LLANO – First there were the drag marks. Three of them. Long, slinky, S-curving imprints on the sand road, certain evidence that rattlesnakes were here and responding well to the warm weather.
Then came the porcupines. Two of these. About a quarter mile apart, waddling across the same single-track road in the semi-dark of dawn. They didn’t take kindly to my attempts to photograph them on the ground. Both spread their tail quills in a warning to stay well clear of the barbed tips unless I wanted to add a trip to the emergency room to my morning walk.
The snakes and quill pigs are simply momentary diversions, reminding us that it’s spring and lots of critters are on the move, searching for food after a long winter and for mates to keep their species hardy and viable.
We’re here to hunt turkeys.
There have been a few turkey tracks on the roads and around some of the many ponds on this ranch southwest of Llano, but not so many that I’m feeling very confident. Most of the tracks have been small and delicate, definitely hens. The few droppings we’ve found don’t have the gobbler’s distinctive “J” shape.
After leaving the 175-year-old converted stone barn that serves as a camphouse on this ranch, we have walked quietly, and gingerly to avoid any rattlers that might be out and about, close to two miles to the south.
There’s a stout, but not horrible, wind out of the southeast, blowing right off the granite mountain that dominates the local landscape. Buzzards roost up there on the stone, black gargoyles waiting around for something to die. Their wings whoosh and beat at the cool air overhead as they launch themselves off house-sized monoliths and begin searching for thermals to carry them away for another day at work.
We walk and call and listen for responding gobbles. Nothing works.
For two slow hours, broken up only by the ramblings of love-starved porcupines, we get no takers. And now, we’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road. Ahead there’s no more turkey cover. Behind there are no turkeys.
Steve Knight, his son Thomas and I stand around kicking rocks for five minutes, debating what we might do next. Then Steve, who invited me on this trip, suggests an end game. “Let’s head on back to camp,” he says. “We can get an early start home. It’s just not happening.”
Well, not exactly. As we begin our retreat, I decide to try one more set of calls. Yelps followed by a loud cackle. And what do you know. From a live oak thicket no more than 150 yards away comes a lusty response. “It sounded like jakes to me,” I say, “but you never know.”
I put out another set of yelps and get another answer. “Thomas will kill a jake,” Knight says, “if we can get them to come to us.”
Father and son move ahead 15 yards and take up positions along the edge of a clearing. I decide just to sit in the road and wait, but before I can get to the ground I see the flanking action. Four gobblers – blue/white heads seeming to float over the tall grass – are coming hard from our left, not from the direction of the first gobble.
I manage to squawk out a warning and call at the same time, getting a strong gobble from one of the birds. They are coming straight at me, which is carrying them just to Thomas’ left. Suddenly the stop in a line, heads turning, looking for the hen.
I do one more call, and there’s one more gobble, and the four of them start walking toward me again. I can see Thomas’ gun level on the lead gobbler. He stops 20 yards from me. There’s the sharp report of the 12 gauge, and he goes down. His buddies scatter in all directions.
Just that fast and it’s all over. Or is it? From somewhere deep in the trees comes a resounding gobble. Insistent. Inquisitive. Not a gobble of woe for a fellow turkey fallen. Something closer to love sick. Something more hopeful.
After all, it’s spring.