Turkey sounds, sleep deprivation abounds

A serious strain of sleep deprivation shows up every spring in America, starting in early March in the Deep South and working its way north by the end of April.

You'll never read about this sleeping disease in the medical journals, but, trust me, it's true. And it's apt to strike anybody, the most common symptoms being to don camouflage clothing, march into the deep woods before dawn and blow owl hooters.

These folks generally are known as hunters of the wild turkey, although there could be a few nut cases out there, too. Allow me to confess:

I have the sleeping disease.

I'm pretty sure it's attributable to a countless number of pre-dawn excursions in pursuit of wild toms over the last 36 spring seasons. In my younger days, sleep deprivation was never a problem.

In fact, I didn't need sleep.

When you're a young turkey addict, it's quite easy to drive all night — say, to Missouri's Ozarks or South Dakota's Black Hills — arrive just before daylight, slip into camo gear and charge into the dark woods — walking a mile straight up hill — to hear a gobble.

If that sounds like a preposterous scenario, please blame the wild turkey. Do you really think it's fun to stumble in a black forest, gasping for air and stumbling over your feet while everybody else you know is home in bed, snoozing in la la land?

Do you think it's fun to rave on and on about the beauty of a sunrise only to realize most of your friends and loved ones prefer to sleep through every sunrise? I'm not asking for sympathy — being I've got this sleeping disease and all — but the world should know being a wild turkey hunter isn't all that easy.

Nor is it easy to explain.

I asked Rob Keck the other day to tell me why he's so infatuated with the wild turkey.

Keck is head of the National Wild Turkey Federation and undoubtedly spends more dawns with wild turkeys than anybody else in the country.

"It's the gobble," Keck opined.

"It's the gobble that keeps us coming back. There's nothing like in the woods. It's the gobble."

If you've ever heard a wild turkey gobble, especially close-up, it is a pretty amazing bird song. And I can't think of a better way to start the day, for sure.

The problem is there are now wild turkeys gobbling in 49 of the 50 states. That's a problem because a turkey hunter naturally wants to hear a gobble in every state.

This may explain why I was hunkered in a clump of palmettos in the Everglades the other day awaiting the gobble of a wild turkey. Do Florida gobblers gobble with a "y'all?"

This was a question on my mind. A sunrise in the Everglades is another one of those earthly events one shouldn't miss.

While daylight oozed through the Spanish moss hanging in the treetops, down below, at my level, hordes of mosquitoes were drowning out every sound, including the grunts of wild hogs — and any gobble. Turkey hunters will persist, however.

The hours passed, the mosquitoes disappeared and the Florida sun shined warmly on my dark-colored camo.

My parched mouth yearned for the sweat between my lips and nose. While I waited for a Florida tom turkey to appear on the sun-parched trail, I settled back in the hot shade and suddenly my chin hit my chest. Without warning, the dreaded sleep deprivation had struck. I was out of it.

Grunting pigs no longer kept me awake. Neither did turkey gobbles.

All living things amid the palmettos were quiet, except for the sounds of my snoring. I am able to bring you the details of my latest sleeping attack only because there were non-hunting witnesses.

While I dozed, they said, three huge tom turkeys, with swinging beards, hummed and drummed and waltzed down the path before me within easy shotgun range. All I had to do was raise my shotgun and shoot and a trophy Florida gobble would have been mine.

It's beard and spurs were probably huge.

He may have been the king of the Everglades. But I'll never know.

The sleeping bug got me.

Ron Schara is at ron@mnbound.com.

January through March 2003, "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Sundays at 7:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Ron Schara's short feature of the same name airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.