Sporting Life

The Truth Is Out There

And so, I guess, is the wild turkey

By Tom Bryant

Ben Franklin once said the American eagle is “a bird of bad moral character, does not get his living honestly, steals food from a fish hawk and is too lazy to fish for himself.”

He described the American turkey as “a much more respectable bird, a true original native of America, a bird of courage.”

Old Ben was pitching the turkey as the nation’s national bird instead of the eagle, a bird with which he must have had an earlier conflict. I don’t know about eagles, since they were in seriously short supply during my years enjoying the great outdoors. But I have had some contact with the wild turkey, at some distance. Not planned by me, all the turkeys’ doing.

I grew up hunting the piney woods of eastern North Carolina, and the swamps and river bottoms of the low country of South Carolina. In my youngster years, when I went hunting, I wasn’t a specialist. If it was in season, it could end up in my hunting vest. I was partial to squirrels, doves, quail and ducks, but turkeys? They were as scarce as, at that time in my school learning, an “A” in algebra.

I heard rumors that they were still around but in short supply. My granddaddy had a turkey tail feather mount hanging in his study in the old plantation house in South Carolina. He often would reminisce about the times when low country swamp turkeys were plentiful enough to fill many a hunter’s Thanksgiving table. “No more today,” he said. “They’ve gone the way of the ivory bill woodpecker.”

As I grew older and became a little more sophisticated in my efforts afield, I leaned more and more toward hunting waterfowl, mainly ducks and geese. Any sportsman can tell you that it’s very easy to go overboard on paraphernalia, especially if you’re a true connoisseur of the sport. And I was. I wanted it all: decoys, shotguns, camouflage clothing, waders, boats. It took me years, but if the gear pertained to duck hunting, I wished for it and usually got it. I was truly at home with the noble art of duck hunting, and I realized that to be practical, the sport was all that I had time for, or the necessary funds.

At the end of January the season for duck hunting is over. It’s too cold for fishing, and summer camping seems to be an interminably long time away. What was I to do in the fields? Bird-watch? Not for me, even though I hear it is a wonderful way to pass the time.

Then I read an article in Sports Afield about turkey hunting, and in the vernacular of salesmen everywhere, I was hooked. I thought, how difficult can it be? I’m familiar with the woods where I can hunt. I have a box call that should work. I think I’ll try out the sport in the morning.

My first effort would have made the Marx Brothers proud.

I was up and at ’em early, as prescribed in the article. Dressed from head to toe in camouflage, I drove out to the farm and found what looked to me like a great place to ambush an unsuspecting gobbler. I propped my dove stool next to an ancient pine, did a few yelps on my box call and waited for some action.

There was a small pond a few yards away that probably helped the mosquito population, which soon discovered they had some fresh meat. They were doing everything, including, I’m sure, making a plan to haul me away and lodge me in the fork of an old cypress to eat later. It was miserable. I quickly learned lesson number one about turkey hunting: Bring mosquito repellent.

The morning passed slowly with me sweating, scratching and slapping at hungry bugs. It seemed that the mosquitoes had sent out an invitation for deer flies to join the fun. Enough food for all.

Mama didn’t raise a fool, so before long I figured there was more to this turkey hunting than being eaten up by insects. I gave one more yelp on my call, decided to wait just a few more minutes, then headed out to breakfast, which seemed to be the only redeeming factor left in the entire morning.

I stepped out of the pine thicket onto a little sand road that led to the Bronco. The road wasn’t much more than a firebreak, and 40 yards away, in the middle of the small lane, stood a giant gobbler. Naturally, I had my shotgun slung over my shoulder. The big bird was like an apparition. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. In the blink of an eye, he disappeared. I stood there with my mouth open looking at where the gobbler had been, now long gone. I walked to where he had stood, muttering to myself. That really couldn’t have been a turkey, but his tracks confirmed he wasn’t a mirage.

It’s been years since I stared down that turkey on that little sand road, and I have been hunting numerous times since. I’ve seen turkeys, heard them gobble, and have followed their tracks to where they dusted. A turkey will roll around in the sand to get rid of mites, and I’ve picked up numerous turkey feathers from those dust baths. But as far as putting a wild turkey on the Thanksgiving table? No luck so far.

One morning at my Rotary Club breakfast, I was lamenting my bad luck in the turkey hunting department to several friends. I had heard that Rich Warters, an individual with quite a reputation afield (he even owns the National Champion of Field Trialing Bird Dogs), was proficient in the turkey hunting sport, having bagged several in upstate New York. Rich, who is also a loyal Rotarian, listened to my turkey complaints and volunteered to show me a few tricks of the trade.

Now, it’s not often that a good old Southern boy will take advice from a Yankee, but my back was against the wall, and heck, I had almost converted Rich to my slow way of talking, although his up-North accent does come back when he’s agitated.

We saw turkeys. They came up behind us, in front of us, and one morning sneaked up to us on the side of our blind. But we had no luck.

Unfortunately for me, Rich moved to Connecticut a year or so ago, and I’m on my own in the turkey hunting department again. We stay in touch, and he still offers invaluable advice, which I gladly take.

Last year I didn’t even hunt, and this year I’ve been out a couple of times. I’ve heard them gobble and have seen a couple at a distance, but probably if you get right down to it, I’m not that anxious to kill one.

I still remember the morning Rich and I were coming out of a swamp bottom after seeing a turkey just out of range. The turkey also saw me and was gone in a flash. It was a beautiful early spring sunrise. Dogwoods were in full bloom, and birds were singing and chirping as if they were auditioning for a Walt Disney movie. We stood at our vehicles finishing off leftover coffee and making plans for the next day when a ruby-throated hummingbird flew right between us, hovered for a second, as if he was checking us out, then buzzed away. We were awestruck, neither saying anything, and then laughing at the wonder of it all.

When I remember that morning, that beautiful day afield with a good friend, I realize that’s one of the reasons I make excuses to hunt turkeys. PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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