Three Feet From Heaven: Chronicles Of A Turkey Guide

Part one of a three-part turkey-hunting fiction series.

Duncan Dobie | March 1, 2022

The gray-haired man wearing a brown fedora hat with a turkey breast feather in the hatband flipped a purple plastic worm across the small pond. It landed with a light plop about 2 feet shy of a log and some grassy weeds near the far bank. 

“So Mr. Julian Duffey, you wanna be a turkey guide?”

“Yes sir.”

“How old are you, son?”


Major Adam McKendree started reeling his plastic worm back, expertly giving it a light tug with every revolution of the reel so that it would appear to swim well. 

“That’s awful young for a guide. Most of my guides are in their 50s, and most boys your age are so obsessed with their own huntin’ they don’t have the time or the inclination to wanna call in turkeys for anybody else. Why do you wanna to be a guide? The season is short enough as it is, and there dang-sure ain’t a lot a’ money in it.”

“My granddaddy started taking me with him when I was about 9 years old,” Julian answered. 

Julian was wearing jeans and a camo shirt. His ball cap covered a thick head of brown hair. 

“He was a timber cruiser by trade. I spent a lot of time in the woods with him helping him mark trees and other stuff. I learned a lot about the woods when we were together. He was always doing good things for other people, and he really enjoyed calling in birds for just about anyone he knew who wanted to kill a turkey. He was one of those rare people who’d almost rather see someone else shoot a bird than get one himself. I guess some of his influence just sort of rubbed off on me.”

“Did he teach you to call?”

“Yes sir. He’s one of the best callers I’ve ever known. He taught me how to use just about every call out there.”  

“Have you killed many gobblers, son?”

Julian smiled. “No, but I sure have worried a bunch of ’em.”

“I like that answer. You ever killed a jake?”

“No. Granddaddy sort of frowned on that.” 

“Your grandpa must have been quite man. Is he still alive?”

“No, sir. We lost him three years ago in a freak logging accident.”

“I hate to hear that, son. I can only imagine how devastating it is to lose someone you’re that close to. And so now, you’re more or less following in his footsteps? ”

“Yes, sir I got a degree in forestry at Berry College, and I’m working for a man who Granddaddy partnered with on some big timber projects. He’s planning to retire in a few years, and I might take over his business. Right now I love working sort of freelance because it gives me plenty of time to turkey hunt in the spring.”

“Did your love of hunting inspire you to become a forester?”

“It sure did. After working with Granddaddy during my high school years, I knew I wanted to work outdoors. I couldn’t possibly work inside an office somewhere. And I love cruising timber. Granddaddy taught me how to cruise when I was 14. He was one of the best. So it’s worked out really well. That’s mostly what I do now… cruise for Granddaddy’s former partner. And since my hours are so flexible, I’ll have plenty of days this season to do some guiding.”

Major McKendree had no way of knowing it, but Julian was the spitting image of his grandfather. Tall, broad-shouldered and well-built, his penetrating blue eyes seemed to stare right through a man. Here was a young man who obviously took care of himself and that didn’t go unnoticed with the Major.

“Sounds like you’re a very lucky young man to have had a mentor like your grandfather.”     

“Yes sir. He was the best huntin’ partner and teacher a boy could ever have. It was the hardest thing I ever had to live through when he got hurt. Some logs broke loose off a truck and crushed him to death. I was standing right there when it happened.” 

“That’s gotta be a tough thing to live with, son. I reckon the only way you can keep from dwelling on it is to remember all the good times.” 

“Yes sir, and we had plenty of them. Did you ever read “The Old Man and the Boy” by Robert Ruark, Major McKendree?” 

“As a matter of fact I have a copy in the bookshelf back at the Lodge. It’s one of my all-time favorites.”

“Granddaddy was like the Old Man, only better.”

“Then I suppose you have some pretty big shoes to fill.”    

“Yes sir, I do. When I was about 11, Granddaddy had a favorite roosting spot on some land he owned on the side of a ridge where we went several times to watch the turkeys roost. He called it ‘Redemption Hill.’ There were some huge loblolly pines on the side of that ridge 90 to 100 feet tall, and we would hide at the bottom of the ridge and have front row seats to watch the turkeys fly almost straight up 50 or 60 feet. One evening I asked Granddaddy why they roosted so high. ‘Because there are many dangers at night, and they like to get as close to heaven as they can,’ he told me. 

“‘How close do they get?’ I asked. 

“‘Sometimes only a few feet away from Heaven’s front door,’ he answered. 

“‘You mean, like 3 or 4 feet?’ I asked. 

“‘Yes, about 3 feet I suppose,’ he said. 

“I never forgot that. Granddaddy always told me turkey fever was highly contagious, and I was showing signs of coming down with one of the worst cases he ever saw. ‘The affliction is not only mental, it’s also spiritual if you’re a true hunter,’ he often said. 

“It took me a long time to understand that, Major McKendree. You see, when I thought those roosting turkeys were only 3 feet away from heaven it was very spiritual for me, and now I suppose I’m fully infected, which is a good thing. These days, every time I go in the woods alone, it’s like he’s still there walking along next to me.” 

“Why did your grandfather call that ridge Redemption Hill?”

“He said he could always go there if he had a problem or if he was having a bad day and it would clear the air and make him feel better. Maybe this lake is a little like that for you Major McKendree.”

“Please call me Mack,” Major McKendree said. He smiled. “I like your analogy. And you’re very perceptive to be so young. This little pond is very special to me.” He thought for a moment. “There are worse things in life, I suppose, than to be afflicted with the turkey bug, although it sure seems to grab a man by the throat sometimes. And I couldn’t agree more. If you’re a sincere hunter, all forms of hunting should be a spiritual experience.”

He brought his worm in, adjusted the weedless hook and cast again. “Aren’t you going to catch one of my special bass?”

“Yes sir,” Julian said as he cast down the side of the lake, well away from the spot where Major McKendree had been casting. A 9-inch largemouth instantly hit his plastic worm and caused a commotion in the water. Julian reeled it in, unhooked it and gently threw it back.    

“You like my office, Julian?”  

“Yes sir. It has a really nice atmosphere, Major… er… Mack. It really threw me off when you said your office was down at the end of the dirt road and through the gap in the fence to the right, but now I understand.”

“I thought you might appreciate this kind of working environment, although I’m sure it was a little confusing when I told you to meet me at my office at 10:30 this morning. I don’t reckon you expected it to be a 4 1/2-acre farm pond. I guess we both share the same thoughts about working outdoors.”

“Yes, sir. I guess we do.” 

 “See that little boat house down the way there?”


“That’s sort of my redemption hill. That’s where I like to go to get a lot of important thinking done when I’m down here fooling around with these bass. It’s got a good roof to keep me dry when it’s raining, and a very comfortable chair to sit in and a small table to work on and ponder. And there are some real whoppers in this pond. What kind of gun do you shoot, Julian?”   

“I have an old Remington Model 1100 chambered for 3-inch shells.”

“Let me guess. It belonged to your granddaddy.”

“Yes, sir, and I love that old gun. It’s killed its share of turkeys, and every time I head out in the woods with it I feel like Granddaddy is smiling.”

Major McKendree grinned. “You have any idea what you’re gettin’ yourself into if you become a guide at Wing Bone Lodge?”

“I think so. I get along with most folks pretty well, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

“Some folks can be mighty cantankerous. Most of the men you’ll be guiding are successful businessmen. They’re used to having things go their way. They don’t want to be let down, and I want ’em to have a good hunt so they’ll come back next year. So we have to work hard to make sure we take good care of ’em and keep ’em happy—within reason that is. As you well know, turkeys can make a grown man cry and whip your hind-side a thousand ways from Sunday when you don’t even know you’ve been whipped. I don’t expect miracles; I just expect my paying hunters to get their money’s worth. And we have a fair number of gobblers this year to help make that happen.”  

“Yes sir, Major. If you hire me, I promise I’ll do everything I can to give them an unforgettable hunt.”

“You’re hired son,” Major McKendree said. “You’re just a pup, but I like what I see, and I’m a pretty good judge of character. I pay my guides $200 a day for a full day’s work. If you’re as good as I think you’ll be, you should also get some nice tips. Count on working three days on opening weekend and we’ll go over your schedule beyond that in a few days after I’ve had a chance to work it up.” He thought for a moment. “So, in your mind, how would you define a good turkey guide?”

“Being a good woodsman, knowledge of the animal I suppose, and some skill in calling. Granddaddy always said you seldom outsmart an old gobbler, so you have to outguess him to be successful. You have to figure out what he’s gonna do before he does it, and then be there when he does it.”

“Great advice! But there’s one more important element in our end of the business. And that is a real willingness to put the client first and make him think he’s been successful because of his own doing. The last thing I need or want is an egotistical guide who has to let the world know how good he is, but it does happen. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think you’re that way. The client is always the hero, not the guide.”

“Yes sir.”

“Crazy as it may sound, some clients have no interest in becoming good turkey hunters; they just want results,” Major McKendree said. “They just want the bragging rights after you do all the work and call in a bird for them. They like to give the impression they did it. Some men have some pretty inflated egos. Others really want to expand their horizons and learn everything they can about runnin’ down a big ol’ gobbler.” 

“I think I understand that,” Major McKendree.

“For Pete’s sake, call me Mack.”  

“Yes sir, Mack.”

“We try hard to make good, ethical sportsmen out of all of them, Julian, but sometimes we have to put up with a lot of nonsense. We don’t get a lot of bad eggs, but we always seem to get one or two each year. I’m sorry to say that one of them happens to be the son of my wife’s sister. This’ll be his third year huntin’ with us. Two seasons ago he killed a 24-lb. bird with an 11-inch beard and 3/4-inch spurs. Unfortunately that sort of ruined him, and last year he wore out two of my best guides with his antics. For that reason, I’m giving him to you on opening day. He’s a bit of a handful, but I think you might be up to the task.”

“I’ll give it my best shot,” Julian said.

 “I don’t mean to be throwing you into the lion’s den, son, but I’m hoping things’ll work out better this year than they did last season. If you have any problem with him at all you come to me right away, and I’ll try to nip it in the bud. He’s sort of on probation this season and he knows it. Nobody at the lodge wanted him to come back, but like I said, he’s the son of my wife’s sister.”

“I understand completely.” 

“The vast majority of hunters we get really want to savor the experience. They appreciate what you do as a guide, and to them the journey is more important than the destination. As a turkey guide, you’ll run the gambit of just about every crazy situation you can imagine. Are you ready for that at such a young age?” 

“Yes sir. I think so.”   

“I have one more question for you, Julian.”


“When a man gets to be my age, he starts thinking more and more about his destiny and the legacy he leaves behind. What is your destiny, Julian?”

“Destiny? What do you mean exactly?”

“Why do you think you were put here on this earth? What is your reason for being?”

“I really don’t have an answer for that, Major.”


“I guess to try and be a good person and to be a good turkey hunter. That’s all I know.”

“Good answer, son. In the scheme of things, turkey hunting may not be as important as coming up with a cure for cancer, but if you use your God-given skills to help others, it becomes huge. Do you agree with that?”   

“I never thought of it that way. I guess you’re right.”

“Do our daily wages sound okay to you?”

“Major, I’d do it for free if I had to. Getting paid to be a guide is a dream-come-true for me.”

“I like that attitude. I take pride in the fact that our guides are some of the best turkey hunters in Georgia. When things go our way and one of our clients shoots a good bird, we’ve got a lot to be proud about.”

“Granddaddy used to say that no matter how good or lucky you are, turkeys have a way of teaching you something new every time you go out.”

“Most of the time it’s a whole truckload of humility. Your granddaddy had a lot of wisdom. Men like him are a rare commodity these days.”

“Yes sir.” 

“We have no shortage of good land to hunt, Julian. Between the 1,200 acres I own and the roughly 4,000 I have leased, we have plenty of prime farmland and hopefully plenty of birds this year. In fact, this very farm you’re standing on is the tract you’ll be hunting.”

Suddenly Major McKendree got a strike. He instinctively jerked up his rod tip up and hooked a good fish. The big bass gave quite a fight and jumped several times as he reeled it in. He finally got it to shore and grabbed it by the lip. He unhooked it and released it back into the water.

“Nice fish, Major,” Julian said. 

“Yes, he’ll go at least 4 pounds,” Major McKendree said.   

“As I was saying, this is the farm you’ll be hunting. It’s known as the old Walker Place, and it’s just over 300 acres. Each of our guides is assigned their own section of property or farm to hunt on for the season. That way they can learn everything there is to know about the land. What say we jump in the truck and drive around for a bit? I want to show you a few things about this place. It’s very special to me, and I’m sure it’ll become special to you. It’s got some good birds, and lately they’ve been gobbling their heads off. After I show you around a little, I want you to spend at least two days doing some walking and scouting. Keep track of your hours and I’ll pay you accordingly. I want you to learn as much as you can about the land before opening day. Does that sound like a good plan to you?

“Yes sir. Sounds like a great plan!”

Continued In the April Issue

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