All For The Love Of Turkeys
This passion for turkeys is deep, and it goes way back.
My dad put me up to it. Rather, he pretty much demanded that I do it. He had a somewhat twisted sense of humor about certain things, and he seemed to take special delight in putting me in a difficult spot just to see how I would respond. I dialed the number with elevated pulse and uncertain expectations.
“Maybe he won’t be there,” I thought. “Maybe he won’t have time to talk to a teenage kid,” I hoped.
And then there was the possibility that he might be there, that he might answer the phone, and that he might even accept our invitation. If that was the case, I was handing the phone to Daddy—no matter what he said.
With the Old Man watching intently through his ice-blue eyes, I dialed the Alabama number on the rotary phone with shaky fingers. A pleasant female voice answered and informed me that indeed the big man was there, and that she would put him on the line. Uh oh! Here we go! Daddy’s eyes twinkled, and he leaned forward slightly in his chair as he watched my rising panic. The nice lady sounded like she was working in the middle of a flock of turkeys that had a lot to talk about. I listened to the call-maker/tuners doing their thing for only a few moments when a big, loud, deep and brusque voice came over the line.
“This is Ben Rogers Lee,” he boomed in my ear.
Shocked though I was, and after identifying myself in somewhat more subdued strains, I got right to the point.
“My dad and I would like to invite you to come hunt turkeys with us on Turkey Hill Plantation in Jasper County, South Carolina.”
There! I’d done it! I looked Mr. Bob in his blue eyes and waited for Mr. Ben’s response. Both of us had our eyebrows up around our hairlines in doubt as to what Ben would say. His response was swift, it and took me completely off guard. “Are you shore you want me to come hunt your turkeys, Son?!”
I was dumbfounded.
Perhaps a word of explanation is in order. My dad, Bob Sr., managed 48,000 acres of property, 16,000 acres of which bordered the Savannah River for some 18 miles. Mr. Bob, as most everyone called him, did not allow turkey hunting on any of it except by personal invitation, and I only knew of one person in the world outside of immediate family that ever got invited. That was Dr. George Edward Haskell Moore, the veterinarian who tended to the more than 5,000 beef cattle that roamed the pastures on the plantation proper. Dr. Moore was the most enthusiastic turkey hunter that I ever knew-right up until this very day. He was also the only other turkey hunter that I knew besides me and Mr. Bob. There just weren’t that many of us in our neck of the woods back in 1972. We had turkeys—more turkeys than most folks could ever dream of. Yes, it was good to be me as a kid and a wanna-be turkey killer. Surely Mr. Lee didn’t understand the ramifications of this unexpected invitation.
“Yessir!” I replied to his question. “We invited you didn’t we.”
“Most folks don’t really want me to hunt their turkeys, Son,” he said with unmistakable conviction. I fell right into his trap and asked the question, “Well, why not?” “Because I’ll kill ‘em, Son! People want me to come hunt their turkeys just fine until I starts killin’ ‘em, and then they don’t want me to hunt their turkeys no more! They wants me to leave before I kill all their turkeys! I ain’t no turkey hunter, Son. I am a TURKEY KILLER! Now do you and yore daddy still want me to come hunt yore turkeys?”
As you can probably imagine, Ben Rogers Lee never took us up on our offer, even though it was a sincere offer to hunt a wild turkey wonderland. It probably had something to do with the fact that 5-time World Champion turkey callers are booked up far in advance with great places to hunt, even if, and perhaps mostly because, they are bonafide turkey killers. When you get to the heart of the matter, most folks who don their camouflage, take up their gun and gear, and venture into the springtime woods really do not aspire to be turkey hunters.
What we really want to be is turkey killers, just like Mr. Ben, Mr. Bob, Dr. Moore, and once upon a time, maybe even me.
Depends on who you talk to. If you could talk to the gobblers that I have brought home to show my family, they would tell you that I was a turkey killer of the first order. Speaking of family, my feminine, French-teaching missus knows Ben Lee’s audio tape by heart. If you let on that you are a turkey hunter she will ask if you pick up the turkey poop you see in order to see if it’s still warm. But if you could ask the countless other gobblers that I have boogered across the many decades of my quest, they would probably shake their warty snoods and say, “That ol’ boy still doesn’t know poop about killing turkeys.” Like I said, it depends on who you talk to. I have had many teachers over the ensuing decades since that short but highly informative conversation with Ben Lee all those years ago. I had never heard the term ‘turkey killer’ used before, but I knew even then that I wanted to be one.
My dad was my first teacher. He had grown up hunting fall turkeys in the Altamaha and Oconee river swamps of Montgomery County. He loved it. And he was very, very good at it. We ate lots of turkey when I was a little fellow. One of my very first memories is of him scalding a turkey in a big pot on the stove in our kitchen. He carried his passion for turkeys to the Carolina Lowcountry in 1958. There was no spring season in those days. When spring turkey season finally opened there in 1963, it was like letting the proverbial fox loose in the henhouse. Maybe ‘gobbler yard’ is a better term. He started killin’ ‘em and kept at it until his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 52. He taught me woodsmanship and how to shoot straight. He taught me the value of a turkey and to value the beauty and majesty of the springtime woods. He taught me not just to listen, but to hear, everything that wasn’t a turkey—myriads of bird songs, chirping tree frogs, screaming red shouldered hawks, buzzing bees and bellowing bull gators. He taught me to always be thankful that the Creator had made all the magnificence that I enjoyed, and that while He permitted me to enjoy it, He expected me to look after it. He taught me to always leave a thing better than you found it—to put more into it than you took away from it. He taught me to love the things wild not with emotion only, but with my actions. Mr. Bob was a turkey killer like very few, but he was, first and foremost, a turkey lover.
Another teacher was Colonel Dave Harbor. Though I never had the honor of meeting him, his book, “Hunting The American Wild Turkey,” was a great resource for me as I endeavored to learn how to consistently kill turkeys. Forty years after I first read it, I still take it out regularly and read his stories again. It’s not so much a ‘how-to’ book as a ‘Man, I love to hunt turkeys’ treatise. He taught me that you must work hard on it if you are going to be good at it. Colonel Dave died on his last turkey hunt. He was found lying next to a big gobbler that he had just killed. With all due respect I guess that he ‘loved turkeys to death,’ but what a way to go!
One other was Tom Kelly. Many of you will know of his book “The Tenth Legion,” which is the classic on turkey hunting. Every turkey hunter should own at least one copy of both books.
And what is Mr. Tom’s thesis? “Man! I love turkeys!”
There have been countless other folks from whom I have learned tips here and there (mostly on what not to do) that have helped me over the years, but my greatest teachers have been the big birds themselves. Through dawns unnumbered, and encounters uncountable, whether empty-handed or toting two big toms through the tupelos, I have learned this one thing: Wild turkeys are a true treasure. Don’t kill them all, y’all. When I first started hunting gobblers there were too few hunters and too many turkeys. Now the opposite is true, and the numbers here in Georgia tell the truth. Turkey populations are down almost everywhere. Speculation abounds and research is ongoing to determine the causes, but there is no denying that freezer turkeys do not breed next year’s poults. Coyotes, bobcats, owls, hawks, raccoons, hogs, etc. destroy many nests and kill many young turkeys, but man is also high on that list. Seems a lot of folks are pretty good turkey killers these days.
Perhaps we should all take a lesson from the afore-mentioned Dr. George E. H. Moore, DVM. An age ago, in March of 1965 if memory serves me correct, Mr. Bob put him out on the back side of what we knew as the Log Hall side of Turkey Hill Plantation. I remember his enthusiasm to this very day as he loaded his shotgun, checked to see that he had his favorite Tom Gaskins cedar box call, and headed into the predawn darkness. I couldn’t tell you exactly what Daddy and I did that morning, but I remember Dr. Moore’s beaming face as he recounted his adventures to us.
As he told us of the first owl hoot, the first gobble, and the battle of wits that went on for over an hour, he actually shuddered several times—like a teenager getting his first real kiss. His eyes glowed as he told how he had called the old boy in to 25 yards and watched him strut. He said that ‘he nigh about came out his boots’ when that tom gobbled straight at him so close he could feel the reverberations deep in his chest.
“Well where is he?” Daddy asked. “Why didn’t you shoot him?”
“I just couldn’t, Bob,” he said, shaking his head with a mixture of sadness and joy. A gobbler like that needs to keep gobbling—and you just might invite me back.”
What he was really saying is what I hope hear me saying, “Man! I love turkeys!”
I hope you love them too. And if you do, show them some true love this upcoming season. Leave a few for the 11th Legion to love.
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