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Catching springtime turkey fever — from my bride


English Walpole working a box call. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
 

By Ford Walpole

 

            For many years, I avoided turkey hunting. On a subconscious level, I suspect this was due to my concern about acquiring and managing yet another hobby. And though all outdoors activities kindle a somewhat universal passion, turkey hunting seems to foster an addiction that is borderline unhealthy. So, cautiously aware of my own obsessive tendencies, I considered it wise to avoid the spring woods. Besides, the springtime always seemed a good time to focus on yard, garden and home projects.

I was caught off guard when my wife English developed an independent obsession for turkey hunting, so I blame her for my late and reluctant entry into the sport. During our courtship and early into our marriage, English and I spent a great deal of time together in outdoor pursuits. For many years her role as mother to young children rechanneled a focus on family outdoor adventures that included outside play, hiking, boat rides and beach trips.

Now in our empty-nesting stage, my wife and I have rediscovered the pastime of hunting together. I fancy myself my bride’s outdoor guide, but in reality, my role may be more accurately described as that of a mere gear and gun bearer.

English recalls the genesis of her passion for wild turkeys:  “I began to see turkeys on our property, so I started researching turkeys and turkey hunting. I went on Amazon and bought a box call, and I would sit on the front porch and practice. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. Turkey hunting is not easy, and I am always up for a challenge. Year-round, I constantly keep my eyes peeled for turkeys while I am driving,” she says.

My bride reflects on learning about turkey hunting. “We talked to and hunted with experienced turkey hunters. I researched online, and watched a lot of experts’ YouTube videos, which helped me practice different calls. I am confident in my ability to mimic the hen’s yelp, cutt and cluck, but I still need to practice the purr,” adding:  “I have come to realize that your call does not have to be perfect, but I do intend to practice and continue to improve my calling.

“I love that you never know what is going to happen in turkey hunting,” English says of the sport. “Every hunt is different, which really feels like true hurting because you are trying to get the gobbler to come to you. Turkey hunting involves a lot of thinking and strategizing. Finally, I also like going in the woods in the spring because usually it is not as cold,” she says.

Among the countless essential traits of a good woodsman, English considers one of utmost importance:  “Patience!  I am an elementary school teacher, and I like to think I have a lot of patience, although I am pretty sure I have a great deal more patience in the classroom than in the woods!” she laughs. “But hearing a gobble and having to wait to see what he will do requires a great deal of patience, and the hunt might well end with disappointment, when he never emerges or does not come close enough.

“But, that gobble — when I actually get a response to my call — is the most exciting sound in the world!  The closer the bird gets, the more my heart begins to race!  I get a smile on my face every time I hear a turkey gobble!” she says.

            This writer’s inclination to hyper-observe my surroundings usually provides more than a sporting chance to the specific outdoors quarry I pursue. Even so, the opportunity to harvest abstract game is a significant aspect of what beckons me to the woods and fields.

            Watching the world wake up come alive is one of the best parts of a morning deer hunt, but being present for the dawn of a spring day in the turkey woods is an altogether different experience. This time of year, the woods are full of lush green:  the trees boast new leaves, grass sprouts from exposed understory and dormant vines emerge. Unfortunately, chiggers and ticks also participate in this outdoors renaissance.

This time of year, the birds are singing and love is in the air, perhaps even more so after a particularly wet and cold Lowcountry winter. These sylvan melodies are precisely why some of the best advice I have heard is simply to go in the woods and listen. Toms are prone to respond to all sorts of sounds, and Nature can sometimes do your work for you — serving as your locator call without your even needing one.

The spring woods are full of peaceful sounds from all sorts of fowl:  owls, crows, mourning doves, songbirds, woodpeckers and the screech of hawks. On a recent hunt, English and I sat against a tree and were entertained by a pileated woodpecker relentlessly working on a dead sweetgum.

“I love the new growth in the spring, and I love how active the birds are,” English adds. “COVID encouraged me to find new hobbies and attracting birds to my house became one such interest. So, being in the woods watching and listening to the birds is another perk of turkey hunting. I really enjoy seeing the sun rise and hearing the woods wake up! I especially like listening to the hoots of the owls while hoping to hear a gobbler call back!” As we hunkered in a ditch at the edge of a field, English remarked:  “Look at how beautiful it is when the sun shines on the morning dew as it clings to the blades of grass!”

Turkey hunting truly does afford an excuse to explore the woods with childlike enthusiasm. Just the other day, as we traipsed from the woods into a field, we observed a young alligator sunning on a fallen timber. Moments later, I nearly stepped on a juvenile box turtle before we looked up to the screeching from a quarrel between a red-tailed hawk and a red-shouldered hawk.

English recollects a recent day in the spring woods:  “This past weekend, we had been hunting in the woods for four hours. It was 10:20 a.m., and I said: “Well, I guess it’s time to go.” But Ford encouraged me to try the call one more time. Then sure enough, we heard that wonderful sound I had been hoping for! 

“I waited a few minutes and called again. This time, the gobbler was closer, so I got ready. I was scanning the woods because I wasn’t sure where he would be coming in. Then, I saw him and his swinging beard! My heart was racing so fast! I was aimed and ready for him, but several large trees prevented a clear shot before the gobbler disappeared into the woods,” English says.

“We waited and remained very still, hoping he might circle back around. After a while I called again but got no response. Eventually we changed locations but never did hear the gobbler again. I was very disappointed,” she says. But I was proud of myself for calling the gobbler to me. Now I am more excited than ever to go back out there!”

            Writers (at least this one) tend to be idealists, but our world is hardly an ideal place. Even so, this world, and especially those parts of it that remain unaltered, is a beautiful and wonderful place. The manufactured mandate of a bountiful harvest often puts undue pressure on the outdoor writer. And though this tale might not conclude with the bagging of game, this story has yet to end; rather, it is only the beginning of a flourishing passion, and passion ensures the capacity for hope.

As of my deadline to scribble this column, one more weekend remains for sportsmen to hunt Lowcountry turkeys. And beyond the close of this year’s season lies the cyclical assurance of future days in which to cultivate and hone the skills necessary to bag a gobbler in the spring turkey woods.

“I might not have harvested a turkey yet, but this yeah, I feel I have achieved success,” English says. Earlier in the season, she was able to encourage a gobbler to communicate with her. Unfortunately, the bird, just down from the roost, was henned-up without any incentive to move, but he did offer a couple of courtesy calls. “At that moment, I felt a sense of accomplishment when I heard the gobbler respond to my calls; this gave me the confidence I needed. Then, later actually calling in a bird was another milestone. The season is not over, so let’s hope I have a “successful” hunt on the final weekend. If not, I will just keep reminding myself that I will get one next year!” English says.

My wife has formulated some clear goals for next year’s turkey season. “I want to learn more about the daily routines of turkeys, and I plan to scout before the season opens. I also would like to use a locator call and incorporate decoys into the hunt. I will continue to practice working on the Big Lake Custom box call, and I hope to improve my ability with the slate calls from Stubbs Game Calls. In addition, I also want to learn how to use a mouth call.”

Regarding the entire turkey hunting experience, my wife remarks:  “I love that Ford goes hunting with me — even though he doesn’t know any more than I do about turkey hunting! “English laughs. “But at least we are together — that is all that counts!  And couples who hunt together stay together!”

 

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 fordwalpole@gmail.com.

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