An early search for turkeys shows how smart the old bird can be


CALVERT CLIFFS STATE PARK -- From the top of the hill, th field of fire extended from the northeast around to the south, downhill for 50 yards before the brush was broken only by game trails. From the northeast, counterclockwise to the south, the undergrowth up the back of the hill was thick, virtually impassable -- even if a turkey had the inclination to try to trot through.

This hilltop, a hundred yards or so from an old logging road, would do just fine, Larry Lease said, if we had been shotgunning for spring gobblers.

Instead, we were hunting for sign that the wild birds were in the area. In past springs, Lease successfully has hunted turkey on these 600 acres of park land, among the oak, holly and tall pine.

Admittedly, we were scouting early in the season. Given even the mild winter, the mating had not begun, and would not begin in earnest for about two weeks.

But Lease, a large fellow whom friends call "Wall," had been persuaded to take an acquaintance on reconnaissance. It was not so much of an imposition; Wall likes being in the woods, likes hunting with rifle, shotgun and bow.

Had it been two weeks later, it still would not have been a perfect day for scouting. There was, perhaps, too much breeze and too much sunlight.

Turkeys move about less when the wind moves through the forest and the noise can cover the sounds made by hunters, animal or human. On misty, overcast days, the birds are more prone to be on the move.

Still, our environs were promising for late winter, when turkeys feed heavily to store fat for the mating season, when they feed very little.

A quarter mile to the west, wildflowers in a series of clearcuts were beginning to bloom, and shoots were plentiful along the edges of the wood.

Small streams emptied slowly down the draws toward Grove and Grays creeks and on toward the Chesapeake.

In the wood, colonies of insects infested tree stumps, and there was sufficient mast on the ground. The game trails were marked regularly with deer tracks, and often when whitetail find a range suitable, turkeys also find it so.

Earlier, we had walked circuitously for a mile or so, passing through a thick stand of tall pine trees on the edge of a field above a draw. Turkeys often spend nights in such trees, because it affords them freedom of flight to and from their roosts.

Roosts, Lease said, often are easily identified by molted feathers and droppings on the ground.

"They'll be long gone by this time," said Lease, a bookbinder by trade and a hunting safety instructor with the state program. "They start moving out before first light, and won't be back to their roosts until evening."

We had arrived in midafternoon, thinking that if we couldn't call in some birds, then we could find them as they returned to their roosts. But, as many hunters who have staked out a roost can tell you, there is no guarantee that the birds will return to the same spot each evening.

looking for a couple of things to start out," Lease said. "The wood can't be too heavy with brush; turkey's a lazy bird and usually won't fight its way through. Some won't even go over a log that blocks their way; they'd rather go around or turn around.

"We're looking for basically open wood with mast on the ground, acorns and other nuts, maybe some fresh shoots beginning to show and insects. Turkeys like insects and shoots in the spring."

came across several such places, where the bramble was broken by two or more game trails intersecting a clearing canopied by bare oak branches and sided by pine.

each, there was sign -- deer droppings and tracks, droppings from rabbits, fox and squirrel and occasionally the footprint of a hiking boot -- but none of the long, straight droppings with the curve at one end that mark a gobbler or even the spiral or bulbous scat of a hen.

Occasionally, we passed burned stumps and dry, loose soil where a turkey might be tempted to dust to rid itself of ticks or parasites.

Sporadically, Lease would make the hen's sound on the diaphragm call he kept in his mouth -- "keeowk, keeowk" -- and await the response of a prematurely assertive gobbler.

Interspersed with the diaphragm call, he would use the slate box and cedar strike he also carried to make the hen's yelp.

Keeowk, keeowk," sounded through the wood, varied in cadence and volume. Still no response from an ardent gobbler. Still no sign.

From the hilltop, his back against a tree trunk, his body in shadow and his face buried in the collar of his camouflage, Lease used the diaphragm and the slate box intermittently, imitating a hen brazenly calling a mate to higher ground.

can be best to call them from uphill in the spring," Lease said. "Ridges and hilltops are where they seem to congregate, helps them escape from predators when necessary."

Somewhere, it seemed, there must have been a gobbler who would answer the call and emerge from the cover at the foot of the hill.

would come almost in silence at first, then emerge with a rustling, scratch at the mast, emit a short gobble, push its head back, puff out its breast feathers, spread its tail in a large fan -- and then strut quickly away once it learned it had been fooled.

But for all our silence and tomfoolery with slate box and diaphragm, no gobbler came strutting through the wood, the naked skin of its head pulsing deep red, neck pumping and calling grddl-gobble-obble-obble.

we made our way back toward the car, talking quietly, inspecting frog eggs that were clustered in a puddle and scanning the tops of the pines, a lone turkey lifted from a branch, dipped into a clearing and soared away. Gone.

this day, at least, we were the ones duped.

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