Driving in the dark two hours before the sun is scheduled to rise, my new friend Dan Hartman and I are playing "Old Mcdonald Had A Farm" for grown-ups. On our way to Dan's hunting grounds in Chesterfield County, SC, he clucks, coos, crows and gobbles, teaching me the different hunting calls and techniques.
Quacking, he's a duck. One that spots food, not one that's giving a shout-out to his brothers. The quick succession of quacks sounds like a chuckle as opposed to the prolonged quack you're used to hearing in the park. There are calls for buck hunting, but the most common hunting method is to pick them off silently from a perch 20 feet off the ground. With rabbit hunting, beagles do the dirty work, chasing the bunnies into the shooter's range. Manipulating a remote control fur ball is the method of choice for coyote hunting.
But we're smack dab in the middle of the short turkey-hunting season in the Carolinas (April 8 -- May 6), which coincides with breeding season. "I'll tell you what I like about turkey hunting -- the tables are turned," says Dan. "The turkeys are actually hunting you."
I'm frightened, imagining some bad-ass machete-toting killer turkeys, until he clarifies that the turkeys are coming after the fake hen that we are going to pretend to be.
It's so early when we arrive at the hunting ground that I learned horses sleep lying down. Dan gives me my all-camouflage uniform: one-piece coveralls, hard mesh gloves, a hard mesh face mask with holes for my eyes and nose, and a baseball cap. I would say it feels like I'm going to war, but I've never done that.
Dan learned to hunt at the age of 12, growing up outside Pittsburgh. It was a rite of passage, he says -- one he's passing along to his 10-year-old son using the same 12-gauge rifle Dan trained on as a kid. (In North Carolina there is no minimum age requirement to get a hunting license. All it takes is passing a 12-hour safety course. Dan's heard of some 7-year-olds passing it.)
Any licensed hunter can hunt for gobblers on public grounds like the Uwharrie National Forest near Albemarle, but with all the camouflage and the hiding it's the most dangerous type of hunting.
Running his own hunting group, Central Carolina Outdoor Club, is Dan's primary source of income. He's all about the outdoors. He subscribes to 10 wildlife/hunting periodicals, including NC Wildlife, Progressive Farmer (which teaches him techniques to provide food for the animals on his property), a magazine on bow hunting, two on waterfowl and the NRA's American Hunter.
As we walk down the sandy road, the moon is full and orange. It dips below the horizon before our first clucking call, and the sky turns a predawn blue. Surrounded by a multi-species chorus of singing birds, Dan points out a quail that makes a two-note, "joe white" whistle. (A few months ago, he bought 100 quail at $3 a bird and hopes to build a quail community on the land.) I try to imitate Dan's quiet walk, placing my heel down gently and letting the rest of my foot fall delicately in front of it like a feather easing to a soft landing. But I can tell Dan thinks I have the gait of a rhino -- and a really fat one at that. Not even taking into consideration my fat rhino walk, crunching the dead leaves is unavoidable, like "walking on potato chips," he tells me.
Next time you want to cast a pejorative by calling someone a turkey, you best specify the inbred farm-raised variety, otherwise you might be pitching a compliment. Wild turkeys are quite astute. Their eyes are 10 times sharper than humans'. They can pin you to the exact tree you are leaning against from up to 200 yards away. They're also proficient in trigonometry.
Dan places a rubber decoy hen into the ground. Being the hunter assistant, I volunteered to name the decoy. Picking up on a reincarnated Victorian-era strumpet aura, I decided to name the hen Missy Biggingsham. With her tail feathers plastered in place, Missy's quite the prize -- the turkey equivalent of a blow-up doll.
Dan has five ways to speak to the turkey. Two are locator calls to imitate an owl and a crow. This time of year, hormones in a tizzy, the turkeys will respond to almost any noise, maybe even my Southern drawl death threats: "Gonna shoot me a bir-die!"
With his three other tools, Dan reels the horny dudes in. The diaphragm call, which Dan uses the most often, is made by blowing air over a latex mouth insert. But the "err" noises emitted from Dan's mouth sound like he's speaking seal.
Two gobblers call back to Missy Biggingsham. We take quick cover behind a tree. For awhile, it seems like the turkeys want Missy to come over to their place. They don't get any closer. But Missy has all the leverage and she knows it. She's been playing the game too long. The birds make an appearance. Dan perks up, clicks the safety off his 20-gauge and raises it in anticipation. His breathing intensifies, becoming shorter, quicker and louder -- frighteningly like a wild predator. Later, he confirmed to me those moments when the turkeys were in sight were indeed tense for him. "That's what it's all about."
From a distance, the birds have blobby black bodies and white heads. Up close, Dan says, their feathers are iridescent. Only bearded birds are legal to take. All males have bristly beard feathers jutting out horizontally from their upper breasts, as do about 10 percent of the females. The bearded females are like "the girl when you're drunk at the bar. At 2am," says Dan.
Butterball time. Tragic really -- they're coming for some lovin' and if Dan pops one square-on, the little gobbler is liable to loose his noggin. The turkey is about 25 yards away as he does his sexual strut along a sandy path, nearing Missy B. A few more steps and he'll be out of the obstructing brush, in line for an easy shot. But three turkey steps away, he freaks out. Call it a preternatural sense of its impending doom. Had we picked off the turkey, we would have gutted him in the forest, which would have made for some fun, gooey descriptive writing.
Luckily, there were seven McDonald's between McBee and Charlotte for us to catch a loser's meal of processed rat meat.