Everyone who knows me or reads my column long ago learned that I am passionately interested in wild turkeys and turkey hunting. The passion may more aptly be described as an obsession!
In some ways, I came by this honestly. One of my great uncles, Dabney Irby, along with my dad and his brother, John, spent quite a lot of hours turkey hunting, especially in 1900 and 1901 when they, along with Great Uncle Blount Irby, made a valiant attempt to successfully farm some rented land in the Sulphur River bottoms of Texas. This area was a part of famous Bowie County, named for an early Texas resident famous for his knife, a copy of which can still be had.
Uncle Dabney was by far the most devoted turkey hunter and spent more time at this fine endeavor than he did farming. It is claimed that one late April day my Uncle Blount took him to task for wasting so much time hunting when the crop was not yet planted. According to family legend, Uncle Dabney replied, “Blount Irby, I am going to kill a gobbler or lose a crop!” According to some of my family and friends, I exhibit the same trait.
As the result of listening to Uncle Dab's turkey tales, I became a “wannabe” turkey hunter long before there were any wild turkeys in my locale, which was then the edge of the loess bluff hills at the edge of the Mississippi Delta. This fine woodland was a really prime hunting area, being made up of mixed hardwood and pine, even including lots of beech trees and a few American chestnuts that had not then died.
However, hunting was pretty much confined to squirrels and rabbits, with occasional coveys of birds in some of its more open areas. I spent most of my leisure time squirrel hunting and often daydreamed of the woods being full of turkeys.
At that time (I was a junior in high school), an eccentric pair of hermit brothers lived up in the middle of the woods in a tin and tarpaper shack. Cliff, the younger of the two, used to sit around Dad's store and service station, which he ran in addition to managing a sizable Delta farm as it left the hills.
One cold November morning, Cliff was warming his feet by the stove and suddenly came out with, “Well, I saw them again yesterday.” Of coarse, I inquired as to what he saw and he straight-faced claimed that he had discovered a drove of wild turkeys living just a short ways from his campsite.
I went wild and demanded that he take me immediately, which he did. Wonder of wonders, he showed me what appeared to be undeniable signs of turkey scratching. One scratched-out spot actually showed a large track evidently made by a gobbler.
As luck would have it, the next day was Thanksgiving, a day we always spent with grandparents. I talked my mother into letting me stay home and turkey hunt with Cliff. On that memorable Thanksgiving morning, Cliff and I were sitting at the base of a big beech tree when dawn arrived. Cliff began scrapping on a homemade box-caller that gave forth sounds at least a bit like those of a turkey.
Well, we sat there like stones for at least two hours, listening to nothing but squirrel chatter. Finally, Cliff decided to leave the stand a do a bit of scouting. I agreed to let him go and watched as he sneaked off down the trail and disappeared in thick vegetation at the bottom of the draw.
A fruitless hour went by, and I got up and began sneaking along in the direction he had taken.
Finally, just ahead, my turkey-hunting world crashed and burned. There squatted Cliff, down on his knees, making imitation turkey scratching and even adding tracks made with a pointed stick!
When I yelled at him, I thought for a minute that he was going to take off running, but instead he burst into laughter and told me that he figured that if I could see some fresh sign I might enjoy the hunt even more.
After a moment I, too, saw the funny side of the adventure, so we turned it into a squirrel hunt and after bagging a few, I considered it a day well spent.
Ironically, after more than 50 years, the state game department's re-stocking program took hold in these very woods, and the area is now considered one of the best such pieces of turkey habitat that we have. Even we old Delta riverbank hunters now, sometimes, desert our own territory and hunt the wily birds in these lovely hills that still look almost exactly like they did when I was young, except there are no beech or chestnut trees.
The turkeys easily make up for this loss.