04/03/09 — Palmetto State's early turkey season is worth long trip

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Palmetto State's early turkey season is worth long trip

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on April 3, 2009 1:46 PM

The year I shot my first wild turkey in Pisgah National Forest in 1974, there were only a few dozen harvested in North Carolina. There were few birds when I moved to the coast in 1978 and no access for hunting them.

So, I made the eight-hour turkey drive to Pisgah each year.

Turkey season is available in every North Carolina county now and South Carolina birds have come on strong. A five-hour drive to Orangeburg County for the earliest spring season in the nation was a no-brainer for me. I've had lots of practice driving for gobblers.

Farmer Roy Ziegler served as my host and Cape Fear River provided the ride. Fellow turkey aggravator Basi Watts was the pilot. We shared Ziegler's hospitality in the past and had been rewarded with all a hunter can ask -- a chance to hear tom's gobble.

We hunted the first afternoon with scant luck. I called a hen into a field, while Roy and Basil saw and heard nothing.

The next morning was worse.

However, we received reinforcements -- Palmetto State turkey-call torturers Jan Kauser (a court judge) and techno-wizard Jan Johnson. Jan is a renowned strawberry pie thief as I deduced last turkey season after saving my slice for "later" and losing it to Jan "sooner." The tell-tale evidence was a smear of red that wasn't lipstick on his chin.

Despite having five vaunted turkey experts in the woods the second morning, we had no luck. Jan and Sam did see a flock of 14 with the gobblers surrounded by hens and fully uncooperative. Even Jan couldn't fulfill a writ of habeas corpus with so much competition.

The fact that it's the earliest season doesn't mean it's the easiest.

Based on an SCDNR scientific report, the early season is a socio-political one without a solid biological basis. Gobbler flocks break up with the gobblers acquiring harems in mid-March. After a short dominance-gobbling peak, vocal activity tapers off as gobblers mate.

Gobbling picks up again as hens begin setting around April 1.

We were hunting the action lull.

Roy led our so-far-defeated party to some property along the Edisto River. Clover in food plots was obviously eaten by turkeys as well as deer, judging by the abundance of tracks. A sandy road leading to a cabin was decorated with turkey tracks and the wing-drag marks of a strutting gobbler.

While the others hunted large fields, I headed down a power line and set up overlooking a small food plot in the river swamp. The wind was strong. Eventually I heard a gobbler respond to my calls, as well as real crow calls and red-tailed hawk whistles.

I moved uphill to get closer until I was overlooking the road that wound to the cabin. A gobbler answered my calls from behind the cabin as I set up behind some vines, and a single big pine tree with my back against another big pine.

The wind kept blowing as the sun was tipping its hat goodbye through the trees. I stood half erect, my hands still on the gun barrel and its butt on the ground. I was getting ready to leave when a big gobbler walked out of the trees and into the road. If I had been sitting in a lounge chair on the cabin porch I would have been in a perfect shooting position -- without my knees creaking or my back throbbing from leaning against the scaly-barked pine.

The gobbler approached the place where either he had heard my hen calls or was perhaps just on his way to his roost along the road. He walked behind the pine. I stood, raising the shotgun to my shoulder. Suddenly, a squirrel scolded me and the gobbler came out from behind the tree and froze, staring right at me with nothing between us but a grape vine.

For 15 minutes, we were stalemated. The 12-gauge Remington 11-87 semi-auto stoked with magnum lead loads was all but too heavy to hold after the first five. My eyes watered, my arms trembled and my oddly-angled knees wanted to buckle. Anyone who doesn't believe it is difficult to hold a shouldered shotgun that long should to try it while staring down a gobbler.

An eternity later, the squirrel stopped chattering. The gobbler moved two steps and stretched his neck toward his roost. The shaking bead on the barrel made tiny circles, then stalled for a nanosecond. The gobbler hit the ground without a flop. Roy and Basil drove up as I knelt on the bird's neck.

"We drove into a field and spooked two gobblers," said Basil. "I knew you'd hunt until the sun went down, so we waited until we heard you shoot. One of them is probably that on you're sitting on."

Perhaps that's what happened or maybe he was coming to my calls, or it could have been a different bird that was simply heading home for the night. No matter where or why he came from or was going, he wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time while I didn't.

"I'm glad you didn't make the five-hour drive for nothing," said Ziegler as he admired the gobbler's 1 3/8-inch spurs and 10 1/2-inch beard.

Ziegler didn't know I used to ride twice as far, with scantier hope of getting a chance at a turkey. Back in the day, just being in the woods and seeing a turkey track or finding a feather was all the excuse I ever needed for heading for the woods in spring.

All's fair in love, war and turkey hunting.

Whatever the reason, the Edisto River gobbler's luck ran out is not something to ponder, tantamount to looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I was lucky to tag him and more fortunate still just to have been be able to make the trip.