Waiting in the predawn mist where the green wheat field joined the still-gray forest, I watched the trees take shape in the nascent morning light and listened. The tom's call broke the morning silence like a stone shattering glass.
Gobble! Obble! Obble!
Approaching as close as I dared, I found a broad-girthed oak and settled back against it. As the light grew brighter I made a soft tree yelp. The turkey's response thundered through the woods. Waiting until he had called several times more, I clucked twice and the bird answered immediately.
When the tom flew down he quickly cut the distance between us in half. Another cluck drew a loud response as the bird stepped into view, half puffed-out in strut. Picking his way through the underbrush, the gobbler looked awesome as his beard swayed long and heavy across his chest.
As he dropped out of strut the sight covered his neck and I squeezed. The big tom fell cleanly and I walked quickly towards him -- a heavy bird with an 11-inch beard. It was 6:30 a.m. The season was 15 minutes old.
That hunt epitomized many of the advantages of early season. Toms are gobbling hard and fired up with the urge to breed. Peak numbers of birds are available -- turkeys that have not been disturbed by hunting pressure. And gobbles can be heard long distances because foliage is sparse.
This year's season opens April 12 and extends through May 17. The key to enjoying the best early hunting when you head out is to pattern birds beforehand, if possible.
If you do enough work before the season, success can come quickly. But you need to do more than just listen for gobbles. Just like with deer, the aim should be not just to locate the quarry, but to pattern it. Try to get an idea of where birds like to roost, water, strut, feed and loaf.
Do this in several hunting areas. This way if one tom is not gobbling or another hunter is parked nearby, you can move quickly to other birds.
Travel back roads on foot, in a truck or even use a bicycle or horse. You want to cover ground and pinpoint as many toms as possible, writing in a notebook or recording on a GPS unit where they're at. Sometimes the turkeys will gobble on their own. Other times you may have to prod them into sounding off with owl, crow, woodpecker or hawk calls. Use hen calls sparingly to avoid educating the birds.
Don't leave as soon as you hear a gobbler. Listen as it comes off the roost and see which direction it goes. Does the tom work down a knoll, up a hill, towards a field, to a creek to get water? No, turkeys won't do the exact same thing every day, but there will be general patterns they follow more often than not.
Avoid spooking the birds. You may need to note where a gobbler sounded off in the morning, then come in a few hours later when it's left the area to see exactly where it roosted and note from the sign such as tracks, scratchings, droppings and wing tip drag marks where it fed and strutted and the direction it went. This will give you crucial information on where the best places are to call from once the season opens.
Study the terrain to see how the natural features of the landscape will dictate where you should and shouldn't set up and call from. Gobblers won't want to come down into a steep ravine, cross a creek or go through dense cover. Look for spots a bird would prefer to travel -- up or down a gradual slope, across a saddle, towards a clearing for strutting or a field to feed, along an old logging road.
The better you can pinpoint your quarry's location and patterns of movement before the season, the better your chances of scoring quickly while the toms are fired up and unpressured. Knowing where a bird is roosting may let you move in under cover of darkness and set up as close as 70 or 80 yards away. A few tree yelps and clucks is often all you need to bring such gobblers into shooting range.
If you don't have a bird pinpointed precisely and have to move in after daybreak, don't try to get too close. That's one of the few negatives of early-season hunting -- the lack of foliage makes it easy for birds to spot you from a long distance. In the stark, leafless woods it's often necessary to stay 150, even 200 yards away.
But toms are usually so fired up in the early season you don't have to get close. If they like what you're saying, they'll cover a couple hundred yards in no time flat.
Quick Fact: The average life expectancy of a turkey is 18 months.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.