The River Keeper, A Special Gobbler

The author tracked this Georgia gobbler clear into the next county.

Bobby Thompson | March 28, 2020

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the winter of despair…”  

What, you might reasonably ask, could the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” possibly have to do with trying to kill an old gobbler in the Oconee River Swamp in Georgia’s Washington County?  

Well, over some 55 years of passionately pursuing spring gobblers, I have come to understand that turkey hunting often mimics life. There are good times and bad times, times when you believe it’s going to happen and times when you know it’s just not going to happen and times when you are simply incredulous at what actually happened. Hope springs anew, and then sprints away, leaving only dark despair in its wake— with maybe a few sharp putts and an empty shotgun shell or three thrown in for good measure. A case in point:

It had taken me an hour and a half to drive to some property that I had permission to hunt and knew held some turkeys. I had driven around on the roads there and had a rough idea of the boundaries but did not really know it well at all. What I did know was that my cousins who owned the tract had cut most of the timber on it to feed their sawmills, but they had left about 80 acres of mature hardwoods in a block on the south end about a half mile from the Oconee River.  I figured several gobblers were in there because I had heard some good gobbling the previous weekend while doing some pre-season scouting. From the sound of things there were at least two mature toms in that block of timber.

Dawn was just a faint promise as I slipped into my camo coveralls and turkey vest, making certain that I had plenty of insect repellent. I could maybe get by without extra shells, calls, or a face mask, but the mosquitoes were awesome—and almost as big as the turkeys! I voiced a brief prayer for safety and success and set off into the silvering dawn along a dim woods road with my old Remington 870 slung over my shoulder and eager anticipation in my heart. Hallelujah! It was turkey season again. God is good. It was the best of times.

Ten minutes later I was standing on a high point of ground that jutted into the floodplain forest savoring every sound, sniffing the scent of wild azaleas mixed with the loamy smell of fresh-rooted earth from a band of roving wild hogs. From deep in the swamp the hoot of an owl found its way to my eager ears. He was answered by another that was much closer. This one started his sequence with a long screech, which never fails to make my hair stand on end and concluded with his best 9-noted hoot. Then he and his buddy got into a hoo-hah contest for a short span of time. Nothing.  

Nary a gobble. 

“Nary a chirp,” as one of my dad’s old turkey hunting friends, Dr. George Moore from Walterboro, S.C., used to say. Every bird in the woods was singing his early morning love song to the world, but the old gobblers remained silent. It wasn’t the worst of times, but it wasn’t looking all that good either. 

Ten minutes went by. It was getting close to fly-down time when the call of a new species of bird rang raucously across the treetops—a crow. In the cacophony of bird song seasoning the air with love music, I hadn’t noticed that the crows were silent. 

Another crow answered the first with a raucous caw caaaaawwh of his own.  

Gobble obble obble! 

From what seemed to be all the way across the timber, a single, clear gobble rang out. Two simultaneous thoughts sprang to my mind as my pulse quickened: “Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Crow.” Thought No. 2 was, “But man! He’s a long way off, and I’d better move fast if I’m going to get close before he flies down!”  

I took off on a beeline through the shadowy swamp, all but running as I dodged around reed cane and palmetto clumps, over logs, under limbs and through standing pools of mosquito-bearing river water left by the spring freshet. It may not have been the best of times yet, but things were certainly looking up.

Twenty minutes later I had reached an impasse. I found myself on the south bank of a deep slough. With only a trickle of water coursing its bottom, I could easily get across, but there was what appeared to be a clearcut 30 yards or so in front of me between myself and the old bird, who was now gobbling his warty head off. It sounded like he was just on the far side of the opening. I was fearful of spooking him if I tried to advance farther, and he was no more than 100 yards as it was.

The author sent in a picture of a Toombs County gobbler he killed. His favorite hunting buddy Sapelo sits in for the photo.

Finding a monster red oak nearby on the bank of the big slough, I sat against it, took a sip of water and readied my calls. With my hat brim pulled low, face mask pulled up and my gun across my lap, I cupped both hands in front of my mouth and sent a soft series of yelps into the cool spring air currents. I was answered immediately by a resounding gobble from the far side of the opening. Then came three more gobbles in rapid succession. He was close enough that the base undertones of his voice seemed to vibrate in my chest. Then came a different sound from the old boy’s vicinity; the staccato cutting of a belligerent hen. 

Did I say that turkey hunting, like life, has its ups and downs?  

I felt that my odds of calling in this particular turkey on this particular day had just taken a nosedive. Then, to further complicate matters, I heard a totally unexpected sound—a big splash. The picture that now came into focus was bleak. What I had taken to be a clearcut was actually the river. What a downer. You don’t have to hunt turkeys very long to figure out that calling one across a ditch or fence row is next to impossible, but a river?  Come on, man! 

I was incredulous at this turn of events. My straight flush was turning into a flat funk.

Let me rewind the story a bit.

After his first gobble at the crows, this old bird had kept right on gobbling. He flew down well before I got into comfortable calling range and kept gobbling as he walked steadily across the swamp directly away from me. I followed, thinking that he would stop soon and give me an opportunity to set up and start a conversation. I called to him several times as he strode purposefully westward. He would answer but never slowed down until he had flown from Washington County to Wilkinson County by way of crossing the Oconee.  He had gone right through briars and brush so thick that when I emerged from the cutover onto the bank of that slough, I was bleeding from every area of exposed skin. Good thing I had the mosquito repellent because I was attracting mosquitoes like a dead skunk attracts buzzards. 

I had followed him through a half mile of swamp and stickers only to find that he had changed counties on me.  It wasn’t the worst of times, but once again, it wasn’t looking particularly good either. On the other hand, things were sounding terrific. There have been countless times through the years that I have returned from a hunt never having heard a gobble at all, nor a chirp, cluck, putt or poot for that matter. 

Here I was on the bank of an unknown tree-lined slough, hard on the bank of a little-known river, sitting under a magnificent oak on a beautiful spring morning. The air was filled with the sounds of bird songs and buzzing bees (and biiiggg mosquitoes!) and the scent of a myriad of blooming wildflowers. And the biggest, baddest bird in two counties was singing his own love song at the top of his considerable lungs just across the county line. I had to admit to myself, despite sitting there holding four cards to an inside straight with little hope of drawing out, there was really no place on Earth I’d rather be.  

“Stay in the game,” I said softly to myself.  “Sit and enjoy the music. Play the cards you’ve been dealt. God has been gracious to you this day. Maybe if I sit here and play the game as well as I can, a miracle will happen.”  

Once more I cupped my hands to my mouth and over the thin reeds of the diaphragm, I sang my own sweet love song to the birds and the bees, to the river and the trees.

For an unimaginably wonderful hour or so I listened to that gobbler strut back and forth on that sandbar and serenade the world as to his splendor.  

“Come and fight,” he said to every other gobbler on the planet, “and I will show you my spurs and my beak—my beauty and your blood.” 

“Come and mate,” he said to every female of his kind for as far as his mighty voice would reach, “and I will breed you on my beach beside the smooth-flowing waters of my river, and you will bear my young to bless my domain.”

I played my best card. Another string of yelps cutt off by a series of sharp, coarse cuts on my Wendell Lancaster hinged-lid box. The hen cutt back from across the river. The gobbler boomed his best. And wonder of wonders I heard the sound of a turkey flushing from a sandbar in Wilkinson County.  Here she came. The jealous hen lit high in an oak some 60 yards away and 60 feet up. As her feet touched the limb, another more welcome sound came to my ears. The River Keeper was changing counties again.

Inside straight drawn! 

Lottery won. 

Fumble recovered with two seconds left on the clock.  

Miracle in process.  

He lit in another one of those mighty riverside oaks 45 yards across the slough. He would have been in good range if not for the fact that he was also 75 feet off the ground. Like Br’er Rabbit to Tar Baby, I stuck tight to the bole of my tree—nestled as far back between the up-thrust roots as possible.  I wasn’t about to call again. I’ve played the game too many times to show my cards before the best possible moment.  I knew he could fly down toward the hen, but I also knew that if I called again, he would likely stay in that tree forever, looking for a hen that would never show. Then he would sail back across the river and out of my life.  

Five heart-pounding, breath-holding minutes passed like an eternity. At last satisfied that I was merely out of sight, he leaned over, spread his mighty wings, and sailed softly onto the damp forest floor 40 yards away.  He took one brief look around, fanned his tail, dropped his wings and started to strut toward the hen’s tree. When I raised the old Remington, he dropped his strut and lifted his brilliant red, white and blue head and looked my way. Incredulity set in as I hid his head behind the bead and sent the charge of No. 6s on their deadly way.

Moments later, sitting beside him on the riverbank, smoothing his feathers, marveling at his paintbrush beard, and pricking myself with his needle-sharp 1 1/2-inch spurs, I knew I had witnessed a miracle.  Hallelujah!  It was the best of times.

My three rules for turkey hunting is to go often, stay long and believe he is coming, even when you’re sure he won’t.

The author with a gobbler he killed using the same techniques outlined in this article on how to hunt swamp turkeys, which present some unique challenges.

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