Way up north in Texas, not in the Panhandle but in true North Texas, there lives a turkey population that rivals any other in the state and probably anywhere in the country.
I’ve hunted them in the country near Abilene and Albany, exulting in the fun and frolics of chasing roly-poly Rio Grande turkeys through the brush, across the hills and down into the river bottoms.
I’ve had some interesting encounters up there, too, with animals as diverse as 6-foot rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats and wild turkeys so hopped up on testosterone they think nothing of abandoning their roost and hitting the ground on a dead run toward what they think is a hen willing to mate.
Two events stand out for me over the years, both of them taking place during a turkey hunt. One was out on the Ford Ranch near Brady, where I was sitting beside a giant live oak, watching a small tank for afternoon watering time for the turkeys.
A brightly colored male cardinal was flitting around in a tree and on the ground beneath that tree, enjoying the same nice afternoon I was.
I was focused on him, for some reason, when he suddenly exploded in a puff of red feathers and fell toward the ground, the victim of a sneak attack by a Cooper’s hawk. The smallish bird, also known as a chicken hawk and a blue darter, had been hiding in another tree nearby when he obviously couldn’t take that cardinal cavorting around in the foliage any longer.
The hawk did what any self-respecting semi-falcon would do and hammered the cardinal. These are very fast birds, capable of turning on the jets and knocking any smaller bird out of the sky. This one was caught before he hit the ground, and the hawk flew back up into the live oak.
There he methodically picked off the feathers and ate the cardinal, letting the red plumage float down to the ground. It was an amazing display of nature’s diversity, method of operation and survival of the fittest.
My other example of nature’s ways ended not in a feast for a critter, for I would have been the food on this occasion. Again, I was turkey hunting, this time on the Nail Ranch near Abilene, backed up into a cedar, calling to a big gobbler I could see and hear from about 200 yards away. He was still on the roost, and so I decided the time was right to start calling.
Gentle yelps and purrs stirred something in the gobbler, and I watched him pitch down and begin a long, meandering trip up a fence line toward my position. I was calling and watching when a tiny movement to my right caught my eye.
It was actually more a sound than a movement, but I turned my head and found myself staring straight into the eyes of a coyote. He had come noiselessly from behind me and thought he was going to strike it rich by knocking over a wayward hen on the ground well before she was safe.
We both decided something wasn’t right at the same time, maybe because even with a head net covering my face, the coyote could tell there were no feathers on me. He extracted his head and tore off toward the west.
I forgot about my gobbler, who was still coming toward me but spooked when I stood up to calm my nerves and watch the coyote streak off across the ranch.
The moral of these stories — and one of the main reasons for spring turkey hunting, for calling and chasing the magnificent birds wherever they may live — is that we never know what we’re going to see or how it’s going to present itself.
Every day is a new day, and every turkey is a new adventure wrapped in brilliant feathers, just waiting for the next hunter to come along. When all the calling and running and fighting ticks and chiggers is over and you’re picking up your mature gobbler and slinging him over your shoulder for the trip home, there’s a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment few things can offer.
Turkey hunting is fully interactive, with gobblers strutting and drumming and responding to your calls, often in spite of less than perfect calling on our parts. There are tons of turkeys in Texas, too, and the Rio Grandes span virtually every part of the state, except for the big woods of East Texas, where the eastern subspecies has been introduced and is doing pretty well.
All you need is a box call, which you can learn in five minutes, some simple camouflage and a shotgun with No. 6 shot. Add a little patience, and you’re good to go.
Remember that turkey hunting is for gobblers. Some counties allow bearded hens. Bag limits are generous, too. The limit is four turkeys per license per year, with no more than one eastern gobbler.
But the special thing about spring turkey hunting is the rest of the world you inhabit, the vermilion flycatchers around the water, the quail getting ready to nest and even the rattlesnakes that jump-start your heart when you run into them. It’s Texas at its best.