To the ears of an avid turkey hunter, there is no sound in the world that will shoot adrenaline through the body faster than that of a wild turkey’s gobble. Turkey hunting ignites man’s love of strategy and skill in a game of wits against one of America’s noblest birds. In fact, Benjamin Franklin was in favor of the Wild Turkey being named the national bird as opposed to the Bald Eagle: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours … He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Hunting Wild Turkeys has been an American tradition dating back even before the British settled Jamestown; however by the 1920s, they had nearly been hunted out of existence in South Carolina due to both habitat loss and unrestricted commercial and subsistence hunting. According to Charles Ruth, the SCDNR Turkey Project supervisor, the residual populations at this point existed in the lower Savannah River drainage and on the Francis Marion National Forest.
“During the 1950s about 350 turkeys were captured on the FMNF and released in the Piedmont where habitat had improved,” Charles explains. “These birds thrived there, and when the agency’s ‘modern’ turkey restoration program began in 1975, these birds served as a source for restoring other parts of the state, primarily the Pee Dee and lower coastal plain. The restoration program ended in 2004, and over the years approximately 3,740 turkeys were relocated to 206 restoration sites.”
Today there are about 45,000 turkey hunters in South Carolina, and this popular sport brings an estimated annual state revenue of about $35 million. Hank Mabry has been a member of this enthusiastic group of outdoorsmen since he was first introduced to turkey hunting in 1994 by his friend Bennett Kirkpatrick of Rock Hill. “Bennett is a true woodsman and the most relentless pursuer of the wild turkey that I have ever known. I will always be indebted to this Southern gentleman for the time he spent with me in the woods chasing the wild turkey,” says Hank.
Hank says his early memories of turkey hunting are of laying out his hunting equipment the night before, waking up a couple hours before daylight, practicing his hen calls on the drive to the hunting spot, and of the various sounds and smells of the woods waking up.
“I love being in the woods in the spring and going one on one with such a magnificent bird,” says Hank. “Once the season opens I like to arrive well before daylight and ease into the woods and listen for a gobble. If I hear a turkey gobble I try and get within a 100 yards of the tree it’s in. If I don’t hear a gobble after a while, I will try making a turkey gobble by doing an owl call. Later in the morning if I still haven’t heard a gobble, I will try a crow call, goose call or gobble call. Once a gobbler is located I will try to sound like the sexiest hen in the woods using yelps, clucks and purrs to draw him into shotgun range. Camouflage is very important because a turkey has keen eyesight and excellent hearing.”
Hank explains that the first order of business in successful turkey hunting is to have good wildlife habitat and a healthy population of turkeys. “Knowing the land that you hunt is also very important when getting strategically situated to call in a bird. Turkeys are very reluctant to cross water even in flight, from a ditch to a pond, for example. Try to pattern the birds by finding areas they use regularly. Have patience and be still. If you have a bird answer your call, call sparingly then shut up and wait, then wait some more.”
Hank primarily uses a homemade wing bone call, but he also uses a Bob Harkin’s box call as well as Cody slate calls and Legacy mouth calls. He says his favorite turkey hunting memory is the first time he called in a “big tom.” “I was able to get him close enough to hear him spitting and drumming,” Hank says. “The turkey’s head was as white as a cotton boll, and my heart felt like a jack hammer that was about to explode before I pulled the trigger.” Male turkeys use gobbling, drumming and spitting to attract females and as signs of social dominance.
Jamie Walker began grooming his two sons, James and Joseph, as small children to have a love of turkey hunting; a passion which has developed into young adulthood. “My father has taught me pretty much everything I know about hunting,” says Joseph, “and my favorite hunts are always with him. We try to go on his birthday every year. One morning we called him in a big gobbler, and while we were walking back to the truck to see if we could get on another bird in a different spot, we heard a tom fire up. We jumped in the pine trees — our only option of cover at the time — and waited. The bird was very talkative and we crept back into the same field we had just left and got him. Getting a double with my dad was a once in a lifetime experience.”
James explains that Jamie taught him to use a single hen decoy and to call as little as possible, while still keeping the gobbler engaged, until the turkey comes within shotgun range which is about 35 yards away. “The most exciting part of turkey hunting is seeing the male turkeys strut and gobble in response to your calling. Every year it seems that I have at least one hunt when I get impatient from hunting a spot and stand up right as a turkey steps out into my field! Once they see me standing there, the game is over and they either run or fly away. Patience is an important part of being a successful turkey hunter,” says James.
Both James and Joseph prefer using slate calls but also complement it with others to create an auditory illusion of multiple hens together. “I would consider it a beginners’ call but I swear by it,” says Joseph. “I have learned how to do all sorts of different calls on that one piece of slate, from yelps to cackles to purrs.”
James recommends hunting in a field that has large trees surrounding it or nearby in which turkeys like to roost or nest for the night. “Another important factor to a successful hunt is finding a field that is dirt or short enough grass to see the turkey and for the turkey to see my decoy,” says James. “Turkeys have an amazing sense of sight and their hearing is phenomenal so sneaking up on one is not an option. Turkey hunters will also tell you the hunt rarely goes as planned which is what makes it so challenging. Every day that I spend in the woods I learn something new, but learning how to incorporate all this new knowledge into the next hunt is the difference between coming home empty handed or bringing home the bacon.”
Joseph agrees and relates that the hardest part for him is having a talkative gobbler go silent. That is when veteran turkey hunters know to stay patient. “Most of my success comes from learning the phrase ‘do not get discouraged’ at a young age, and it has helped me greatly. If a bird stops talking or gets spooked, don’t give up. You are in their home, and they will outsmart you many times. Also, spend as long as you can in the woods. I have killed more birds in the late morning around ten o’clock than I have just after sunrise. Just because you don’t hear anything in the morning doesn’t mean you won’t hear anything all day. I try new methods all the time. Some of them work and others are disastrous but you can bet that I certainly will be back to try again.”
Charles Ruth explains that weapons in turkey hunting are limited to shotguns, muzzleloading shotguns, bows and crossbows in order to keep the hunt sporting, and hens are not allowed to be harvested. The statewide limit is five gobblers per season, no more than two per day, and a number of counties have a two bird season limit. The season will open this year in most S.C. counties on April 1 and will go through May. Several counties open earlier in March.
“Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving is not turkey season,” says Charles. “Since the advent of modern fish and wildlife management, fall turkey hunting has never been allowed on a statewide basis in South Carolina. However, a six-day either sex fall turkey season was scheduled in the Central and Western Piedmont in the 80s the Monday through Saturday following Thanksgiving. The scheduling of this fall turkey season in the Piedmont was in response to a “boom” in the turkey population following restoration efforts that began in the 1950s. It was not uncommon to see flocks of more than 100 turkeys in a wheat field or pasture, and there were even a small number of depredation complaints, particularly on wheat and cornfields.”
But beware of venturing out to take on the gobblers because it can be the start of a lifetime love affair. According to Hank, “The late Ben Rogers Lee (famous turkey call maker and hunter) pretty well summed up turkey hunting in a statement he made many years ago when he said, ‘Turkey Hunting is a disease, once you catch it you never get over it for the rest of your life. A turkey hunter needs to have an understanding and patient wife. He also needs to work for himself, if not have a very sympathetic and lenient boss. If he doesn’t, his wife will leave him and his boss will fire him.’”
Joseph agrees that with all the components of turkey hunting, it is hard not to become addicted. “I love turkey hunting because it is challenging,” he says. “Getting in the woods and enjoying nature is the most rewarding part about any type of hunting. I have always enjoyed observing wildlife, and watching turkeys interact with each other is an amazing thing to witness. There is no better feeling than hearing a bird gobble — it gives me the chills every time. It’s not always about coming back to the truck with a bird.”