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."
Brassard says South Dakota—essentially the pheasant hunting capital of America—is a good example of an economy that depends on hunting for economic prosperity.
"They're very much reliant on out-of-state hunters coming and it's a big part of their economy," Brassard says. "You go through the airport in Sioux Falls and there's a big 'Welcome Hunters' sign greeting you. That's the same kind of sign you'll see in hotels and in restaurants."
Brassard helps run a program in several states with big hunting populations to remind the public how important hunting is to the survival of small businesses.
"Especially in this economy, we're talking about jobs that might not exist if hunters didn't come into these communities," Brassard adds. "Their spending at convenience stores, roadside diners, sporting good [stores], hotels, hardware and clothing stores has an absolutely astounding ripple effect on local economies and jobs across America."
Historically, few other regions have felt the impact of incoming hunting dollars more acutely than North Central Pennsylvania, where hunting continues to be a lifeblood for the region's economy. Glenn McConnell owns a general store in Waterville, Pa., and says about 70 percent of his business comes from out-of-towners, many of whom are hunters.
"We have an old-fashioned convenience store that has a little bit of everything," McConnell says. "Based on where we're located, people don't want to drive 15 miles each way to get groceries for their camp."
But as much as the local economy has always depended on hunting, the relationship is changing. While McConnell remembers years ago stores in the area being able to make enough money in the opening weeks of deer hunting season to last them for several months,"that's really not so much the case anymore," he says.
"There's been a decline in the deer herd here, so people aren't coming up here like they used to," McConnell adds.
While that might be a death sentence for some towns whose economies are so tightly intertwined with hunting, for towns near here, the burgeoning presence of a completely different industry has dulled the pain of the area's waning hunting industry.
The region sits at the heart of Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale formation, a massive source of natural gas. hese days it seems farms are dotted with more bulldozers than tractors and fields are gouged with deep trenches ready to house gas pipelines.
But while the new industry around town might make for a temporary eyesore, it's done a lot to pad the pockets of local business owners.
"It's had a significant impact on our business,"says Adam Kordes, who owns National Sporting Goods in Jersey Shore, Penn. "There's not a business around that hasn't benefited."
In any case, the hunters aren't complaining. According to Ray, after the gas companies lay pipeline, vegetation grows in the newly cleared areas providing excellent nesting and feeding grounds for various animals, including wild turkeys. Habitat preservation is key to the work Ray does for the NWTF because better habitats typically means more turkeys. More turkeys potentially means more hunters, and more hunters bring more money to help support local businessowners like McConnell and Kordes.
It's also fundamental to the organization's mission.
"We're hunters, but we're also conservationists," Ray says.
After a few more hours of unsuccessful turkey hunting, returning home empty handed is increasingly becoming the more likely outcome. We've crisscrossed Ray's best turkey spots and seen dozens of telltale signs, but despite many pleading calls, the wily birds aren't interested.
Ray seems surprised that we haven't heard a peep from the birds, but the challenge of finding them is exactly what makes hunting turkeys anything but boring. This is what hunters live for, what they pay thousands of dollars to outfit themselves for, what they wake up early and sit in the dark and cold for. It's a cerebral undertaking.
We hear a promising scratching sound, similar to the sound of someone raking leaves; the same sound turkeys make when raking the forest's leafy carpet in search of food.
Ray freezes. He makes a few clucking noises to try to communicate with the phantom turkey. The scratching continues and he points upward.
"Damn squirrel," he says.
- How to Avoid Thanksgiving Travel Disasters
- Black Friday: 5 Things You Shouldn't Buy
- White House Turkey Day: Eat the Kale, Then Pass the Pie
Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.