Turkey Wars by Tom Davis (January/February 1989)
Westervelt may be the best place in America to shoot a turkey, but even then, you better bring some luck.
The boss gobbler didn’t know it yet, but he was ours. Tom Kelly’s and mine, that is. The battle had been joined the previous morning: after failing to locate a gobbler by first light, we eased up to one of the eight-some “green patches”–food plots of rye, wheat, and clover–quilted into the 14,000 timbered acres of Westervelt Lodge.
“You can always tell my owlin’,” Tom had warned. “It sounds like a cow whose bag is caught in a barbed wire.” But it sounded good enough; when he cupped his hands to his mouth and hooted, the turkey cut loose with a defiant answer. “He’s on the ground,” Tom whispered, and we fixed his position across the field, beneath a stand of loblolly pines. not far beyond lay the broad Tombigbee river, flowing enamel-smooth on its winding course.
Despite tom’s seductive calling, however, the bird refused to show. Instead, he paraded back and forth just inside the woods, gobbling only often enough to keep our interest piqued. “I think he has hens with him,” Tom speculated. The gobbles faded out, and as we walked to where he’d last sounded off, we flushed a subordinate tom from his roost he had no business being up there at seven in the morning, when any self-respecting turkey had flown down an hour-and-a-half earlier, but he was. “Turkeys 28, Hunters 0,” Tom laughed.
That afternoon, playing it smart, I set up to the south, hoping to ambush one of the gobblers as he wandered back tot he roost. Predictably, they both came in from the north. I heard them flying up into the same pines, the beat of their wings–whump, whump, whump!–sounding like hooks to the body. Luckily, I turned in time to glimpse one of the birds as he ascended. With two gobblers safely put to bed, the portents were favorable.
So, this morning we felt our chances were about as good as they could be. I was awake long before the 4 a.m. knock and cry of “Mornin’!” By 5:00, Kelly and I were hunkered against a thick oak, facing north towards the roost. The world gradually emerged from the darkness, trees and bushes taking shape. A herd of deer pattered by behind us. Then, the liquid note of the cardinal signaled that the forest was coming alive. Tom slipped a call into his mouth and crooned a soft, silky, tree yelp. It was as if the gobbler had been burned with an electric prod. He fired back an answer that rang through the big timber, swept across the Tombigbee, and squeezed my hear the way a bear grips a flopping salmon.
“He can’t be more than 90 yards away,” Tom hissed. “I can hear him drumming on the roost!”
The implications of this fact were cosmic; it meant there was every possibility that when the gobbler flew down, he would actually land within shotgun range. The only circumstance remotely as desirable to the average turkey hunter, would be finding Loni Anderson soaping up in your shower, and event then it would be a tough decision.
As Tom and the gobbler played question-and-answer, the rest of the woods began to stir. Pileated and red-headed woodpeckers hammered out their thudding syncopations. From the thickets and field edges, bobwhite whistled. Blue jays, late risers, squalled and argued. Wood ducks uttered their unmistakable whoo-eek! as they rose form the river and slipped into the oak bottoms to feed. Farther north, two more gobblers announced themselves. With the light, the snowy blossoms of dogwoods appeared, as did the pink flowers of the redbud tree, and the spiky yellow clusters of the horse sugar. We could see, too, the stand of loblollys that held the boss gobbler, and we were certain that he would fly down within our sphere of vision.
Then, the woods went silent. Oh, the other birds still attended to their duties, but Tom’s urgent pleas went ignored. “Let’s circle around to the other side,” he suggested, “and find out what’s going on.”
Keeping low, we began our maneuver. We hadn’t moved 20 yards when, crossing a trail muddied by overnight rains, something caught my eye, clicked in my subconscious, and made me freeze like a setter on point. There, in the ocher Alabama mud, was the track of a gobbler, so fresh it seemed to smoke. My jaw went slack as we puzzled together the tragic story. The bird had apparently pitched straight down, noiselessly. next, he’d stepped out to the border of the timber and the green patch, following it south towards our position. He took the trail where the field funneled into it, searching for what he thought was a hen in need of company, and simply, and irrevocably, walked right past us. We had been so focused on those pines, so absurdly confident that we’d see–or at least hear–him fly down, that we’d ignored our flanks. if it had been a battle, we’d be dead; at the moment, I was ready to surrender. If I had just cut a glance to my right…
Tom tried to cheer me up. “You’re accumulating points,” he offered. “The odds are swinging in your favor.”
An hour southwest of Tuscaloosa, near the village of Aliceville, Westervelt Hunting Lodge encompasses some of the most productive wildlife habitat in America. Indeed, when deer and turkey were scarce throughout Alabama earlier in the century, populations at Westervelt remained strong. Gulf States Paper Corporation owns Westervelt, and for years it served as a reserve for Gulf States executives and their guests. Now open to the public, it is managed expressly to provide the finest sport available for trophy white-tailed deer and eastern wild turkey. This bottomland of heavy timber and brooding sloughs–it puts me in mind of Faulkner’s The Bear–is a natural haven for game, and an intensive program of controlled burning, clear-cutting, and planting of food plots keeps it that way. They do it right: bookings are limited so that every turkey hunter has at least 1,000acres of country all to himself.
The amenities are a match for the hunting. Immense stone fireplaces grace both ends of the rustic, pine-paneled lodge; mounted trophies and wildlife art prints adorn the walls. Bedrooms are small but cozy, with a separate room for guns and ammo. And there’s an airy, screened-in porch for post-hunt contemplation, discussion, and truth massage.
Westervelt may be the only place in America where you can hunt 18 hours a day and still gain weight. This is down-home Southern cooking at its most authentic: golden-brown catfish and fried chicken, meaty racks of barbequed ribs, thick pork chops, juicy steaks, and all the trimmings. You get three meals a day, not including coffee and Danish before the early morning hunt, and only someone with the metabolism of a hummingbird wold go hungry.
Tom Kelly, who directs Westervelt’s Turkey Hunting School, graciously arrived a few days beforehand so I could have the pleasure of hunting with him. Kelly is the reigning poet laureate of turkey hunting. If you haven’t read his books, Tenth Legion and Dealer’s Choice, consider your education unfinished and your mind deprived. The novelist John Irving once wrote that a poet, Donald Justice, had captured in a single line what he’d been trying to say in all his works of fiction. The same could be said of Tom Kelly; in one sentence from Tenth Legion, he crystallizes what everyone who has ever written about the wild turkey has been groping towards; “He is a goddamn jewel.” So is Kelly himself, whether he’s spinning a yarn, seducing a gobbler, de-mystifying turkey hunting for his students, or charming whomever he meets. It was a delight to hunt with him.
I should have known my luck had run out when, shortly before I left for Alabama, my accountant informed me that I should expect a hefty tax refund, rather than the usual massive debit. Jay steen, Wetervelt’s laconic assistant manager, dropped me off about 10:00 one morning at a green patch that a gobbler was known to frequent. “I’ll be back at noon,” he drawled before leaving.
I settled in where I had a commanding view of the field and began working my box call. it wasn’t long before a series of clucks erupted to my left, and a sleek hen materialized only ten yards away. She looked me over, cocking her head from side to side; then, more out of annoyance than alarm, she let out a disgusted putt! and slid back into the woods.
A bit later I sensed movement directly behind me. Something loud was scratching in the leaves; a feeding turkey? It came closer, and closer, and when it seemed it would run up my back I turned, shotgun raised, only to scare the hell out of a myopic armadillo. I was expecting to see a magnificent gobbler, but I got a cross between a snail and a ‘possum.
Finally, with high noon a few ticks away, I gave one last, desultory yelp. A gobbler answered, close and hot, and I damn near fould my nest. He couldn’t have been more than 60 yards away; any second, I knew he ‘d move within range, the ancient Remington 29 would speak, and dreams would become reality. Then Jay roared up in his truck. Back at the lodge, he lamented, “They cuss me when I’m early, and they cuss me when I’m late. now they cuss me when I’m on time!”
In case you can’t read between the lines, the good news is that a Tom turkey went back to Wisconsin. The bad news is that it was the same Tom turkey who flew ot Alabama in the first place. In my defense, the weather was not the best, raning, for the most part, from dreary overcast to shuddering downpour, with a few fits of sunshine. The consensus was that the birds were less active than usual, that a few of those peach blossomy spring days for which the south is famous would set the gobblers’ hormones to raging, and hunting them would become a matter of self-preservation.
Of course, the tough conditions didn’t prevent better me from killing turkeys. David Gardiner, a sportsman from Columbia, South Carolina, began his trip to a script by Stephen King. The man lived a nightmare. Jay Steen called in a gobbler for him, right off the roost, and Gardiner missed him clean. Bad enough, but when the performance was repeated on a second gobbler an hour or so later, guide and client both felt like they’d entered the Twilight Zone. They had the vacant expressions of people in shock, and were incapable of communication other than a twitch shake of the head.
Gardiner slumped off to the patterning board, where it was revealed that he was shooting two feet high at 40 yards! Upon considerable theorizing, the problem was diagnosed; he’d layered so much camouflage tape on the receiver that he had to tilt the muzzle upward to see the bead, causing him to shoot high.
In any case, Gardiner straightened out his shooting, and the fickle gods smiled. On his final morning at Westervelt, he was ready to pack it in when some inner voice told him to yelp one more time. He stroked his box call, and a hot gobbler responded. His entire being ready to explode like a covey of quail, Gardiner held himself together long enough to let the tom weave into range, and this time his aim was true. A happier man you’ll never meet. What is that old aphorism about the heights of our joy being proportional to the depths of our misery?
Consider too the “plight” of King Curry, an intense hunter hailing from Birmingham. He stalked out a feed patch late in the afternoon when, suddenly, seven gobblers materialized not thirty yards from his hide. “There was no way I could shoot,” Curry explained, “without killing at least two birds.” (The daily limit is one.) The toms milled about, no doubt swapping tales like men in a racquet club locker room, until one made the fatal mistake of putting some space between him and his cronies. Although it was a jake, In any case Gardiner straightened out his shooting, as Curry understandably said, “I wasn’t about to way for a bigger one!”
The finest trophy taken during my stay was claimed by Dennis Webster of Tuscaloosa:a beautiful, 18 1/2-pound gobbler, it boasted a ten-inch beard, and 1 1/8-inch spurs that gleamed like polished ivory. Charles Bedwell, Westervelt’s congenial manager, was Webster’s guide for the morning, and it was his calling that urged the tom close. The sportsman’s lovely ithaca double, a Number 2 dating to 1916, spoke , but the turkey only heard part of the message. The wounded bird sprinted into the timber, with Charles in relentless pursuit. He’s a large man, and the image of him high-stepping through the woods is one to conjure with. In fact, talk around the lodge had it that the turkey died of fright when it saw big Charles narrowing the gap. It was a trophy to take lasting pride in, and as we admired it alter I couldn’t help noticing how the colors of its breast feathers, shimmering and shifting as the eye played across them, were remarkably like the case colors of that old Ithaca. The gun and bird seemed to fit.
Although many are successful, not everyone at Westervelt Lodge kills a turkey. But I can’t imagine a better place to try. As Tom Kelly said to me, “I’d like to know just how many turkeys they have here. I’ll tell you one thing, there’s a bunch of ’em.” What you buy, whenever you pay for hunting and fishing, is a level of opportunity, not a guarantee. At Westervelt, the level of opportunity overflows. Luck, however, you have to bring with you.