By Ford Walpole
It’s springtime and love is in the air — for eastern wild turkeys and those who pursue them. Wildlife biologist Charles Ruth serves as big game program director for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He narrates the quest for the gobbler: “Spring turkey hunting is an active, or proactive event. It often involves more than one hunter and relocation, movement by the hunter(s). Typically, the hunter hears the gobbler and, at that point, he knows his quarry is in the vicinity. In most cases, ongoing gobbling reinforces the notion of potential success.”
Ruth highlights the challenge of turkey hunting: “From a hunting standpoint, attempting to call a gobbler is actually the reverse of Mother Nature. Gobblers call (gobble) to attract hens to them; i.e., they generally do not go to the hen. In hunting, we are mimicking the sound of hens in an effort to make the gobbler come to us, which is not the normal course of events. Gobblers are leery of the unnatural scenario. Also, it seems entirely feasible to me that toms must realize that their increase in vocalizations (gobbling) in the spring makes them more vulnerable to predators and they are naturally spookier.”
A buddy of Daryl Stubbs profiles the master turkey hunter and retired wildlife biologist: “Many folks believe they are excellent turkey hunters. The real litmus test is whether you have consistent success with birds that get real pressure. Daryl is one of those rare individuals. He has those essential skills of a woodsman — polished calling, unreal patience and persistence.”
Stubbs began hunting turkeys in 1981 in the Waterhorn Hunt unit of the Francis Marion National Forest. He relays the hunting experience: “Wild turkeys are beautiful animals that can be very vocal during the spring when no other hunting opportunities are available. The interaction between the hunter and the hunted is what I really love, using calls and decoys occasionally to fool these wary birds fuels the addiction. A mature bird gobbling in your face is truly thrilling!”
He emphasizes the “patience, patience and more patience. A guy that has minimal calling skills, good woodsmanship and a lot of patience will out-kill the best callers in the world. I have harvested birds that called all the way to the gun and birds that never made a peep but came in to check out the source of those hen sounds.”
Scouting is so crucial to this artful sport: “Reading the woods by looking for turkey scratching, dusting sites, roost trees and tracks in the road will all point you in the right direction. I cut my teeth in the Francis Marion National Forest and have had a good bit of success. I do put in A LOT of time between the end of deer season and the start of turkey season — walking firebreaks, old logging roads and such in search of turkey signs. It pays off in the end. In a particular area, I will have several spots to choose from, in case someone beats me to my desired location. I will never infringe on someone; it is not safe or ethical.”
Regarding location, Stubbs recommends “mixed hardwoods or swamp bottoms when listening for turkeys or looking for sign. On March 11 at 10:28 a.m., I saw a mature gobbler strutting in a very large pine plantation; he no doubt was following a hen. When it is raining, find a field and get set up. Turkeys don’t like the noise or the wetness of the woods and will seek open terrain. Mast producing trees like oaks, fields with grasshoppers or other insects and seeds from plants all contribute to the diet of the wild turkey. Find these food sources and you are ahead of the game.”
Turkey hunting was not always a sustainable obsession. Charles Ruth explains: “Turkey populations in S.C. had declined throughout much of the state due to habitat loss associated with changing land use and from over-exploitation. Residual populations did exist and the Francis Marion National Forest is a good example. Turkey restoration initially occurred from 1951 to 1958 with 328 birds trapped from the Francis Marion National Forest and relocated to the piedmont and mountains. These birds did very well, resulting in turkeys becoming widespread in the Upcountry.”
“The ‘modern’ restoration effort began in 1975 with a comprehensive plan to restore turkeys in the coastal plain. Restoration sites were identified annually and agreements were made with cooperating landowners to protect turkeys until all parties agreed that hunting was feasible. Normal stockings of turkeys on these sites consisted of approximately five gobblers and 10 hens. This restoration effort ended in 2005, at which time 3,716 turkeys had been released on 205 restoration sites. Turkey hunting has been open in all counties for many years now, pointing to the success of this effort.”
Our turkey population has experienced a recent slump, which Ruth attributes, in part, to habitat change. “This phenomenon is not isolated to South Carolina but is a Southeastern situation.” Stubbs would like to see “phone surveys done within 24 hours of harvest,” which might provide additional data besides the “end-of-the-year, random surveys of turkey tag holders.” Stubbs also blames the drop off on “coyotes, fire ants and egg-eaters such as raccoons and opossums.”
Additional factors include “weather and prescribed burns done at the wrong time of the year when the hens are nesting,” Stubbs indicates. “A good bit of research is starting up (including a major ongoing study in S.C.) attempting to understand the underlying causes of this Southeast turkey decline,” Ruth optimistically remarks.
The Cuthbert family of Mt. Pleasant has had an eventful beginning to this year’s season. On March 21, Barnwell Cuthbert called a gobbler for his 12-year-old son, Robert. The boy, a seasoned deer and duck hunter, hesitated too long before pulling the trigger. Turkeys — unlike deer — do not offer the hunter many still or broadside shots, Barnwell explains.
A few days later, redemption awaited Robert in the Francis Marion National Forest. His uncles, Simons Cuthbert and Hank Coombs, summoned a gobbler with calls fashioned by Simons. With a 20-gauge, Robert promptly harvested the bird.
Barnwell later asked his son: “Since you didn’t shoot last time, were you worried you wouldn’t get another opportunity?”
“I wasn’t gonna let that happen again!” Robert proudly exclaimed.
On March 26 in Dorchester County, the day after Robert’s first turkey, Barnwell worked another of Simons’ calls to bring a gobbler to his wife, Sara. “Two birds came in at the same time and a third one walked in silently,” Barnwell recalls.
Sara took the trophy gobbler and the second turkey flew off upon the shotgun blast. When the couple walked over to ensure Sara’s prize was effectively dispatched, they jumped the third, silent bird. “He was ready to fight my gobbler,” Sara suspects.
She reflects on the experience in which she earned a third notch on her belt, or rather 20-gauge. “It was fun, but hey, it’s always fun, right? Your hunts are always different and turkey hunting is a thrilling sport, much more interactive, for sure. And Barnwell is my super-hot guide! Once you get into turkey hunting, you are hooked!” Sara declares (pun intended, as “turkeys’ spurs are often called hooks”).
The Palmetto State’s turkey season opened March 20 on private land and April 1 on public Wildlife Management Areas and lasts through May 5. Hunters must purchase a big game license and secure turkey tags before harvesting a season limit of 3 gobblers. For additional information, consult http://www.dnr.sc.gov/regs/turkeyseason.html.