A turkey hunter makes his way through a cornfield in Mariaville, about 20 minutes north of Ellsworth. Staff file photo

Opening day is like Christmas morning in spring for turkey hunters young and old. The preparations – shopping for trinkets and clothes, wrapping yourself in camo, filling your stockings and donning your boots – are done. The waiting is over and daybreak will soon bring you the present.

Just being out there in the spring woods is a gift. The air is moist from rising dew and fills your nostrils with the scent of muddy soil and rotting hay. The sky is a dark matrix dotted with myriad tiny, twinkling stars, already fading out from the pink hue in the east. Robins sing their cheery-up, cheery-oh song and the deep bass of a barred owl booms in the distance, followed by a chorus of gobbles from a nearby roost. The game is close at hand.

You knew the birds were there, at least they should be, because you scouted. You watched from a distance through binoculars as they filed into the field, first the hens, pausing at the woodline then charging out into the middle where they stopped and began picking at seeds and insects. Then came the toms, two young males slightly balled up but not wanting to challenge the big boss tom pulling up the rear in full strut. You hoped they would do the same come opening day.

Light comes slowly and the woods are now filled with a crescendo of songbirds and spring peepers, urgently trilling out their mating calls before retiring for the day. A hen yelps loudly from the treetops, eliciting a volley of gobbles from her nearby suitors and quickening your pulse. They’re there, but will they come your way, or will your calling persuade the hen to lead them in the opposite direction? You never know, but risk a few soft yelps all the same and receive another round of gobbles in reply. Now they know where you are.

A hunter dressed in camouflage gear sets his sights. In his lap are turkey calls. Staff file photo

The birds seem to take forever leaving their nocturnal perches, which they often do when heavy morning fog obscures their keen vision, making it more difficult to spot potential predators. Finally you hear the first bird launch with the snapping of twigs, the flapping of heavy wings and a fly-down cackle that prompts yet another series of gobbles, this one more extended. Then more flapping, and a gobble from the ground. So far, so good.

Gradually the flock coalesces in the field, hens with heads down, feeding; two toms flanking the flock, nervously anticipating a chance to cut one of the girls from the group, and the boss gobbler dragging his wings on the ground, neck tucked into his chest and tail fanned out for all to see. The lingering is too much so you call again, hoping to coax them closer. Then you anxiously assess their reaction.

One hen, perhaps the eldest, pops up her periscope neck and stares your way. The toms gobble, but all hold their ground. You wait, and when the hen resumes feeding you venture yet another volley of calls. The hen looks your way again, then away as if wondering which way to proceed. Then she turns, away, and the group follows, up the middle of the field and toward the far woodline.

It seems the plan is a bust, but hope springs eternal in the turkey woods. The big tom follows his harem but the other two males hesitate. They’ll have no chance to breed these hens as long as he’s around, but the two faux hens on the far side of the field, your decoys, present a potential opportunity. One turns your way, followed by the other and soon it becomes a foot race between the two. They may not be the long-bearded, sharp-spurred trophy you’d hoped for but the proverbial bird in the hand is hard to pass up.

The birds stop at 60 yards, nervous, alert. Your heart is pounding and you try desperately to squeak out a few soft purrs on your diaphragm call but your mouth is dry and it comes out as a lisp. Gun up on your knee, cheek on the stock you wait, hoping the birds won’t spot the subtle movement of your finger flicking off the safety. “Come on, come on,” you whisper, as much to yourself as the birds. Their heads turn indecisively back and forth from the decoy to each other until one finally musters the courage to manage a half-strut posture and move closer. Your sight finds his head and you slowly exert pressure on the trigger. Game over.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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