"I like to put a few extra sounds in a run of calls," he said. "Kind of a bridge from one series to the next. Every sound I make is a real turkey sound, it's just that I do a little more than the rules strictly call for."
When the five judges met with the callers to go over the rules, there was some discussion about how much they would give—or take away—for interpretive calling like Cooper's. One of the judges, Dale Englehardt, said, "I'm listening for what sounds like a real turkey. I'm in the woods at least two hundred days a year, and I know what a turkey sounds like. A lot of guys try to get fancy and baffle you with——. But the way I see it, you're not calling people, you're calling turkeys."
The head judge, Mike Manzo, a professional big-game guide with prominent bones and sunken eyes, set down his criteria emphatically: "As long as it sounds like a turkey, you won't lose points. But you won't necessarily get any, either." Which seemed to satisfy everyone; even Cooper could live with that ruling, though it cut into what he considers his strength.
The debate over calling styles was—like the contest itself—a measure of just how far turkey hunting has come in the past 15 years. It is only recently that many states have had enough turkeys to allow a hunting season. Before aggressive wildlife programs brought the turkey populations back, only a few people hunted the bird. The calls that they used were usually homemade and fairly crude. Hunters simply made the best, most authentic sounds they could on them and tried not to call too much. They just hoped a gobbler would come in to investigate.
As the turkey populations increased and more and more hunters went after them, the calls improved and hunters became more adept at using them. Turkey hunting is now the fastest-growing shooting sport in North America. Some two million Americans consider themselves turkey hunters, and a large number of them are not merely passionate but plainly insane about the sport. To them there is nothing sweeter in all of life than to be in the woods at the dawn of a spring day, a gobbling turkey roosted in a nearby tree. Maybe it is the time of year—though there is turkey-hunting season in the fall, too—with its mild temperatures and woods in the tender blooming stage, or maybe it is the calling, which brings the hunter into the mating ritual itself, or maybe it is the wariness and majesty of the gobbler, with his acute eyesight and his magnificent plumage, which he puts on full display for the hunter who succeeds in fooling him. Whatever the reason, turkey hunting gets into the blood; it is a passion that turns laconic men rhapsodic.
They will talk about turkeys and turkey hunting endlessly, and they will practice calling feverishly, in season or out. They will even pay money and drive all night to enter a calling contest. Other men, with slightly less ability, will pay money to sit in uncomfortable bleachers in a cold arena and listen to the callers make their music.
There were about a thousand of the faithful in the audience in Indianapolis when the first caller stepped onstage at two in the afternoon. Bob Morgan had drawn the first number. He stepped up and laid several mouth calls out on a table. Behind the table stood a screen that hid the five judges, who sat in separate booths with their backs to Morgan, their score sheets on their laps.
Morgan sat down, took a deep breath and made the first of the five mandatory calls.
His tree call sounded quiet and sweet, the way a hen turkey might sound on waking. He changed mouth yelpers and went to a more animated fly-down cackle. After another change of calls and another deep breath, he made a fine, raspy old-hen mating yelp. Then he went straight into a whistling kee-kee run. With eyes closed, he made the final call, an old gobbler yelp. He was the only caller to show so much composure. Virtually all of the others stood during at least some of their five calls, and many of them moved with the spirit of their work. A few actually seemed to strut and scratch like a turkey, which is a fair indication of just how deep into it some turkey hunters get.
Though all the callers who followed Morgan sounded good, none sounded better until Cooper, the 11th of 29, took the stage. Cooper stared at the ground and worked himself into the kind of concentration necessary for "charismatic" calling in the big event.