NATCHEZ, Miss. Troy Wheat turned, in all seriousness, from the front of the extended cab pickup.
"Did I tell you about the time Cedric and I asked this farmer if we could hunt on his property?" he asked.
It didn't seem out of the ordinary, since Wheat, a world champion natural voice turkey caller, took Cedric Dunbar under his wing. Dunbar, a former punter with the NFL's Miami Dophins who runs a business providing home health care to residents around Natchez, Miss., has met a variety of clients who allow the two to hunt their land.
"He had an old sick donkey that needed to be put down, but he couldn't bear to do it himself," Wheat continued. " 'Y'all can hunt if you do that for me,' he said."
Wheat agreed. Thinking quickly, he said he wanted to have a little fun with Cedric, so he got back to the truck cursing.
"He won't let us hunt, that" so and so. "I'll show him," Wheat said as they drove away from the house. "Stop here."
Wheat got out and pulled out his shotgun and loaded it, badmouthing the owner the entire time. "I'm gonna kill his donkey."
He went inside the fencing where the donkey was and did the deed. "Blam."
"Blam, blam," Wheat said he was shocked to hear from the other side of the truck.
Cedric bellowed, "Come on, let's get out of here. I shot two of his cows, too."
You can't cry
Wheat's joke went over big with those on a late season Mississippi turkey hunt. Laughing was about all that was left for the hunters to do on a day when nary a turkey was sighted during a morning of "cutting and running" through the hilly woodlands just east of the Mississippi river in the state's southwestern corner.
"We just didn't do it," said Dunbar, who was just introduced to turkey hunting by Wheat around 5 years ago. "We had a good morning other than just pulling the trigger."
"We tried like hell," Wheat responded. "Turkey's just don't like to gobble on a cloudy morning."
Wheat, who won natural voice turkey calling championships across the country, has more success than failure when guiding friends, families and others, but acknowledges that Magnolia State gobblers have become more educated of late.
"I call it having a PhD. in humanology," said the spry 48-year old who adds that turkey hunting has boomed in the region of late. "Just three years ago, nobody turkey hunted.
"It's about the NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation), advertisements, people talking about it. And the birds have gotten more educated."
Wheat's granddad, dad and son have hunted turkeys. Add him in and there's 109 years of turkey hunting experience in his family, he figured. As a youth, he learned to mimic animals with his natural voice and began competing once he found out there was such a thing.
"A friend of mine told me there was a contest in town, so I went down there," he said. "Out of 27 guys, I came in No. 4. I thought if I came out No. 4 the first time, I'm good enough to win it."
Though it took him 7 years to win his first, he went to take the World Champion Natural Voice Competition three times. There were years he competed whenever he could. While he gave up deer hunting, he was always up for a turkey hunt.
"God blessed me to win state titles from Carlsbad, Calif., all the way to Miami, Fla.," he said. "And every state in between."
Cutting and running the hills
Morning breaks on a 100-acre plot west of Woodville owned by brothers Curtis and Cleveland Ford. The property was owned by their grandmother, who lived to be 102.
"Me and my brother, we take care of it," Curtis says. "Since I have a tractor and do all the work on it, he pays the taxes."
Both point to trees past her grave across the road, showing where they heard turkeys this week.
Wheat pulls out his owl hooter and calls. No less than five owls chime in, flying back and forth between the trees on both sides of the road, buzzing the visitors.
At first light, it's a walk down the road toward the turkey's reported haunts.
"They never stray farther than 400 yards from their roost," Wheat says, "and that's stretching it."
A dusting bed, where turkeys flip dirt on themselves to discourage mites, is spotted.
"We could set up here and wait all day, but they'd eventually come," Wheat says.
Onward. Wheat stops at an opening, cups his right hand over his ear and uses his left as a megaphone. With a diaphragm, he cuts, listening closely for any response. More than a month ago when the state turkey season opened, the trees were bare. Sound resonated in the hills. Now the foliage is thickening, muffling noise.
"Welcome to Mississippi cutting and running. This is how we hunt," Wheat says after making stops at several likely spots to call.
A walk along a ridge leads to a deer food plot surrounded by thick woodland. Dunbar asks Wheat to call. Both Dunbar's and Wheat's right arms spring out as they point toward where they heard a distant gobble.
"You hear that? You hear that? He's 150 yards," whispers Wheat.
The group walks through a creek bed and comes up one mound away from where Wheat last heard the turkey. Wheat calls again. Faint answer. Waits. Calls again. No answer.
Soon, Dunbar pulls out a gobbling tube. Nothing. More waiting. Still nothing.
Wheat pulls the group back and a tiring hike back uphill sends all to rest.
Wheat was asked what went wrong with that specific bird.
"He answered me ... but not very well," said Wheat, explaining that, besides the cloud cover and wind making turkeys more leery, this one wasn't hot, meaning it didn't want to be called in. He then explained his affinity for turkey hunting.
"People think you call to a turkey, and they come just right to him," he said. "Their instincts tell them to wait and make that hen come to him. So you're reversing nature, and that's not nearly as easy as people think. You do come across those great birds that you kill 5 minutes after daylight. It does happen, but it's not something that happens real regular."
Wheat gave up deer hunting years ago, focusing on a species he realizes is more challenging. Their eyes are so acute, their hearing so exceptional, he said, and "if they could smell, you'd never kill one."
"They're dumb birds, but their senses are very heightened. Very heightened. From probably 100 yards, he can see you blinking. Noise doesn't bother them unless they catch something moving where that noise come from," he said, unless you step on a stick. "No animal pops a stick. Their instincts tell them there's danger."
Wheat said hunting turkeys in the region, especially on public lands, has gotten tougher because of the increased pressure, though he did put a positive spin on going out on the second-to-last-day of the season.
"At this point, the last 10 days of season, most of them might have quit," he says. "Those people don't know this is the best hunting of the season because you can hunt all day long. And if you find them, at 10, 11, 12 o'clock, chances are real good you're going to catch them.
"Right now what you're getting is hens whose nests have been broken up. The eggs are eaten by raccoons or whatever."
Earlier in the season, sometimes the gobblers won't come in because they are already surrounded by a harem. Why go elsewhere? Besides espousing woodsmanship, he said hunters need to know the appropriate calls for the situation, even the right tone for the time of season. He goes with a higher pitch call this late.
So, aside from trying to reverse nature and calling in a gobbler, Wheat said he will often try to get in a hen fight.
"What I try to do is make the hen mad at me. Like you're mouthing off to her," he said. "You get going back and forth with her, chances are real good she's going to come a running looking to whip you. Hopefully big boy is going to get there before the hen."
Listen to Wheat
A drive moves the day's hunt north of Natchez to the Ford farm. The first spot hadn't been hunted all season and the thought was they were there and would be ready. No such luck.
The previous week, Curtis snuck up on some gobblers and their harem on his farm, belly-crawling in a low spot around a stand of trees, to get a kill in a cow pasture surrounded by woods. The feathers still lie where he took the gobbler.
But on this day, despite cutting and running the entire pasture land, past cows, a horse and a turtle laying eggs on a pond dam, nothing.
"I don't know where they're all at," Ford said apologetically. "When you're not hunting, you see them in droves. When you are hunting, they're gone ... And you can't predict them."
On another rest stop, between stories of big cat encounters, hunting wild hogs and having hunting dogs eaten by alligators, Curtis explained how he began turkey hunting recently.
"I used to love coon hunting. Then I got into deer hunting," he says. "We always did deer hunt when I was small. And my brother, he started the turkey hunting he got the bug so I got interested in it, too."
It was Wheat and Dunbar who took Curtis out for his first bird. When they first met, Wheat was being treated by Dunbar. (See related story). They hunt about 10 or so different private properties of patients Dunbar has treated, spreading it out so as not to wear out their welcome.
With Wheat as guide, caller and expert instructor, they often take property owners out, expecting a chance to hunt alone at some later date.
"We see so many people we took out who wanted to do it their way, and it just flopped," Dunbar said. "I lend my ears to Troy and just listen to everything he has to offer."