Turkeys Can Be Tough, Not As Tough As Gracie

Hunting is the perfect cure for this 14-year-old.

Daryl Gay | May 1, 2023

Right on the GON deadline, Gracie Thigpen got it done April 22, 2023 while hunting in Washington County. This gobbler is a trophy for anyone, having 1 1/2-inch spurs. On March 22, 2022, Gracie was given the news by doctors that she has B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She is currently in maintenance mode, which is the last phase of chemo.

As is typical with 14-year-old girls, Gracie Thigpen just wants to have fun. But this Bleckley County teen is anything but typical; for Gracie, having fun revolves around hunting, fishing and the outdoors. She’s learning that this hunting business is usually anything but easy, especially when it comes to harvesting a tom turkey.

Unfortunately, she had already discovered that the same is true of life.

This is a story about a five-week quest: getting Gracie a gobbler. Also, about a zest for life—and how easily that life can be severely threatened, at any age. Finally, about what almost seems to be an aberration these days: folks who care.

There’s no excitement quite like that of a teen-aged girl the day before her first turkey hunt.

“Since I was young my family got me into being outdoors,” Gracie says with a quiet smile. “My previous times fishing, we used to catch, clean and cook right then, usually fishing ponds. I recently had a guide trip planned on Lake Oconee for stripers, but weather knocked it out. I got hooked on fishing and hunting, but we just didn’t have any place to hunt.”

That was about to change. As was everything else.

Chris and Dixie Thigpen are passing on their love of the outdoors to daughters Gracie and Savannah, realizing how precious that time together is.

“Gracie was raised with a shotgun in her hands, and she’s always loved it,” Dixie said. “She was taught gun safety and handling from day one and is a natural.”

She’s also a natural athlete.

“I played tennis and basketball at school and was really excited about joining the Bleckley County Middle School shotgun team,” she says, and in her inimitable way, deadpans, “but then cancer happened.”

March 22, 2022 is a date etched into the Thigpen family’s memory banks forever.

“We noticed some red spots and an unusual bruise,” mom says, “and decided it needed to be checked out. Everything went downhill from there.”

The proper name is B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Terror might be a better term for it, a profound blow to throw at a middle-schooler. On the other hand, youth is very definitely on Gracie’s side when it comes to overcoming this monster. Recovery rates are much higher among the young.

And this girl’s a fighter.

“She has come a long, long way in the last year, one during which we spent more time in the hospital (Navicent Children’s, Macon) than at home,” Dixie says. “It’s something you don’t see coming, and don’t know what to do with when it gets there. But Gracie took it in stride, and she had a great team around her. This year has been tons better than last year.”

Along with the physical improvement has come balm for the soul: getting back to the hunt. We’ll chase some turkeys in a bit, but if you want to see a pair of eyes light up under close-cropped, gorgeous red hair, ask Gracie about an old whitetail buck.

 “I got to hunt last season in Plains and Leesburg,” she said, “and I killed a buck and a doe the first trip and then a big 8-point the second. I’m nervous and excited about turkey hunting, but I really love deer hunting. Sitting and waiting, and all you see going on around you is so relaxing.”

Gracie Thigpen with some Sumter County venison taken this past deer season. She likes the trophy aspect of deer hunting but also likes the fact her family’s freezer is loaded with good-tasting venison.

I asked her about that one bucket-list animal, if she could go anywhere and hunt anything…

“I just want another big buck!”

“Months later, she still gets excited about opening the freezer and showing off her venison,” Dixie said.

Those deer hunts, as well as these turkeys we’re about to get into, came courtesy of an organization that holds Gracie and others like her dear to its heart: Hunting For The Cure. It is “a non-profit organization created to give pediatric cancer patients and survivors an opportunity to experience the great outdoors and its majestic grace.”

At the grassroots level, it goes like this: a group of huge-hearted individuals give of their time, talent and treasure, offering a hand to those who need it. It’s ramrodded by Keith Stille, of Augusta, who was summed up thusly by Dixie Thigpen: “That is an amazing man.” 

I had never seen Keith until that moment, and after meeting and spending time around him, I’d have to agree. If you’d like more info on the group, check it out at or P.O. Box 9159, Augusta, Ga., 30916.

Now, about those turkeys…

Gracie’s first-ever gobbler expedition came in Wilkinson County, her second in Laurens, back to back during the  March 25-26 special opportunity season a week before the statewide opener. At a Hunt For The Cure registration and fish fry Friday night before opening day, Gracie met her guides, Laurens Countians Dustin Owens and Clint Edmondson. It’s also my first meeting with her; and Gracie is someone you don’t forget. All the guides, the hunters, the parents, the hoopla… none of it was too big for her. Quiet confidence pervaded. Sitting there taking it in, I realized that somewhere out there, sooner or later, a certain gobbler was in big trouble.

She tells it best.

“On the first morning, we saw three turkeys and heard multiple ones gobbling around us in the woods,” Gracie said. “Both of the guides were calling at times but the closest any bird ever got was probably 40 to 50 yards. It was just a little too far for my 20 gauge.

“We were in Wilkinson County first, then Laurens County the next day. We got to this area, and when they started calling there were maybe four birds that came out about 20 yards away. I would have got a turkey right then but there were tree limbs in my way and I couldn’t move. I was on the ground; they came out on my right and I shoot right-handed, so I couldn’t get on them. My guides told me they wouldn’t have been able to make that shot, either.

“So I didn’t get a turkey, but I loved it. It’s very relaxing, sitting and waiting and watching, kind of like deer hunting. It’s just a really nice experience, learning how they move and how they strut and blow up.”

Her movement has been severely limited, as you may imagine, but Gracie has worked her way amazingly back. Those limitations are minimal now; but you can just leave it to a turkey to come in on the wrong side…

Those two outings were learning experiences, and it was to be a couple weeks before Gracie could get back out.

It is Saturday morning, April 22, and GON is teetering on May issue deadline; but this is what we mean when we say, “If it’s going on out there, it IS in GON.” Gracie is on the hunt in Washington County. I’m on pins and needles, mostly because I want so badly to see her succeed. Editors are on hypertension meds. And I keep thinking about that gobbler that’s in so much trouble…

She’s got this. The family guide team of  Steven Bradford, wife Nikki and son Hunter are along to make sure.

“We were hunting Steven’s place, a sloping, open hay field, and there was this turkey down in a bottom, but we couldn’t tell what it was,” Gracie says. “At about nine o’clock, Nikki and I got into a nearby box stand while Steven and Hunter called. We were in there for about 10 minutes before a hen flew up into a tree. There had been no gobbling in answer to the calls, and when we got out, the hen flew off.”

Steven Bradford helped guide Gracie to this Washington County gobbler. Gracie looks forward to attending Bleckley County High School in the fall.

As with other things in her life, Gracie could have made the decision to become piqued and call it quits.

Not a chance.

“We drove about 10 minutes to another field, and Steven decided to get out and call and see if we needed to get out,” she continues. “So he called, got an answer, and actually saw the bird. He hurried back to us saying ‘He’s over the hill in full strut.’”

That did it!

With the bird strutting his stuff for all to see about 130 yards away, Steven, Gracie and Hunter lined out; and the stalk was on.

“We had to squat down and get low, easing our way toward the turkey and once we got close enough, Steven had this turkey fan decoy and was showing it. The turkey came closer at first, then stopped. Steven said he was not going to get any closer… so I shot him.”

The Stoeger 20 rolled him at 30 yards. And the celebration was on!

“I was like, ‘No Way,’ at first,” Gracie said, “then I got so excited I jumped up and started going as fast as I could toward the turkey. Steven said he had to make sure it was dead first so I kind of calmed down, but it was just so beautiful, with a rare color on it…”

At 21.6 pounds, a 10.5-inch beard and 1.5 spurs, that’s a good first bird for anybody. Don’t believe I’m likely to ever see another one this special; that shot made a lot of people happy.

So what lies ahead?

“I’m just getting back into school full time. It’s going well, and I’ve been catching up on things. I’m looking forward to going to Bleckley County High School next year.”

Mom Dixie is also looking forward to next year, for a different reason.

“She’s in maintenance right now, which is the last phase of the chemotherapy process,” she says. “This is where your body is rebuilding and starting to come back to normal; she’ll be in this phase for a while. Her last day of treatment will be July 7, 2024.”

So very much has changed over the past 13 months, but this brave teen is balancing life’s ups and downs with  uncommon grace as she adjusts to the new normal.

“Before I got diagnosed, there was tennis and basketball, painting or playing video games or being outside helping my dad with stuff,” Gracie says. “Now, hunting and fishing give me the opportunity to really have fun. I just want another trophy.”

Nikki Bradford celebrates with Gracie, who says, hunting and fishing gives her the opportunity to really have fun. She is already thinking about her next trophy.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.