I was recently extremely fortunate to get an opportunity to hunt wild turkeys in the wooded swamps of South Carolina.
Although Turkey hunting can be done during the day, for the most part it is an early morning activity and not unlike foreshore wild fowling with the need to get into position well before dawn. For this reason I found myself in the under cellar of one of the grander plantation houses in South Carolina at 5.30am on what was soon to become quite a warm March day. A long standing client who has spent many years shooting grouse and pheasant in the UK very kindly arranged for me to try out this fairly unique form of bird shooting and, as we gathered for coffee and kit selection my head was filled with the discussions of the night before surrounding my chances of bagging a male turkey – called a gobbler – in the next few hours. Although March is very much a spring month and nowhere near as warm as the temperature reaches later in the year I was very conscious of the number of alligators we had seen around the lakes in front of the plantation house the day before and indeed the stories of Water Moccasins and Cottonmouths (the more aggressive venomous snake found in the area) which might with the spell of warm weather wake up a little early this Spring. I was therefore a little worried when I was issued with a standard pair of welly boots rather than snake boots which I had worn the previous trips when hunting quail in the area. Snake-proof boots have a fang proof covering which means than the snakes teeth and therefore venom cannot penetrate through them!
I was also kitted out from head to toe in a loose fitting and leafy camouflage suit, along with camouflage gloves and face net! It is claimed that, if they could understand what they were seeing, turkeys could read a newspaper at 60 yards. Eyesight is their primary defence and it is therefore vitally important to blend in with the scenery as well as keeping all movement to a minimum.
Once we were all ready Justin, my guide for the day, and I set off for the 20 minutes’ drive over to the area he was confident would give me an opportunity to take a turkey that morning. A lot of planning and thought had gone into the selection of this area and I did not realise at the time just how honoured I had been to draw this particular place. On the way over we discussed in detail Justin’s job as Hunt Manager of a neighbouring plantation and we compared notes on habitat management for quail and turkey against grouse and pheasant in the UK. Intriguingly Justin also mentioned that the film Forest Gump had been shot on his estate including both the scenes portrayed in Vietnam as well as those in the deep south of America.
It was still pitch black but there seemed to be quite a number of similar American trucks criss-crossing the countryside and Justin explained that this was opening day of the season and a lot of people will be heading to areas where they hoped wild turkey would appear that morning. Eventually we reached the farm which Justin had chosen and turning off the road he immediately switched off his headlights and rather impressively drove down the 800 yard track in complete darkness. At this point he explained that his father owned the farm and he therefore knew the track quite well!
As soon as we parked up we double checked all the kit and Justin made certain he had his full selection turkey calls in the various pockets of his camouflage jacket. I had a quick check of the pump action 12 gauge I would be using and we set off in the dark. After about 10 minutes we crossed an open field and I heard the unmistakable call of a male turkey somewhere in the trees ahead. Justin explained that turkeys always roost above water whenever possible to ensure they can hear predators coming so the perfect location for us to set up our ‘ambush’ would be on an edge of a swamp. Once we reached the wood we started to creep very slowly down through the trees as daylight started to let me see my surroundings. As we got closer the mosquitos indicated the presence of water and when Justin explained we had to crawl on our hands and knees I started to spend most of my time thinking about snakes and what I was putting my hand on next as we inched across the forest floor!
After what seemed like an eternity (in fact about 30 yards I later saw) we reached a tall oak and Justin indicated that I should sit at its base facing out towards the swamp which started some 20 yards beyond us. The turkey called again and shortly others started up as well. Justin gave me a running commentary as to the different sounds and who/what was making them and it soon became apparent that we had two potentially dominant males Gobblers in the trees in front of us as well as a couple of Jake’s (juvenile males not seen as a threat by the Gobblers and so tolerated by them) as well as some females. I learnt the night before that once it is fully light the turkeys would fly down from their roosts to a nearby clearing with the males looking to display to the females almost immediately.
Over the next 10 minutes my excitement grew as the calling from the trees intensified. However Justin said that the birds seem to be reluctant to fly down and I worried that they had somehow seen us creep into positon in the half light. I continued to sit absolutely motionless despite the attention of the mosquitos and, with no immediate sign of the birds coming off roost, Justin started to use his own calls to try and entice the males down to the ground.
Any turkey caller has a range of different calls in his armoury and he needs to work out what would be the best to use. In many ways this is the most exciting part of the hunt and is similar to a chess game with lots of strategies! Given that there were two male turkeys and other females up in the trees Justin explained that he would make female calls to try and lure the bird down. In other scenarios he would make a call of the dominant male issuing a challenge (not unlike the rutting red stag call used in the Highlands in October) and there were various other options on this depending on what he wanted to convince the Gobbler of.
After a further 25 minutes it became apparent my initially comfortable looking tree base was in fact full of various sharp points which were now sticking into my lower back and I struggled to keep still. Then suddenly everything happened at once! A previously unnoticed male turkey flew down and landed on the edge of the swamp in a small clearing partially obscured from our position by undergrowth. Immediately the more vocal male we had been listening to for the last 45 minutes flew down and joined him and commenced a series of strutting and fanning postures which I half glimpsed through the scrub. At this point the birds were 45 yards away and Justin said that if a clear shot presented itself then I should take it.
I slowly inched the 12 gauge up into my shoulder and attempted to draw a bead. However what had appeared to be a fairly stationary large round bird suddenly turned into a cross between the road runner and a ‘nodding donkey’ which darted behind bushes every half second and it did not present a target.
Whilst this was going on the roosting females and two Jakes also flew down to the clearing and there were now over half a dozen birds in the area.
Justin then whispered in my ear that at any moment the birds were likely to start walking to our left towards a large open patch and that as they passed this would be my opportunity to take a shot. He also suggested that the birds were aware something was wrong as their calls were now more of a warning nature. Suddenly 6 or 7 birds started to move from right to left in front of me. The dominant males were no longer puffed out and suddenly they looked just the same as the Jakes or the females with rather slim bodies and long necks and fast moving gait. I could not tell them apart! I asked Justin in a whispered voice “which one?”
He replied “look for the white heads, the gobblers have white heads”
My eyes flicked back to the now diminishing troop of turkeys as they flitted from bush to bush
Every time I thought I had a clear shot the bird melted into the undergrowth and I frantically looked for the next.
In a matter of seconds the turkeys which were seemingly bottle necked between us and the swamp and who could not failed to have walked within 20 yards of us, had literally disappeared. I had failed even to fire a shot!
In my defence Justin said he had never that many turkeys arrive in one spot so quickly and that it was a very confusing target area.
Suddenly the swamp seemed completely deserted other than the raucous calling of some crows in the trees above there were clearly having a huge joke at my expense. I felt completely humbled by this wild bird which is usually the target of jokes at Christmas. We had crept into position in the half dark and done according to my guide everything right but the mature Gobbler was apparently 3 or 4 years old and these birds do not get to be this old without also getting very wise and he clearly had the better of us.
To have come this close and not managed to take a turkey was hugely disappointing but the whole experience was incredibly exciting and I will definitely be trying my utmost to get a chance to do it again in the future. We spent another 10 minutes just sitting in position in the vain hope that something might reappear but in our hearts we both knew that the opportunity had gone.
Turkey hunting is just very different to just about anything else and to go with an experienced guide who can effectively strike up a conversation with the wild birds and an attempt to lure them in is a real privilege.
I had set out on the trip pretty confident that I would manage to shoot a wild turkey but in the local parlance had ended up I having “my butt handed to me” in no uncertain terms.
On the way home we drove down the long track where in the film Forest Gump runs down the drive to the cry of Run, Forest Run! The turkeys had clearly taken that advice to heart!