LIVINGSTON, Ala. -- The dark was profound.
Standing in the middle of a fire lane skirted by pines and hills an hour and a half before daylight in south Alabama, with the black so thick you can barely make out the blob walking in front of you is an exercise in trust.
Turkey hunters by nature aren’t afraid of the dark. But moving through unfamiliar territory more than an hour before a turkey will gobble, feeling your way through the ruts and stobs underfoot rather than seeing them can be uncomfortable. One little misplaced step or sudden stop by the blob in front of you and a face planted somewhere was inevitable.
“It’s not that I have anything against flashlights,” George Mayfield whispered as he led the way. “I just forgot to bring one.”
The flashlight was forgotten on this day of the Turkey Trek. The lessons learned won’t be.
In more than four decades of turkey hunting, George Mayfield has seen more than his share of opening days. For much of that time he was an outfitter and guide in Alabama in the early season. By mid-April, he would be on the road. By late May, he would have hit as many as a dozen states, and calling to the gun an average of 50 longbeards each season for himself and his clients.
The night before opening day, Mayfield explained his philosophy on turkey hunting.
“Turkey hunting is following a series of steps that are ultimately designed to kill the turkey and in the course of that making sure that you don’t make any catastrophic mistakes.
“You go out there with a goal in mind, thinking of success, but you should be thinking ‘what can I do to not make a catastrophic mistake.
“You do that, and you will be more successful.”
It was still thick dark by the time Mayfield stopped. On our drive from home to woods, he had explained the layout and the game plan.
The day before, Mayfield had sat nearby with a young hunter and a cameraman for the state’s annual Youth Hunt. That hunt had not gone perfectly. But there had been no catastrophic mistakes.
“It’s hard getting a mature bird in front of a camera and two hunters at the same time, but we didn’t make any big mistakes,” Mayfield said. “But we did gain valuable information.”
Mayfield had spent his time scouting the area, looking for gobbler tracks, which he believes is the most valuable clue in turkey hunting, while listening for gobbles even though gobbling activity wasn’t at its peak in the early days leading up to the opener. A day earlier he had learned these gobblers, while they would respond to a call, weren’t ready to listen to a bunch of it and be motivated to get out of their comfort zone.
“A key place for these turkeys is a small green field. They will either be roosted above it or below it. And when they fly down they will likely come to it. But we didn’t roost these birds so we don’t know exactly where they are sitting. Our plan is to get close enough to be able to move and get in front of these birds once they hit the ground.”
Conventional wisdom would have put us right on the edge and looking over the field, but Mayfield believes, while that could work, a move like that is more likely to create a catastrophic mistake.
“You don’t want to get pinned down, that would be a mistake,” he said. “If you move and they see you, then that is a catastrophic mistake and you start all over.
“So many turkey hunters make the mistake of trying to take the center stage, when they should let the turkey take the stage and they should stay off of it and take the shot.”
Following that lead, we had hurried across the green field in the pitch dark, sitting in a short draw lined by thick vegetation on the downside of the plot. The position was not one to kill a turkey, but it was one that would allow us to slip unseen to the field 20 yards in front once the turkeys hit the ground.
“There’s a reason we like to hunt our deer from a treestand,” Mayfield said, “it gives us such a good view of everything we can see over things for a long way. We know that turkey has the advantage. He’s in the tree. We don’t know where he is at the moment, but if we jump up there, he will have all the time in the world to make us out. Once we know where he is and his gobbles tell us the direction he’s headed, and he hits the ground, then we move.”
It sounded like a good simple plan.
We waited in the dark, watching our surroundings turn from pitch black to gray. As the terrain started taking shape, you could see the edge of the plot above us with towering pines standing over it. That is where we expected the turkeys to be roosted. To our right and down the slope to the bottom was a scattering of pines. On the backside of those was a new pine plantation that was obviously thick. All around us was brambles and briars, save a bowling alley of a faint roadbed that led to the plot.
A few minutes after 6 a.m., we heard the first Cardinal whistle, forcing us both to look at each other and nod in agreement that the morning was getting ready to start. A few minutes later and the first crow cawed in the distance, followed by the yodel of a gobbler off in the distance.
There is a certain comfort that comes when those things start taking place. The world seems perfect at that moment, but in turkey hunting perfect is just a state of mind -- it’s often not even close to reality.
Our immediate world became alive. In the pines to our right and to the complete opposite of where we expected the birds to be, our turkeys exploded the morning with a set of gobbles that ran shivers down my spine. The first was obviously a mature bird, starting his call with a “crack” and rolling out his howl long and strong. As soon as he started the “crack” two others pitched in with strong gobbles of their own. As they finished, the yodel of the first was still taking place.
“We’re not in perfect position,” Mayfield said, “but we haven’t made a mistake yet.”
We sat, listening. After that first chorus of gobbles, the birds would yell out every 4 ½ minutes as if they were on a timer. They were almost close enough for us to see, which made us more than close enough for them to see us. We waited.
The early sets of gobbles were thrown in every direction as we visualized the bird spinning on the limb and covering his bases in every direction. But after a half dozen of those sets, and without a call made on our part, the direction of the gobbles was pointed directly at the plot.
“They are coming this way,” Mayfield said. “But we’re pinned down. It’s been 25 minutes since we heard the first gobble, so my guess is they are getting ready to leave the limb. Watch closely. They will give us our next clue on where we can go.”
True to his expectations, at almost precisely 30 minutes from the first gobble, we heard the chatter of a fly-down cackle and watched as three gobblers pitched from the tree and settled on the slope in front of us and behind the brambles and briars.
“Listen,” Mayfield whispered, “you can hear them walking in the leaves. When they get by us, we will crawl to that tree first, then move into position.”
The rustle of leaves and purring was faintly evident as I peered down the barrel of my gun, looking at nothing but briars and hoping a gobbler would peak over. Once they reached the edge of the plot they announced their presence with another series of gobbles that immediately put us crawling as quietly as humanly possible, but as quickly as the conditions allowed.
I was on my hands and knees, creeping inches at a time when I got to the tree. It was a good starting point, but not a good finishing point. I could see the backs of the birds 50 yards in the plot. My next move would have to be with cover of the briars -- a move to the mouth of my bowling alley. But before I could do that, a shot rang out.
It wasn’t directed at my birds, sounding more like just a few hundred yards away, but it certainly changed the dynamics of everything going on. One gobbler abandoned the field to my right and headed back the way he had come. I could see the two others’ backs as they quickly walked toward me.
The moment of truth was about to happen. The birds weren’t catastrophically alarmed, they were simply moving out of a perceived harm’s way from the right.
The time it took for all of this to take place was no more than a minute. But as I concentrated on my small window in front of me, it seemed like forever.
The opening of the bowling lane was just 10 steps. My line of vision extended beyond that to an oak tree standing to the right and a sapling to the left creating a perfect field goal just a few feet apart at 25 feet from me.
My hope was the turkeys would slip down to my roadbed. That would be their mistake, or simply cross my small lane. Either way, a dead turkey would be close at hand.
Hopes and dreams being what they are, especially on a turkey hunt, I should have known better.
With my eyes almost crossing from the pressure of watching that small window and the bead on my shotgun, the first turkey hit the opening. My certain kill shot wasn’t there. He had his head down and was pecking along. I could just make out the back of his head and I knew there was a chance that I could have killed him at that moment. But there was also a chance of catastrophic failure in the form of wounding that bird.
I watched as it disappeared behind the briars. With one down and only one to go, I was resolved to making this final bird work and taking the shot the first chance I had.
I could see the edge of him standing behind the big oak and my mind pleaded for him to take one more step in that position. Instead, he dropped his head and like the last, never gave me a good look at a target. Again, even though every fiber in my body wanted to pull the trigger, I laid off, letting the bird walk.
Twenty minutes later, Mayfield and I had crawled to that position and for the first time made our first calls of the day. They were answered immediately by a familiar chorus of gobbles. Moments later, another call followed by scratching in the leaves and some wing noises by Mayfield and the birds were once again gobbling every 4 ½ minutes.
“We’re behind these birds, which is not where we need to be,” Mayfield whispered. “They’ll answer my calls, but if I’m going to get them here, I need to shut up.”
With that, the woods were silent on our end. After 4 ½ minutes, the turkeys gobbled. We didn’t respond. Two and half minutes passed and the turkeys gobbled. We were silent, followed by 2 minutes and the turkeys gobbled again.
“Silence has killed more turkeys and turkey hunters than anything else,” Mayfield said.
We waited, with every 2 minutes the turkeys getting closer and gobbling in our direction. After 15 minutes of this game, the next gobble came with the turkey obviously facing the opposite direction.
“They aren’t coming,” Mayfield said.
Four minutes later, when the turkeys sounded off again, it was obvious. They were well on their way to greener fields.
There would be no turkey on opening day.
The rest of the morning we spent “gathering good information.” On two separate occasions we were able to move within 80 yards of a strutting tom, but never within gun range.
All of those moves, most made crawling on hands and knees, were made to ensure the best chance at getting in gun range with the least chance of creating a catastrophic mistake.
Catastrophic events are the undoing of many turkey hunts. And that was the primary lesson of the day. Secondary, but equally important, was assessing the area and gaining the information needed to continue the hunt on another day.
Mayfield’s mantra is you can’t be a perfect turkey hunter because there are too many variables to trying to get close to a gobbler therefore you make mistakes or misjudgments. Those result in you not getting the bird. Things like sitting in the wrong place or calling too much.
In our case, the variables included another hunter who shot and changed the dynamics of the bird we were after, leaving us scrambling trying to make something happen.
Catastrophic mistakes, though, are those where you actually bust the turkey. You make a move that allows the turkey to see you or know that you, as a predator, are in his world. Do that, Mayfield said, and you change the dynamics of the bird. They immediately become harder to hunt, and worse, after weeks of scouting, they can completely change their habits.
In some ways turkey hunting is a string of mistakes tied together by the occasional victory of getting a turkey to the gun. Minimizing your mistakes and ensuring you don’t make catastrophic mistakes will make those strings shorter and success more common.
We had our opportunities, but opted to not make a catastrophic mistake by taking a chance on a less-than-perfect shot.
“Technically we didn’t make any mistakes,” Mayfield said. “We prolonged the inevitable. We are going to kill that turkey but what we didn’t do is we didn’t go in there and change things to the point where we have to start all over with the information we had.
“We did what we had to do to stay in the game. If you don’t get seen to the point that they putt and run off or fly, you are good. When they do putt and run off that changes all the information and the patterns that you’ve established up to that point.
“I feel like if we would have gotten up there and that shot hadn’t been taken over to the right of us that we would have had turkeys in that field and we could have set there and never made a call that morning and killed a turkey.
“It goes back to my basic philosophy about turkey hunting: I hate to break a call out on them. If I break a call out on a turkey, I have already, to some extent, admitted failure. I admit that I’ve got to move those turkeys to where I am and that means by definition I am not where I should have been and it goes back to the most important aspect about turkey hunting, you need to set right to the turkey if you want to kill very many of them, and not just ever now and then, every time you set to a turkey you better pick the very best spot.
“That’s basically where he’s going to be. I can’t say exactly where he’s going to be but after looking at that habitat today I can damn sure tell you where he ain’t going to be most of the time.
“There’s about 80 percent of that habitat he ain’t going to walk in because he can’t.
“From our perspective, we missed some opportunities but we’re still in the game. That goes back to what I told you before, you know I don’t know all the times what to do but I damn sure know what not to do.”
Mayfield is fond of quoting a nameless old turkey hunter, who said, “We don’t know why it is they do what they do. We just accept it.”