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A Turkey Hunting Mystery

It reminded me of a scene from a "Scooby Doo" cartoon. Dark clouds rolled overhead as the Wild Turkey Van — my Mystery Machine — cut through the rain. I moved along the levee just minutes from my destination — Tara Wildlife, a great Southern hunting spot that sits on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Oxbow lakes and hardwoods cover most of the land, and the turkeys are rumored to love it.

That's why I was there: to help host a women's turkey hunt during the first days of Mississippi's spring season.

After dashing from the van to the screened porch, I lurked through the dark lodge for some sign of life. Alone, I settled in a wooden chair and listened to the atmosphere rumble, tumble and tug the pending tornados my way.

Lightening flashed curtains around the room and silhouetted a tall, shadowy figure in the doorway. Maybe it wasn't that dramatic, but Benny did scare the jeebies out of me. I was glad to have someone with whom to ride out the storm, and Benny was glad the guys weren't around because he squealed like a girl once or twice, although I pretended not to notice.

Within an hour, the rest of the hunt party filed in and the curtain closed on possibly the worst weather drama of the month. The storm did, however, lay out several clues that would make the present hunt and those to come more successful.

FIRST DAY, FIRST CLUES

Benny was my guide for the hunt, and Wesley was his sidekick. We slogged through a half-mile of mucky roads that had been plowed after deer season. It made the kind of mud that sticks to your boots and then to itself. We hadn't heard a peep, so we kept moving.

Benny's tract was a low-lying area that had been flooded, so what used to be grass and shrubs was a giant mud puddle as far as my eye could see. But it was nice to cool my feet in the water that topped my knee-high snake boots, at least that's what I told myself. Anything to keep my mind off the cottonmouths that inched underfoot. Actually, it reminded me of childhood summers when I spent the minutes after a rainstorm sloshing my feet in the warm water that rushed curbside to the city sewer.

The storm seemed to wash away any sign of turkeys, so we finally sat along a foodplot that Wesley staked with a jake decoy. The spongy ground was a maternity ward for mosquitoes. Thank heaven I had a repellent that worked.

DAY TWO, MORE CLUES

The next day began like the one before; we moved around a lot. Unfortunately, the turkeys didn't. Finally, Wesley and I heard a faint something from somewhere and persuaded Benny to help us follow the sound up river.

We weren't sure if what we heard really was a turkey. It could've been barges drifting down the waterway; it could've been anything. Whatever the phantom sound, it led us on a chase in several directions. We stopped to call several times and decided to continue down the road ahead until a coyote made us second-guess ourselves. Apparently, he was after what we were after, only he had a head start.

As we retreated, I detoured into a field to wipe the mud off my boots and stumbled across a shed antler. I happened to be guided by two fellas with a penchant for finding antlers. In fact, they're downright competitive about it.

At the time, with no turkeys gobbling and my leg muscles aching, the idea of a leisurely stroll for antlers seemed a better way to spend the afternoon.

Wesley stayed behind while Benny and I searched for hidden treasure. When we returned, he had spotted a turkey. A jump across a creek and a short belly crawl later, Benny confirmed that a gobbler and hens were more than 200 yards away. We set up by the road and called for a half-hour without hearing anything. It seemed that the turkeys had disappeared into thin air, much like those wily phantoms in the cartoon I referenced before.

We walked down the road another 10 yards and Wesley saw a hen and gobbler. The guys began their song of seduction, and it wasn't long before a tom charged the air — from behind us.

Like it was choreographed, all three of us swung our bodies in the other direction, which forced me to shoulder the gun on my off side. The first gobbler appeared seconds later, then all five walked out with attitudes like gangsters looking to rumble. Now it was just a matter of which one to shoot. Only it wasn't that easy because the turkeys would bunch up and then spread out, which made it hard to find the right time to squeeze the trigger.

"Shoot," Benny said.
Boom! I missed. The turkeys sort of hopped.
"Shoot again."
Boom! Missed. They gobbled in unison, almost like they were making fun.
"What happened?" I wondered to myself. The turkey I set my bead on was like a ghost; the shot seemed to pass through vapor.
"Come on, Karen," Benny pleaded.
Boom! Finally, it all connected.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY

The day ended with a bang, literally, and a 19-pound gobbler with a 10 1/2-inch beard, 11/8 spurs and the most beautiful color I'd ever seen on an Eastern wild turkey.

The hunt wasn't textbook; it had the twists and turns of mystery. But, unlike the antics of Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby, it all didn't conveniently come together in minutes. I left the hunt with questions, observations and revelations. A few phone calls and Web searches later, I was closer to solving the turkey hunting mystery--a case that may never be fully cracked. But that's what keeps hunters in the woods.

Here's what I uncovered:

CLUE ONE — What storms do to turkeys

The day after the storm, we were faced with a whole lot of nothing. No turkeys, not even a gobble. I wondered if the tornado had sucked them up. But there's no use wondering about turkeys when you work at the NWTF. I spend my day with some of the country's most informed wild turkey biologists, including the best of the best, James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF's Chief Conservation Officer. So I asked him to help me make sense of the quiet.

Turkeys are no different than other wildlife, he said. They are used to pattern in their lives, and when that pattern is interrupted by unusual weather, for instance, turkeys can spook. If that happens, it might take them several days to get back into their routine.

"Turkeys depend on their eyesight and hearing to survive, so if you're hunting after a storm, it is best to set up on an opening. That's where the turkeys will be."

He also said turkeys are more comfortable in open areas, especially after being shaken by a storm because they can see what's happening around them. "But call with caution. I would use soft yelps or clucks — sounds of a turkey that is misplaced and looking for companionship."

Eastern wild turkeys, the subspecies in Mississippi, are more hesitant than other subspecies to gobble or travel after a storm because they don't have to deal with bad weather that often. Remember what Dr. Kennamer said about routine?

Easterns prefer warm weather ... and so do I.

CLUE TWO — Boot basics

I needed boots made for walking.

But with the woods flooded like they were, it was important to keep my feet warm and dry. I packed two pair of boots — one insulated, the other snakeproof, which I wore the entire time. Anything to keep my mind off cottonmouths, plus those boots are lighter, which made it easier to get around.

After the trip, a representative from LaCrosse Boots suggested that in the early season when it is more wet than snaky, hunters should try AlphaBurly Sport boots. They are made of rubber-clad neoprene, which makes them lighter than most solid rubber boots. And even though they are only available in men sizes, the neoprene socks conform to the foot, so they also fit women.

For something snakeproof, try LaCrosse's Recoil GTX. The manufacturer's 100 percent guarantee sounded good to me. The boot is made with waterproof GOR-TEX lining and has a self-cleaning outsole made specifically for walks in the mud.

But the best boots in the world are a bad investment without the right socks. Experts recommend a polypropylene sock liner with a wool-mesh blend sock to wick away moisture. Never wear cotton socks, which make your feet sweat.

But what if you're walking in water above your boots?

Change your wet socks and pants if you can. If you can't, try stuffing newspaper in your boots to dry them faster. But always keep them away from fire. Even leather boots have certain elements, like bonding agents, that are susceptible to extreme temperatures.

CLUE THREE — Beating mosquitoes

Mosquitoes and I have a love-hate relationship. They love me; I hate them. So I'm glad someone put me on to ThermaCELL. It's not a spray but a cordless butane unit that provides 225 square feet of protection — enough to cover our entire setup of three hunters.

The butane lasts for 12 hours and because it's odor free, the ThermaCELL also can be taken to a deer stand. Call (866) 753-3837 or visit www.mosquitorepellent.com. A camouflaged unit costs $29.99. In the field, doctors have tested ThermaCELL with U.S. Army units in Korea. Results showed that the repellant is 98 percent affective against biting mosquitoes, including several that carried malaria. For best results, start up the device and place it outdoors in the area of your intended activity for at least 15 minutes. It needs some time to establish what manufacturers call the "Cell of Protection."

CLUE FOUR — Opportunity knocks

Opportunity sometimes comes to those who aren't looking. Take this turkey hunt, for instance. We spent hours looking for a bird and the moment we let down our guard, the turkey gods smiled. But isn't that how it always works?

Hunting is unpredictable at best. So why not enjoy what's around you? Of course, you risk not being prepared and might miss a shot. But those who focus on having fun, which doesn't always include the harvest, usually discover what the outdoors offers.

Double the fun of your next turkey hunt by:

  • Hunting for sheds. From late winter to early spring, deer drop their antlers to grow another set.

  • Birdwatching. Use your binoculars to look for birds other than turkeys, especially with spring migration in full swing.

  • Fishing. Some popular spring species include sunfish and largemouth bass, and if you're in the mountains, try for trout.

  • Searching for arrowheads. If you're after gobblers on private land with foodplots, scan plowed areas for pieces of history. But ask the landowner for permission to pocket them.

  • Picking morel mushrooms. They mostly grow along creeks in the Midwest. Look for safety information and a recipe in the next issue.

  • Sleeping in the sun. Where else could you take a solar powered nap?

CLUE FIVE — Guns for beginners

My shotgun (with a plug) holds three shells, which is good because on this hunt, I needed every one. It's rare that turkeys hang around when shots are fired, but when they do, it's always good to get that second — or third — shot off quickly.

"Some people, especially novice hunters, prefer an automatic shotgun over a pump because it allows them to make follow-up shots more efficiently," said Chris Paradise of Mossberg. The other advantage is that hunters can chamber the next shell more quickly. Otherwise, they have to shuck a pump, which creates movement that might cause a turkey to spook.

After the hunt, I had a new appreciation for my gun. Not having to think about pumping another shell into the chamber meant I could focus on bringing down that bird. For me, the third time was the charm.

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