WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.—It's a little past 6 a.m. in the North Pennsylvania woods and the few gulps of hot coffee I've had aren't doing much to ward off the bone-chilling morning air. We're hunkered down on a hillside with our backs against a tree, my shiny blue boots obscured by a pile of orange-brown leaves.
Everything is still and silent. And cold. Very cold.
Despite frozen toes and involuntary shivering, I'm glad to be there, watching the November sun slowly filter through the disintegrating canopy of brittle leaves and pine trees, and listening to the increasing frequency of birds chirping and chipmunks squeaking.
"You get to hear the world wake up," says Ray Smith, regional director of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and this city slicker's expert hunting guide. Ray spends seven days a week meeting with NWTF around the Northeast and fundraising for the organization, which donates thousands of dollars to habitat and wildlife conservation efforts.
This morning we've set up shop on a local farm, hoping the elusive bird will be feeding on the loads of acorns the thick forest of oak trees has showered on the ground. It's the last day of turkey season before the holiday in the area, but Ray doesn't seem concerned. He has a circuit of tried-and-true hunting spots, reliable grounds for spotting the Eastern Wild Turkey. By now, we've seen plenty of the characteristic scratchings left by feeding turkeys as they kick up the leaves to uncover acorns and insects, but locating even one has been frustrating.
"My girlfriend says it's like CSI," Ray says chuckling. "It's like a regular investigation."
The cold is getting to me now as we sit unmoving, afraid to spook what could be some extra skittish wild turkeys. Ray reminds me to move slowly and only when I have to—their expert eyesight allows turkeys to pick up colors and even the slightest movements in a still forest. My stubbornness would never let me admit defeat, but I silently rehearse an excuse to retreat to Ray's warm truck and my coffee, which has probably cooled to lukewarm by now.
We hear leaves crunching and I see Ray trying to place the sound. It's coming from the hillside to our left.
"Look over at about 9 o'clock," he says, referring to the imaginary clock he's created using his gun barrel as a reference.
First I move my eyes. A flicker of brownish-gray peeks through the orange of the leaves carpeting the hillside. But it's no turkey. Instead, a majestic buck with an impressive set of antlers and a smaller doe are making their way down the steep ravine foraging for food. Their movements are slow and calculated. They can't see us, but they could potentially smell us, Ray says. The pair comes within 30 yards of our turkey-scouting outpost before the buck pauses, staring straight at us.
I find myself worrying about whether the buck would charge at us, feeling the animal's piercing gaze and unsettlingly still stature. But Ray is more worried about the buck darting away and scaring off any nearby turkeys. The deer slowly retreat and we wait a little longer for the elusive turkeys. I can't feel my toes anymore and the thought of a warm car flits through my mind again.
"You know what kills the most turkeys?" Ray asks. I look down at the roadway in the distance.
"Patience," he says.
Some 90 million Americans took part in some sort of hunting, fishing, or wildlife-watching event last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supporting a $145 billion industry and about 1 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. That means $1 out of every $100 of all goods and services produced in the United States last year was due to wildlife-related recreation.
But while hunting might be just a small sliver of economic activity in many states and towns, for some it's close to all they've got.
"It's very state and region specific," says Bill Brassard, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "But hunting season continues to be the lifeblood of many small businesses in rural communities nationwide. In a sense, it is their Black Friday."