Hunting Natives: Georgia’s Mountain Turkeys

More than 55 years of turkey hunting in the Georgia mountains led to a book on these special birds - and a very special season for Herb McClure.

Herb McClure | March 5, 2014

Having recently written a book about turkey hunting, “Native Turkeys and a Georgia Mountain Turkey Hunter,” I hoped to have a positive turkey season this past spring of 2013.

Just killing a gobbler anywhere was not my desire. The book’s background is where I began hunting turkeys on the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and other mountain areas in 1956. Back then, the Blue Ridge area was a 39,000-acre wildlife WMA located in north Georgia’s high mountains. In these higher and wildest mountains, the wild turkeys were never eradicated. The old timers of these mountains called the turkeys “natives,” which is the reason for the book’s title.

And so it seemed fitting that I should hunt descendants of native turkeys and maybe try to harvest a Blue Ridge gobbler last season. I am not a hunter who wants to kill a lot of turkeys… nor do I want to kill them just anywhere. If killing lots of turkeys were my desire, surely I could find easier places to hunt.

Due to very unseasonable cold weather, rain and snow, it was March 28 before I went to hunt. I began hunting on the south side of the old Blue Ridge WMA. This first morning was a 20-degree one, but no wind. A gobbler was gobbling on his roost. Using a Leon Johenning Turkey Caller, I called and received a gobble back. Thirty minutes later a gobbler appeared, but due to several factors I missed the shot! First, I was chilled to the bone. Then there was the excitement of possibly an early kill, both of which caused shaking that I could not control. Too, not having my head down tight on the gun stock and rushing the shot too all aided in the missed shot. I call this opening-day jiggers or mistakes.

The next week on April 4, I eased down a side ridge off of a larger main ridge to a level shelf. I have used this shelf with other successful hunts.

Fortunately, another gobbler was heard at daylight. Again, using the Leon’s caller, three gobblers were called to the shelf. I picked out and killed one, and turns out it had spurs 1 1/8 inches in length. The gobblers had traveled a long way from a deep bottom area known as the Penitentiary Cove. Just having other experiences hunting there and biding my time had helped me. The fact that these gobblers had their feathers drawn up to their ears with no wattles showing told me they were still in a wintertime mode. This was a good start for this year’s season, and now I had a gobbler for the book, which I was thankful.

On April 11, I went to a mountain near Noontootla Creek. Back in 1966, my older mentor, the late Arthur Truelove, had taken me there to hunt a gobbler. Arthur wanted to see if the Leon’s caller I had been practicing with was good enough to call a native gobbler, and it did.

On earlier scouting trips, I had found plenty of red oak acorns and hens’ scratching. I reasoned I would spend the day and call off and on. I listened past sun up and then called several hen yelps without hearing anything. Later, I called again, but still no gobbling. I always call even when I don’t hear a gobbler, hopeful a gobbler is in hearing of my calls. Waiting without hearing a gobbler is not difficult for me, especially at a known calling place. Mainly, because I cannot trust my hearing to go after gobblers, so I am content to stay put, call and wait.

Without any warning that a gobbler was near, a gobbler’s head was seen coming into view. He was followed by a hen. It is possible that the hen had something to do with no gobbling being heard from the roost. I waited patiently for the gobbler to walk behind a tree before I raised my gun, as he was in a strut. This would be his last time to strut.

This was a special gobbler to me, for two reasons. First, this mountain is in the heart of where my book’s background was derived. This was also the area where I killed my first gobbler, the one that Turkey Thomas was gobbling at in 1958; a story in the book. The second reason was because my mentor, Arthur Truelove, who first took me to this spot, had passed away Sept. 9, 2012.

On April 17, my grandson in-law, Clayton Santiago, and I were back on this mountain. However, this time, another hunter’s light was coming toward us shining in the dark. In more than 40 years of hunting there, I had never encountered any other hunters there; unless I took then with me.

This hunter was actually a very nice hunter. When we came together before daylight, he asked me who I was in a very lowly whisper. When I told him, he replied, “You have written a turkey hunting book about hunting turkeys here.” Talk about being flabbergasted, I was!

Turns out I knew of his kin-folks from way back. I also knew his father-in-law from previous turkey hunts; an-old time turkey hunter from the Cohutta Mountains. We continued to whisper very lowly in the coming dawn, and he revealed to me he had heard a gobbler gobble here the day before when he was hunting across a creek. However, when he came over here where we were, he could not locate or call the gobbler. I also revealed to him that I had already killed a gobbler here.

He said, “Congratulations, I will hunt elsewhere.”

Clayton and I stayed there, and I called a few times after sunup. We never heard a gobble. There were still fresh hen workings in the leaves, however I did not believe a gobbler was on this mountain. The fact that someone had hunted and called here the day before had probably scared away any gobbler that would have been there for us. A single hen did come about 10 a.m. After that, we slipped out.

I did believe, with a rest, another gobbler may be had. I believed this for two reasons, because of the acorns and what Arthur had revealed to me, a place where hens and gobblers liked to come together—“a calling place.”

April 30 saw me rising out of bed at 2:30 a.m. and making ready to leave my home at 3 a.m. for an hour and 30 minute drive to Noontootla Creek. Another half-hour would be needed to climb the mountain. This date was on a Tuesday, and the weekend before had been a wet one for the north Georgia mountains. My rain gauge showed 5 1/4 inches of rainfall.

I believed with this much rain it would hamper turkey hunters. The turkeys probably did not get to enjoy companionship either.

Easing into my familiar calling place, I noticed how still it was. The distance creek’s roar was unusually loud due to the heavy weekend of rainfall. Daylight uncovered lots of fresh sign, and I could see the turkeys had put in a heavy day’s work yesterday. However, no gobbles.

After sunup, I picked up Leon’s turkey caller and made some hen yelps very low, because sounds carry a long way on still mornings. In a few minutes, I made some more yelps. Then, I heard a distance sound, which I could not tell what it was. I made some more hen yelps, and after few more minutes I made out a distance gobble. My heart picked up a few extra beats in anticipation of what might happen.

Fairly quickly, the gobbles were becoming stronger and coming up the mountainside. I toned down my calls to some low cutts and purrs. The gobbles were just below a sheer drop-off. My knees were drawn up with shotgun lying across them. This gobbler could come over the bluff in back of me, or he could come up out in front where the other gobbler did. To my relief, he was sounding like he was to my front. Now, it was 7:30 a.m., and I hoped for a quick kill. Not so… this gobbler stayed under the bluff and just kept going away; not like other gobblers called here before. He went out of hearing going away.

This gobbler had not wanted to show his head above the bluff. Why? I just sat there pondering the whys. My reasoning as to why the gobbler went away and would not show himself was because he had been previously called to here and possibly even shot at. This would make him leery of this place.

My intent was to stay here and see if he would come back. Trait mountain gobblers do often, going and coming! Eighteen more minutes, and I was hearing his low gobble in the distance the way he had previously left.

Lifting the caller to my mouth, I sucked in a series of low hen yelps.

Yes, with Leon’s caller you suck on a rubber diaphragm on the underneath side of the wooden box; like sucking on a wingbone or trumpet. Each time a gobble, it became stronger.

Maybe the gobbler would come back and come back on the mountaintop ridge instead of under the bluff like he went away. Not so, he came back under the bluff to what sounded like 70 yards or so. There he gobbled several times. Later, he gobbled after he had gone a long ways in the direction he had come. Then silence, and no more gobbles were heard.

A mountain gobbler, especially a Blue Ridge gobbler, has more peculiarities than gobblers of other areas, at least areas that I have hunted. An old-time turkey hunter by the name of Lu Bur Adams revealed to me, “When a gobbler does this trick, coming and going, get up and go to where he came to, before he left. A gobbler may come back to there a second time, but no further forward, than where he came before.”

Knowing this, I should have gotten up and moved to the area under the bluff. However, I felt more secure staying at my calling place.

When one’s hearing is poor, and you don’t trust your ears as to directions or distances, going after gobblers or moving around is a recipe for disasters. So staying put was my choice; besides, I knew I was at a preferred “calling place.”

This morning had already been a thrilling time to be in the turkey woods. The air was so still, the gobbles of the gobbler were so powerful; they seemed to shake the ground. In the two times this gobbler had come to the mountain place and left, I estimated he gobbled 30 times are more. This type of turkey hunt is what makes turkey hunting so great. This old turkey hunter, here in the mountainous 2013 turkey season, was getting his money worth!

Old Tom was a gobbler who I wrote about in my book. He lived at my homestead for five years. By observations of his habits and ways, he enlightened me. Old Tom would stand in one place, “his strutting ground,” for hours at a time, calling hens from a distance mountain, which was across a public highway, to his strutting place.

His and other gobbler’s patience and listening were what I have previously described in my book as: “Listening, to the grains of sand falling through the hourglass of time.” Until you watch a gobbler display intense patience, you don’t know what patience is about.

Now, after two hours since the gobbler had first come to my calling place, I was wondering what he was doing or where he was. Picking up Leon’s caller again, I sucked out some hen yelps. A gobble cut off my yelps. It seemed to come from the other side of my calling place toward a flat gap. My heart again was in my throat! The gobbler had circled around and come back. Slowly, I adjusted myself in that direction. Knowing I was up against an obstinate gobbler, I did not call back. In a few minutes he gobbled again, verifying his position. Little by little, the gobbler began to gobble at different sounds and was getting himself all worked up.

Never before do I remember ever killing a gobbler on a third-time encounter at the same place. But because this gobbler had come back a third time and was so close and gobbling so good, I thought I would cutt and purr like a feeding hen. After doing that, all gobbling stopped. Why?

More time was going by, and my anxiety was fading again. I was wishing I had not made that last call. Sometimes, when a gobbler goes quiet, he may be moving. So at this point, I was cautious.

Then came a gobble that was so close it felt like it would jar my cap off, and I jerked. The top of a round gobbler’s tail was seen just above the huckleberry bushes coming into view right where my gun barrel was pointed. Pushing the safety off before his head could be seen, I waited.

His head was now going behind a tree, and when it cleared the other side, my gun ended what was a tough old gobbler for me.

Three Blue Ridge gobblers… what a season for the book!

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