Hunting > Turkeys

Reflections on a Marvelous Madness

Gobblers can humble us, baffle us and make fools of us—all of which is why turkey hunting is so wonderfully alluring.


Over a half century ago Archibald Rutledge, who was one of turkey hunting’s greatest writers, paused and pondered the turkey hunter’s lot after killing his 339th gobbler. He wrote, “Turkey hunting has been with me a kind of religion ever since a hatchet was a hammer … perhaps I have learned a little of the art.”

Turkey hunting isn’t a science, as that implies precision and exactitude. It’s an art, sure enough. “Yet,” Rutledge continued, “after a half-century of hunting the noblest game bird that graces America’s wild, I am going to confess that I am still in the kindergarten.”

The pursuit of a woodland education such as Rutledge mentioned forms a recurrent theme in the literature of turkey hunting, although few writers are honest enough to admit as much. In the subtitle of Turkey Hunting with Charlie Elliott, written by one of the most popular sporting scribes of the second half of the 20th century, Elliott calls himself “The Old Professor.” A book by Frank Hanenkrat, a noted Virginia hunter and callmaker, carries the title The Education of a Turkey Hunter, and numerous other works allude to the learning experience. On a personal level, I have killed more than 250 gobblers and I’m a genuine recovering university professor, yet honesty compels me to admit that I don’t know doodley-squat when it comes to turkey hunting. About all I am certain of is that it is a sport where there are no certainties. 

My personal sense of profound inadequacy as a turkey hunter does nothing to diminish my dedication to the sport. That theme of singular dedication, stretching to extraordinary dimensions, forms another common thread in the sport’s literature. The best-known book of turkey hunting’s poet laureate, Tom Kelly, is Tenth Legion. Its title comes from the Tenth Legion of the Roman Army, a matchless military force that stood fast against barbarian hordes for centuries. Over generations the soldiers forming the Tenth Legion’s ranks became a cult, a breed apart, and their feats have become a touchstone for unstinting commitment. Kelly rightly suggests that turkey hunters and members of the Tenth Legion share numerous traits, such as devotion verging on mental imbalance, viewing their endeavors as a near-religious experience and having a pronounced tendency for uncontrollable compulsion. Other book titles, such as Brad Day’s Severe Gobbler Disorder, Donald Devereaux Jarrett’s Compositions of a Sickness, Gene Nunnery’s I Will Lift up Mine Eyes unto the Hills and my personal favorite, Phil Phillips’ The Grand Obsession, also reflect these characteristics.  

Perhaps even more revealing than a brief brush with some of the sport’s literature are insights this writer has garnered over the course of more than three decades as a turkey hunter. Those years embrace deep immersion in the sport’s literature, accumulation of a library large and costly enough to stretch the bounds of marital harmony, opportunities to venture afield with dozens of the nation’s leading callers and turkey-hunting personalities and devoting somewhere between 45 and 75 days annually to the quest for His Majesty, the wild gobbler. The road I’ve traveled has been one characterized by mishaps, mischance, miscues and misses. Still, there’s not so much as a moment of regret, because running through this tightly woven fabric of misery has been a bright thread of mystique and magic.

In fact, no small part of what gives turkey hunting its unique aura comes, perversely, from the plentiful times of trouble that are a hallmark of the sport. If you are reading this, chances are you are a turkey hunter. Taking that train of thought a step farther, if you do hunt turkeys and haven’t had memorable moments of misery, you either aren’t hunting enough, have a maladjusted mind-set or are in immediate need of some close attention from a pinheaded psychiatrist. 

Being tempted and tormented by toms comes with the territory, and a hunter who suggests otherwise isn’t a fellow I would care to trust with the church collection plate. Besides, think of how matters would stand should you, against all odds, become a turkey-killing machine whose every call brought sharp-spurred, bearded gentlemen your way. That might, at first blush, sound like a visit to a turkey hunter’s heaven, but the predictability and consistent success would soon become hellish.

It’s the lack of predictability, other than assurance of misadventure aplenty, which gives turkey hunting much of its appeal. Certainly I’ve had my ration of tribulation. There was the hunt in Alabama when I missed four turkeys in three days and came to the reluctant realization that my mind will not compute the adjustments necessary when a shotgun’s point of aim is a foot high and 18 inches left.

Or there was the moment when the spirit was willing but the flesh was shamefully weak. I set up squarely atop a fire-ant mound with a lovelorn gobbler headed my way with far greater than normal haste. He was in sight at 80 yards, but with those spawns of Satan probing my posterior, I had to stand up and watch the longbeard take wing. 

Fickle fate has gotten in my way far more frequently than Lady Luck has declared me her favorite stepson. Cases in point include a 6-foot black snake that scared the bejeebers out of a lovelorn longbeard and thereby saved the gobbler’s life. Others include a muzzleloader misfiring, fogged-up glasses, a fogged-up scope, failure to chamber a shotshell cleanly (twice, no less), coyotes interrupting promising proceedings, intrusions by other hunters and on one occasion, I’m absolutely convinced the ground just swallowed up a gobbler I shot. 

Mostly though, objective analysis would have to conclude that yours truly is someone beset by amateurishness he can’t shake. I’ve misjudged distance at least a dozen times over the years, and it’s absolutely amazing how big (and close) a bird, which seldom weighs 20 pounds, mind you, can appear to be. I’ve missed several times as a result of failure to get my cheek down on the stock. Somehow the sad lesson of what happens when one watches the gun’s bead from “on-high” never sinks in. Then there are ill-judged calculations: shifting when I should have stayed still; calling when I should have kept silent; waiting too long; not waiting long enough; getting blindsided by sneaky, silent birds; and exhibiting an almost uncanny knack to place the sort of barriers that cause turkeys to “hang up” between me and my elusive lover.

These tales of woe, and they are but the leading edge of an avalanche of things gone awry, obviously beg the question: “Why do you keep hunting turkeys?” 

That sort of thinking courses through the mind of every die-hard turkey hunter repeatedly, usually after an ignominious miss or another in a seemingly endless series of screw-ups. Yet there is a ready answer to my persistence in the face of abject adversity. As a clan, turkey hunters absolutely revel in misery, and far be it from me to stray from the norm. 

For every story of success told in a hunt camp you will hear half a dozen accounts involving excuses such as “henned-up” toms, “call-shy” gobblers or “field birds” that can’t be lured within range. Amply buttressed by self-effacing admissions of every mistake imaginable, they might lead an innocent soul, someone who has yet to be initiated into the ranks of the hopelessly lost, to shake his head in uncomprehending dismay. 

The plain truth of the matter is that I am a perfect definition of an individual who is, as my Grandpa Joe used to put it, “sigoggling, catawampus and quair.”

If you don’t recognize those examples of Smoky Mountain English, they refer to a person who is somewhere between a bit off mental plumb and flat-out eccentric. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and the same holds true for most of the committed turkey hunters of my acquaintance. We realize, as the Dean of American Campers, Horace Kephart, put it in words that might have been written with turkey hunters specifically in mind, that “in the school of the outdoors there is no graduation day.” 

As long as we keep making mistakes we can also keep learning from them, and so long as a loquacious bird with a marble-sized brain can reduce us to a trembling mass of adrenaline-driven ineptitude, the sport will be a marvelous madness.

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