History Of NWTF’s Georgia State Chapter

Bringing turkeys back was job one when this group started.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | May 1, 2002

“And the winning number of the chapter gun, this brand new Mossberg in Advantage camo, is…!”

Not mine.

As NWTF Regional Director Ricky Peek finished calling out the rest of the winning ticket number, I tossed my little green ticket onto the table, right next to my door-prize number card, and my blue ticket for the 5-gun raffle. Some folks I know just seem to be gun-magnets, winning more turkey guns at National Wild Turkey Federation banquets than they’ll ever use. They might as well collect their gun as they enter the door of the banquet hall each year. Not me.

Of course, I wasn’t the only person at the Morgan County NWTF chapter banquet who didn’t win a gun. A group of hunters from Covington sitting next to me were also looking gloomily at piles of raffle tickets.

“Well,” one of them said, “that was money well spent.”

Michael Tull (at the mic), the 2002 Chairman of the National Board of Directors, and Sam Stowe, the 2002 NWTF Georgia state chapter president.

He wasn’t being sarcastic, he was serious, and everyone at the table within hearing voiced their agreement. He was referring to the ultimate destination of his luckless money — the National Wild Turkey Federation Super Fund.

Established by the national NWTF organization in 1985, the Super Fund gathers all monies raised by local and state NWTF chapter banquets, as well as corporate and individual donations. Most of each state’s Super Fund dollars stay in that state and are dispersed toward a wide array of projects. Since 1985, Georgia chapters have raised more than $1.1 million for projects in Georgia, and the amount grows each year. Last year alone, nearly $300,000 went from Georgia’s Super Fund to projects around the state. The list of projects is impressive — suffice it to say that if you hunt turkeys in this state, whether on public or private land, you have profited from the NWTF Super Fund.

But the achievements of the Super Fund, and the story of the success of the Georgia State Chapter NWTF, go much deeper than a bullet list of expenditures. It is a story that is inseparably joined to the modern turkey hunting phenomenon in this state. You can’t talk about the resurgence of the wild turkey flock in Georgia without it being a tale of “federation” folks. You can’t go to the Turkeyrama or an opening-day big gobbler contest or a Wildlife Management Area in the spring without being surrounded by the influence of the NWTF state chapter.

Georgia turkey-hunting legend Roscoe Reems was there to help teach hunting skills to initiates when the group that would become the Georgia State Chapter NWTF began to form in the mid 1970s.

“The joint efforts of the NWTF and Georgia DNR are the single reason that turkey hunting is what is is today in Georgia,” said Frank Huggins, former president of the Atlanta chapter and a dedicated volunteer. “When you look at the tremendous growth that we’ve had in the turkey flock, and the fact that we have a huntable population in every county in the state, it is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the men and women who have been involved over the years.”

The organization that today raises nearly $300,000 annually in Georgia for the Super Fund and has 74 chapters and 72 banquets planned in 2002, began as a loose brotherhood of old-time turkey hunters who gathered to swap stories and see who was the best caller. Dennis Palmer of Washington, who serves today as an at-large member of the state Board of Directors, was among them.

“We started holding a meeting in Washington in 1974,” said Dennis. “I don’t know what you’d call it, but we had a turkey-calling contest and a few prints that we auctioned off, and that’s all it was. In 1979 it moved to Unicoi, but it was nothing like the huge event that the State Convention at Unicoi has become today.”

Today, a calling contest draws hordes of hopeful contestants, and various divisions are needed to keep them organized. In the 1970s, getting a half-dozen callers required some work, and celebrity judges like Ben Rogers Lee were brought in to draw participants. Georgia DNR’s turkey-restocking program had only just begun in 1972, and a best estimate put the turkey population at 17,000 birds statewide. Turkey hunters included the few die-hard folks who had kept hunting gobblers through lean times and a handful of young hunters who were curious about this recovering game bird.

NWTF has enjoyed strong leadership from dedicated folks who volunteer their time. John May (at the mic), first president of the Atlanta chapter and later state chapter president, and Richard Dixon, also a president of the Atlanta chapter, announce $90,000 in Super Fund money in 1990.

“All the deer hunters started to see turkeys appear on their land,” said John May, the first president of the Atlanta chapter. “Like I did, I saw them walk underneath my stand, and I said, ‘I’ve got to learn how to hunt those things.’ Back then, nobody much knew how to hunt, so one of the duties of a chapter was to get hunters together, hold seminars, and invite speakers and call makers.”

Along with John May, the early chapter meetings drew many curious hunters, including Michael Tull, who showed up to listen to experts like Georgia turkey-hunting sage Roscoe Reems. Among other topics, Roscoe once taught his eager listeners how to tie-dye a tan shirt and pants and make camouflage, since there was no such thing as Trebark, Realtree, or Mossy Oak at the time.

“It’s like 1981 or so, we’re all in this room, most of us greener than gourds, and Roscoe, the first thing he does is grab this shotgun and spray paints it,” said Michael. “I had an 1100 that was given to me when I was about 11 by my father. I thought, ‘If I spray that gun and my old man finds out, I’ll get a whipping, and here I am 20-something years old.’ Roscoe said, ‘Son, this ain’t nothing but a piece of hardware. If it’s shiny in the woods, it ain’t no good.’ I went home and painted my shotgun.”

Michael said that one of the first things he learned at chapter meetings was that if turkey hunting was to have a future in the state, and thus if he was to have much success, there would have to be more turkeys. The core group of volunteers like him began to grow, and in 1983 the Atlanta NWTF chapter was formed and held its first banquet. It was the first official NWTF fund-raising banquet in the nation, an event that will celebrate its 20th anniversary on September 26 of this year.

The success of the Georgia NWTF has hinged on its hard-working volunteers around the state. Bradley Varble, of Athens, works year-round for the state chapter and can always be seen working the NWTF booth at outdoor shows — time and effort that he donates freely to the state chapter.

“That first banquet we netted $5,000,” said Michael. “And we sat around a few days after the banquet and said, ‘Man, we are cash rich! It’s all ours to spend in Georgia.’ Then we started looking at what to do with it, and we said, ‘You know what, we don’t have any money. We haven’t done enough.’ And that got me hooked.”

“A lot of people stepped forward and volunteered,” said John, “and everybody was just completely infatuated with this new thing, this turkey hunting, and they just had to get deeper and deeper involved.”

Following the Atlanta chapter’s lead, other chapters around the Southeast began to hold banquets, further emphasizing the need for a system to manage the funds that were raised. In 1985, the national organization created the Super Fund, and the Georgia state chapter began putting its money toward the greatest area of need: turkey restocking and protection. Money and volunteer time were given to DNR to augment the trapping and restocking program that had already begun. Meanwhile, NWTF members started projects of their own, like a letter-writing campaign to judges.

“Back then if they caught someone poaching a turkey, they’d go down to the grocery story and say, ‘Okay, turkey costs .65 cents a pound,’ and they’d charge them $25,” said John. “Well, national said that to trap a turkey and transport it and restock it costs about $500. So we wrote that up in a letter and sent it to all the judges, and it was effective. The judges all of a sudden started laying out these $400 and $500 fines for killing hens. That helped us with the restocking program, because folks were a little less apt to poach.”

State biologists like Jerry Bearden were instrumental in trapping and relocating wild turkeys to reestablish populations across Georgia.

There’s no need to tell a Georgia turkey hunter that those efforts paid off. Today, the state’s turkey population is estimated at nearly half a million birds, and there is literally not a county in Georgia where gobblers cannot be heard shaking the woods on spring mornings. The turkey population continues to grow, and so do annual funds collected from NWTF banquets around the state. With restocking an all but closed chapter in Georgia turkey-hunting history, the state NWTF leadership will not be found resting on its superb achievements. Instead, some time ago, new goals were brought into focus.

“If you listen to some of the old-timers, they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re restocked now, we need to disband.’” said Michael. “This is the time that it’s more important than ever that we use the money for education and conservation, both on public and private lands.”

The ongoing Super Fund infusions into habitat management will continue to provide Georgia DNR with money for management projects.

“It would be hard to find an acre of public land within our WMA system that hasn’t benefitted from Super Fund money,” said Dan Forster, assistant chief of the Wildlife Resources Division’s Game Management section.

From fertilizer and seed to tractors and seed drills, Super Fund money directly benefits public-land turkeys.

Through a successful trapping and restocking program, Georgia DNR and the Georgia State Chapter NWTF worked together to make a half million turkeys out of 17,000 in 30 years’ time. In this photo, DNR personnel package live turkeys trapped in a cannon net for transport.

“Oftentimes we cost-share equipment with them,” said Dan. “We may have $7,000 in equipment money, but we really would like to buy a tractor that costs $14,000, so we’ll cost-share the tractor. Maybe a harrow, maybe a no-till drill. It helps us stretch our dollars.”

Super Fund money also benefits private-land hunters. NWTF members, for instance, can apply to purchase seed for food plots at reduced prices through a seed-subsidy program, made possible by the Super Fund.

The newest area of priority for the state chapter, though, is one that promises benefits to all sportsmen, not just turkey hunters.

“To me, one of the most important new projects has been our JAKES program,” said Sam Stowe, the current state chapter President. “Our event down at Charlie Elliott is in its fourth year. We started out with just a little over 100 kids, now we’re hosting about 600 kids.

“That and education — we have kind of grown toward the education side. Of course, our turkey projects are still important to us. That has got to come first. But then we have got to reach out. If we don’t reach those kids and those single parents then we don’t have any hunters for tomorrow.”

The youth-focused programs and education-outreach efforts of the Georgia state chapter are as impressive as the relentless restoration efforts were a decade ago. Two state chapter JAKES events each year, plus other events organized by local chapters, introduce kids to the fun of the outdoors and wildlife. There are also scholarships for youths available through local chapters, as well as a statewide scholarship of $1,000. Local chapters can apply for up to two education packages that can be placed in area school libraries. These kits, which supply teachers with fun and factual instruction courses about wild turkeys, are used mostly around Thanksgiving. More than 180 were placed in Georgia schools last year, and that many more will be placed this year. Response from teachers has been enthusiastic.

Then there’s the Women in the Outdoors program, a joint effort with DNR that will begin this fall that will be much like the JAKES program for kids — fun with an outdoor-focus — but geared toward adults. Wheelin’ Sportsmen will also start this fall and will cater to wheelchair-bound hunters and fishermen.

All of this effort, and other projects that are too numerous to list, improve the outlook for all types of hunting.

“I think the hunting community as a whole has benefitted from the NWTF, not just the turkey-hunting community, because they are an active player in all of the issues relevant to hunting and management in the state,” said Dan. “They have taken active roles in such issues as dealing with the Forest Service on trying to improve opportunities for active management like controlled burning, hunting opportunity on state-owned lands, shooting sports at the federal level — there’s just a lot of things that work behind the scenes that the NWTF is doing that most people don’t see.”

Michael Tull, like many others, has given prodigious amounts of sweat, time and even money to the cause — he’s advanced in his leadership role to Chairman of the Board of the national organization, yet he and others are ready for the work ahead.

“Today we’re spending millions of dollars a year on the ground as a result of our success, so that now we’re not only sharing the love of the wild turkey, we’re sharing outdoor conservation with all kinds of people.

“To me, the job is not over, it’s just beginning.”

Editor’s Note: This article was written and published in the May 2002 edition of GON magazine.

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