March/April 2021A Wild Turkey TaleText By Tom Poland Photos by Nancy Lee
Following in the elusive tracks of a turkey hunting legend, although exhilarating, is no easy endeavor.
Deep in Saluda County one afternoon, driving through a shadowy oak allé, I drove up on a spectacle. A parade of bronze feathers, rafters of wild turkeys, stopped me in my tracks. Stopped me cold. Some thirty turkeys ran, strutted and flew from woods into a pasture to my right. Moments after the birds cleared, I eased out the clutch only to brake again. Another rafter of forty or so birds crossed over. The beautiful way light lit up this bronze-feathered migration mesmerized me. When the last turkey passed, I drove on, calling up a boyhood memory when I hunted wild turkeys and a story that reveals we pay a price when we destroy wildlife habitat.
When I was old enough to work weekends and handle a shotgun, I earned a handful of dollars working for a country store grocer, Mr. Clifford M. Goolsby. How that man loved to hunt wild turkeys, and he met with great success. Each spring the small town weekly, The Lincoln Journal, ran a photo of Mr. Clifford posing with the wild turkey he shot. Dressed in hunting garb, Mr. Clifford would pose on one knee with his shotgun and bearded bird, and be quoted thusly. "I shot it down yonder somewhere."
Now "yonder" is a fine, Southern word that means "at some distance," and I like it. "Yonder," in Mr. Clifford’s case, meant, "I ain’t telling you where my turkey heaven is." Well, I had a notion where it was. A verdant tract lay off White Rock Road where I bumped into sage, old hunters with names like Tom Beck, Mr. Johnny and Curry. It was Mr. Clifford, however, who always made the Journal’s front page. Mr. Clifford, you see, set the gold standard for hunting wild turkeys in his day. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police always got their man, and Mr. Clifford always got his bird.
A young man in love with the outdoors, I hoped to follow in his footsteps, follow literally, but so far my turkey ventures had garnered nil. "Got to be in the wrong place," I thought. I got permission to hunt a low-lying tract where Dad often saw turkeys in a hollow. That’s "holler" in the Southern vernacular, and I had a hunch that holler lay next to Mr. Clifford’s turkey heaven. After scouting it several times, I found a promising spot in pines near open land rife with wild onions. It felt right, the kind of place Mr. Clifford would choose. I set up a blind of hog wire thickly festooned with pine branches at the edge of pinewoods. Inside the blind I slipped into Uncle Joe’s olive goose down sleeping bag where, screened by pine branches, I vanished. Good luck seeing me.
Now this was no ordinary sleeping bag. It was U.S. Air Force 1940 issue and Uncle Joe had tested it through and through in the Aleutian Islands in sight of glacial Russia. "It was so cold in the Aleutians," Uncle Joe told me, "that I could toss a glass of water into the air and lumps of ice would fall to the ground."
He survived the Aleutians thanks to that sleeping bag. And let me tell you, being in it was like stretching out in an electric blanket by a red-hot potbelly stove.
With that bag under my arm, I stole away to the holler one March morning in pre-dawn darkness. Now January and February can prove brutal, but Old Man Winter saves his best for last. A March morning gives you one last frozen jolt.
My last morning afield I walked to my pine-bough blind beneath a sky salted with a million stars. I shook from the cold. Frost set my teeth to chattering. Inside the blind? No problem. I crawled into that sleeping blanket and promptly fell asleep.
I slept a good while until a strange squeaking broke my sleep. Peeping through pine needles I saw golden shafts of daylight striking frost, which glinted like amber glass and just ten yards away a gobbler twisted its red and blue head as it pulled up wild onions. Each leaf of green squeaked as the gobbler hauled on it. What luck. I hadn’t even had to use my box call. Like a slow-motion scene in an old Western, I scarcely moved as I aimed through my blind. I clicked the safety off Dad’s 12-gauge Winchester 1911. A cold CLINK sent that wary gobbler a-flapping. It must have flown off down yonder somewhere, ’cause soon I heard a blast.
You guessed it. Mr. Clifford’s photo made the Journal the next week.
My turkey hunting days were done. Cold mornings and failure took the wind out of my sails. Thus did I miss my only chance at bagging a gobbler, but maybe, just maybe, it saved my life. Many years after Dad died, I took that shotgun to a gunsmith who upbraided me, "Do yourself a favor. Don’t ever load this gun again." Turns out the Winchester 1911, nicknamed the Widow Maker, ranks as one of the more dangerous guns ever made, and it was the first firearm Winchester Repeating Arms Company lost money on. A pump shotgun hard to action, it would sometimes go off as a victim leaned over it to pump it against the ground. It’s a wall hanger today.
Once there was a time called Teenville, when I wanted so much to bag a wild turkey. I read all I could about wild turkeys, and I even bought a cedar box scraper from a talented fellow who made a crossbow from a buggy spring and piano wire. Albert’s cedar box scraper worked beautifully. He taught me how to use it, and with practice I got my rhythm right. Sounded just like a turkey yelping, but no luck.
We retired, the call and me. No Tom turkey, no bearded trophy. Mr. Clifford, though, never had any problems. Each spring the Journal ran his photo with a bronze gobbler he shot "somewhere down yonder." Seeing him in the Journal with his bird became a spring ritual as year after year a wild gobbler fell to that country grocer. When Mr. Clifford departed this world September 15, 2003, turkeys around his parts breathed a sigh of relief.
If there’s such a thing as hunting for heavenly turkeys, then that’s what Mr. Clifford’s doing, and if Heaven has a newspaper, and why shouldn’t it, then he’s on the front-page each spring. By now you know what the caption will say. "I shot it down yonder."
Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books and more than 2,000 magazine features and columns that depict the life of a Georgia-Lina native and showcase the natural history of the region. To follow Tom, visit tompoland.net. Nancy Lee is a freelance nature photographer and regular contributor.
Old Tom Is a Curious Bird
When you think about the Eastern wild turkey, what image comes to mind? For turkey hunters, that would likely be a picture-perfect bird puffed up and strutting along a field edge — a majestic sight for sure. However, if you study the species closely, you may take note of other behaviors wild turkeys exhibit, such as preening, dusting or even more aggressive behavior among male siblings.
Wildlife photographer Nancy Lee maintains that her most vivid memories of this game bird don’t always include strutting. Lee spends as much time in a turkey blind as any hunter. She documents their behavior in hundreds, maybe thousands, of frames every year.
"I really feel as if I get to know them," Lee said. "They are indeed very curious birds."
Lee agrees that a strutting bird puts on quite a show, but her interest is piqued by the expressions she observes — wild turkeys dust bathing and preening to clean their oily feathers, or stretching their wings to align cleaned feathers. During the 2020 spring season, Lee captured quite a few images of birds that appeared to be fighting.
Charles Ruth, SCDNR wildlife biologist and big game project leader, said this kind of aggressive behavior is often exhibited by male siblings from the same brood posturing to establish a pecking order.
"It can get pretty intense," Ruth said, "especially if you have two dominant birds that are not familiar with each other."
Whether it's fighting or preening, dusting or strutting, wild turkeys have a range of curious behaviors that interest both biologists, hunters, photographers and even casual observers. – Joey Frazier