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How to talk (like a) turkey

Things every Texan should do before he dies.

Mike Leggett
Wild turkey hens, the ones not strutting, are smaller and have much less vibrant colors than Rio Grande males. A spring turkey hunt is something Mike Leggett thinks every Texan should try.

I'm wet to my knees and the dew is dripping inside my boot tops. My wool socks have gone floppy and soggy, and feel like pudding between my wrinkled toes.

A single, long prickly pear thorn - rammed in my calf when I bumped against a knot of pear in the dark - pokes in and out of my mesh pants as I walk, and I've developed a hushed mantra of "ow, dang, ow, dang," with each step. I'd have to pull down my pants to get it out and there just isn't time right now.

Turkey season is slipping away.

I've been slowly circling this remote, windswept hillside for more than an hour now, trying to pinpoint the source of ghostly, distant, morning gobbles that are like lost locomotive whistles in that Hank Williams song where he's so lonesome he could cry.

I'm in ranching country about 45 minutes southwest of Fort Worth, hovering over a dribble of water called Pony Creek. They're down there along the creek, but well to the west of this property I'm hunting on.

I trot back to the truck and move more than a mile to a new location.

Standing with one squishy foot on the ground and the other still inside the open truck door, I hold my sweat-stained old Haydel box call up in the air and blow out my best series of sweet hen yelps.

"I'm here. I'm lonely," I'm saying. And saying it very nicely, I might add. At least one gobbler thinks so, because he answers quickly.

My hopes soar.

On most turkey hunts, you hear the turkey long before you see him. You sneak around and yelp until he answers. Sneak, yelp, answer. Then, all of a sudden, you're staring down a vent-rib barrel at the blue-white head and scarlet wattles as he struts and drums.

He gobbles back at me now. He's just north of me. I'm pulling on my camouflage duds and sliding a 3-inch Hevi-Shot load down the gullet of my Beretta, when he gobbles again. He's much closer now.

I billy goat up the hill, moving to the east away from the pickup, which would spook him. I need to make high ground to be able to see below as he moves my way. I stop to catch my breath, look down and see him. He's walking and gobbling, looking for his brunch rendezvous and for any other gobblers that might try to horn in.

I hide in the shade of a small tree and wait. I figure he's already come 500 yards in pursuit of a lady friend, and now he's right below me, drumming and strutting, working his way up the hill.

I can feel the hair stand on the back of my neck.

There are many things you can do outdoors and many ways to hunt. Under both categories, this is one of my favorites, and it is No. 5 on my list of things that every Texan should do before they die.

Hunting wild turkeys in the spring, with either gun or bow, is one of life's great pleasures. It's up close and personal, fully interactive in a way no other hunting is. Calling and answering the way early Aztecs and Hopis did it, using calls made from a turkey's wing bones. Working the hills and gullies. Ignoring chiggers, mosquitoes and the occasional diamondback to get within 30 yards of a wild turkey.

Almost in shotgun range now.

Most people hunt turkeys on their deer lease or family land, especially in the Hill Country and South Texas. If you pay for a turkey hunt a la carte it's going to cost close to $1,000. Add the price of shells, food, travel, clothes and a shotgun and you're looking at maybe $300 a pound, if you kill one.

I notice my hands are shaking, the adrenaline shuffle.

Turkey hunting in the spring should be easy. A gobbler's brain is the size of a pea, his ego is the size of Texas and his sex drive is turbo-charged. And yet he is thoroughly unpredictable.

This is a bird that can fly more than 50 miles per hour, run faster than a human being and see things we can't see. And yet a barbed wire fence might stop him or a bee might spook him.

I ease down beneath my tree. My turkey just below me, just down the curve of the hill, drumming so loudly I can hear the low humming from deep inside his body and the "fffffttttt" sound of shifting feathers as he struts.

I have the safety off and the shotgun on my knee. I'll swing slightly to adjust my aim when his head appears from below and then touch it off. I've already switched from the box call to a mouth call, to keep my hands free, and one last tiny yelp elicits a monster gobble from the turkey.

And then, "Bam."

Followed by "bam bam bam bam bam bam ..." about 40 times.

These are not my shots. They're not even where I am. They're way down the road at a law enforcement shooting range. I had seen a couple of DPS cruisers snake down the country lane earlier in the morning. Now they are practicing rapid-fire pistol shooting and the sound is ricochetting through the hills.

It's quiet again. Really quiet. My turkey is gone. Probably back over at Pony Creek by this time.

I imagine him standing there in the shade of a tree, looking around, wondering what all that noise was and wondering just what happened to that beautiful-sounding hen he had been dancing for.

And me? I'm slogging my way back to the truck. Clearly I will not kill a turkey this year.

But I've got the memory.