Over many parts of the Deep South, the month of March means just one thing — spring turkey season! My friend Johnny Keesee, who makes it a practice to hunt in just about every state that has a spring season, tells me that he will begin as usual in Florida, where, I think, the season opens March 3. (Mississippi's season opens March 17 this year. Alabama and South Carolina open around the same time.)
Johnny has made friends with lots of turkey hunters all over the country and makes the best of it by hunting in more states than some of us have even visited. The last hunt he made in Florida was in an area that the well-known hunter and turkey call-maker Tom Gaskins hunted. I learned from Johnny that Tom was in very poor health at the time. He didn't get to see Tom, but Tom's son was around. Johnny obtained one of his fine calls and brought it to me as a gift that I greatly appreciate.
Old Tom visited me once quite a few years back. I was lucky enough to show him more wild turkeys in an hour than he had seen in years of hunting. I managed this by taking him in my little Citabria airplane on a flight over the woods and fields behind the main Mississippi River levee in Coahoma County, Miss. That was back when we were having perhaps the highest populations we've ever had. It was late winter when the birds were congregated and feeding in some of the big soybean fields.
At times I have flown over that area and carefully estimated that as many as 300 birds were in a field. Then a mile or so further on I could see another field that seemed to have about as many.
We have never been able to reach that density again, due in part to some huge die-offs from disease, lots of flooding, and a tremendous increase in predators (especially the “cute” little raccoons that can wipe out 90 percent of your turkey nests as fast as the poor old hens can provide them). Even so, we have a very fine lot of turkeys on this land. I greatly doubt, however, we will ever see that many turkeys again.
Thinking and writing about turkeys always reminds me of the very first gobbler I ever brought down. At the risk of telling my age, I'll pinpoint this fine event as occurring during the spring season of 1950. The now-famous Burke Hunting Club is 5,000 acres of woodland and open fields a group of us bought behind the main levee and the Mississippi River.
Several of us boated down the river and camped very primitively in a field next to the river. None of us knew much about turkey hunting then, but we were willing to learn by trial and error. For $3 I had procured one of Tom Gaskins' little cedar box calls. Having been raised in the country, I knew how a turkey hen sounded (at least, I thought I did).
We all hunted hard. On about the third day, hunting in the afternoon, I had an old gobbler answer my call, even though he was with a couple of hens. I was fairly well-hidden in front of a big cottonwood. The old bird came up, bringing the hens with him. He never, however, got in gun range.
It was quite late in the day when he finally turned around and walked off from me. I sat there until dusk and heard him and the hens fly up to roost not more than a couple of hundred yards down the draw that I was sitting in.
The next morning I found my way back to the same spot, fully expected to hear him gobble. Full daylight came without a sound from a turkey of any sex. I sat there for maybe half an hour, then got up and began slowly walking down the draw in the direction that the turkeys had roosted.
After slowly moving about 200 yards, I stopped, leaned up against a big cottonwood and made a call on my Gaskins box. To my great surprise, a huge gobbler in a half strut charged out from behind a downed treetop and low vegetation no more than 30 steps away. In a reflex action I aimed for his “front” and pulled the trigger on my old Winchester Model 12 Magnum. The turkey literally rolled out of sight behind the low vegetation. I saluted him with the other two shells, but with no effect.
Almost panicked, I ran down to the spot where he had been and, lo and behold, there lay my gobbler, wings outstretched and graveyard dead. I realized then that there had been two old gobblers together. By missing the second one flying, I had avoided breaking the law the first time I ever shot at turkeys.
He weighed in at 18 pounds with a 10-inch beard. Quite naturally, I have never since bagged a bird that was quite as satisfying as that one… my first.