I'll preface by saying this---I'm a very novice turkey hunter. I've only been a handful of times. Never shot at a bird, never seen a gobbler . . . and to be honest, never even heard a gobble while out turkey hunting, though I've heard them when other outdoor pursuits have called me into the woods or the swamp or onto the river.
I met up with my cousin, Jay, for opening weekend of turkey season. The other side of his family owns some land near Laurel Hill. The land is largely used for timber. Lines of pines in neat rows, so open in the understory that you could drive a truck though, with a bed of pine straw covering the sandy ground. There's almost no underbrush, aside from the stray hardwood, and the stray dogwood, blooming now with their white petals. It's cleared from regular prescribed burns and raking, I learned, so some money can be made off the straw while the trees grow.
They don't call it "the sand hills" for nothing, I saw. It's sandy, as the name clearly suggests. And being used to living at the coast, I was somehow surprised about the ups and downs, the elevation to a sandy ridge and the drops into a branch that drains into the creek or the pond, despite the region's name obviously informing me that there might be some hills involved. I've just gotten used to that flat coastal landscape, I guess, and I didn't realize I'd gone far enough west for some variation in topography.
It felt good to camp. I'd missed it. It feels great to disconnect, though I still had my phone. And it feels good to be, at least somewhat, off the grid a little bit more, a little bit closer to maybe how we were supposed to live, how our ancestors lived. At the same time, though, it's pretty darn nice to "truck camp," with everything you could need parked right beside you. And no hauling of all that on your back.
Just put it in park and set up camp. Set up the tent. Open up the cooler full of food and ice and beer. All that you didn't have to carry. Build a quick fire, drink a cold beer, eat some gas station fried chicken. Drink a few more beers. Reminisce on good times had---trout fishing out west, fishing on the coast, empty-handed duck hunts. Hit the sack, and sleep like a king on the camping cot in the roomy six-man tent.
Wake up cold. Very cold, maybe upper 30's. Layer up. Put on your camo. A ghillie suit or leafy wear, or you dad's old Army pants and a mismatched "duck blind" camo sweatshirt. Walk past the pond, cut into the woods, towards where it starts to drop down towards the creek. Set up down a-ways, in a logging road, not well maintained, still in the pre-dawn before shooting time, but it's getting lighter. Then, gobble. A minute or two later, another one. What a sound.
In hindsight we maybe should've tried to close the gap on the bird soon after we heard him. We're just getting into hunting these big birds, that creep and hop and scratch their way though the woods, almost like some relic from the dinosaur age. We could tell the bird wasn't right on top of us, but we didn't know if we were better off to stay put and hope he'd move our way. The gobbles got more spread out, and fewer, and fainter. Maybe he was across the property line, across the road. Maybe he wasn't. Your ears start to play tricks on you out there in the woods, especially when you've gotten complacent with the "72 and fluorescent" of our daily lives.
We eventually did move, trying to walk quietly through the pines, calling every few minutes. Maybe another gobble, but very faint. So we gave up, headed the other direction, towards a rolling hill power line and gas pipeline easement, where a grandson of another guy who hunts the land bagged a gobbler on youth day. We walked and called on our way there, snuck out, peered through the binoculars. Nothing out in the open. So we walked back to camp.
Fire up the camping stove. Toss some bacon in the pan. Crack some eggs. Throw some ham and cheese in, too. Percolate some coffee. Good stuff.
Head back out there for the afternoon. Set up along another easement, atop a sandy ridge of tall grass, decoys out, a hen and a jake, in hopes a gobbler would spot them from afar. Nothing. Game time decision to move, to where we know they've been moving before, where the young kid shot one. A different easement. Pack it up. Hop in the truck. Set up again, backs against a pine, the wind's blowing. Your shotgun forearm resting on your left knee, butt of the gun on your right shoulder, to minimize movement if one walks out. An ant crawls across your boot. You feel something in your pants, in your shirt. You scratch at it, and it stops, whatever it is.
You wait, scan your field of vision, eyeing everything, picking up the binoculars every once and awhile. You listen, straining your shotgun-damaged ears in every direction for something turkey-like, a cluck, a scratch, wings through the brush, even, perhaps, a gobble. Nothing.
We walked back to camp. Lit some charcoal, ate some store-prepared kabobs as an unexpected shower lightly misted down. It stopped, and thankfully the firewood was plenty dry, and went up with the help of some lighter fluid.
Wake up shivering, again. Don't want to get out of the sleeping bag. You've got to hit the head, so you don't have a choice anyway. Mid thirties, again, so much for a mild April-weather turkey and bass trip. Damn glad you didn't bring the dog. Only cotton socks. Cold. Layer up, again. Throw on the camo, again. Walk down the sand road, further down, closer toward where you heard the gobbles the morning before. It's almost to shooting time. Call. Close to the road, the property line, the gate, nothing yet, so cut into the woods, towards the creek. A minute or so further in. Call. No gobbles. A minute further. Nothing.
Set up in a clearing in the trees. Nothing. Move more, toward where you set up the day prior. Call some more. Reach another clearing, with a slight view of the near-dry creek and a drainage into it. Set up. Then, a gobble. Back towards where you set up the day before. Call again. A response? Another call, another gobble. Closer? Then nothing. Nothing in a few minutes. Nothing a few minutes after that.
So move, walk a bit. Call. Walk a bit. Call. Work down the logging road you've reached. Call. Nothing. So back to camp it is.
No birds, despite hopes being high. They'd been on the game cameras, but the kid had shot one the week before. I hadn't heard a gobble as close as that first morning, or the second morning after we set up at the second spot. It gets your blood going. The sound that shakes the woods awake. The sound of spring as they say. Maybe next time, or next time after that, they'll work with us.