This is a private setting in Northwest Arkansas, but settle in up close and undetected and you're in for the nature show of all time.
If you know exactly where they went to sleep last night, itís possible to set up within about 40 yards of roosted turkeys, as long as you do it early enough.
There is life in the night woods, and you miss it if you're always a hair late, chasing breaking daylight as you press truck doors closed and wish you had been there earlier. If you get there when frogs and whippoorwills are belting it out, you can walk among the raccoons and nocturnal deer, sounding like a light-stepping deer yourself, right up to the turkey's stoop. Deer snap twigs and shuffle leaves as they walk, so if you sound like that and get there early enough, time will heal the wounds of sound.
You need to be there, at the foot of their bed, letting silence reign, at least an hour before any light cracks. After you're in position, don't make any noise yourself, because if you do, the best you can hope for is a quiet, compromised turkey wake-up followed by black blobs vacating on sailing wings.
Now, before we even get started: There are moveable roosts of modest bird numbers and there are big, traditional roosts that should not be invaded. What we are talking about here are bands of turkeys roosting together after spring dispersal.
The wait can seem long, but settle in and enjoy what's left of the night, letting your ears amplify quiet and you'll be prepared for the start of the turkey show. Actually, youíll be beyond prepared, because you'll hear the first part plain as day: a sharp sound like somebody striking a match, followed by more of the same, the spit of gobblers anxious to get this mating day underway. Then low-pitched tom turkey breath humming, completing the spit and drumming. Usually, this is all you will hear, turkey-wise, for a while, as if they are warming up before playing their trumpets. This has become one of my favorite things in the world.
While it's still pitch black, the first gobble usually rings out, and you hear it all, brassy but throaty, and if you can avoid being startled you should probably sign up for sniper training.
First gobble doesn't always precede first yelp, but if the yelping starts first there will only be about half a second before first gobble. At this range, the first yelp doesnít even sound real if all youíve ever heard is distant calling, but this is what they sound like to each other. A bit squeaky, distinct differences in voices, and you begin to understand how they can know each other by their calls. You will discover that all hens do not begin the day with soft tree calls. Some of them wake up ready to rasp, and if there is any doubt about which hens bring the biggest response, that will be settled in your mind forever.
It goes from being pitch dark to a world of blues and blacks so gradually, you don't really notice the transition. It's best if you're inside a blind with a roof over it, because you can look up, usually at a severe angle, and see them. If you have several days to hunt the same place, and believe you know the location of a roost, slip in and set up a blind at midday. Leave the zipper open. Slip in next morning, put a gloved hand on both sides of the zipper, and take as long as necessary to close it, almost silently.
In a tangled fortress of major limbs and smaller crisscrossing branches, the blobs wake up, stand up, roll side to side to flex their feathers, preening and peering in all directions. I've seen them shake their heads hard, like we do when we're trying to snap out of it and get ready for the day. Soft hen-talk causes gobbler feathers to stand up, partially at first, starting on their back, tail feathers easing outward slightly, rising and falling with their breathing, then they gobble and poof out like a porcupine, full strut, convulsing as they spit and drum, sometimes losing their balance and almost falling out of the tree. They gobble sometimes, it seems, without deciding to, even pumping out two or three in a row, causing other toms to gobble, too.
Detailed feather outlines become apparent as toms strut on the limb, an action that seems as involuntary as their feet clamping around the branch during the night. Just the fact that hen turkeys exist causes the whole show, of course, but the gobbling also gets the girls going, and spirited yelping and cutting is the gas that fans the flames and turns it into a loud, rowdy saloon about to explode. Long strings of hen yelping mixed with unbelievable cutting, during which you swear you can hear their beaks snapping shut, interrupted by waves of gobbles and you can hear toms trying to catch their breath to do it again, jakes joining in at the end, goofy yelps that sound like donkeys.
Keep an eye on 'em, because when they start to rock on the limbs that means they're fixin' to fly down. Rock-rock-rock, flap-flap-flap and the first one's on the ground. Heavy wingbeats and a frantic rush and they're all moving around on the still-dark ground, the boys chasing the girls while simultaneously trying to run each other off. Strutting toms pivot and spin like tilt-a-whirls at the fair, the red and white of their heads striking, like they're lit up, against the gritty early light. It's fun to watch them tip their spread tails in the direction of feeding hens, who seem not to notice, but they do.
You know what? After watching this unfold, even if they move off to parts unknown and we go home without firing a shot, truth is, we got 'em all.