In pursuit of the wily gobbler
By Tom Bryant
I’m gonna be right up front with you folks who read these little missives of mine from time to time . . . I’m not a turkey hunter.
Maybe I should rephrase that statement because it’s kinda inclusive and covers a lot of territory.
I’m not a very successful turkey hunter. It doesn’t mean I don’t hunt the wily, bearded gobbler. I do.
As a matter of fact, I should say I’m a bird hunter specializing in ducks, doves, geese, quail (when I can find ’em) and even a pheasant every now and then when the coffers are full enough for a trip out west. But turkeys? They are last on the list.
When I was a young fellow, I was lucky to have an extended family of outdoorsmen who took me under their wings and taught me the right way to enjoy, responsibly, nature in all its wonder. At the age of 9, my grandfather gave me a .22 rifle, and more importantly, he instructed me how to use it safely. At the age of 12, my dad gave me a J.C. Higgins, 12-gauge pump shotgun and repeated the instructions from my granddad.
In those days, weapons in the rural South were treated as tools to help furnish game for the table. Those tools went a long way in the effort to become self-sufficient, a valuable lesson learned after the Civil War and later, during the Great Depression. I can remember asking my grandad how the family made it during those lean times.
“Son, in the South we’ve been in some kind of depression or recession since the late 1800s,” he said. “The bad spell that came along in the 1930s was hardly even noticed. No, I take that back. It was hardly noticed by those who were raised and still lived on farms and had access to the fields and streams where the good Lord placed his game for us to harvest and we had room to farm and garden. I’m afraid those days are going away, but I don’t want you to forget them.”
I haven’t. Even today when I’m hunting or fishing, I’m thinking about what’s good to eat. So, that’s how I got started. When I was afield with a shotgun, I wasn’t hunting any particular species, I was hunting any game that was in season, from squirrel and rabbits to doves and quail. If it was legal, it could end up in my hunting coat.
Everything, that is, except turkeys.
I remember the first time I thought I saw a turkey track. I was walking the railroad tracks from Aberdeen to Pinebluff, hunting along the way. I had developed a routine with my dad. He would carry my shotgun along with my dog Smut, a curly coated retriever, to the ice plant in Aberdeen where he was the superintendent. I would walk from school to the plant, a little over a mile, do my homework in his office, then round up Smut, grab my shotgun and walk the tracks home to Pinebluff, hunting along the way.
I remember the day I thought I saw the turkey track because it was toward the end of duck season, and there was a little creek that ran from Aberdeen almost parallel to the railroad. It was a good place for ducks — wood ducks, that is.
Smut and I eased in through the heavy growth as quietly as we could, hoping to jump an unwary duck, but to no avail. I was getting ready to go back to the tracks and hunt the other side when I saw bird prints in a small sandbar that traversed the water. They were as clear as if they were etched in concrete. Now, at the time, I was working on my Boy Scout merit badge for wildlife track identification, and I was constantly trying to identify every sign I could. I had identified most of the ones I found in the woods but had never seen anything like the big footprints almost in the creek. I made a quick sketch in my mind and went on with the hunt.
When I got home, just at sundown, I cleaned the game I’d gotten, gave it to Mom to put in the freezer, and went upstairs to check the book I had on the spoor of wild game.
I was wrong. The track I had thought was from a turkey turned out to be made by a great blue heron. Well, I said to myself, I should have known. Finding a turkey in Moore County is as rare as catching an 8-pound bass in Pinebluff Lake.
I put turkeys on the back burner and didn’t move them to the front until way later in my hunting career. In the past few years, what appealed to me about the sport of pursuing the crafty gobbler was that now they are plentiful and the season is early spring when all other game seasons are closed. It also gave me an excuse to venture forth at a beautiful time of year.
Early on, was I successful? I would have had better luck catching that 8-pound bass in Pinebluff Lake. But I did learn. I had good teachers, and I read a lot about how turkeys were successfully reintroduced to all areas of the state, a phenomenal triumph for the Wildlife Resources Commission.
So I kept trying. It was a lot like duck hunting: be in the woods before day — no reason not to stop on the way, pick up a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit and a good cup of hot coffee. Then get to the spot that had been scouted the day before, put out all the gear, including a couple of decoys, hunker down in a makeshift blind, and watch a beautiful sunrise.
That’s what I would do off and on during the April and May 36-day season. I heard turkeys — I even saw turkeys — but without any luck getting one to come close enough for a shot. I was determined, though, and not about ready to hang up the old turkey call.
Then came that special day.
The guest room alarm clock went off just as programmed, 4:30 a.m. The night before, I had moved across the hall in deference to my bride, Linda, so I wouldn’t disturb her. I rolled over on the side of the bed, looked bleary-eyed at the clock and was just about ready to crawl back under the covers when I recalled an old saying Mom had given me years before, “Those who hoot with the owls at night have a hard time soaring with the eagles at dawn.” She had even given me a small statue of an owl to go with the quote.
The night before, we had a few guests over for dinner and, during the revelry, I had one glass of wine too many and was paying the piper for my indulgence. So I bit the proverbial bullet, pulled on the camouflage clothes I had laid out the night before, and silently made my departure for the fields. I had made a large cup of coffee, and the caffeine revived me as I slowly drove south.
I had decided the week before to hunt a small field, about 10 or 15 acres, planted in rye that was now about 2-feet tall. I placed my dove stool in between two pines that bordered the field, pulled the camouflage head net over my face, sat down, loaded my gun with #5s, and grabbed the box turkey call from my gunning bag. As I was pulling the turkey call out of the bag, the striker accidentally scraped out a hen turkey sound. I said, “Shhh,” to myself, set the call on the ground and immediately heard a big gobbler holler back. I was so shocked, I almost fell off my stool.
From then on, it was exactly like you might picture a turkey hunting scene on television. The great bearded gobbler strutted and gobbled his way across the rye field heading straight to the decoys and right into the sight of my shotgun.
It was a great day for me, but honestly, I can’t take all the credit. I had help calling the big gobbler to his demise. My gunning bag did it. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.