inch beard. Those are the three factors turkey hunters use to rate their birds, and mine was indeed a good one.
The same morning, Bill killed a gobbler by the water tower, and another member of our group also got a bird. The rest of the day was spent plucking the turkeys and savoring cold beer, thick steaks and conversation that grew wilder and wilder.
The next day it was back to Houston for us. As we lifted off the San Angelo runway that evening, Dick asked me where I rated turkeys in relation to other birds. I have hunted pheasant, quail, grouse, partridge, doves, pigeons, ducks and geese, but I didn't have to hesitate.
"They're the biggest, the prettiest and the most exciting," I said. "You guys are right. They're just plain the best."