Author’s Note: This story is posted in celebration of my son John’s first gobbler kill of his life, a 19 pounder with an 11.75 inch beard, which he killed yesterday in North Carolina, a very exciting event for him. Hunters make a huge contribution to the conservation of wildlife. We respect and have a deep appreciation of God’s world and the animals he has given to us for food. This story will help you understand the joy I feel in God’s outdoors and the excitement I felt one morning on a turkey hunt as I shared it with one of the South’s greatest turkey hunters, Ronnie Reagin of Moultrie, Georgia.
Hunting Turkeys, Finding God
A rabbit scurries in front of the headlights of Old Brown, Ronnie Reagan’s F-150 4×4. “That’s good luck,” says Ronnie, a veteran turkey hunter with over 100 beards. A good hunter wants to walk into the woods with as much optimism as possible. Without optimism, or hope, a hunter might as well hit the snooze button on the 5:15 A.M. alarm clock and go back to sleep.
The goal on this April morning is to call in and kill a trophy tom, a mature bird. It’s breeding season and the Eastern Wild Toms are staking claims to the hens. The birds have a pecking order. The biggest males have spurs on the back of their legs that can grow up to one inch and a tom will use them in a fight with other male birds to win the right to breed a hen. The older, more mature bird also has a beard that protrudes from his chest. These wiry strands of hair can grow ten to twelve inches on mature birds but are only a few inches on jakes, the name for juvenile males.
As we step out of the truck a barred owl greets us with a familiar cadence most hunters remember by the phrase, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaallll?” Owls and crows are turkey hunters’ friends because they help hunters locate turkeys.
As God begins to put the nocturnal creatures to bed and wake up those that have been resting through the night, the owls are the birds that announce the shift change to the critters in the woods and all who care to listen. As they do, the gobblers, which are still roosting in tall pines, will answer with a “gobble, gobble, gobble.” With this, the gobbler gives up his location and gives the hunter some idea where the hunt should begin.
There was no answer after the barred owl’s first announcement that dawn was coming but we were thankful to have his assistance. We were not discouraged. After all, we’d seen a rabbit.
After gathering our gear, we began to make our way around the edge of a freshly planted cantaloupe field. Row after perfect row of cantaloupes, planted by a tractor guided by a GPS system, covered a 40-acre field. In three months the field will be producing thousands of cantaloupes for markets in surrounding states. As we began our walk around the field, the moonlight reflected off the black sea of plastic that went down each row.
The newly turned soil felt “beach like” under our feet, making our walk difficult. Halfway around the field, the sky was just beginning to show the light of a new morning. The only star left in the sky was actually the planet Venus. It was shining proudly, reminding me of how the star of Bethlehem must have looked to the wise men.
In the middle of the field was the silhouette of what looked like a gigantic goalpost. A closer look gave up its identity. The poles were two 40-foot power poles supporting part of a power line that ran through the property.
We finally reached our destination on the backside of the field. Ronnie set out two turkey decoys on a small rise in the field, just high enough that other birds on the ground could see the decoys. One was a hen decoy and the other was a tom decoy, complete with an authentic turkey fan from a previous kill.
Ronnie has had toms attack the male decoy and mount the hen decoy. I can only imagine which one would be the least satisfying to a confused tom upon discovering that the decoys were not the real things. Ronnie has witnessed jakes run from the tom decoy and he’s seen others team up and attack it. All is fair in love and war in the turkey world.
After setting out the decoy, Ronnie directs me to a 100- plus-year-old water oak that has caught his eye. It has low hanging branches, which it lends to us as a natural cover. Ronnie pulls his branch cutters from his pocket and cuts us some shooting lanes and we sit down against the tree and watch God paint the sky with light and awake the woods with sounds of life.
The fluttering of wings and the chirping of a female cardinal gets my attention. It lands in the tree within ten feet of where we are sitting. It does not have a clue that we are there. We are completely camouflaged from head to toe. Turkeys have incredible eyesight and excellent hearing. So it’s a good sign that songbirds are not aware of our presence.
Far off in the distance, I hear the sounds of a flock of geese making their way through the early morning sky. Ronnie takes out his slate call and rubs it with a fine piece of sandpaper. This helps make sure it will make a true sound of a hen’s yelp, with no skips or jumps when he strikes it. Within a few minutes, another barred owl hoots and we hear our first gobbler of the morning, “gobble, gobble, gobble.” The rabbit didn’t disappoint us. The hunt is on.
A couple of crows cross the field as light now has brought the tall power poles in the field into clear view. As the crows sound their typical “caw, caw,” another gobbler far off in the distance gives up his location. We begin to hear a few hens yelping in the area. This is turning out to be an exciting morning.
Ronnie is a very patient hunter. You can’t kill a gobbler in a tree. And you can’t chase one down. The bird has to come to you. Ronnie does not get over anxious. He lets the hunt unfold as it might unfold if he were a turkey. Ronnie has to think like a hen. After hearing the tom fly down off the roost, Ronnie pulls out his slate call and with a few soft circular motions, he creates the “yelp, yelp, yelp” of a hen. It’s low and soft.
It only takes one call and the gobbler has a fix on the hen’s location. He may not be enticed to come, but he knows where the sound is coming from. Across the field about 100 yards, we both see a bird at about the same time. With one in the field and one behind us, we realize the chances are good we will see multiple birds. He pulls out his binoculars to watch the bird in the field.
A little later Ronnie catches a glimpse of movement in his peripheral vision. A Jake comes up behind us through the pasture, likely the bird we heard gobbling on the roost. As he’s about to pass over the fence and into the field, Ronnie gives me a choice: “You can take him or wait for the big one.”
Now I haven’t killed a turkey in about eight or nine years. I’m about to have one pass within 20 yards of me and I’ve got to decide whether to pass it up or shoot it. So I asked, “You think I ought to wait?” I knew what he was going to say.
Shooting a jake is about like shooting a spike deer. It’s meat, but it’s no trophy. It’s like a tie in a ball game. You played. You didn’t lose, but you didn’t win either. It’s like kissing your sister. It’s love, but it’s not exciting. The jake came out and walked within twenty yards of us. He took a gander at the decoys, but was in no mood to tangle with the big tom, so he began to make his way across the field.
After he got about three-quarters across the field, Ronnie began making his love calls again. This time he hit the slate a little louder. That got the jake’s attention and he tried his best to show out for the hen. A jake or tom will blow himself up to get the hen’s attention. The bird will fan his tail feathers, spread out his wings, and poke out his breast and prance around like a body builder flexing his muscles at the world championship bodybuilding competition.
When Ronnie called again, the jake stopped in the field and did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation. However, he just looked like a skinny twelve-year-old kid trying to convince a bunch of adults that he had real muscles. It just wasn’t happening.
As the jake made his way across the field, we settled down into a more relaxed mode, keeping a watch through the binoculars at birds across the field. Then, about the same time, we both saw a dark figure, which looked like another bird entering the field.
When Ronnie put his binoculars on the bird, it was a big tom, clearly a mature bird. He was in full strut. His tail feathers were fanned out and his wings dragged the ground. He was puffed up like a puffer fish, causing his beard to stick out before it hung down toward the ground.
In the animal world, it’s usually the males that are the most colorful and flamboyant of the sexes. This is certainly true with turkeys. In a beauty contest, the winner is clearly the gobbler and not the hen. When in full strut, it shows off all its feathers but the colors cannot be truly appreciated until they are seen close up. The taller tail feathers are black and brown with a black band at the top, tipped in chestnut brown. The tom also sports gold, copper, black and green colors, some of which are on the breast and others on the fan. Wing feathers are a mixture of white and black. The head of the tom, which most people think is ugly, is red, blue and white. This bird can stand four feet tall and weigh more than twenty pounds.
A hunter gets a real rush when he uses a hen call and gets a gobbler to answer. As a male hunter, it doesn’t make up for all those times I’ve called or sent inviting signals to a pretty girl somewhere in my past and she didn’t give me the time of day, but it’s a close second.
Ronnie has an arsenal of calls. He has a slate call, a mouth (diaphragm) call, a box call, and even a call that will make a gobbler sound, which is a call of last resort.
After watching the gobbler for a while, Ronnie decides it’s time to try to entice the bird across the field. He uses the slate call again. Then he changes to his mouth call. It’s clear to us after about thirty minutes that this old bird isn’t having much to do with us because he’s got the real thing right there with him. After 45 minutes of being in the edge of the field, the gobbler has attracted three hens. Two jakes are also nearby, hoping and wishing for a chance to add to the gene pool, but they mostly just eat a lot, because big tom will make them pay if they try to hone in on his girls. The gobbler seems very happy with the hens he has. He’s not enticed to come our way.
Finally, we get movement. The gobbler begins to work his way around the field, slowly. Ronnie changes calls again and he hits a few strokes on his box call. It’s been about 90 minutes and the gobbler has worked his way along with the hens into the corner of the field. All that’s left is for the gobbler to come up the fence line toward our decoys and it’s going to be food on the table.
I change my shooting position so I can be ready to shoot without movement. Ronnie is my backup in case I miss.
We lose sight of the birds. I look through the Swarovski binoculars and spot the bird through the brush. He’s still there, but he’s not vocal. Then to our disappointment, he begins making his way back in the same direction he came. He is following the hens more than being enticed by our mating calls.
Ronnie pulls out his gobbler call. He rattles the call below the live oak, hoping to make the gobbler angry that another tom has invaded his space. The jealousy tactic doesn’t work. The tom retreats around the field faster than he came, eventually exiting the field into the woods.
He’s an old tom, a wise bird. He’ll live another day because he was happy with what he had and very cautious, unlike the jake of the early morning that came popping in, only to be deterred by the big tom decoy. He could have been supper but we gave him grace.
This hunt is over. We came away with no bird. Was the rabbit wrong? No. Luck in the woods isn’t about killing an animal, although some think that’s all that it’s about. Some are willing to break the rules to kill.
What we had that morning was more than luck. We were given a gift. It’s a gift to experience nature waking up around you; God designed it and planned it. It’s a gift to exit out of the demands of schedules, deadlines, phone calls, and emails, that fill so many of our days. It’s a gift to experience the ebb and flow of nature that is determined by the seasons of the year and instinctive patterns inherent to each animal.
You see, the hunt is not a hunt for the animal as much as it is for serenity and a chance to meet the Creator. Many hunters just need an excuse to find God in nature and the peace God’s world brings. Some don’t know what to call it but they know they find it in the woods. It sounds too unmanly for most of us men to say, “I’m going to sit in the woods to experience nature and find some serenity.” So we just say, “I’m going hunting.”
Job said, “But ask the animals what they think – let them teach you; let the birds tell you what’s going on. Put your ear to the earth – learn the basics. Listen – the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories. Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree that God is sovereign, that he holds all things in his hand?” (Job 12:7-9 The Message).
So, while some of us enjoy shooting guns and most of us will kill for food, honestly, the kill can be anticlimactic. But it sure would have been nice to say one night as I sat down for supper, “Honey, will you pass me some more of that turkey?”