April 09, 2023
The opening morning of turkey hunting in south Georgia was slightly cool and calm. We were in a little cove of a clearcut, with birds gobbling up on a ridge to our left. My friend Dow Kirkpatrick was on the call. That was a good thing because he's a vastly better turkey caller than I will ever be.
It was April Fool Day, 2023. It didn't matter how good Dow sounded, all the tomfoolery was on us. The birds shut up just after daylight. We saw nothing and never heard another putt. At midmorning, we picked up the decoys and regrouped, this time setting up at the Long Field, a known gobbler haunt. A breeze had come up—hard to hear, probably for the birds as well. Dow and I were tucked under a tree, me on the left, decoys out in the field. Nary a sound, as noon come and went. Truth is, I was falling asleep. I glanced past Dow, and this black thing was coming along the treeline. Big black thing with a bright red head.
He moved toward the decoys, never gobbled. At about 60 yards, he started strutting. He came in cautiously, still silent. I thought he was mature, but the grass was too long to see the beard. He advanced in short bursts, eyeing the decoys with caution. Strutting and spitting, he stood tall at 35 yards. Rested over a knee, I put the Mossberg's bead halfway up his neck and sent two ounces of tungsten No. 8. Nice tom, down on the spot.
We were at Zack and Debi Aultman's pine plantation, known locally as Aultman Forest, with lots of whitetails and turkeys, and too many hogs. Donna hunted with Mark Pickering and their results were similar to ours—early gobbling, then nothing. Others in camp did better. Dow's son, Marshall Kirkpatrick, took his first solo gobbler. Mark's son, Ben Pickering, shot a huge double-bearded tom, an old bird with long, needle-sharp spurs.
In the mid-afternoon, a thunderstorm came through, with hard rain for an hour. After it passed we went to the "Behind the Church" field, Donna and I in a popup, Dow and Marshall behind us working calls. Gobblers had been seen strutting in this field. The plan was to stay until about 6 pm, then try another spot. The sun came out and the wind died, a perfect afternoon but again we heard nothing. It was warm in the blind and I was nodding off. After all, I had my bird, right?
Donna punched me at 5:58. Two big gobblers were strolling along the edge of the treeline, straight toward the decoys. They walked right to the set, no hesitation, never a sound, but quite a show when they got there. They strutted 15 yards in front of us, first picking a fight with the jake decoy, then with each other. Long seconds passed before they separated for a shot. They were in the same class—big, mature birds, take your pick. She shot the larger tom with the better fan, but I think the other gobbler might have had a thicker beard. No matter, it was her first Eastern gobbler (but not her first try). With her bird down, the survivor continued the show, first pummeling his late buddy, then finally gobbling like crazy.
Two more birds came into camp that day, so six gobblers on opening day, unprecedented in my experience. Working with Georgia DNR, Zack Aultman personally introduced turkeys into his part of Georgia 30 years ago and has nurtured them ever since. Even Zack couldn't recall a six-gobbler day in Aultman Forest. Maybe April Fools Day is a bad day to be a turkey?
The Magic of Hunting Turkeys
From south to north, seasons vary from March through May, but spring gobbler season is a uniquely North American event, today shared by millions of hunters. The recovery of the wild turkey is one of our greatest conservation stories. Today's hunters share the bounty, blessed with long seasons and, often, multiple-bird limits. Many have it bad, following seasons from state to state, subspecies to subspecies. I class myself as a medium turkey addict, but it's a rare spring when I don't get out several times … somewhere. Nothing is more exciting when it all comes together and an enraged gobbler puts on a show.
I've often written that whitetail season is extra-special because I started hunting before Kansas had a modern deer season. The Kansas I grew up in also didn't have turkeys. In 1964, when I was 12, Dad and I went down to one of the first spring turkey seasons in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Although we'd practiced on box calls, we didn't know what we were doing (no instructional videos back then). Needless to say, we didn't take turkeys, but we saw birds and heard gobblers. Ever since, spring turkey season has also been a special time.
Over the years, I've hunted them all, been beaten and had success. For me, those quiet, tropical Osceola gobblers are the most difficult. My Kansas Rio Grande birds are easier. Knowing I'm not a great caller, I get a huge kick when I bring one in solo, but they beat me, too. Overall, I've probably been beaten the most by those wary, hunter-educated Eastern gobblers, including in Aultman Forest. In fact, Donna and I both got beat there in '21, the last time we tried. But it was still one of the best turkey hunts ever.
I've been fortunate to hunt Zack and Debi’s Georgia pines now and then for 20-odd years. Some time back, they hunted in Mozambique with Donna and me and our outfitter friend Mark Haldane. Haldane has said for years that he'd like to experience an American turkey hunt just once. Our spring is a tough time for him to be in the states, post-conventions, and start of his African season. In '21 we made it happen, and Zack and Debi invited us down to Aultman Forest, with Dow Kirkpatrick available to work his calling wizardry.
I wasn't present. I was off at The Pond field getting beaten when Haldane got his bird. We called it a morning and headed to camp so I could hear the story. Oh, yes, Haldane got the spring gobbler experience. Dow called in three big toms and they put on a primetime show, strutting and gobbling and fighting, finally separating so Haldane could shoot the biggest and best. Now, here's a guy who has guided African game for 30 years; lions and buffalos and elephants, oh my! When I got to him to admire his bird his hands were still shaking. He was so excited he was talking gibberish, barely making sense. "Most exciting experience I've ever had in the field." That's what Turkey Time is all about. It's not going to happen like that all the time, or very often. When it does, it's magic. Savor the memory; that's what keeps us coming back.