Big Country

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Spring in Georgia was just six hours old when Jim Wink pulled up to my hotel room.

The sun was still down and my head was a rat's nest of half-thoughts and near-dreams. My plane out of Memphis had U-turned after 10 minutes in the air because of some pressurization problem. After a delay, I'd arrived in Atlanta at 2 a.m., driven to Columbus and scrounged 45 minutes of shallow sleep before Jim phoned to say he was on his way.

Bleary doesn't begin to explain my state of mind, but today, perhaps, this would be a good thing: Accompanying Jim, an inveterate hunter and the head of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley, was a large, gentle boy of 9, named Austin, who was going on a turkey hunt for the first time.

For both Jim and me, the morning was to be about seeing a hunt through the boy's eyes.

We drove some direction for some time — all was dark, all was murky — until we turned off the highway and Jim unlocked a gate to some private land that he has permission to tend and to hunt.

We pulled up a road a short distance and backed an electric golf cart (quieter than ATVs) off a trailer and into a clearing. There we waited in the chill. Austin was kept warm by spanking-new camo given to him just a day earlier, by none other than RealTree founder Bill Jordan and Jim's relentless cheer.

"Big Country" was Jim's nickname for the fourth-grader, and it suited them both.


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We stood to listen, talking only in the merest whispers. Off in the woods, a cardinal flexed his lungs.

"The first birds of the morning," Jim said. "Just listen — they'll start chirping. Maybe they'll gobble."

"What if they come from this way?" the boy asked, his voice a little louder.

"We got roads that go that way, too," the man said. "We can go anywhere."

The birds then sang without cease. Chirps and tweets and trills surrounded us like pattering raindrops.

"The turkeys, will they wake up?" the boy asked.

"Yes, sir," the man said. "I hope they wake up this morning."

After 20 minutes of listening to bird calls, and returning a couple of owl calls, Jim heard a faraway gobble near a swamp down the way.

"We're going to go set up in a field," Jim told Austin. "Maybe we can call him to the field."

He listened a moment more. "He's down that way," Jim said.

"Yeah, I heard him," Austin replied.

It was time to move. The three of us wedged into the two-man front of the cart, and jounced off down the path.

Light had begun to bleed into the inky sky, and even as the 38-degree wind raked our faces, we could see, and the promise of day wasn't far away.

The man led. The boy shuffled two or three steps behind, his Air Jordan sneakers clacking rocks together as he plodded along the sandy, grassy path.

There was no way, I thought, that a bird with a lick of sense would be fooled by this threesome: A man of Jim's bulk, a boy of Austin's energy and a scribe doing his best just to stay awake. It looked like a fine day to be a turkey.

After a spell we came to a clearing. To our left, at the tree line, a hunting stand crouched. Before it splayed a gentle carpet of green, a bright contrast to the gray woods surrounding it, still waiting, as they were, for the true disappearance of winter. On this Opening Day in Georgia, the forest was teeming with life waiting to unfurl.

Jim knows this patch well, having nurtured it over months, from the late-summer bush-hogging to liming the soil, to seeding rye, wheat and clover, and then keeping his fingers crossed for rain. The result is a field of electric green that offers a bird or deer a well-tended source of forage but precious little cover.

On kitten paws we crunched through a few yards of dead leaves and took our position a horseshoe's throw from the edge of the grass. Austin sat nearest the clearing, with Jim to his immediate right and slightly behind him. I sat on a cushion against a tree to Jim's right, well out of the boy's firing line, and leaned against a skinny tree. We were still. When the boy would hear a sound, he would ask, enthusiastically, what it was.

When he thought he heard motion in the distance, he'd raise his arm to indicate. Jim, with the patience of a practiced educator, reminded the boy to be sparing in motion and to keep his voice low — but he did nothing to quell the boy's joy. This day was for him, after all, and there was no point in coming if the boy felt rebuffed.

I was certain our leaf-crunching and bark-scuffing and loud-whispering would scatter the wildlife. But as we sat still in the relenting cold, all around us the woods began to rise. Cardinals sang, robins chirped, sparrows chattered. The occasional hawk, or crow, or goose would make itself known.

In the distance, four lanes of highway shoosh-shooshed through the trees, a white noise cover. I rested my head against my chest to listen, and next I knew, Jim was nudging me awake.

"Gobbler!" he hissed to me, pointing to the woods behind our position. The brush was too dense for the boy to take a shot, but not so thick that we couldn't see the big bird crane his head around, trying to find the elusive hen. Jim tried calling him over. The bird drummed — guuungggg! — and continued into the thicket, out of sight.

Jim stayed hopeful. He had noticed the boy's attention sharpen as the morning progressed and became more real. The boy's voice had quieted, and he had paid keen attention to the loading of the shells, to the handling of the gun.

"Muzzle control," Jim had told him, and Austin took care to aim the cut-down Binelli 20-gauge away from his companions. The appearance of an honest-to-God gobbler turned expectation into reality. We knew we could attract a bird.

Soon after, three young males wandered into the open grass, strutted, puffed and then were spooked — by another gobbler, Jim surmised. He kept calling, and we all listened, still as statues and twice as quiet. I stood for a better view, bracing myself against the tree.

Then, on the far side of the field, a head popped up. I whispered something about a bird coming, but as soon as I'd said it, there was a second, and instantly, a third. Before we knew it, six birds — two hens, two jakes and two gobblers — were on the march toward our position. I thought immediately of the slow-motion group walk from the beginning of "Reservoir Dogs." They were that imposing, that deliberate.

From where I was standing, Austin betrayed none of whatever anxiety he must have been feeling. Not yet 10-years-old, the boy was facing a life-or-death decision, in his way. The lead birds couldn't have been 20 yards away.

He asked, ever so quietly, "Which one can I shoot?"

Jim told him, "You need to shoot the one with the white head and the beard."

"I've never seen a real turkey live," the boy told him. The gun quivered on his monopod as he aimed it. "They're so big."

He held the shotgun at the ready. The birds advanced. The big gobbler at the back of group bloomed into a Thanksgiving decoration, all feathers and bulk.

It was close enough that Jim could see the cloud of condensation from the bird's breath when the male drummed. The boy kept the gun leveled. It was suddenly looking like perhaps not so fine a day to be a turkey.

Later that night we dined at Hunter's Pub, a local steak-and-beers joint where Jeff Foxworthy, another local, obliged fans who bumbled with digital cameras as we waited outside for a table. NCAA basketball played on the televisions. Once the waitress had come for our orders, Jim explained his thinking at that moment when the boy was a trigger-squeeze away from his first kill.

From where Jim sat, he knew the boy would be able to hammer a load of hot lead into the gobbler at the front. But as the turkeys gathered, the hens stayed too near the male, and Jim knew this was not a shot for the boy to take. Even if his aim were true, Austin could kill or wound a female bird.

"He could have easily shot amongst that group," Jim said. "And he would have killed that gobbler. But he could have killed those hens. And that would not have been proper."

We had spent the rest of the morning making turkey calls and wandering around the property. We went up the hill, passing deer and turkey and bobcat tracks in the moist sandy road, and coyote scat that looked like lumps of dryer lint.

The three of us had hunkered in a tent blind near the truck, and heard nothing more promising than faraway gobbling and a cacophony of crows that Jim speculated might be harassing turkeys in order to take their food.
Austin's attention was thinning; he wanted to call the birds even when Jim's advice was to stay still and silent.

We made our way to another clearing near a creek, where the biggest news was finding a couple of lizards on a tree trunk. Whether it was just the time of the morning or our nervous energy seeping into the forest, no birds revealed themselves.

With Jim's permission, Austin fired once at a pine tree near the path, peeling back some of the bark. He also took a short spin on the ATV and parked it deftly in the trailer behind the truck.

Then it was off to play a baseball game and back to the everyday life of a kid.

Jim confessed that he'd wanted the kid to take a bird so bad he could taste it. The man was disappointed mightily that the boy didn't get that thrill, a moment he knew the lad wouldn't ever forget. But he also consoled himself at the day they had found instead.

"Gobbling, drumming, spitting — to be able to hear it?" he said. "That doesn't happen every day like that.

"What's the expression? Take a kid hunting, and you won't be hunting for them later."

The idea is that kids, once exposed to the woods, will want to go back, and will find something there that keeps them living right. It might not always be true, but it's worth a shot, even on days where you don't pull the trigger.