Wild turkey exploits with Patrick Runey of T. W. Graham & Co.
By Ford Walpole
Success! Patrick Runey holds up two gobblers outside his restaurant. Images provided.
Patrick Runey of McClellanville is as passionate about turkey hunting as preparing award-winning meals at T. W. Graham & Co., his renowned restaurant in the village. Interestingly, his family legacy of outdoor sports includes a tale of McClellanville’s favorite son Archibald Rutledge, who gave Patrick’s grandfather a turkey call that remains one of Patrick’s prized possessions.
His grandfather George Patrick Runey, Sr. was a magistrate for the city of Charleston and lived in the Primrose House on East Bay Street. “Back then, they had chickens and deer dogs in their yard downtown!” Patrick says. The judge had an arrangement with Archibald Rutledge, with whom he had hunted in his youth. If dogs at the pound proved willing to run deer, they could live out their days at Hampton Plantation. The elder Runey also worked Charleston strays to drive deer on property that is now the Charleston International Airport.
Patrick grew up hunting with his father at Charlie Wood Hunting Club in Berkeley County on land that is now part of the Francis Marion National Forest. He recalls: “I killed my first turkey when I was eight years old. My old man called the gobblers up for me, and with my Savage 311A, 16-gauge double-barrel shotgun, I killed a few more over the next several years.
“When I was 12,” Patrick goes on, “my father let me hunt by myself — at the end of my fourth year of turkey hunting. Back then, there were no tags and no limit. I killed 13 or 14 that year, and he killed two. The next year, my old man wanted me to call up turkeys for him to shoot!”
Patrick matter-of-factly rattles off a litany of hunting accomplishments: “The biggest gobbler I killed weighed 22.12 pounds with an 11 1/2-inch beard and 1 3/4-inch spurs; I checked it in at Haddrell’s Point. I learned to call turkeys by myself — using only my mouth; I have killed many turkeys without even taking a call in the woods. About half a dozen times, I have killed two turkeys with one shot. I’ve body-shot birds before after they started running, and I’ve shot a couple out of the air after they took flight. Sometimes, I have underestimated distances in a field, and I actually have killed one at 75 yards, even though I usually try to call turkeys in at 30 to 35 yards at the farthest.”
Patrick has pursued turkeys all over the state “in about every terrain: salt marshes, pine plantations, fields, hills, swamps and the mountains.” He and some friends lease two tracts of land in Georgetown and another in Andrews. Additionally, he has access to property in McClellanville, and his wife Stacey’s family owns an expansive farm outside of Darlington. “Every year, I also try to kill a turkey in the Francis Marion National Forest just to justify my Sportsman License. But when I hunt government areas, I don’t hunt where everybody else does,” he adds.
During turkey season, Patrick hunts nearly every day. “It’s addictive! I hunt everything, but turkey hunting is my favorite because it’s the most challenging hunting you can do. When you call a gobbler to you and you’re a hen, he’s telling you to come to him. But you’re making him come to you, which is something that’s unnatural to the gobbler. So a lot of times, he’s mad when he comes in!”
Patrick points out that turkey hunting requires time, patience and plenty of effort. “You’ve always got to be scheming. When I see turkeys, I make a lot of mental notes of the time and location. I scout year-round; I do a lot of scouting when I’m deer hunting. But even when you do scout, that doesn’t mean the birds will be there when you hunt that area.
“Sometimes, it’s just random. I have killed turkeys in spots where they always came from the same direction, and in other spots, the turkeys come to you from all different places. You just never know. You take the good with the bad and try to learn,” he acknowledges.
“Less is more when you’re calling a turkey,” notes Patrick, who dons camouflage from head to toe, save for his right hand with which he works the striker of his call. He has called turkeys that have walked beneath his gun barrel and even stepped on his boot without ever seeing him.
“You can spook them if you call too much,” he says. “Sometimes, I call one time and wait 45 minutes to an hour before calling again. With other hot turkeys, I’ve called up to 50 times.”
Patrick has passed on the Runey tradition of hunting to his son James, now 14, who bagged his first two wild turkeys last year. The first was a decent bird, a 14-pound jake with a five-inch bear, but James “didn’t care; he was happy!” The next harvest provided even more cause for joy: a 22-pound turkey with an 11-inch beard and 1 1/4-inch spurs. “After that, he has been all gung-ho!”
The Runey family tradition continues with James.
A couple of weeks ago, Patrick let James play hooky from Cape Romain Environmental Education Charter School to go turkey hunting. James wields a Benelli M2 12-gauge given to him by his maternal grandfather and namesake, James Stanley Tedder, not long before he passed away.
Patrick recalls the hunt: “We had spent the previous afternoon scouting. We found birds early, but the gobblers were henned-up. Later on, we saw two birds in a field. We belly-crawled out to a rotten oak tree. I crawled out from the tree and jammed a decoy in the field. I called the bird, and James smoked him at 35 yards!” The boy harvested a 19-pound bird with a 9 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.
As of last week, Patrick has harvested at least one turkey in each of the last 44 years. During the course of his hunting life, Patrick has bagged a total of 175 birds. “I figure if I make it to 200 by the time I am dead, I’ll feel good about that and let my boy kill all the rest!” he says with a laugh before relaying a recent successful hunt.
“We scouted last night, and we got on birds this morning, but we couldn’t get them to come to us,” Patrick tells us. “We saw six longbeards and a hen on property across the road. We called them to about 75 yards but couldn’t get them to cross that hard-top road.
“Afterward, we hunted another field. I made one call, and a bird gobbled back at 100 yards. We ducked in the briars, which was all we had for cover. I called again three or four minutes later, and he had cut the distance in half and was right at the edge of the field. I put down the call and put up my shotgun. That bird weighed 19 pounds with a 12-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.”
As a chef who has cooked for a diverse clientele of locals and tourists, Patrick is likewise a master at preparing wild game, even the challenging gobbler. “I generally eat the breast meat as nuggets,” he says. “I marinate it for 24 hours in five-gallon buckets of pickle juice from the restaurant. Then, I batter and deep-fry the meat, and they taste like Chick-fil-A nuggets. The legs are tough, so I use the thigh meat to make a batch of purlieu with bacon, onions, sausage and rice.”
To show his appreciation for the village of McClellanville, Patrick hosts the annual T. W. Graham & Co. McClellanville Christmas Party at Town Hall. “I have barbecue, venison, dove, duck, turkey. We always have leftover barbecue, but there’s never one ounce of leftover wild game!”
For Patrick Runey, running a restaurant and a sporting life are complementary pursuits. He has often called turkeys for novice customers he met at T. W. Graham & Co., and he likewise gets invited on dove hunts and duck hunts by patrons of the charming establishment. Amid his busy schedule, hunting provides a therapeutic retreat: “Every time I can get peace and quiet in the woods, it is golden — just priceless!”
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.