Tarheel Turkey's

From the Blue Ridge mountains to the tidewater flats, North Carolina gobblers are coming on strong.

A hint of a wind whispered through the predawn light of North Carolina's opening day. With cupped hands, guide Paul Pearce officially opened the season with a call that, surprisingly, garnered no response. Pearce tried again, adding punctuation and emotion to his owl hoot--still nothing.

"If we don't get a gobble, we keep moving," he said. Three more stops met with the same silent treatment, but our luck changed at the far end of the property as several birds thundered in response. "These turkeys are roosting over water," Pearce said softly. "I've had my best luck setting up decoys by the corner of the field. If we're still and quiet, they'll come."

We set up a makeshift blind just inside a tree line with five decoys--four hens and a jake--out front. Pearce pulled a slate from his pocket and soon had two birds responding to purrs and soft yelps. Although the toms were vocal, they held their ground. "We could move closer," Pearce whispered, "but the underbrush is dense and the leaves are so dry, I think we're better off staying put."

Normally, I'm a mobile turkey hunter, yet I was new to Tar Heel hunting and had planned to follow the advice of my guide, relying on his decade of experience in the tidewater region. "We should call sparingly and be patient, since the turkeys were quiet in the early morning," he suggested.

An hour of daylight had passed and the woods seemed silent, until a turkey purred directly behind me, barely 10 feet away. Suddenly, a raspy putt came from deeper in the woods and like swamp ghosts, the turkeys vanished.

Well, the turkeys had won that round, so Pearce (Roanoke Hunting Lands, (252) 539-2612) and I took a break and talked about the strategies for North Carolina gobblers and the differences when compared to other Eastern states. North Carolina is a "border state" with respect to turkey seasons; it's the northern-most state in which you can hunt all day long. North of here, the hunting day ends at noon in the spring.

The timing of the North Carolina season deserves consideration. In the tidewater region, the dogwoods had bloomed and the flower petals had almost completely fallen by opening day. Conversely, the white blooms were still visible high in the western mountains. Vegetation cycles begin earlier along the coast than in the mountainous west, and turkey behavior follows a similar pattern.

While I had greatly anticipated the North Carolina opener, I could hunt only one morning. Pearce and I decided to try to hurry things along by staging a mock turkey fight. I worked a pair of "fighting purr" boxes while Pearce simulated the wing flapping of two fighting turkeys. He snapped sticks and rustled leaves for extra realism. Twenty minutes passed, and we went through the sequence again, and I had just set down my turkey calls when Pearce whispered excitedly, "Gobblers to your right."

Looking over my shoulder, I saw two white heads bobbing along the tree line. As I slowly oriented my body toward them to get ready for the shot, I saw that they were jakes. My guide saw it, too. "They make the best eating," he said, and he eased into position as well.

The toms were coming fast. As they stepped behind some cover, I raised the shotgun but got caught in the act. One gobbler putted and reversed course; the other seemed more hesitant to leave and paused for an instant. I caught its outstretched neck in my scope and fired, dropping it instantly.

North Carolina's restoration efforts over the past three decades have resulted in excellent turkey hunting.

Having gobblers run to your call is a great feeling, and we smiled and high-fived at our success--allowing emotions to override our sense of woodsmanship. When we stepped into the field to retrieve the bird, we interrupted a parade of five longbeards heading directly for the dekes. We'd blown a great opportunity, one for which we should've been prepared.

I helped Pearce gather the decoys and gear. After seeing me off, he headed back to the blind for a great afternoon of action. Shortly past noon, a dominant hen entered the field and, one by one, flattened all of the decoys. Best of all, a 21-pound long-beard tagged along.

North Carolina's turkey program has been overshadowed nationally by Alabama, Virginia and other states with high turkey populations. Wayne Bailey is the "godfather" of the Tar Heel program, a man immersed in turkey conservation since the early 1940s. "In 1970, I became leader of Carolina's restoration project and continued for 10 years," he said. "I began the program by moving around the state, talking with game commission personnel and investigating potential release sites."

Bailey found that the Tar Heel flock was steadily declining because of a long winter hunting season, which was supposed to be gobblers only. "By collecting wing tips I learned that 10 to 15 percent of the harvest was hens," said Bailey. "My first recommendation was for a gobblers-only harvest and a moratorium on the fall hunt. Populations began to increase immediately."

Bailey credits the National Wild Turkey Federation with boosting the reintroduction process. "They gave money to states for allowing their birds to be restocked across state lines. They paid $500 per bird, a wonderful step that greatly accelerated the program," he said.

If Carolina gobblers seem extra sharp and alert, blame it on genes and Bailey's tactics. "I swapped our otters for West Virginia turkeys, bartering for some of the best mountain stock," he said.

Today, Mike Seamster is project leader for the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and heartily endorses the state's progress. He explained that North Carolina, like many seaboard states, consists of a coastal plane, the Piedmont area and western mountains.

Spring comes much earlier to the coastal plains than it does to the high mountains in the western portion of the state.

"Populations are highest along the major rivers in the tidewater," he said. "Excellent habitat tends to concentrate them near rivers and swampland where they typically roost over water." In this table-flat terrain, a ridge may be a couple of feet high yet provide dry ground for nesting and strutting. Water can be a deterrent, and coaxing a gobbler from one dry spot to another is a calling challenge. Finding a place that's high and dry--as Pearce and I did--is the first step in any successful hunt.

Caswell County,

just below the Virginia border, headlines the Piedmont region of the state. It has led the state's harvest for many years and includes the Caswell State Game Lands, 16,000 acres of excellent habitat. Hunting pressure can be high, but two strategies can bring results. Wayne Bailey--capitalizing on nearly 60 years as a turkey hunter--suggests sleeping in. Wait until midmorning, when most of the gung-ho hunters have burned themselves out. Then slip in quietly and call during the midday and early afternoon.

Seamster laments hunting pressure in the popular game lands, but he's had luck by adapting his tactics to conditions. "You hear lots of calling," he said. "One year I heard a bird gobble way off. It didn't gobble again, so I got as close as I dared and sat down quietly. Soon I heard another hunter begin calling and continue the serenade for 45 minutes. He used a slate, a box, a wing bone, yet the bird never responded to a single call.

"The hunter finally left. I waited 15 minutes and clucked twice. I scratched in the leaves with my hand, and the bird finally showed, moving cautiously. Eventually, the tom stepped into range. Hard-pressured birds are call-shy and have heard it all. You need a lot of patience and to make natural sounds such as scratching in the leaves. Heavy-duty calling doesn't work when turkey are hunted hard."

Seamster described the western mountainous region as two distinctly different situations. "The northern mountains are predominantly private lands, with only a couple of small game lands open to the public," he said. "This section has one of the densest populations in birds per square mile, especially near the Virginia border."

The southern section of the west boasts the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which comprise more than 750,000 acres. "These forests have good turkey populations, just not as dense as the northern mountains," he said. "It's 95 percent forested. You don't see quite as many birds, but you have lots of square miles. In fact, this section was the first to receive birds when the transplanting process began many years ago."

Seamster is not only a turkey manager but also an ardent hunter. Last spring he pursued birds in Virginia, Texas and the Piedmont of North Carolina--the latter producing his most exciting hunt. After setting up two decoys, Seamster called in two longbeards. When his shotgun cracked, the second tom flew straight up, and Seamster cackled loudly. The gobbler landed, gobbled and began circling the downed turkey. Soon five jakes entered the scene, and for nearly an hour the jakes and longbeard interacted. "When the longbeard left, the jakes followed it," Seamster said. "I've never seen anything like it."

That's the way it can be in the North Carolina spring woods, one of the country's unsung gobbler destinations.

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