A Turkey Hunt

Gene Fletcher

© Copyright 2016 by Gene Fletcher

Photo of running turkeys.  (c) 2012 Richard Loller
Photo of running turkeys. (c) 2012 by Richard Loller
Before the arrival of civilization and the so called rule of law, hunting was primarily for food. The people who hunted used simple tools to supplement the effectiveness of the guns that all local citizens carried. The tools for the hunt included duck calls, turkey yelpers, and a light to shine the eyes of game during a hunt at night.

Before the arrival of 4-wheel drive vehicles, cell phones, interstate highways, and automatic weapons, hunters used skill and patience in the hunt. They had an informal unwritten set of rules that most of them followed. My father’s rules included never leave a wounded animal.  If you shot it you will find it and kill it to avoid unnecessary pain to the animal.  A second rule was if you killed it you ate it. A third was never point a gun at something unless you intended to kill it.
Finally, in my father’s list of rules was the most important rule of all, “Assume all guns are loaded."

My first Turkey hunt came as a surprise when I was about 14 years of age. My father and my uncle Ben were talking over their plans for a Turkey hunt the next day. As I listened quietly, enjoying my status as the oldest of my generation, thus being allowed to stay up later than the little kids, I heard the plan unfold. 

My father traveled the woods on a regular basis to take care of his cattle and hogs. Since the livestock ran on the open range, they were scattered over land that belonged mostly to timber companies who owned vast tracts of land all over North Florida. During his travels in the woods, he was always looking for “sign” of wildlife. He was a fairly good tracker who could distinguish between the track of a deer and the track of a small hog. The “sign” that he had seen the day before consisted of scratching spots and droppings that the turkeys had left behind as they moved along the forest floor in search of food.

After seeing the sign on the ground, he parked his truck, turned off the engine and listened. After a few minutes, he heard the turkeys fly up in the trees to roost for the night. A turkey hunter called this "roosting the turkeys." A flock of turkeys was always on the move. By roosting them the night before, the hunter would know where to find them the next morning.

The plan was to get up at 3:00 am, dress for extremely cold weather and have a light breakfast. It was a 30 minute drive to the place where we would park the truck. We would continue on foot for the last ½ mile and arrive at the place where my father had roosted the turkeys. The hunters would be in position before first light.

Almost as an afterthought, my father turned to me and asked if I would like to go along with them on the hunt. My answer was an enthusiastic “Yes Sir”. My father rarely invited any one to join him on a hunt. His invitation was the first of its kind for me. I received a 22 caliber rifle on my 10th birthday and I had often hunted for small game. This was an opportunity to join a hunt for the most elusive, according to my father, game and more important, it was a step toward manhood in the culture of North Florida in the early 1950s.

According to plan, my alarm clock startled me at 3:00 am. As I got dressed, I reminded myself that this would be really cold when we took our place in the woods. I wore 2 long sleeve shirts and an undershirt. Two pairs of pants. Two pairs of socks and the warmest coat that I could find in my closet. This was topped off with a cap with a heavy lining and flaps for my ears.

We had our light breakfast of cold biscuits, cold ham and hot coffee. At about 3:45 am, we loaded the truck and made the drive to the place where we would park the car in less than 30 minutes.
We did our best to keep quiet while we secured the shot guns and shells for the hunt. My father suggested we take bird shot and buckshot in case we found a deer. I was allocated two shells of buckshot and five shells of bird shot. My father would count them on our return and ask for an explanation for the missing shells. After all, shells were expensive and not to be wasted.

The next part of the journey was the most important. Up until now, we had light from the trucks head lights and flashlights. For the last leg of the journey, the only light available came from a sliver of a new moon filtered through the woods all around us. We struggled through the underbrush and cat claw vines until we reached a cleared space that was all that remains of an abandoned farm. It was called the Godin Place by the local population presumably because Mr. Godin once had a farm there. The moon light glistened across the field and gave it a star-like look caused by the frost that would soon be melted away by the early morning sun. I paused for a moment and stood under the trees at the edge of the abandoned field. What a beautiful sight. The beginning of a perfect North Florida day. The morning frost soon melted by the warmth of the sun. As the sun rose it revealed a completely cloudless sky. A rich deep blue sky could be seen from any direction. By noon, the frost would be replaced by sunshine and a temperature of 60 degrees.

Near the edge of the field, Uncle Ben was assigned a well camouflaged spot with a good field of fire and my father and I moved about 100 yards away along the edge of the field where the tree line was not very well defined. There my father selected a tall pine tree that was surrounded by clumps of palmetto about three or four feet high. After we both were seated back to back against the tree, we had a complete view of the surrounding area so that we could see a turkey coming from any direction.

Then we waited. The cold really gets to you when you are completely still. A turkey has very sharp vision and is very sensitive to movement. These factors help to make the bird extremely difficult to hunt. These factors are also the cause of turkey hunting rule number one. Don’t move. This means DO NOT MOVE. If a mosquito lands on your nose, do not move. If you had an unbearable itch, do not move. So, we sat and waited in the cold.

As the first light of day appeared in the east, the turkeys begin to fly down from their perch in the roosting trees. My father was the first to hear them. The sound of the birds in flight on a cold clear morning told us that it was a large flock that had scattered about during the search for a suitable roosting place. Once they were on the ground, they began to call to each other with a long call followed by a clicking sound. The calls were intended to serve as a beacon to guide the members of the flock and assemble them for the day ahead.

It was time for my father to begin to work his magic with a turkey yelper. This was a device used to imitate the call of a turkey hen. The turkey yelper was a box made of very thin cut cedar wood held together with glue. It was about 5 inches long, 1 and ½ inches wide and ¾ of an inch deep. The top of the box was slightly larger creating a lip on the long side of the box. The side adjacent to the lip was slightly smaller creating a small opening in the box. When the box was drawn across a chalked spot on the stock of a shotgun by a hunter who was experienced in its use, the sound could fool a turkey.

The morning air was crisp and quiet except for the occasional yelp of a turkey hen. After a few minutes, my father would answer with a short reply. The secret to effective use of a yelper was to avoid using it to much. Patience was required.

We continued to wait in the cold while my father attempted to call the turkeys to a place that was within gunshot range. Following my instructions, I did not move.

At last, a different sound. It was a dim rustle of a sound similar to that made by an oak branch being pulled along behind us.

My father whispered, “They are coming. Look to your left.” With the tension of the moment flooding through me, I looked to my left as best I could without moving. There were no turkeys in sight. I whispered back “I don’t see them.”

My father whispered, “It’s a deer!”

At the edge of the old field, was a deer who appeared to be quietly feeding on the under growth.

My adrenaline kicked in. I stood up and fumbled in the pockets of my coat in search of buckshot. In my frantic search, it occurred to me that I should have put the extra shells in my outside pocket where they could be reached with ease. I had dropped them in the front pockets of my blue jeans and they were buried under layers of clothing. By the time I found the buckshot and loaded my gun the deer was gone and so were the turkeys.

It was all over in a matter of seconds.

No shots were fired. Within the blink of an eye, the deer was dashing away in one direction and the turkeys were going in the opposite direction. In a moment, the woods returned to the peaceful quiet that had only briefly been interrupted by the hunters.

As we walked back to the truck, I thought about the events of the morning. Get up at 3:00am. Walk in freezing cold weather. Sit in a very uncomfortable place. Get nothing for your trouble. The only accomplishment that I could identify was bragging rights to my friends for going on a turkey hunt. Bragging rights seemed inappropriate since we did not bring home a turkey.

This was the beginning of transition from shooter of game with a gun to shooter of game with a camera. I find the camera to be more satisfying.

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