Pursuing wild turkeys with the heart of a conservationist
Turkey hunting is no leisurely pastime for the merely interested sportsman: As much as, if not more than, any other quarry in our South Carolina wilderness, the wild turkey kindles a healthy addiction among those who pursue it.
Scott Rhodes, a Hampton County native, elaborates on the uniqueness of the popular sport: “Turkey hunting is a game of wit. It’s a one-on-one sport. Most of the time, you’re actually communicating with birds,” he remarks, highlighting the interactive nature of the sport, which distinguishing it from other forms of hunting wherein the hunter assumes the passive role of an observer. Scott quotes Col. Tom Kelly, who put it best: “Many people who hunt turkeys do so with an attention to detail, a regard for strategy, tactics, and operations and a disregard for personal comfort and convenience that ranks second only to war.”
Scott does most of his turkey hunting on his family’s Oak Grove Plantation, which spans Hampton and Allendale Counties. A portion of the place has been in the family for several generations, having been owned by Scott’s great grandfather. The remainder of the plantation was acquired gradually — during the last 35 years or so — by Tommy, Scott’s father, more affectionately known as “Tombo.”
Tombo Rhodes has worked in the land and timber business his whole life, and he passed on to Scott a love of the outdoors and conservation. Scott has been pursuing turkeys at Oak Grove since the early 1990s. A decade earlier, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stocked turkeys in an area of the farm the Rhodes family refers to as the Smokehouse Woods. The stocked birds were local, hailing from the nearby woods along the Savannah River.
For the past nine years, Scott has hosted the Annual Low Country Turkey Invitational. The inaugural event was held at Caesar’s Camp at Groton Plantation and for some years, the proceeds supported the Tall Timbers South Carolina Wild Quail Project. This year’s tournament, which unfortunately was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, was to have been the tenth consecutive tournament and the fourth year the proceeds were to benefit Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).
The tournament kicks off on Thursday night with a catered prime rib dinner at Oak Grove. Rules are reviewed and a guest speaker entertains the participants. The next morning, teams of hunters work birds on private lands throughout the Lowcountry. Back at Oak Grove, birds are scored, and “custom, hand-made turkey calls from call makers such as Billy Buice, Steve Mann, Lamar Williams, and Clint Corder” are awarded as prizes. The event culminates in a barbecue lunch.
Scott reflects on the rewards of hosting and organizing the invitational. “I really enjoy the camaraderie of putting so many like-minded people together. It’s good to see people come together to discuss current research and the state of the turkey population,” Rhodes continues. “The big thing for me is gaining a better understanding of turkey biology — learning more about the birds, and giving back locally to conservation in one way or another. This year, we had 56 teams registered at $500 each. After expenses, the proceeds would have netted $20,000 to QDMA!”
When the decision was made to cancel this year’s invitational, participants were given three options — receive a full refund, apply their payment to next year’s event, or choose to make an outright donation to QDMA. Several teams graciously donated their entry fee to QDMA, and “the vast majority said to hold it and roll it into next year’s tournament.” The selfless decisions of so many are a testament that an infectious commitment to conservation surpasses the competitive spirit of those who have come to look forward to the invitational.
The tournament serves as a platform to discuss the studies of the much-loved wild turkey. Last year, DNR big-game biologist Jay Cantrell spoke about topics such as changes to the state’s turkey season and recent research conducted at the Webb Wildlife Center. Scott also calls attention to the work of Dr. Michael Chamberlain of the University of Georgia and Dr. Brett Collier of LSU. Recently, these biologists have held live interactive discussions on Facebook, covering topics such as hunter influence on turkey movement, breeding behavior, and predator influence.
“I am very interested in keeping up with the research and what’s going on with the turkey population — other than that there is a population decline,” Rhodes explains. “What we have learned regarding the social interactions is particularly interesting to me; turkeys are far more complex than we ever thought or understood.
“Some important takeaways of this research are that when a dominant gobbler is removed, it is believed to be very disruptive socially. Gobbler interactions are so complex, pecking orders must be re-established, and it is believed this could take an extended period of time,” Scott points out. “Since the hen chooses her mate/mates, breeding is often delayed, or even worse, abandoned for the season. This premise alone is worth every hunter’s attention and pause to reflect upon what needs to be done to ensure we maintain healthy turkey recruitment.”
For this reality, “we have no clear answer other than adjusting our hunting dates later in the spring so more hens are bred prior to harvest.” Consequently, such observations led to the delayed opening of this year’s turkey season, a move overwhelming supported by most turkey hunters, who seek protection of the wily bird that brings so much enjoyment.
“Also, the invitational is a great avenue for the youth, through hunter education and hunter recruitment,” Scott reminds us. This year he introduced a youth category for those 14 years and younger to the tournament. The youth hunt was to take place the day after the main hunt, and ten young hunters — to be accompanied by adult woodsmen — registered.
Early on, Scott’s daughters Kate (10) and Jane (12) began accompanying their father in the woods. Jane especially has cultivated a passion for hunting and is obsessed with the pursuit of wild turkeys! Having harvested her first bird at the age of seven and successfully hunted North Carolina and south Florida, she is well on her way to becoming a seasoned turkey hunter. This year, under her father’s tutelage, she has bagged three turkeys — all big birds. Jane tells us: “I understand managing game populations is a big responsibility and I most enjoy sharing the harvest with others!”
One particularly memorable father-daughter hunt took place on April 2, which fortuitously happened to be Jane’s 12th birthday, Scott relays the story: “At 12:30 p.m. in the afternoon — after lunch — Jane and I went out for a couple of gobblers I had picked out to hunt for the Turkey Invitational.
“We ended up doubling up that afternoon. Both birds were extremely long-spurred and triple-bearded.” The success of the hunt was a special day for the Rhodes family, and a fine birthday present for Jane. “The opportunity to have a hunt like that with my daughter is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” Scott declares with pride. “Jane’s turkey was the biggest bird she has ever harvested and the other one was in the top two biggest birds I have killed in my lifetime.”
By example, Scott Rhodes reminds us that sportsman are the most rabid defenders of our natural resources. His and Jane’s hunt culminated in “a very pointed conservation message. When Jane and I are in the woods together, we are always having discussions about land management, wildlife, non-game, and our surroundings. After this harvest, we took a moment to discuss the wild turkey research and the implications of harvesting both of those dominant birds. We decided together not to hunt that area again this season,” he says.
“For me, this season has been excellent,” Scott tells us. However, his success is hardly the result of mere chance. “We have a healthy turkey population on Oak Grove. Of course, the property is intensely managed and very lightly pressured. You know, I would say that in our conservation efforts here at Oak Grove, we try to manage for non-game, as well as game species.”
Rhodes is not your run-of-the-mill turkey hunter; the sport is an essential element of his livelihood, and indeed, an extension of his way of life. Scott earned a B.S. in Forestry Management with an emphasis in wildlife biology from the University of Georgia. For more than 20 years, he has owned and operated Forest Management Services with his brother-in-law Phillip Miller. As registered foresters, and Scott a certified wildlife biologist, they advise others how to best manage their properties while protecting and developing a habitat for the living things that also inhabit the land.
“We put a lot of time, effort, and sweat into proper management. We try to be great land stewards, always considering how our actions will impact the property,” Rhodes says. As evidence of this stewardship, a good portion of Oak Grove Plantation is protected by a conservation easement. Scott’s clients appreciate his unique, expert perspective, as well as his philosophical commitment to conservation. “I am not just a forester and biologist; I am also a landowner and custodian of the land who is very conservation-minded,” explains this passionate conservationist and accomplished woodsman who is doing his part to ensure that healthy wild turkey populations endure for future generations of South Carolina sportsmen.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.