Mention the phrase "wild turkey" to many adults, and they'll say it refers to a fiery brown bourbon from Kentucky. For Wilton A. "Bill" Williams, "wild turkey" means obsession.
For 32 years, Williams, a fit 65, has been hunting the elusive bird. Since 1982, the champion turkey caller has packed up and hit the road each spring on a multi-state turkey odyssey. This year, the series of journeys started March 13.
At first it was five states; now it's eight. The itinerary looks like a Lynyrd Skynyrd tour schedule: first stop, South Carolina (the season opened March 16 in part of the Lowcountry); then Georgia; then Alabama, if he gets it worked out; up to Virginia for a memorial service (it's turkey-related - for turkey restoration biologist Wayne Bailey, who died Feb. 27).
Then, south back to Apex to split time between North Carolina and Virginia (both seasons open April 14); then to West Virginia; and finally to New York for the last four days of May.
Williams quoted the late Ben Rogers Lee, a pioneer of modern turkey hunting, who said turkey hunting is a disease.
"I believe it," Williams said as he packed gear March 12. "You get depressed if you can't get out."
Williams shares his obsession with toms with his wife, Sandra, who also is a turkey hunter but makes just a few legs of the spring treks. She helped Williams find his gear for this trip (or smiled at his attempts to do so).
When not hunting, the pair are reminded of their pursuits in a home that reflects an outdoors lifestyle. His-and-hers gobblers are mounted on one wall. On others, wall-mounted game and fish abound, many of which Williams mounted himself. A big bull elk shoulder mount dominates the scene.
"I was an anti-hunter before I met him," said Sandra Williams, 54, who married Bill in 1982 and has been hunting for about 23 years. "He taught me the better way. We're very strict, and we eat what we shoot. I think I've killed over 40 gobblers."
"The last few birds she called in herself," Bill said.
"Probably the last 20," Sandra, cutting her eyes at her husband.
"I called in a tom last year for my 15-year-old cousin, Bryan Daniel, at Camp Bryan (near Havelock). Now he thinks I'm the finest woman in the whole world," Sandra Williams said, laughing some more.
Bill Williams' start in turkey hunting was a "strange deal," he said.
"My former boss, Dr. Martin Hines, was so enamored with it," he said. "I went to Alabama with him on one trip and called a bird in with a borrowed box call. I killed two that trip."
Since that trip, Williams has taken "right around 280" turkeys. He takes a picture and keeps the spurs, tail fan and beard of each one.
"One thing he does that's so unique is he grooms each turkey after he shoots it," his wife said. "He straightens out its feathers, and he thanks the Lord."
His learning curve has been like any other hunter, especially one with multiple interests.
"I used to bass fish from the time I was 4 years old till I got into turkey hunting. I used to fish with Forrest Wood (founder of Ranger Boats) and Roland Martin before he was big in BASS," Williams said. "I used to hear a pileated woodpecker on a tree and think that was a turkey gobbling."
Some veteran turkey hunters pursue a "grand slam" of U.S. turkey subspecies - Eastern, Merriam's, Rio Grande and Osceola - as a measure of proficiency. Not Williams.
"Some of those Western birds haven't been pressured," he said. "You want a challenge? Kill a turkey in eight eastern states on public land."
One of the foundations of turkey hunting is calling - vocalizing to the gobbler. Williams got better by calling in front of judges.
"I was so intimidated by a turkey (actually) coming to me," Williams said. "I got into competition calling to get over my stage fright."
Williams won N.C. Wild Turkey Federation turkey calling champion honors three times in addition to other titles.
"I bet he has 300 to 400 calls," Sandra Williams said.
A leather briefcase held his box calls for this trip, each wrapped in cloth for safe keeping.
Despite his success, Williams considers turkey hunting a continuing education.
"Turkey hunting is a roller coaster. I try to learn something every time I go," he said. "When you think you know everything, they make a fool out of you."
Cadence and rhythm are the keys to successful turkey calling, with the actual noise produced less so, Williams said.
"You can't really run a turkey off making turkey sounds," he said. "If you really want to take your calling to another level, buy 'Tree Top Turkeys,' 'Spittin' Feathers' or 'Real Turkeys' - recordings of live turkeys in the wild. Record yourself on a digital recorder, and you won't sound like you think you sound."
As much as Williams loves his turkey hunting, there's one other pursuit that ranks with him.
"My favorite outdoor thing is that right there," he said, motioning to the big bull elk on the wall. "It combines the best of turkey and deer hunting. You look for signs, you have vocalizations and hunting with a bow or muzzleloader you have to get in close. But I started that too late in life."
Plus, he had to go all the way to New Mexico for the bull.
Now, he loads up his Chevy van and takes to the road. Turkeys are all around him. All spring long.