John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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In anticipation of tomorrow’s gobbler-season opener, here’s this week’s column:
It’s dark, and you’re breathing hard. The climb to your favorite turkey-hunting spot seemed a little steeper than you remembered. You sit at the base of a large oak and try to catch your breath.
The woods are quiet. The gray half-light of dawn won’t appear a while yet, so you use the time to put out a decoy, load your shotgun, don your head net and gloves, set a box call on your thigh and pop a diaphragm call into your mouth.
A loud blowing sound shatters the silence. You startle, and then smile, realizing that a deer caught your scent and snorted. The deer’s hoofbeats recede, and silence reclaims the hilltop.
The silhouettes of surrounding trees take form as the sky brightens from inky black to dove gray. Your ears perk up as you listen for …
There! From an adjoining ridge, a turkey greets the dawn with a throaty gobble. To your right, no more than 100 yards away, a long-tongued longbeard thunders its response.
Cautiously, you slip a slate call from your vest. You touch the wooden striker to the slate and scratch out a soft yelp.
The gobbler to your right booms an answer. You want to call again, but experience has shown you’d better play hard-to-get. The gobbler rattles the treetops again. You stay quiet.
Wingbeats! He must have flown down. You know that if you play your cards right, he’ll come looking for that hen he thought he heard. Nervously, you face his direction. You shoulder the shotgun and rest its barrel on your right knee.
Your ears reach out for any telltale sound, any sign at all that the gobbler might be headed your way. An ovenbird’s song — teacher, teacher, teacher! — is all you hear.
Senses shift into overdrive. Your eyes sweep the ridgeline, searching for movement. Nothing.
You yelp again. Six notes this time, and a little louder. No response. Your brow wrinkles. Could that old bird have found a hen already?
Somewhere over your right shoulder, you hear the geese. It’s a flock of Canadas, headed for a nearby lake. You listen as the ha-ronks build to a crescendo, and, after the big black-necked birds pass overhead, you watch the chevron until it fades into the distance.
“Funny,” you think. “All that noise should have caused a gobble or two. Wonder why it didn’t? Is that gobbler gone, or has he just gone silent?”
Serendipity. A woodpecker hammers away at a tree down the hill, and the gobbler breaks his silence. He sounds closer – maybe just over the brow of the ridge – so you firm up your grip on the gunstock.
As quietly as you can, you cluck. Once. Twice. Pause. Thrice.
He gobbles! Seconds later, you hear a spitting sound, followed by a low, resonant boom more easily felt than heard. He’s strutting! Somewhere over the hill, he’s strutting!
Another cluck. This time, silence.
There! A speck of red appears from behind a tree, barely 30 yards away. Heart pounding, you thumb the shotgun’s safety.
Dawn’s curtain has lifted. Opening morning’s overture has played. It’s show time …