Black River magic
In the midst of these uncertain times, my son Cotsey and I decided to double down and test our threshold for uncertainty by heading to the hardwood river bottoms in pursuit of the ever elusive “King of Spring.” It was the youth weekend for the 2020 season, and we had left Charleston with the intention of harvesting Cotsey’s first turkey somewhere along the banks of the Black River. We had neither grand plans nor strategic moves to implement once we arrived; we just went to chase one to wherever his lovelorn feathers might lead.
Our first opportunity to make good on our quest came early Saturday morning. We were compelled to start the day much earlier than normal due to the lack of intel we possessed. We were unsure of where exactly the gobblers may be roosted, so Cotsey, an old friend and I set out in the dark to set up quietly. As we were walking in the dark I reminded my son, “It’s time for the ‘Mohican Sneakin’’; let’s be really quiet walking in.” We all were settled in for the hunt by 6:30 a.m. and sat there silently amidst God’s creation, watching the world wake up around us. There is an overwhelming sense of a father’s peace to sit next to a child holding a shotgun; seeing one’s son full of hope and determination delivers a sense that all is right with the world, if only for that exact moment.
The first gobbler to greet us from the roost chimed in a little after 7 a.m. and was approximately 150 yards down and to the left of our vantage point. This was a most promising and ideal locale for the birds to pitch down and then ease their way towards the barrel of Cotsey’s .410. Our promising set up was upended when a gobbler about blew our hats off from the roost 80 yards directly behind us. Not unlike most endeavors, our auspicious beginning turned into a difficult challenge. We were able to work the bird within range; unfortunately, it was behind and to the left of where Cotsey could see. After gobbling four to five times behind us he decided to go on about his business of chasing jakes and tending to his harem. We had given a valiant effort and were proud of having set up and not spooked the birds that had roosted so closely. It was a win to just be in the game despite the inability to seal the deal. We walked out silently, knowing we had another chance to get back in the ring the following morning.
Our second opportunity was met with some more seasoned turkey hunters who had learned a number of valuable lessons the preceding day. Cotsey was now confidently able to execute the level of stealth required to set up tightly on a bird. Daddy had learned how long the expiration date truly lasts in regards to the ability of a seven-year old to sit still in the woods. We set off after daylight with just the two of us comprising the Sunday morning expedition team. As we drove towards and through the hardwoods, my partner was tossing pecans out of the truck window. According to my well-seasoned partner, “Turkeys love pecans, especially gobblers, so I’m leaving a trail.”
As the songbirds sang and the squirrels chirped, we got set up and were ready to hunt around 7:15. My calls fell silent among the red and willow oaks, and our hearts sank as we sensed the hunt might not be as promising. I explained to my son that the gobblers aren’t always hot as a firecracker; they don’t always gobble incessantly, nor do they always come running to your call. There are no participation trophies in turkey hunting; rather, there are more lessons and challenges to learn and overcome than most any type of hunting. Persuading a paranoid, lovesick schizophrenic turkey to go against the natural law and order of him gobbling and all women immediately coming to his side is a monumental task; it sure the hell isn’t deer hunting.
As we sat next to one another whispering the truths of turkey hunting, the Monarch of Spring decided to respond to my call.
It was now 7:30 and he was between the river and us; we were back in the game. The optimism slowly faded as his second response was at 7:50 and he did not appear to be any closer than the first gobble. I was happy that I had decided to start a little later, which in turn had given our window of time more daylight hours than the previous hunt. As I was conveying the importance of being still when the birds are not vocal, I thought to myself that this might be a bust. Turkeys will see you long before you see them, so your lack of movement is paramount to be successful, especially when they are less vociferous.
Fortunately the good Lord was shining upon us that morning when a hen let out a five-note yelp out in front. I fist bumped Cotsey and let him know that they were coming. The boss hen was not happy and she was coming to take care of some business with whoever had been purring. She then let out a loud three-note yelp that cut the air like a pair of scissors; she was right here in our wheelhouse. I told Cotsey to get on the gun, keep both eyes open, and do not move because we were in the game like never before.
The lead hen stepped out in the open, looking to have some words with the jezebel that had been wooing her man. Then another hen stepped out, and another, and another, and another until there were seven hens in a single file line easing towards our tree. The stakes were high and the degree of difficulty to our task just grew exponentially with 14 wary eyes on high alert. As if that were not enough of a challenge to stay concealed and undetected, one jake after another, after another followed the hens until there were five jakes in tow. We now had 12 turkeys within 50 yards and we could see two large fans coming through the woods. The two gobblers looked as they had taken beach umbrellas and had Thomas Brooks, a SEWE favorite, paint them brown and black to use for fans; they were stately and imposing. When the pair of lover boy bruisers saw our jake decoy, the two immediately broke strut and stretched their necks like periscopes.
They malevolently gazed across to our decoy and began to spit and drum. The feathers shook simultaneously as if the turkeys were being shocked. The air pushed by the feathers created that unmistakable reverberation; it had every hair on our body standing at attention. The two dark Volkswagen bugs were now slowly making their way across the field dragging their wings and exuding a bass-like sound typically generated by a hatchback at a stoplight. As the menacing pair approached the decoy and came just a few feet from physical confrontation, they sprung into the air and came down on top of the decoy with their dagger-like spurs. For a minute straight, the two gobblers were jumping a couple feet into the air and coming down onto the decoy like Hulk Hogan with his famous leg drop.
As the two birds appeared to be riding a pogo stick, I was watching Cotsey’s barrel — in the midst of this sheer pandemonium — go up, down, up, down, left, right, up, left. It appeared as though Cotsey were stenciling figure eights into the air. I was hoping and praying to myself that he would be presented a good shot once the melee settled. As soon as the gobblers had beaten the decoy off of the stake, the five jakes decided to join in on the annihilation. The gangland attack of seven against one lasted an additional 30 seconds but felt like an eternity. We were so close to sealing the deal but needed the birds to stop for a moment. And then they did. All of them stopped in unison with one gobbler on each side of the fallen decoy and the jakes scattered about. With all of the turkeys within 20 to 25 steps I whispered, “Shoot the one on the right.”
Like Deshaun Watson in the fourth quarter against Alabama, Cotsey pulled the trigger without hesitation.
Cotsey did not ask which bird did I mean; He didn’t say I couldn’t move or I’m not sure if I can hit it — no excuses or discussion, he just let it rip because the whole time he had been following that gobbler with his barrel. The gobbler fell as if though he were going to sleep for the evening — not a single flap. All of the turkeys started running and flying off in every direction once the shot rang through the hardwoods bottom. That particular shot will ring forever in my memory to mark one the best days I have had the pleasure to experience.
I immediately sprinted to the gobbler and tripped, barrel rolled and kept on running like my hair was on fire. The hooting and hollering and high-fiving could have been heard all the way back at the Toogoodoo. There were tears filled with joy and pride in every drop that rolled off of my face and fell onto the fertile soil that follows that black water river. It was a monumental moment in both of our lives, just the two of us together, a father and his son, outwitting that old swamp gobbler. My heart was overwhelmed with a wide range of emotions; it was like winning the Super Bowl and holding your child in the delivery room for the first time all rolled into one.
The pride that fills your heart to witness your child exude such mettle under the scrutiny of all those cunning eyes, and to not fold under such intense pressure, is nothing short of euphoric. An indescribable celebration took place on the banks of the Black River this March 15, a memory that we both will hold dearly until we depart this world. My hope is that one day Cotsey will have the ability and desire to take my grandchildren to that same hardwoods bottom to have a moment just like the one we shared. Lord willing I’ll be there hooting and hollering and tripping over myself all over again.
Michael Lalich is president of Low Country Labor, LLC and an avid sportsman.