Mike Mayhew turned his truck off the gravel county road and parked next to a patch of freshly tilled ground in a big pasture. He rolled down the driver’s side window, inviting dawn’s damp chill inside the cab, and lit a cigarette as he took in the silence.
“If we don’t hear them pretty soon,” he whispered, “we won’t be here long.”
Seconds later, a booming gobble came from the trees beyond a sloping pasture in front of the truck. Mayhew flashed a smile that shined through the dark cab and slid out of the truck into the pasture. His cousin, Johnny Martin, and I fell in line behind Mayhew as he shuffled toward a row of short cedars along a fence between the truck and the larger expanse of the field.
Check out these photo galleries:
“They’ve been here every morning,” Mayhew said. “No reason to think it’d be any different today.”
As the opening day of Virginia’s spring turkey season dawned, we made our way through dewy grass to the fence, quietly climbing over it and making our path along the pasture’s wooded edge. The gobbler sounded off for the second time from the woods on the opposite side of the field, a resounding vocalization that sent us scampering into the trees as we figured out where to set up.
Mayhew picked a big oak while Martin and I crawled under a pair of bushy cedars. The pasture sloped from left to right, falling off to the north, with a mature hardwood forest bordering the opening on three sides. It was roughly 125 yards from our hiding spot to the trees on the other side, and a significant crest ran the field’s length to obscure a complete view of the west side’s trees.
Mayhew had scarcely started yelping and clucking when a gobble once again pierced the still morning. But as our de facto guide continued to call and scratch crunchy leaves at the base of his tree, we learned the gobbler wasn’t alone.
A hen yelped softly from the same area, ostensibly challenging the new girl on the other side of the field. Mayhew kept calling, alternating between quiet and loud sequences. A few minutes later, Mayhew informed us that the gobbler had left his limb and hit the ground across the field. Mayhew’s position a few yards farther up the slope afforded a less obstructed view over the field’s crest.
Meanwhile, no less than three other gobblers sounded off at different times from the woods to the north. But another turkey sound quickly foiled our plans for the first gobbler. Shortly after the gobbler flew down, the hen let loose with a bright alarm putt. Mayhew called several more times before standing up a few minutes later and peering over the crest of the field. He walked across the pasture, made a circle around the edge, and returned with a downtrodden expression.
“We got busted,” he said. “That hen made us out and took that gobbler with her when she got down. She probably watched us walk in here this morning.”
Mayhew explained that he’d watched the gobbler strutting on his tree limb before the big bird flew down. He surmised the hen had been nearby and had seen us creep into position before leaving her tree and taking the gobbler with her in a safer direction.
“It’s still early,” Mayhew said. “It’s not even 7 o’clock. It’s not over yet.”
It’s likely that firearms turkey hunting has been taking place in Virginia longer than anywhere else in the U.S. That’s because Virginia is home to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what’s now the U.S.
As settlers fanned out across the area for the next three centuries, they relied on wild turkeys and other game animals for food. As populations grew, so did market hunting of wildlife. Forests disappeared as the expanding population cleared the way for agriculture and lumbering. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, wild turkey populations reached their lowest point in Virginia between 1880 and 1910, disappearing from two-thirds of the Commonwealth and becoming rare in areas where they weren’t extirpated.
“Concern for wild turkey conservation led to the passage of the ‘Robin Bill’ in Virginia in 1912, which prohibited the sale on the open markets of wild turkey and several other species of birds,” writes Gary Norman, turkey project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “However, enforcement of the ‘Robin Bill’ and other legislation restricting hunting methods and bag limits did not come until 1916, with the creation of the Game Department.”
After failed attempts to restore turkey populations with birds from game preserves, wildlife officials developed a more effective method of turkey restoration in 1955, trapping native birds and moving them to suitable habitat elsewhere in Virginia. Over the next four decades, the state trapped and relocated nearly 900 turkeys, most of them going to the Southwest and Tidewater regions.
Today, the VDGIF estimates the Commonwealth’s turkey population at roughly 180,000 birds. Virginia has a liberal fall season, a long-standing tradition that dates to the Colonial era, although recent research has shown the fall season may he having a negative effect on turkey numbers.
The highest turkey densities are found in the Tidewater, South Mountain and South Piedmont regions. Last year, hunters checked 15,689 birds during the 2011 spring season, a three percent increase from 2010. The top county last year – as well as 2010 – was Bedford County, with a harvest of almost 500 birds last year.
Guess who’s a deputy sheriff in Bedford County.
Breakfast in Bedford
Mike Mayhew is a veteran member of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, and he’s spent countless hours patrolling the rural county east of Roanoke, Va. As a turkey hunter, that comes in handy.
“You could say I know the county pretty well,” Mayhew said.
After being busted by the hen at our first stop, Mayhew drove Martin and me through a picturesque piece of the county to another small farm, where Mayhew stopped to call and listen for several minutes. Hearing nothing, we drove another half-mile down the gravel road, stopping across the road from a 19th-century homestead that’s still a small working farm. A defunct one-room schoolhouse stood on the other side of the county road, providing a historic backdrop for Mayhew’s calls. As the off-duty deputy wrapped up a sequence, we heard a gobble coming from the direction of our first stop on this farm.
“I know where that one is,” Mayhew said. “We can kill that turkey.”
We scrambled back into Mayhew’s truck and sped down the road, parking at a lone house owned by a friend of Mayhew’s and Martin’s. Mayhew called from the high end of a long, narrow field and we heard the gobbler respond.
Mayhew led us through the edge of an open woodlot next to the pastureland. Martin and I leaned back against side-by-side trees about 20 yards from the field edge; Mayhew stood next to another big tree 20 yards behind us. With every yelp and cluck and purr, the gobbler drew nearer. In a set up similar to our earlier spot, this field also had a well-defined crest running lengthwise from its high end to low end. The turkey was moving toward us from the swale but was obscured by the knoll.
The game suddenly changed when a second gobbler sounded off. Mayhew covered the 20 yards to join us in a flash, plopping down next to Martin. He scratched at the leafy ground and talked to the gobblers with a mouth call and slate.
We couldn’t see them, but we could hear them. They soon crossed the line into hair-raising, heart-thumping territory, forcing Mayhew and Martin to raise their shotguns. The gobbles grew louder and then abruptly stopped.
When the birds resumed their gobbling, their calls had grown much softer, progressively weakening with each gobble. Mayhew started walking away from our set up, calling as he walked, an effort to fool the birds into thinking potential mates were leaving the area. But the ruse didn’t fool the two gobblers, and soon their calls were too faint to discern.
“I’m guessing they took off with some hens,” Mayhew said.
We crept to the edge of the woods until we could peer over the field crest and saw nothing but an empty pasture dotted with cow pies.
“We’ve had three gobblers inside of 100 yards this morning,” Mayhew said. “But it just wasn’t close enough.”
Though it was only 8 a.m., Martin and I had to call it a day. We needed to get to nearby Smith Mountain Lake for a college bass tournament, the principal reason for my visit to the Blue Ridge foothills.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” Mayhew said. “That’s hunting.”
I assured him I understood, and Martin and I were soon on our way to the other side of the county. We stopped at a gas station and picked up a couple of fresh biscuits with fried pork tenderloin. Martin’s cell phone rang before we finished breakfast in the truck.
“It’s Mike,” Martin said as he picked up his phone.
I watched Martin’s face as he answered the phone and knew instantly that Mayhew had scored. Martin turned around the truck at the first side road, and we met Mayhew at the entrance to an old field just off the highway. In the back of Mayhew’s pickup lay a 20-pound gobbler with a 10-inch beard and 7/8-inch spurs.
Mayhew’s last stop of the morning was at a 40-acre parcel that he’d received exclusive permission to hunt several years earlier. He drove to the far end of the field, parked his truck, and called. A booming gobble came from the woods surrounding the small field.
“On my first call, he gobbled three times,” Mayhew said. “The second call, he gobbled two times. On the third call, all I heard was him running.”
Mayhew had barely had time to sit down next to massive tree trunk before the two-year-old gobbler appeared in a small opening amid the trees, strutting back and forth to impress what he thought was a lonesome hen. Instead of a hen, the big bird was greeted by a load of shot from Mayhew’s Remington 870.
We took several photos and talked about how it went down. Martin and I climbed back into his truck and went to work. Mayhew went home and cleaned his first turkey of the new Virginia season.