Arthur Woody’s Native Turkeys
The ranger helped protect a population of mountain birds in an area that never had to be restocked during wild turkey restoration efforts.
Duncan Dobie | March 14, 2018
Arthur Woody had a lifelong passion for his mountain turkeys. Next to his beloved deer and trout, wild turkeys were the most important game animal in Ranger Woody’s life. He hunted them as a boy, and during the 1920s and ’30s, at the height of his restoration program with deer, he worked hard to try to protect and rebuild a viable turkey population inside Rock Creek Refuge (later to become Blue Ridge WMA).
Contrary to some exaggerated stories, Ranger Woody never hunted deer in his youth. By 1900, when he was 16, most deer in the mountain region were gone thanks to very efficient mountaineers who hunted them down to the last animal for food. But Arthur Woody passionately hunted turkeys and small game all his life.
By the early 1900s, native wild turkey populations had been decimated in many parts of the East (like many other wildlife species) because of habitat destruction, commercial hunting and lack of regulations. In southern Union County where Arthur Woody grew up, turkeys were never completely wiped out. This was due in part to the remote and rugged nature of the area. But it was also due to the Ranger’s efforts to protect the magnificent game bird that Benjamin Franklin had wanted to serve as our national symbol.
No seasons existed on wild turkeys in the mountain region during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The big birds were hunted on a year-round basis because of the delicious meat they provided. Both hens and gobblers were fair game. Baiting by corn and shooting one or more turkeys off the roosts was not considered unethical or unsportsmanlike. By the time Arthur Woody became a full-fledged forest ranger in 1918, turkey populations in the mountains had plummeted. In some areas, they had been completely wiped out by the same settlers who had hunted deer down to the last animal.
During the late 1950s and ’60s, when the Game and Fish Commission began stocking turkeys across the Georgia mountains, no birds were ever “officially” stocked in the Blue Ridge WMA because a good population already existed inside the refuge, thanks to Ranger Woody’s vision. A decade or so after the Ranger’s death in 1946, turkeys were live-trapped in other areas and stocked in various mountain locations with funds provided by the Pittman-Robertson Act.
The first legal turkey season of the modern era was opened to hunters in Blue Ridge WMA in 1955, nine years after the Ranger’s death. However, during the first few archery deer hunts held in the refuge in 1940, 1941 and 1942, the rules of the hunt stated that archers could shoot one wild turkey. None were ever taken by the budding archers, and the all-too-effective firearms deer hunters who came in right after the archers were never given that same opportunity to take a turkey.
During Arthur Woody’s 30-plus-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, the sciences of wildlife and forest management were in their infancy. Much of what he and the Forest Service learned was through trial and error. If one method failed, new techniques would be initiated. After the nearly 40,000-acre Rock Creek Refuge became off limits to any kind of hunting (prior to 1940, only trout fishing was allowed inside the refuge), Ranger Woody made sure the local turkey population was well protected right along with his ever-expanding deer herd.
A Seasoned Turkey Hunter
Arthur Woody was an excellent rifle shot. Many turn-of-the-century old-time turkey hunters preferred using a rifle over a shotgun (often their deer rifle), and Ranger Woody was no exception. His preference for hunting the big birds during his adult life was a trusty Savage Model 99. According to Roscoe Reams, who at 14 years old met Arthur in 1938 and became a very close friend, the caliber of the lever-action rifle was believed to be .250 or .250/3000, a very fast bullet that produced a velocity of over 3,000 fps. Even in his later years when the turkey population in southern Union County was still relatively low, the Ranger always seemed to have an uncanny ability to go out and shoot a turkey (or two) just about any time he felt the urge.
“My grandfather had a special fondness for wild turkeys,” Jean McNey recalled. “He loved to hunt them, and he could always go out and get one or two for the table, especially if we had a guest coming for supper or if we happened to be celebrating some special holiday during the year.”
Jean lived with her grandparents as a child and often accompanied her grandfather to the woods.
Ranger Woody probably had a good idea of where the local turkeys roosted, how many belonged to each flock inside the refuge and where they spent most of their time feeding in the woods and gathering in mountain coves. It’s not unusual to see mountain flocks with 20 to 30 birds or more. If he wanted to shoot a bird for table fare, he likely did it only when he knew the flock was healthy and strong and when plenty of younger birds were coming along to replace the older ones. This is all conjecture, but knowing how the Ranger felt about managing and utilizing the wildlife resources in his native mountains, it makes sense.
“He hated hawks and wildcats (bobcats) with a passion,” his good friend Charlie Elliott remembered.
“And he had good reason to feud with those highly proficient predators. Hawks preyed on his young turkeys, and bobcats frequently preyed on his deer. He declared war against both species and went to great lengths to hunt them down whenever he could.”
Charlie remembered one time when Ranger Woody had a clutch of young turkey poults in a pen inside the refuge that he intended to release as soon as they were old enough. Young turkeys can fly at a very young age (at least well enough to get from the ground to a low tree limb to avoid predators like bobcats), and the Ranger had clipped their wings so they couldn’t escape the enclosure. One by one, the young birds began to disappear. Ranger Woody soon discovered that every day or so a hawk was swooping down into the pen and carrying off one of his precious poults.
“He was furious,” Charlie said. “From that time on, he shot every hawk he could get a bead on. Once, when we were driving along, we saw a big red-tailed hawk circling over a mountain valley. As the hawk steadily drew closer, Ranger Woody slammed the truck to a stop and grabbed his old lever-action .30-30. He jumped out and took aim. Blam! The hawk crumpled!”
“That’s one hawk that won’t be killin’ no more of my turkey chicks,” the Ranger proudly told Charlie.
One of Ranger Woody’s ill-fated attempts at trying to increase turkey numbers in the refuge involved raising young birds. He frequently collected eggs from nests found by local farmers and mountaineers. After hatching, he placed the young poults in pens. Those young turkeys lucky enough to survive the onslaught of hawks were eventually released into the refuge. In most cases, the efforts proved futile because the human-raised birds succumbed to bobcats and other predators. Biologists would later learn that hand-raised turkeys bonded with their human “parents,” and when released in the wild, simply did not possess the skills necessary to survive that could only be taught by real parent turkeys.
Undaunted, Ranger Woody continued to protect the remnant populations of turkeys inside the refuge and numbers increased. The great chestnut blight of the 1920s and ’30s, and the subsequent loss of a favored and highly important food item, greatly impacted not only turkeys, but deer and bears populations up and down the Appalachian chain. The blight was especially devastating to the turkeys because chestnuts were a mainstay of the turkey’s diet. Apparently all three species adjusted to the loss of chestnuts amazingly well, but deer probably fared the worst. In years with a poor acorn crop, mountain deer had little to eat.
Several articles written about the Ranger in the 1940s mention his efforts to increase and protect the turkey population inside the refuge. Charlie Elliott and others were fully aware of the successful efforts Ranger Woody made to protect the turkey population in the area. John Martin, editor and publisher of Southern Outdoors, an outdoor supplement that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, noted in an article published on July 1, 1946, shortly after Ranger Woody’s death: “A true woodsman and student of nature, Woody championed wildlife fundamentals. He preferred to increase and improve native species of game, leaving the exotics to the laboratory. Brook trout, which he called “specks,” were his favorite fish, and the turkey was the bird for which he worked to restore in the mountains near his home at Woody Gap.”
Pure Strain Of Mountain Turkeys
At age 15, Herb McClure, of Cleveland, Ga., started turkey hunting at Blue Ridge WMA when the first modern season was opened in 1955. Born in 1940, the year the first deer hunt took place in Blue Ridge WMA, Herb went on to become a well-known and respected expert on hunting mountain turkeys. In 2012, he published an outstanding book titled “Native Turkeys, and a Georgia Mountain Turkey Hunter.” In his book, Herb explains that the native mountain birds in Union County, and more specifically in Blue Ridge WMA, were never completely killed out.
As a result, Herb believes the turkeys found in Blue Ridge WMA are the purest strain of native birds found anywhere in the north Georgia mountains. Because of their “pure-blooded” status, Herb also believes these native turkeys are darker in color and traditionally have been much more difficult to hunt—that is, much harder to call in and kill. He should know. Herb killed his first Blue Ridge gobbler in 1956, the second year that a modern spring turkey season was held. He’s killed many more since.
Although some of the native Blue Ridge birds have no doubt had their gene pool diluted to some extent by turkeys moving in from other areas in recent decades, the mountain birds in the southern portion of Union County remain extremely tough and challenging to hunt. Thanks to Ranger Woody’s efforts, some of Georgia’s most notable turkey hunters who came along in the 1950s—men like the legendary Arthur Truelove (with whom Herb hunted on a number of occasions) cut their teeth hunting the elusive “black” birds of Blue Ridge WMA. Since 1955, other pioneer turkey hunters like Herb McClure, Roscoe Reams and Charlie Elliott consistently outsmarted tough Blue Ridge gobblers. Their successes are a real tribute to Ranger Woody’s efforts.
Most of the turkeys Ranger Woody killed in his adult life were for special occasions, as granddaughter Jean McNey mentioned, holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas or at times when a special guest like Georgia Governor E.D. “Ed” Rivers (who served two terms as governor from 1937 to 1941) was planning to stop by for dinner. Sadly, as with his boyhood exploits, very little information was ever recorded about Ranger Woody’s turkey hunting experiences or about his efforts to rebuild the local population.
During his long career, Ranger Woody mentored numerous young men in the Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other related agencies. Two of the young men he mentored would go one to become nationally known turkey hunters in their own right, Charlie Elliott and Roscoe Reams.
According to his autobiography, Charlie Elliott killed his first wild turkey in the north Georgia mountains in 1923 on his first-ever turkey hunt at the age of 18. After attending the University of Georgia in the early 1920s for several years, he went to work in Union County as an assistant regional forester for the Georgia Department of Forestry. Charlie’s job put him in close touch with Ranger Woody, who was 21 years his senior. The two men became good friends and worked together closely for the next two decades until the Ranger’s death in 1946.
The following quote is from a story I wrote about Charlie in March 1989 titled “The True Colors of Charlie Elliott.” At the time I interviewed Charlie for this story, I had no reason to question him about the “old mountaineer” who directed him to the old home place where he killed his first wild turkey. It is very possible that the mountaineer he referred to could have been Ranger Arthur Woody. If not the Ranger himself, it was probably another mountaineer with whom the Ranger had put Charlie in touch.
“There were few turkeys in the state back then, and this old mountaineer had told me where I might find some,” Charlie said. “I had an old Model 12 Winchester 12 gauge, and I went to this old home place that the mountain man had told me about. I no sooner got out of my car and started walking around when a gobbler flushed right in front of me. I shot him in the air. When I got back, the old man said, ‘Boy, you sure got him fast.’ I said, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing to this turkey hunting!”
Charlie later became widely known in turkey hunting circles as “the Old Professor.” Among the
20-some-odd books he wrote during his lifetime, two were about turkey hunting, and several others contained some of his favorite turkey hunting stories. He also wrote numerous magazine articles in Outdoor Life about his turkey hunting adventures and about his friend Arthur Woody. His early interest in outsmarting cagey old mountain gobblers no doubt was heavily influenced by his close friend and mentor. Since he and the Ranger each shared a lifelong passion for hunting wild turkeys, it is likely they hunted together from time to time, although I’ve never found any written evidence to verify this.
For decades, turkey hunters have traditionally collected the beards and spurs from their trophy gobblers just as deer hunters collect the antlers from the bucks they kill. When Herb McClure first started hunting turkeys in the Blue Ridge WMA in the mid 1950s, he would often go into the hardware store in Dahlonega to pick up shells or other supplies. A string of long turkey beards hung on one wall in that historic old store, and Herb remembers being told by people working there that the gobblers once sporting those 10- and 12-inch-long beards were said to have been killed by none other than Ranger Arthur Woody.
One can only imagine the rich stories the Ranger must have shared around the campfire about his turkey hunting exploits.
Editor’s Note: Autographed copies of “Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” may be ordered by sending $35 (this includes tax and shipping) to Duncan Dobie, 3371 Meadowind Ct., Marietta, GA 30062. The hardback book is 512 pages featuring more than 180 vintage black-and-white photos.
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