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Sound off

4/2/2010

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Around the bend, on the wrong side of the cypress head from me, a bachelor's group of several Osceola gobblers noisily flapped across the irrigation canal. Immediately, hens scattered among the rows of orange trees began their soft clucking and soft yelping, while the gobblers strutted and drummed.

Hidden in a makeshift blind less than 200 yards away, I heard none of this.

I can only speculate on the scene and the sounds because I am hearing impaired — dang near deaf. Too many shotgun blasts and rifle shots, too many ear infections, too much loud music, too many deafness genes in my DNA.

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What I do know is that, as day broke on this clear, calm morning in southern Florida, a long, uninterrupted series of gobbles erupted from an oak hammock just across the canal from where I sat. I had my Walker Quad Game Ear muffs turned on high enough to distinguish between the birds' calling from the trees and from the ground.

Soon after the gobbling ended, however, I lost track of the birds. My host had promised they would fly across the canal and land practically in front of me. Knowing that, and being warned by my hunting partner, Steve Bowman, not to call too much, I only yelped a couple of times around fly-down time to let the gobblers know where I was.

I was determined to wait them out. I wasn't prepared for the end-around.

Sometime after sunrise, the gobblers opened up behind me and to my right. Without my hearing them, they had crossed the canal and gotten behind me.

Believe me, I had been straining to hear the birds and track their movement. But with sound magnifiers like the Game Ears, you hear everything and can distinguish little. Whatever is closest and loudest dominates. In this case, a flock of mosquitoes buzzing near the muffs' microphones drowned out the turkey sounds I was struggling to hear.

Eventually a couple of birds gobbled again, much closer and loud enough even for me to hear. I eased around the stand of cypress trees to set up where I might get a shot. One thing about hearing aids: They magnify the noise of your own movement. Stepping on a dry palmetto frond was like breaking a karate board.

Whether they heard or saw me first, or merely had another destination in mind, the pair of gobblers was 200 yards away and moving quickly in the wrong direction by the time I saw them. My handicap hurt me again. If I had known precisely how far they were when they first gobbled, I could have adjusted and moved into position without being detected.

By this time, I was joined by Bowman and his companion, Greg Watts of Winter Haven, Fla. Watts had bagged his Osceola the day before and was tagging along to watch a master turkey hunter (Bowman), work his craft.

They had set up a half mile away down the canal from me, well before daylight, and hadn't seen a turkey either. But they had listened to the cacophony of calls from the oak hammock across from me and just knew I'd be covered up with birds.

After watching the gobblers run off, Bowman and Watts decided to scour the orange groves for strutting gobblers, and then try to sneak close and call them in. They had success on all three counts, but that's a topic for Bowman's Turkey Trek report.

He invited me to join them, but I decided to go to Plan B. When he had dropped me off that morning, my host had pointed out a huge avocado tree in a clearing at the edge of the grove and said turkeys would show up there sometime during the morning. It was a favorite feeding/strutting area, he said.

I crawled beneath the low-hanging, loaded limbs of an orange tree overlooking the clearing and waited for Bowman to shoot or a gobbler to announce his presence. I heard neither.

As I waited, I reflected on the differences between Osceolas and other wild turkey breeds. Supposedly, they rank higher on intelligence charts than Rio Grande and Eastern turkeys, but my first experience hunting these birds — indigenous only to central and southern Florida — wasn't a good gauge.

A friend, Mike Kelsey of Orlando, offered to take my son Joseph, then a high school senior, turkey hunting on his leased land south of town. Kelsey, an experienced and highly skilled turkey hunter, said he had been trying for several mornings to outwit a certain pair of gobblers on his place.

Getting into ambush position required an early morning stoop-walk along a fencerow that led to the small copse of trees where he believed they'd be roosting.

The three of us crawled beneath a line of palmetto bushes and began the long wait. We were entertained briefly by the predawn launch of a rocket from Kennedy Space Center, about 45 miles to the east. Not quite as bright as a nighttime Shuttle launch, it was beautiful nonetheless.

As a dim glow began to climb above the horizon, a donkey brayed in the distance. Instantly a gobbler answered the donkey, and another turkey nearby quickly cut him off.

Kelsey yelped a couple of times and both gobblers answered. He was optimistic, but not confident in our success. The hunter had been to this dance with these two toms before and had come away empty-handed each time. This, however, would be their last turkey trot.

One minute the field in front of us was empty and the next, a big Osceola was standing 20 yards away, craning to find the hen he knew was calling to him. Joseph rolled him with a 3-inch magnum load of 6 shot. Before the last feather settled, the second gobbler pitched down and landed 5 feet from his compadre. I settled the bead on his neck and pulled the trigger.

Less than 10 minutes past legal shooting time, Joseph and I had a double and our first Osceolas. It only seemed easy. Without Kelsey's skill and knowledge of their habits, we wouldn't have had a chance.

I began to appreciate the challenge of hunting Florida turkeys on later trips, including one recently with Bowman and Chris Horton, BASS conservation director and an avid turkey hunter. It was the first stop on Bowman's Florida leg of the Turkey Trek. We were hunting an 800-acre farm near Chiefland, Ala., containing a couple of food plots, mixed hardwoods and planted pines, and loaded with turkeys.

I was jealous of Horton's and Bowman's ability to hear the hunt unfold. I could barely make out gobbles and maybe the loudest yelps, but the subtle clucks and purrs were beyond the range of my Game Ears. It was like attending a symphony in which you can only hear the drums and trumpets.

As a matter of pride, to see if I could still hunt successfully without an interpreter, I insisted on going it alone the following day in south Florida.

After nothing showed up at the avocado tree, I set off along a road, hoping to happen onto a gobbler. Walking perpendicular to rows of orange trees as you hunt turkeys is like trying to find your spouse among the aisles in a grocery store, except in the latter case you don't mind being spotted.

I was fortunate to see one longbeard in the produce section without it spotting me. I hurried a dozen rows ahead of him and sneaked in, hoping to get set up before he arrived.

As I crawled under a tree limb where I wanted to be, I heard the unmistakable putt of an alarmed hen. I hadn't seen or heard her and two other hens feeding in my direction until it was too late. They ran off in the direction from which the gobbler would have been coming. I was busted.

When my hearing loss was first diagnosed, Joseph — about 5 years old at the time — overheard my wife and me discussing it. Later, when we were alone, he asked me about it. Obviously troubled, he said, "Are you going to be dead soon?"

I laughed and assured him I would be fine. I was going deaf, not dead.

He thought for a minute and then suggested, "If you can't hear, you might as well be dead."

I assured him that life is definitely worth living even when you're a little "hard of hearing." But turkey hunting, I've since found, becomes much more of a challenge. If you hunt long enough and shoot guns enough without ear protection, you'll discover what I mean.

During the Chiefland hunt, Horton, Bowman and I happened across a flock of hens feeding toward a treeline. Bowman and I left Horton to guard a small head of woods at the edge of the field while we tried to circle ahead of the birds.

As we were settling in, Bowman said, "Did you hear that? It's a gobbler, spittin' and drummin'." I didn't, but took his word for it. He continued to hear the sound, but couldn't bring the gobbler close with his calls.

A couple of days later, Horton and I discussed the hunt. I lamented not being able to hear sounds of the hunt, like the drumming display Bowman mentioned.

Horton laughed. "Steve's hearing isn't that great either," he said. "I heard that 'drumming.' It was a piece of heavy equipment that would rev every now and then under load. It did sound like drumming, though."