Savannah’s First Turkey

The author found an amazing blessing from 'giving up' his traditional opening-day turkey hunt.

Lynn Stanford | February 23, 2010

I’ve not missed an opening day of turkey season in Putnam County in more than 30 years. It’s the day real turkey hunters look forward to more than any other. We normally start to anticipate this day about dark on the last day of turkey season. I don’t say this to be funny; I’m dead serious. I really do go through a certain amount of depression when the season ends.

With this said, the guru of turkey hunting, my good friend, Donald Jarrett (D.J), called me during the late winter of 2009. He asked if Brad Gill had spoken with me about helping him with a church project. I had not heard from Brad, so Donald gave me a quick run-down on what Brad needed. Brad was organizing a turkey hunt for kids. It would be sponsored by Crossroads Baptist Church in Putnam County, and the goal was to get kids active in church by getting them into the turkey woods, and he needed volunteers. Donald said he and Bobby Knight were both going to help and wanted me to be a part of it.

I loved the idea and volunteered pretty quickly, although I have to admit I did hesitate about two seconds when Donald told me it was planned for opening day of turkey season. Like I said, opening day is a very special day, so if I could make this day special for a kid, then to God be the glory.

Lynn Stanford called in Savannah Jones’ first turkey. After the pair struck out opening day last year, Savannah rolled this jake on her second hunt.

Brad called me that same night and explained the program in detail. I told Brad that D.J. had given me a quick run-down and not to worry, because I would be there. Then he humbled me a bit by asking me if I would be willing to take his 14-year-old niece on her first-ever turkey hunt. I was honored and told him I would be glad to do it. He told me a little about her and said she had taken a couple of deer while hunting with him but had not yet been on a turkey hunt.

“She loves to hunt and is very conscientious about hunting,” Brad said.

He said he would work with her on how to “set up” when getting on a bird and also proper shot placement.

“Don’t worry,” Brad said, “She will be ready.”

With this in mind, I could relax and concentrate on finding and scouting the perfect spot to take a kid for their first-ever turkey hunt and hopefully their first-ever turkey.

I’ve taken many first timers turkey hunting. Most of them were adult men, and for the most part they could follow me to places beyond the crowds. It’s a little different with a kid. Personally, I want them to enjoy the hunt. I don’t want them to have to cross streams, wade swamps and climb mountains. They will not have a good time if they’re tired, wet and muddy. They can learn to accept these challenges later when they’re a little more experienced. For now, fun is the agenda.

Over the next month or so, I located several places that would be fairly easy to access and should hold birds. I kept a check on these spots from time to time. They each had good turkey signs, some more than others.

A couple weeks before the opener, I started slipping into these spots before dawn in hopes to hear one singing. I was not disappointed. On Friday morning before the opener, there were several birds gobbling in one of my best tracts of private land. My confidence was high, and the stage was set.

Friday evening before the big day found all the kids, volunteers and church staff at Indian Creek campground on B.F. Grant WMA. There was good food, fellowship, introductions and a great devotional time. My son, WRD Law Enforcement ranger Cpl. Bubba Stanford was also present to give all the kids a few words of encouragement and safety tips.

Savannah Jones, 14 at the time, poses in the spot where she rolled this Cedar Creek WMA jake. “Thank you, Mr. Lynn. I had so much fun. I’ll never forget this day.”

Brad introduced me to his niece, 14-year-old Savannah Jones and her mother from Hoschton. Savannah was dressed in camouflage and wearing a big smile which I’d say is always a winning combination. This beautiful young lady was simply bubbling with excitement. We talked for a while and got to know each other pretty well and made final plans for the next-day’s hunt.

The next morning, Savannah was already up, dressed, had breakfast and was waiting on me by the campfire when I arrived at 5 a.m. I was impressed, but given her attitude, I was not surprised. She was ready to kill a turkey.

As we drove along, we talked about what to expect of the morning’s hunt. When we arrived at the hunt area, we began to speak in whispers and slowly walked toward the creek drainage where I hoped the birds would be waiting. We arrived at the blind I had constructed earlier and got set-up. We settled in and waited for the first gobble. Then we waited some more. Nothing! Songbirds began to chirp and sing and still nothing.

Uh-oh, I thought. What’s going on here? Where are they? They’ve been here all week, and now they’re not? These were my thoughts, but I did not voice them because I didn’t want Savannah to become discouraged. I owled a time or two and still nothing. I told Savannah that maybe they were roosted a little farther away, and we just couldn’t hear them.

I started calling with very soft yelps, and with no response I picked up the tempo a bit; still nothing. A fly-down brought the same response. I still felt we would be okay because the place had been so hot all week. We sat tight.

After a while, I began to have second thoughts about my decision to stay put. Some days the birds just don’t sing. I wish I knew why, but I don’t. I have bumped birds for this very reason. They would be slipping in silent while I would think there was nothing going on, until “putt-putt.” Hunt over. So sit there we did, until lunch time anyway.

During the next couple hours and between calls, Savannah and I talked about everything from turkey hunting to friends, family and Jesus. This young lady is smart. I’m no scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but Savannah held her own in conversation with an old codger four times her age. It was a true pleasure to spend time in the turkey woods with such a pleasant and charming youngster.

Later that morning, I guess I was kind of showing off with my limited knowledge of turkey hunting. I kept giving all kinds of instructions on what to do if this happens or if that happens, and I guess she was pretty much interested until I told her something that left me with egg on my face.

I was instructing Savannah on how to distinguish hens from gobblers, and I told her one of the identifying marks of a gobbler is his beard. I told her what it looked like and where it would be on his body.

Wouldn’t you know what happened next? Yep! Ten minutes later, a great big old “boss” hen shows up with about a 10-inch beard and a reddish old head to boot. I had to crawfish quick, so I told Savannah to keep her gun at safe, and then I started to explain to her how sometimes hens do have beards, although it’s rare. I’ll never forget what she said next.

She looked at me with that big beautiful smile and said, “Are you sure that’s not a guy turkey?”

I almost laughed out loud, but then just smiled and assured her that, “Yes, I am sure that it is a girl turkey and not a guy turkey.”

Another turkey hunting moment etched in my memory forever.

That one old hen is all we saw. The rest of the morning was uneventful, so we headed back to camp for lunch. Savannah and I talked about the afternoon hunt, and I thought about it long and hard. I trust my instincts, and they were telling me to go right back where we were that morning. My reasoning being this: the birds liked the area, they had been there all week, they were not there that morning, so surely they would show that afternoon. Well, this little piece of reasoning on my part supports just how much I know about turkeys. It sounded like a plan and would have worked; only we forgot to tell the turkeys. We saw no birds that afternoon, and the only thing we heard was someone on a 4-wheeler riding up and down a firebreak.

Although this hunt was over, I refused to just give up and walk away with a “well, we tried” attitude. No sir! This young lady had spent eight hours sitting in a blind, waiting patiently for me to put a gobbler in front of her, and I had not fulfilled my part of the deal. I was bound and determined to call in a bird for Savannah if she was willing to go at a later date. She told me she had enjoyed the day and had really learned a lot, so yes, she did want to go again.

That night, back at the camp, I told Brad I wanted to take Savannah hunting again since we didn’t score on the hunt. Brad said I wasn’t obligated to do that, but if we both wanted to go again, that it was fine with him. We made plans for a couple weeks later. I think it was on Thursday before Good Friday. The kids were on spring break from school, so that’s the day we planned for.

I met Brad in Eatonton at 5 a.m. He was taking another kid hunting in Greene County that morning, so when Savannah got her gear into my truck, we lit-a-shuck for Cedar Creek WMA. This wasn’t going to be one of those easy-to-access places. We were going to get serious. We were headed to one of my honeyholes deep in the WMA.

We had a pretty good distance to cover that morning to reach the hunting area. Now that I knew Savannah well enough, I knew she was up to it. I had gone in there earlier and brushed in a blind by an old oak tree where I had hunted in years past. I also decided to use a pair of decoys to help take a gobbler’s attention away from us if maybe we had to move around in the blind for whatever reason. This would prove to be a good move. The decoys were set up at about 25 yards, and we were ready.

After a few minutes, the woods began to awake. I did my best imitation of an owl and was somewhat surprised when nothing happened. I waited a minute and repeated the call with the same results. Thirty minutes later and after several fly-down cackles and yelps the woods were still quiet. By then it was full daylight, and under normal circumstances I would still have been very patient and confident, but I could not help thinking, “Oh no, here we go again!”

Savannah was sitting there quietly watching and listening. Without her knowing, I simply closed my eyes and said, “Lord, for Savannah’s sake, and if you see fit, I sure could use a little help right about now!”

Now that was only a short, quiet prayer, but that’s all it took. The very next call I made a gobbler answered at 100 yards to our hard right. We moved on the tree to face the bird, but he circled us, and we had to do a 180. By now we could hear him drumming, but we had not yet seen the gobbler. When we finally did see him we realized there were two of them, but only one was doing all the strutting and gobbling.

I quietly instructed Savannah to get on the strutter but not to shoot until I gave her word. We watched them walk into the decoys, and when the strutter was clear of all brush, I clucked one time and up his head went. I said “Shoot.”

Click! I nearly died. The fault was mine, plain and simple. I had loaded rounds into the magazine, but for reasons of safety, I had not chambered a shell. After reaching our setup before day, I simply forgot.

The next move took maybe 1/100 of a second. Without hesitation, I took the gun, chambered a shell, handed the gun back to Savannah, she sighted on the bird, which had been at 25 yards, but was now at 35 yards.

“Boom!” Bird down. I watched to make sure he was down for good, and he was. I reached for the gun, which is what I normally do when hunting with youngsters, but when I saw Savannah’s face and heard the excitement in her voice, I simply said “Stop, wait a minute.”

I then reached in my vest for my camera. I had to try and capture what I was witnessing. She was absolutely beaming with excitement.

We did some high-fives. We took our time and enjoyed the moment. I wanted Savannah to take time to let the experience absorb into her heart and soul. She had just accomplished something she can never, ever do again. Oh, she’ll kill other turkeys, no doubt, but she can never kill her first one again. That first one is always special, and I’m honored to have been a part of it and to have shared such a special moment with this young lady.

We walked out to my truck and drove to the check station. After getting Savannah’s gobbler signed in, another hunter offered to take a photo of Savannah and me together with her bird. This photo hangs in my den today.

We contacted Brad by cell phone, and he was thrilled. Because Brad was still hunting, we met Brad’s wife, Denise, at Crossroads Church.

We talked for a few minutes, and I was about to leave when Savannah came up to me and said “Thank you Mr. Lynn. I had so much fun. I’ll never forget this day.”

I hugged her gently and said “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

If you’re a hunter and a sportsman, then teach a child to hunt. Teach them to be woods wise and good sportsmen. Most of them are just itching to learn, and they learn fast. Who knows? You just may learn something from them. I know I did. Another thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is when you ask God to be a part of something, things happen, because with Him, all things are possible!

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