It sure didn’t seem like turkey season. My fingers and ears stung from temperatures that had dipped below freezing overnight, the grass and leaves crunched under my boots from an early spring frost and there were way more snowflakes than redbud blossoms. Of course springtime in the mountains of eastern West Virginia is delayed by a few weeks when compared to other areas with similar latitude due to high elevation and deep, well protected valleys.
I took a deep breath and sent a barred owl hoot into the rugged landscape in front of me. As my breath visibly hung in the air I listened to my call echo down the valley. The trees were still bare and the sound traveled an amazing distance in the leafless, frozen forest. I took another deep breath and released another hoot.
So lost was I in the intricacies of the frosty morning that the gobble caught me off guard. I knew that the response had not come from the valley in front of me, but rather from further down the ridge on which I was standing. What I wasn’t able to determine was how close I was to the bird.
I was hunting with a friend, Matt Gantt, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “You won the toss, you lead the way.”
The top of the ridge was roughly fifty yards wide and thick with Virginia pine and chestnut oak. I carefully moved toward the gobble a short distance to what was a relatively open area. I could see to the edge of the ridge on each side and thirty yards in the direction of the bird.
Matt whispered, “All I can do is get in the way now, I’ll sit back and watch the show.”
I moved ahead a few more paces, settled against the base of a pine tree, pointed the Winchester down the middle of the ridge and then sat quietly. After a few moments of deafening silence I scratched the leaves with my hand. More silence.
I gently blew air over the diaphragm and produced three soft yelps. More silence. Then I heard him; rather I heard something. It sounded almost like a truck stuck in the mud, only very far away. The sound of acceleration then release, as if someone were trying to free their vehicle in mud or snow.
The sound persisted but I began to realize there was no way there was a vehicle in the direction of the sound; at least not one that I was going to hear. Then, as turkeys do, the gobbler appeared in full strut and I realized that for the first time I’d been listening to spitting and drumming.
The gobbler stepped behind a rock outcrop, allowing me to adjust my barrel. When he reappeared on the other side he was only fifteen short paces away. The shotgun recoiled and the ordeal was over with a few ceremonial flaps.
As we walked back to the truck Matt and I stopped at a natural overlook and gazed across the rugged landscape that is the Monongahela National Forest; all one million acres of it. I was only a half mile from my truck and I’d not seen or heard another hunter, I’d harvested a bird in the first hour of the hunt and I’d heard several other gobblers as I ambled back to the trail head.
That hunt was almost fifteen years ago. Though I have changed plenty since then the Monongahela remains the same, and the birds are there waiting for me every spring.
My last trip to the Monongahela was also with Matt. We arrived in the area very late on a Thursday night and we decided to not bother the night attendant at our usual motel, to save a few bucks and just drive to a location we thought might hold birds and sleep in the truck for the few hours remaining until dawn.
We emerged from the truck stiff and chilled as the sky turned gray; anxious to see what the morning might provide. As I bent, squatted and stretched trying to loosen my kinks and warm my appendages, Matt decided to let loose a hoot. A gobbler answered immediately.
We gathered gear and scatterguns and set off toward the bird. The gobble was faint and we knew we had some distance to cover so we started at a quick pace. We were paralleling a tall, very long ridge and we would have to navigate fingers coming off the main ridge that created steep side ridges and deep rugged valleys.
As we approached the first side ridge we stopped just short of silhouetting ourselves. Matt called, this time with a series of yelps, and the bird answered immediately; much louder now. We peaked over the ridge and were greeted by an extremely steep face to the next valley. No way were we calling the bird to where we stood. We slid down the steep side then approached the next ridge. We called halfway up and got another faint response. We climbed some more then called near the top. Another response, and again louder.
We peeked over the ridge and were greeted by another steep face. This time, however, we were fairly confident he was on the next ridge. As we slid down the face grabbing rocks, tree trunks and roots to keep from tumbling to the bottom I mused over the fact that less than an hour before I was stiff and sore. At the bottom of our descent my heart beat in my throat and my muscles twitched from strain. So it goes in the blue hills of West Virginia.
After catching his breath Matt called. Another immediate response and this time it was loud even in the valley; we knew he was on the ridge above. We hiked with that awkward, careful-yet-urgent-approach that only exists with gobbling turkeys or bugling bulls. We worked our way to a location just shy of a knob on the point of a side ridge and set up.
I whispered to Matt, “All I can do is get in the way now; I’ll sit back and watch the show.” I stayed behind by forty yards or so.
He set up against a large white oak, readied his shotgun and then let the woods quiet around him. When his senses told him the time was right, he lowered his hand and scratched the leaves next to him. A booming, almost animated, gobble was returned immediately and a bird in full strut appeared at the top of the knob.
The strutted bird gobbled one after the other for several minutes; then began his way down the knob clearly frustrated that his show was not bringing hens to him. I watched in amazement as Matt let the bird come well in to range before firing and ending the hunt with one well placed shot at less than ten paces. What I couldn’t see from my vantage was that the gobbler kept a small tree between him and Matt, and that Matt had fired at his first clear shot.
As we admired the gobbler Matt asked, “You remember that hunt on the ridge a few years ago?”
I answered, “It was fifteen and yes, I remember. I was thinking of it too.”