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The Hunt for Meleagris Gallopavo

Three years ago, my friend, David and his wife paid a visit from Louisiana, completing a roundabout trip through both Carolinas, beginning in Asheville and ending in Charleston. We met at Poe’s Tavern for lunch and after I’d compiled a list of must-see attractions, we went for a beach walk. It was a gorgeous late-April afternoon with high sun and gusty winds. I told him weather such as this tempted me to buy a sailboat.

As we stared over the beach horizon where his wife waded in the surf, he turned to me, and from behind polarized sunglasses replied, “I can’t think of anything right now but turkey hunting.”
“Are you serious,” I said jokingly.
“It’ll change your life, I swear. All year revolves around turkey season for me. It’s the only hunting I care about anymore. I could ditch it all as long as I had turkey hunting.”
“Damn, for real?” Considering his extensive outdoor acumen, I knew full-well the weight of his statement. “Tell me more.”

Thence forth began the gospel of turkey, a litany of information during which a spell (or hex) is cast upon its listener. During his evangelization, I learned they could see three times better than a human, able to detect shapes, colors, and movement. Additionally, I was informed you may only use a shotgun or bow.
“How do you get one that close,” I asked. He then revealed the most intriguing detail.
“You talk to ’em. You gotta learn to speak their language.”
“Oh, like duck hunting,” I replied with nonchalance. I was no stranger to that sport.
“Not entirely. So, gobblers roost in high trees, preferably hardwoods (oak, cypress, etc.) near a source of water. In the mornings, around dawn, they fly down from the roost, looking for hens (to breed). So, you set up somewhere between their roost and an open area and coax ‘em to ya.”
“So when you take him, he thinks he’s about to get laid,” I said.
“Yep.”

Approximately one year would pass before I began my own venture into the world of turkey hunting. During this time, I made friends with people who had places to go, bought a few articles of woodland camouflage clothing suitable for the sport, and ordered turkey tags with my South Carolina hunting license. I arranged my first turkey hunt for the first Saturday in April with my friend, Clint.

C’mon, how hard could it be?

My experience with shotgunning had been limited to wingshooting and sporting clays. A 1965 Beretta Silver Snipe Over-Under or Ithaca Model 37 pump-action, both in 12 gauge with 2 ¾ inch chambers, were the only shotguns I’d ever known. Either of those guns with the right cartridge would absolutely kill a turkey. However, I’d never patterned those guns on a turkey target and the Ithaca-pump was in Louisiana with my father. So, it was the over-under which would accompany me afield. Clint gathered his equipment and assured me we wouldn’t see or hear anything. But something felt good about that morning, like a premonition one sees or feels but doesn’t speak about for fear it won’t come true.

We arrived at the property a quarter til 6 AM. Turkey fly down from the roost usually between 6 AM and sunrise, so it’s important to slip into the field early and undetected while they slumber. It was a crisp morning and my thin woodlands pattern pants and long sleeved t-shirt, wasn’t providing much warmth, making me wish I’d brought my duck hunting clothes. But it wasn’t freezing so I bore the chill with a shiver now and again. Besides, the cooler temps made the morning feel more alive.

Several deer crashed through the forest as we marched in darkness down the main dirt road. It led into a large food plot where grasses and grain had been planted for the deer and turkey. These agricultural practices keep the habitat attractive for wild game.

As dawn approached, we settled into a wooded area on the outer rim of the food plot, sitting parallel to each other about 10 yards apart. I made sure the turkey decoys we’d just deployed were visible through the cover. It wasn’t long after sunrise before we heard the first gobble. Clint drew a box call from his vest and began a conversation. He “yelped” on the box call, imitating the sound of a hen, and in doing so convincingly, the male turkey gobbled back.

His first gobbles were distant. But as the conversation continued, his voice grew louder as he drew nearer. Then, several moments passed without any sound. I wondered why Clint ceased the conversation. The silence and stillness were almost more than I could stand after such an exciting exchange.

After what seemed like an eternity, the turkey emerged from the opposite end of the wood line in full strut, his head and neck engorged with blood and displaying rich hues of blue and red, his tail feathers fanned out and body puffed up as if he were about to explode with anger as he approached. The specimen entering our love triangle of “jake” (an immature gobbler) and “hen” decoys was a large “tom,” a male turkey aged two years or older. He strutted through the field, mesmerizing me like no other game I’d ever hunted. I sat paralyzed in complete awe of him as he circled our decoys.

My peripheral vision never detected Clint slowly bringing his weapon to shoulder, and neither did the tom. He squeezed the trigger and I found myself startled back to reality by the report of his shotgun. A perfect shot. Swift and merciful.

We waited a few moments in silence, then Clint stood up and spoke in a normal voice, which gave me license to do so as well.
“I like to wait a little after shooting because sometimes another gobbler will be following. Why didn’t you shoot,” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Well, I figured I’d let him get a little closer. I didn’t know how far out he was.” This was partially true. I’d neglected to pace the distance from the decoy spread back to our location. But there was another truth I’d kept to myself; I was stirred to my very core by this creature, shocked at his ghost-like manifestation into the field after he went silent.
“Man, he wasn’t coming any closer.”
“No worries,” I said. “Let’s see go see him!” Though I hadn’t harvested this turkey, I didn’t want to diminish his accomplishment.

As we admired the expired gobbler, the long hairy mane sprouting from his chest, referred to as a beard, we estimated to be about 12 inches, which we confirmed with a tape measure. Eastern turkeys of mature age average a beard of 9 inches in length. His spurs, used in defense from predators and for exerting dominance over other turkey, sprouted two inches from his legs. This was an excellent turkey and larger than average.
“Man, you made that look so easy! I knew something cool like this would happen my first turkey hunt.”
“Honestly, turkey hunting ain’t usually this easy. I don’t know how I did it,” he said.

Harder than you’d think

I mulled it over with a few folks and it was suggested I borrow someone else’s shotgun to increase my odds of success. With their help, I convinced myself it probably wouldn’t be possible to take a turkey with my gun, and it’d be best to relegate that weapon to wingshooting and clay-busting, which was its intended purpose. I borrowed a Remington 1100 with rifle sights and a tighter choked barrel.

A week later, I went afield again in search of my gobbler, this time with another friend, Dennis, in Rembert. His family owned plenty of land and turkey were all over it. I sensed another exciting day awaited us, just as before. Except this time it would be my harvest.

We were seated in the woods well before sunrise, and as dawn approached, we heard a faint gobbler behind our position. We called to him and received no response. Several moments passed and he gobbled again, but sounded further away.
“We’ll need to move. Gotta go to him.”
I nodded affirmatively and we moved through the piney woods toward an opening on the edge of a hay field. A layer of fog lay over the area, and from somewhere inside the cloud we heard a thunderous gobble. He was close now, perhaps 100 yards or less.

We moved quickly to settle ourselves. Dennis made the familiar sound of a hen-yelp and the gobbler responded. He called again a few moments later and the gobbler sounded off, then emerged from the fog, cautiously closing on our position. I slowly raised the Remington 1100 to my shoulder.
“Good he didn’t see me,” I thought. He spotted our decoys and went into full strut. I knew the distance of the decoys this time; 20 yards. I waited with my weapon at the shoulder until he was almost among them.

40.30.25….I flicked the safety off and he stopped walking just short of the decoys.

BOOM!!

I watched helplessly as the turkey took to flight, sailing up and away deep into the piney woods. A sick feeling rose from my belly and into my throat.
“What the hell happened,” Dennis exclaimed, shivering with excitement from the event.
“I dunno, I thought I had him too! Are you cold,” I asked, addressing his shivering.
“Where were you aiming? Man! He was so close. My God, any closer and he’d’ve busted us.”
“Are you OK,” I asked.
“Yes I’m fine. I’m shaking because this is a big deal to me. I can’t believe you missed that bird.” Since I was a novice, I didn’t appreciate the adrenal dump and emotional exhaustion which occurs from calling in a turkey. We looked for signs of blood or feathers to see if I had wounded him, but we found nothing. There’s no way of telling for sure whether I hit him or not, which made me feel even worse.

On the way back to Columbia, Dennis confessed to missing an Osceola turkey in Florida.
“When you aim at a turkey, don’t just aim at the head like you did. That target is too small. Aim for the area where the feathers meet the skin on his neck. Most of your shot pattern will wind up in his head. And don’t go into the field with a shotgun you haven’t patterned.”
His advice and confession to missing a turkey himself made me feel a little better, but I couldn’t help but think I wounded that turkey. Some of the shot likely connected and it sickened me to think the animal would suffer slowly from a wound I’d inflicted. Turkey season ended for me that day, a self-imposed suspension until I had the knowledge and equipment required to pursue this game.

Redemption

Bowing out early and seeing last season as a learning experience motivated me to hone my knowledge and skills. I acquired a new shotgun and practiced with it. Weapons provided by family members in the past worked well, but left me wanting something suitable for any kind of fowling and clay shooting I’d ever do. Beretta made a nice semi-automatic priced within my budget, so I purchased it, along with a gun case and extra-full choke tube, slightly extending the range of my shot. Remembering the chill of early spring mornings and how quickly my lower extremities would numb from sitting on the ground, I purchased some warmer camo clothing and a cushion.

An investment of sweat-equity in the hot summer months, in addition to annual dues at two clubs ensured I had plenty places to hunt. No longer would I be at the mercy of an invitation.

There remained one facet of training yet to be established. Turkey calling. After doing some research, I decided on purchasing and practicing with a Lynch’s Model 101 Box Call. On my first hunt with Clint, he used one flawlessly and told me he relied solely on that call most of the time. Having seen his handy work first hand, in addition to photos and taxidermied toms he’s harvested from here to Tennessee, my mind was decided on the Lynch’s. I found one of 1965 vintage for the same price as a brand new one, and I opted for the vintage call. On taking possession of it, I wondered how many turkey were lured to their end by its sound, like sailors in The Odyssey lured to their end by the Syrens. YouTube provided many invaluable tutorials on its use, and for the next several months I watched videos of hens and tried my best to imitate their voices.

My new Beretta A300 was also christened during those months, used on several wingshooting trips and visits to the sporting clays course. During a slow duck hunt in the Mississippi Delta, I wound up firing only two shots, but had two ducks to show for it.

Political campaign signs make excellent stationary targets. After the 2016 races, it was my civic duty to employ them for a more useful purpose. I settled on a particular type of cartridge made for turkey hunting and bought some targets imaged with a turkey’s neck and head. Taping the target to the campaign sign, I marched out to 35 yards and firmly planted it in the ground. I fed the cartridges into the A300 and they worked as advertised when coupled with my extended choke tube. My pattern was best at 35 yards, but even at 50 yards, a reasonable amount of shot wound up in the kill zone.

Three days after the 2017 season opened I had my first day afield. I arrived at the property well before dawn and quickly set up my decoys. Once the sun crested the horizon and the woods came alive, I started talking turkey. My Lynch’s echoed loudly through the area, but I heard nary a gobbler. 30 minutes later, I caught some movement on the periphery, and less than 20 yards from me two hens entered the field from behind and left of my position. I heard their putts and clucks as they ambled into the food plot, pecking at the ground and investigating my decoys. My heart raced as I assumed they would be bringing a gobbler with them. They stayed in the field for about 20 minutes, eating insects and scratching the soil before slowly moving off. I sat stationary until noon and decided to leave the field. Pins and needles attacked my legs as they were reacquainted with adequate blood flow, though the pad certainly helped me sit longer. The decoys were collected on the way out. Skunked the first outing, but at least there was a hen-show, which meant toms were out there.

The same scenario played out almost every time I hunted turkey for the next three weeks. I told myself, “Be patient. You’ve got turkey out there. You must be doing something right because you’ve got hens close and they’re not busting you.” Still, I wanted my tom.

My friends, Ellen and Matti, both accomplished turkey hunters, acquired a new piece of property in Kershaw County and invited me as a guest. Matti scouted the place and between the three of us, we guesstimated at locations we might see action. This was an afternoon hunt and we decided on our places around 2:30 PM, Ellen and I choosing to sit together since we hadn’t scouted the area.

We deployed our decoys and settled into a thinly wooded grove of pine trees, between an open field and a creek bottom with hardwoods. Around one of the trees grew a patch of thorny underbrush; a perfect natural blind for us to hide. We cut two small spaces into the thicket and settled in.

Using some blackboard chalk from my pocket, I scratched the underside of the paddle on the Lynch’s turkey call, ensuring enough friction would be available for it to work. I made a hen yelp and listened for a reply. Nothing. We chose to wait in silence for the next two and a half hours.

Around 5 PM, we decided to call again, and if hearing nothing, we would leave the field 30 minutes later. Picking up the box call, I made an assembly yelp, a call used by an alpha hen to convene the flock. Almost immediately we received a faint reply. I responded in kind with the same assembly yelp, and he gobbled again. It was on.

From that point forward, when I felt the urge to talk to him, I resisted, until I responding to his gobble almost every other time. We started our conversation with an assembly yelp, but as he closed in on our position I’d need a more extensive vocabulary. Clucks, putts, and purrs of a contented hen were the vernacular needed to seduce him.

Ellen saw him first at around 100 yards out and she alerted me to his presence.
“If you have the shot, take it,” I whispered.
“I think it’s gonna be you,” she replied.
“Are you sure?” I felt obliged to ask, not wanting to deprive her of a harvest since she acquired the lease and I was her guest.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be your shot.”

He started his full strut by the time I saw him, the beautiful colors of his neck and head visible through our thorny cover. Upon guessing his position to be about 50 yards out, I ceased the soft putts and purrs, and traded the use of my hands from the box call to the shotgun.
“Just a few more yards…”
I slowly shouldered my weapon.
Poised for the shot, I watched as the tom relaxed his body and went into a half strut, slowly approaching and focused on the decoys.
“Just a little more….”
I depressed the safety and let out my breath.
Ending his steady pace, he extended his neck and head to sound off with a thunderous gobble, by which time I judged he was within range.

BOOM!

He crumpled to the ground immediately, flapping his wings a few last times as he expired. I waited a few moments to see if another was following, and when it was determined he was alone, I ran out from the brush and from the pit of my diaphragm through the top of my lungs rose a yell which left me voiceless by its end. Ellen emerged from the brush grinning from ear to ear, and I embraced her as tight as I could.

I’d done it!

Matti came to greet us, knowing already by my shot and yell that I’d been successful. We took photos and celebrated at Gadget’s Sports Bar in Camden, then returned to her house and took official measurements. Before dressing him out, he weighed 20.3 pounds with 7/8 inch spurs, and a beard just a hair (literally) over 10 inches. I removed the tail-fan, spurs, and beard for taxidermy, in addition to every iridescent feather, keeping some of them and being careful not to tear the skin. By the time I prepared him for the freezer, he looked like any other turkey you’d prepare for a holiday meal. In order to prevent freezer burn, I froze him in a block of ice, using a 5-gallon bucket as a mold.

Text messages were sent to David, Clint, and Dennis of my success, each of them having a hand in my training. Of course, Matti and Ellen were also pivotal but they were on-hand for the occasion. Each of those ladies also share in this major accomplishment.

It gets tougher to harvest them toward the end of the season. They don’t gobble as much and the hens are bred. I still had a couple of tags so I went a few more times. But for me, it’s not about filling my tags. I’ll take what I need and leave the rest. For me, it’s about escaping from a world of noise and confusion, slipping deep into a pre-dawn forest undetected by its inhabitants, and doing more listening than talking, while watching day conquer night.

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