Eager hunter takes his first turkey in a textbook outing

A trickle of sweat meandered down my back despite the 50-degree temperature and absence of sun. Sitting stone-still didn't keep my heart from pounding like rush-hour tires on a railroad crossing.

Ed Wilkerson, a hunting buddy turned guide for a day, sat about 10 yards behind me, both of us propped up against sweet gum trees in an old cutover. Somewhere across a fallow field in front of us, a tom turkey had flown down off his roost and was making his way toward Wilkerson's calls and hen decoy.

At least, that's what we hoped.

This hunt started as a compromise/ birthday present. Last year, my wife, Renee, gave me a wheelbarrow. This year, it was a smoker, six yards of topsoil and "permission" for a turkey hunt.

Actually, the dirt fest had been planned long in advance, but when Wilkerson invited me on a Friday turkey hunt in Halifax County, Renee encouraged the trip, trading a day and a half of single-parenting for two days of hard weekend labor. She's smart like that.

It was still dark when Wilkerson and I piled into my truck en route to the first area. He offered a steady stream of advice:

_ "You got your face mask and gloves?"

_ "Don't move to meet the bird. Let him walk in to where you can shoot."

_ "Have your gun up and don't move."

_ "When you shoot, aim for his neck. If you shoot, go straight to the bird."

_ "Don't do any calling. I'll do the calling."

The latter was fine with me. I'd called in turkeys before but never had shot one. Somehow, in the final 50 yards, my calling went from "Hello, sailor" to "Man with a gun! Man with a gun!"

I'd rely on Wilkerson's expertise here.

The first stop proved fruitless, so we drove to another. No sooner had Wilkerson stepped out and let loose a few yelps from his mouth call did a tom gobble - and fairly close, judging by the volume.

"Get your (stuff) and come on!" Wilkerson whispered petulantly. (Evidently, I was lollygagging).

I slung on a turkey vest with two decoys in the back pouch, a fanny pack full of gear he forbade me to use and my Mossberg 500 pump gun.

We dove into the cutover and worked our way across from a hardwood patch to the north. Wilkerson snaked his way through the growth as I bounced my way through it, courtesy of a rigid frame in the vest.

After arriving in position, Wilkerson cut loose with a couple of lost yelps. The gobbler boomed back, then another answered a few hundred yards to the west. After a few more exchanges, the nearer bird stopped. Wilkerson eased on the volume and frequency of his calls.

"That's a mistake a lot of people make," he said later. "They think they lost the bird as he's coming in. The closer he gets, the less I call."

Wilkerson said later he contemplated picking up and pursuing the other bird but decided to stick to the bird in hand. His yelps gave way to putts, then purrs and finally silence.

About 10 minutes after the gobble, a red, white and blue head and neck poked above the broomstraw horizon, then ducked below.

I eased my body stiffly to the right, placing my bead on the next open patch of ground toward the decoy.

A buzzing sound distracted me. The first - and unpleasant - thought was ground hornets, but the sound came from the gobbler, in full strut, drumming and spitting about 30 yards away. He poked his head up for a second, and I slapped the trigger. The Mossberg bucked, and I shucked the empty shell, careful to leave an open chamber as I ran to the bird.

Wilkerson emerged from the thicket and pulled off his camo face mask.

"What took you so long to shoot?" he asked, grinning as he inspected the tom.

I told him I shot as soon as I could, but he had spotted the bird before I did, and the difference seemed like an eternity to him.

The sun had just cleared the tree line as we recalled the hunt on the way back to the truck.

Over coffee in his kitchen, we still were talking about how the hunt had come off. It was textbook in Wilkerson's view.

"The bird was across the opening," he said, highlighting his reasoning. "We didn't have to move because the bird got hung up. The fact we were able to use a decoy where it was visible."

He didn't have to add that I didn't mess it up. It was a good hunt for both of us.

"It's fun calling one off the roost. And calling one in for somebody else can be difficult because you can't really communicate," he said. "It couldn't have worked out any better."

I'd have to agree. It's a powerful experience when a turkey hunt comes together.

It's even worth a weekend of shoveling topsoil. Once a year, anyway.