Turkey Hunting, Then and Now

A nostalgic look at the evolution of a Georgia turkey hunter.

“What’cha doing Saturday morning?” Mark asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Nothing, I guess. Why?”

“Want to go turkey hunting with me?”

“Turkey hunting?

“Yeah, turkey hunting!”

“Man, I don’t know nothing ’bout no turkey hunting.”

“Well, I don’t know much myself, but I’ll show you what I do know.”

“Yeah, but it’s March.”

“I know. You hunt them in the spring. Ain’t it great?”

This conversation took place in late March, 1976 between Mark Payne and me. Mark was the DNR ranger for Putnam County. We met several years prior in the middle of the Oconee River while searching for a missing kid. This was during my early years as a deputy for the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. I’ve now retired after 31 years of service, but this was in the early 70s when my career had just started.

We were both in our late 20s, country as dirt, and loved to hunt and fish. Mark had talked some about turkey hunting in other parts of the state and had even been a few times. I just listened to him and said nothing since I knew absolutely nothing about turkeys. The only person in the county I knew who did turkey hunt was J.T. Brock.

J.T. was a man for whom I had the deepest respect. He was a World War II veteran, and he was a great turkey hunter. Back before there was a season anywhere close to Putnam County, J.T. would drive several counties away where there were birds. He was the only man I knew in the mid 70s who had actually killed a wild turkey.

The only wild birds I had ever seen was back when I was just 7 or 8 years old. My family was on its way to church one Sunday morning, and several birds were in an open field along Murder Creek in western Putnam County. That sighting was a real rarity in those days.

Twenty years later, after meeting Mark Payne and our conversation about hunting turkeys, we started making plans.

“Well, where are we going to go?” I asked.

“B.F. Grant. It’s the only open area in Putnam County,” Mark said. “It’s the first season ever, and I want to go.”

“Count me in!”

We started to make plans. Mark had been a few times during his travels around the state, but yours truly didn’t have a clue.

“You have to dress all over in full camouflage, head, face, hands, everything,” Mark said. “They can see anything and everything.”

Now, folks, this was before Realtree and Mossy Oak were born. The only camo I owned was one set of woodland coveralls and a cap. There was no camo to be bought anywhere close to Eatonton and no Wal-Mart to buy it from. We had to make do the best we could. I rigged up some kind of face mask with a couple of rubber bands, and my gloves were a pair of brown cloth work gloves.

We made it to our parking spot without incident, got parked and gathered our meager gear. Pitch black dark, no light, we started slowly walking down this old logging road. After a while there were some large pines.

“We’ll stand here and listen for a while,” Mark said.

We whispered in low tones and waited and listened. It wasn’t long before a few songbirds started to carry on some. In the middle of one of our whispered stories, we both froze when the most thrilling sound I ever heard in my life suddenly exploded across the early morning silence. Somewhere in that creek bottom was a big tom turkey, and judging by the sound of his voice he wanted everyone to know he was there. I just stood there looking stupid. That gobble penetrated my very soul. There was nothing like it. Grandaddy’s barnyard strutters couldn’t even come close to this old boy. I was mesmerized.

“Let’s go,” Mark said, and we took off toward the gobbler. We learned our first turkey-hunting lesson then and there: Don’t close the distance on a gobbling tom when he is across a clearcut, and it’s dark. After 50 yards of stumbling, fumbling and falling, needless to say, the bird shut up.

We earned all the lessons learned that first season. Mark did manage to kill a beautiful 2-year-old bird that first year, and although I didn’t kill a bird it was still a great season for me. I had heard my first gobble and had seen my first wild turkey in his own living room.

I also discovered the brotherhood between hunters of old. I met men who knew turkeys and how to hunt them, men like Arthur Truelove and J.E. Poole from Gainesville, Jack Scott and Tom Fisher from Cochran and Jack Bailey. These men could see the eagerness to learn in our eyes, I guess, and didn’t mind sharing their knowledge with a couple of “wannabes.”

I guess we probably learned more from Arthur than from any other one person. He would answer all our questions, and we had plenty. He would tell us what he would do in certain situations when a longbeard did this or that and told us of adventures passed. This man was one heck of a turkey hunter.

We took everything he told us to heart and remembered most of what he said, but executing his instructions was another story. Things did not always work out like he said. It didn’t take us long to learn that nothing is for sure in turkey hunting. Arthur told us that, too.

When the next season finally arrived, we were a lot more prepared. We had found some army-surplus camo, I had borrowed my brother’s Winchester Model 12 pump shotgun, and we had done plenty of scouting. Opening morning found us overlooking the same clearcut from the previous year. After 30 minutes of daylight and no gobble, we were a little discouraged but decided to slip along the creek, calling occasionally.

Mark was using a homemade pill-bottle call. I wasn’t using anything because at the time I hadn’t the confidence in my calling ability. I just kept quiet. We had gone maybe a half-mile with no action. Mark called up a hardwood draw that led away from the creek, and a bird gobbled instantly, right on top of us. He was no more than 60 or 70 yards away.

Mark disappeared. The only place I saw nearby was a big stump hole. I don’t remember diving in, but I do remember the next thing I saw was a big red head straight in line with my gun barrel at 25 yards.

Boom! Flop, flop, flop.

I really think I was on that bird before the third flop. I had just killed my first wild turkey. It was only a jake, but I didn’t care. I was one happy man.

After that day, Mark couldn’t get in his truck without me. I know I worried him to death, but I was hooked, and it was his fault. I don’t think he minded too much since we loved to hunt together. The first four or five birds I killed were called up by Mark.

One day after a successful hunt, Mark said to me, “Lynn, I love ya’, man, but you have to start hunting and calling on your own. You can call a turkey as good as anyone, and it’s time you started. I love hunting with you, but until you have the confidence to go it alone, you’ll always depend on someone else.”

Even though I knew he was right, I was still apprehensive and questioned my ability to call. I took Mark’s advice and started hunting on my own. I made some mistakes but learned from them. I just wanted to call up a hen or a jake or anything, just to prove I could.

The first bird I called up wasn’t a jake but a monster gobbler. I would love to say I killed that bird, but it didn’t happen. He came in silent on an afternoon hunt. I didn’t know at the time that they often do that in the afternoons. After he found no hen and eased back out, I tried to call him back. Not! I found myself shaking after calling in that longbeard, having accomplished a dream. At first I thought the mistake I made was a terrible one, but it turned out to be a valuable lesson.

The first four or five seasons a hunter could only kill one gobbler. I don’t know exactly the year the DNR upped the limit to two birds, but it must have been around 1980. Mark and I still hunted together, but I was not afraid to hunt alone.

On Father’s Day in 1979, my wife and two daughters surprised me with a new Mossberg 500 3-inch magnum pump shotgun. It was the ultimate turkey gun at the time, and I was able to return my brother’s Model 12. I still use the same gun 30 years later.

For the next four or five years I found myself pleasantly surprised by my ability to limit out each season. I wanted to share my good fortune with friends, wanting them to share the same rush. I wanted to do the same for someone else as Mark had done for me. Sammy Wooten is a lifelong friend, and those of you who know him are already laughing. He is a real piece of work, to say the least. Let’s just say I’ve probably got more and better stories to tell on Sammy than Mark has to tell on me.

Sammy is one of the few people I know who killed a bird on his very first hunt. I carried him with me one morning to one of my honey holes, and when the birds gobbled I counted at least two. I pointed to a tree for Sammy and sat down 10 yards behind him. We had talked about what to do and what not to do. He knew there would be serious consequences if he messed up. But the hunt was storybook. The birds came in from his right and passed in front at just 20 yards. Sammy waited patiently to raise his gun, and the rest is history.

He was excited to have killed his first turkey, and, although I didn’t tell him, it was the first bird I had ever called in for someone else. I was proud of Sammy, glad to be his friend and proud of myself, too. After the hunt Sammy was just like me. Every time I got in my old Ford truck he was sitting there ready to go hunting, and we would. Sammy and I hunted a lot, and after a few years I gave him the same sermon Mark had given me. Sammy reluctantly started hunting on his own. Today, Sammy Wooten is one of the best turkey hunters I know.

By 1985 or 1986 my son was old enough to start lessons. He was 5 or 6 and really wanted to learn. I would build ground blinds for us, and he did really well for a little guy. I killed several birds with him over the next few years. By the time Bubba was 8 years old he could name all the turkey calls and use them very well.

Bubba was always a real pleasure to take hunting, never forgetting anything I told him. I found myself learning from him. That was the year Winchester introduced the new Model 1300 NWTF Commemorative Edition 12-gauge pump. Even though he was only 8 years old, I still bought him one. He was having a fit to shoot the gun, and I kept finding excuses for him not to. I thought he was a bit small to shoot a 3-inch magnum 12 gauge, but he was persistent.

I finally gave in and set up a target for him. Mark Payne was with us that day. I got Bubba locked and loaded, and Mark and I stood back and watched Bubba get knocked backward, but he tore the target up at 25 yards. I told him he did good, and that I would let him shoot the gun often, but he would have to wait a couple of years before trying to kill a turkey.

He was 10 years old when he killed his first turkey, and I was sitting by the tree with him, watching every move he made. When that turkey rolled, I knew Bubba was a turkey hunter. I called that bird up for him on a Thursday after school. The very next afternoon he called in his own gobbler and killed it. I knew then he was going to be very good at turkey hunting. When a father watches his child accomplish a task that would give most adults problems, the only word that comes to mind is, well, pride.

Bubba and I experienced many hunting memories together during his years growing up. It slowed down a lot when he went off to college, but he would drive home on weekends during deer and turkey seasons just so we could hunt together. He does most of the calling now when we’re together, but I will slip a few melodious notes in from time to time. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish. Bubba has a family of his own now, but we still find time to go hunting together. He works most of the time, so we really cherish our time together. He takes his son hunting now, and that’s the way it should be.

I have known Donald Deveraux Jarrett for years, and he is one of my best friends. Donald, a turkey-hunting guru in his own right, and I don’t get many opportunities to hunt together because of his work schedule. To this day, he and I have never killed a turkey while hunting together. Not one! On our hunts we always wind up sitting by the same tree, telling turkey lies and laughing so hard that no turkey in its right mind would come in. We always say we’re going to change that and get serious about killing a bird together, and then we look at one another and start laughing.

He and I are both big fans of Cedar Creek WMA. I don’t know who has the most turkey-hunting spots there — probably him —but I was born on Cedar Creek, and I don’t think he was. Got you D.J.! My time and trips spent with Donald mean more to me than he will ever know. Again, these are memories I’ll always cherish.

I’ve met many different people in this sport that I love so much. I’ve learned from some, and I’ve taught a few. I only hope that those few learned from me. This fantastic creation from God deserves the most respect we can give it, and that is to always be knowledgeable, legal and ethical hunters. We’re obligated to do so. Turkey hunting is a passion, an addiction. It’s a disease that gnaws at my very soul. There is no cure for me, no hope, only an occasional fix that will last about eight weeks each spring. Then I’m back to Zombieville. I simply love it. Other than my relationship with God and my family, there is nothing on this earth I have love or enjoy more.

I am responsible for transmitting this passion to many others, brothers, cousins, uncles and many friends. I felt obligated to do so. I didn’t want to appear selfish and not share this God-given right with others. I have suffered this fever for more than 30 years. Mark Payne did this to me. Thanks, Mark. We’ve had many exciting times and memories since we stumbled across that clearcut at B.F. Grant in ’76. I wouldn’t swap one of them for anything.

I still consider myself a student of turkey hunting. In fact, I know not a soul with a master’s degree.

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