Wild turkey tales: a Rutledge family tradition
By Ford Walpole
“Some men are mere hunters; others are turkey hunters.” The distinction (noted by Archibald Rutledge, renowned author and a passionate Lowcountry sportsman) is simply that hunters of the latter sort are a specific species who carry with them a certain respect for the wilderness. It is an intense passion that belongs only to those who pursue wild turkeys in the Southern springtime. In the woods of South Carolina, it is more than a social endeavor; it is pastime informed by tradition.
“When my grandfather Archibald Rutledge hunted turkeys in the early 1900s, there weren’t any laws,” Don Rutledge said. “That was a different era. Hunting was more than a sport; it was a way of life. They refined the art of turkey hunting more so out of the need to eat than for sport. But my grandfather loved turkey hunting. He also really enjoyed carving “Miss Seduction” turkey calls, which he sold for $5 apiece.”
The renowned writer’s great-grandson, Middleton (Mid) Rutledge, continues this family tradition on the same haunts of Hampton Plantation to this day. Mid’s early outdoor education began with fishing around Rockville and hunting at Lavington Plantation with close friend Peter Maybank. “This group of friends who hunted together were known as the Sportsman [not plural]; they were hunting mentors to me: David Maybank, Jr., Dr. Tommy Rivers, Rufus Barkley, Ben Moore, Buist Rivers, Will Middleton and my Uncle Gaillard (Gilly) Dotterer. They were all successful, kind and Southern gentlemen,” he says.
In the mid 1980s, Don took his son Mid on the boy’s first turkey hunt at Hampton, the family place outside of McClellanville. “My father called in an entire flock of turkeys with a couple of yelps on an old Lynch’s box call,” recalls Mid. “That is the only time I have ever called a turkey and the whole flock came! I couldn’t believe it!” says Don, who still hunts turkeys, though now only armed with a camera. “The flock included two enormous gobblers and about 10 hens,” Mid continues. “Visibly shaking ... with my Parker shotgun braced on my knee, I shot the biggest gobbler in the group. After the hunt, I remember telling my father, ‘I thought it was going to be harder than that!’
“It seldom happens like that son, but that was one hell of a hunt,” he said.” Don’s tempered response proved to be sage advice.
“I do not think I killed another turkey for the following five seasons, which goes to show how elusive a big springtime gobbler can be,” explains Mid. In the days before the effects of turkey restoration efforts had taken hold, wild turkeys at Hampton were sparse. “I am interested in anything having to do with hunting and fishing, but deer and turkey hunting are particularly near and dear to my heart,” he says. “I just love being in the spring woods. The patience and the skill set needed to hunt turkeys are far different from any other type of hunting.
The turkey’s eyesight is better than the eagle’s; they can make out any kind of movement from a very far distance. Their hearing is impeccable and their ability to pinpoint a sound or locate a hen call in the woods is astounding. So not only do you have to be patient, but you also have to remain very still for long periods of time. Having patience and being still are a lot more important than having great calling skills.” Reflecting on his great-grandfather, Archibald Rutledge, Mid told me: “Everyone in our family, including me, is inspired by the humble life he lived and his storytelling ability and the way he was able to capture the spirit of hunting. He has been an inspiration to so many.”
Indeed, this outdoors literary legacy motivated him to pen tales of his own sporting adventures. He portrays a memorable but challenging Easter turkey hunt with his wife Brandi some years ago. Unable to call the gobbler to a close enough distance from which Brandi could take the bird, Mid modified his plan and acted in the moment: “I braced my Parker, realizing this was probably the best chance we would have to take this nervous old piney-woods rooster. I held my double-barrel steady and gave him the full choke at 40 yards. He shuddered, and a handful of feathers blew past him. Although obviously hit, he immediately flapped his great wings and rose off the ground.
“To my dismay, I could not get a quick second shot because of a small longleaf pine treetop which was between us. He got up about 20 feet in the air, leveled out and started flying back towards Old Georgetown Road. I could not believe it! Our Tom was flying away! I jumped up and re-shouldered my gun in hopes of getting another round in him. I saluted him with my second barrel, which was basically a Hail Mary because he was at about 50 yards and flying away from me. As I watched him, I was in disbelief, and felt completely embarrassed about not having closed the deal on this bird. To have my wife witness my failure made it that much worse.
“Then, the most unbelievable thing happened. As we watched the gobbler getting smaller in the distance, he fell, stone dead, out of the sky about 100 yards away and landed in a deep bay surrounded by pond pines. I marked the nearest tree where he landed and ran as fast as I could to it. I yelled to Brandi that the bird had fallen, and I think I ran the 100-yard dash in less than 10 seconds. When I reached the tree near where the turkey had crashed, I was completely out of breath. I looked to my right and saw a small shrub move, and there I found my fallen prize, belly up, in a gallberry thicket. It was a miracle!
“The next day, I cleaned the old-timer and counted 15 copper-plated lead pellets in his neck and chest. He had been well hit but somehow had summoned the strength to almost pull off the ultimate aerial escape. The three pellets in his neck were undoubtedly the ones that brought him down, but he was able to fly 100 yards before collapsing in mid-flight. I was glad to have kept my eye on the turkey as he was flying away. Otherwise, I would not have known that he went down,” Mid says.
Another of Mid’s fondest hunting memories occurred last year on Wadmalaw Island. He was accompanied by his son Henry on “the last day of a tough hunting season.” On their way to the blind, they jumped two large gobblers and a disheartened Mid expressed concern that the hunt may well be over. But, the hopeful boy assured him: “Dad, don’t worry; there are more turkeys around!” The father was invigorated by Henry’s optimism, a trait essential to the cultivation of a successful sportsman.
After the mishap, “Henry and I put out a jake decoy not far from our blind and there we settled in and waited. About 20 minutes later, I hit my raspy old box call with a series of crisp yelps. Not long after that, we saw a big red head pop out from the woods to our left about 125 yards away. It was indeed a turkey, and it was looking directly at us, so I knew he had heard the call. From what we could see, it was a full-grown gobbler, which was certainly our intended target.
“However, instead of calling back and of making a deliberate move towards us to investigate where a hot hen might be, the old Tom appeared disinterested, and he decided to start feeding in the thigh-high grass. It fed for about five minutes, and it did not pay any attention to us until he got about halfway into the field. Then — all of a sudden — it was as if he just disappeared. I asked Henry: ‘Where did he go’? Henry said he could not see it anymore. ‘Well, that is crazy’! He was just right there’, I said. Both of us thought the bird had pulled a Harry Houdini and had disappeared into thin air!
“Then in just a flash, Henry and I saw the gobbler running from our left towards the jake decoy, where he quickly kicked his spurs out and jumped on the decoy twice before puffing up and going into a full strut.
“Henry had instinctively shouldered his 20-gauge shotgun and braced on the bird. I whispered to Henry, ‘Wait until he stops moving’. The turkey was less than 20 yards, and Henry waited until the bird briefly stopped. ‘Pow’! Henry saluted with one shot, dropping the bird in his tracks! It was a perfect shot.
“We were both very surprised how quickly these unlikely events had unfolded. Within 25 minutes, we had seen two gobblers run out of the field, one gobbler return, then had that gobbler attack a decoy right in front of us, concluding with a beautifully harvested gobbler on the ground before us! This is one of the most exciting hunts of my life and certainly the proudest Dad moment ever!” Mid declares.
As an avid sportsman, Mid also emphasizes the importance of conservation. “People who are passionate about hunting and fishing are the strongest advocates of conservation. Conservation has been important in our family for a long time,” he says.
Mid quotes Archibald Rutledge who remarked of his life at Hampton, and indeed, his presence in our natural world: “I, too, am but a visitor here; and I am trying to be a considerate guest.” The legacy of Hampton embodies this very sentiment. The historic home and 300 acres were sold to the state of South Carolina in 1971 and are preserved as a state historic site, which is open to the public. The family still owns the adjoining 1,215 acres, and in 2010, that property was placed in a conservation easement held by the Nature Conservancy, ensuring it will be protected in perpetuity.
As our Lowcountry faces relentless pressure from development, we may take solace in the assurance that the storied tradition of turkey hunting at Hampton will endure among future generations of the Rutledge family.
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 email@example.com.