When Dr. John Staige Davis Jr. of New York City popped up from behind his palmetto blind (opposite) at the edge of a Florida swamp and knocked down an eight-pound hen turkey, he was a moderately happy man. But when, a moment later, he dropped a second bird with the other barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun, he cried joyfully, "Most exciting shots I ever made."
No one who has ever tried to shoot wild turkeys would disagree. Because for every hunter who is lucky enough to bag even one wild turkey, there are at least a dozen others who, each season, endure muscle-cramping predawn vigils, merciless assaults by chiggers and wet hikes through swamps without getting so much as a glimpse of the bird.
Why, especially in this record year for upland game when there are more quail, pheasant and grouse around than there have been for 10 years, should any sane hunter put up with such misery to get one particular bird? For a reason that is not unusual in the sports world: the very rarity of a score makes it irresistibly sweet.
From its great red chin wattles to its iridescent tail feathers, the wild turkey is as handsome, streamlined and succulent a game bird as there is in the U.S. Unlike its drab and paunchy barnyard cousin, the wild turkey is a fast, powerful flier—full speed is well over 30 mph. On the ground, a turkey can outfoot a racehorse, and hunters long ago gave up trying to run them down with dogs. But the biggest difference between the wild and the barnyard gobbler is the former's unrelenting hostility toward people. In fact, the native turkey's refusal to have anything to do with man and his way of life very nearly eliminated the bird from this continent.
November 13, 1961
From the moment the first settler splashed ashore at Jamestown, wild-turkey populations on the East Coast began to decline, and from that time on, whenever people moved into a new area, the turkey promptly moved out. Turkeys need forests for food and cover, and the settlers made fast work of clearing the woods. They also discovered the bird was delicious to eat, and market hunting became a popular—and profitable—pastime. Hundreds of thousands of turkeys were snared, trapped and slaughtered for the dinner table. In a single day two hunters from the backwoods of Massachusetts reported seeing more than a thousand birds, and by the early 1800s wild turkeys were selling at town markets for 6¢ apiece. Less than 50 years later there was not a single bird left to shoot in the state of Massachusetts.
Elsewhere, the turkey vanished almost as rapidly. By the time people became conservation-minded and began thinking that a bird in the bush wasn't such a bad thing after all, both the birds and the bushes were very nearly gone. Bringing them back was considerably more difficult than getting rid of them had been.
Strict hunting laws were passed to protect the turkey all across the country, but it was hard to enforce these laws, for while the turkey had lost greatly in numbers it had lost none of its flavor. Then, too, new cover had to be grown. Meanwhile, the turkeys themselves were doing very little to help conservationists. Artificial propagation—often the backbone of most upland bird projects—was a failure, not because the turkeys didn't like each other or couldn't be raised in captivity, but because once accustomed to the sheltered, grain-fed life in the breeding pens the birds forgot their wild ways and became about as helpless as chickens in the wilderness.
Thus, as new ranges were slowly developed, wild birds had to be trapped in areas in which they still existed and then carried to the new range. Trains, trucks and even private cars were used to transport them from one locale to another. In Florida single-engine planes took off with turkeys aboard, and when they got over the deep woods the birds were tossed out, fluttering crazily until they got down to their own flying speed, then gliding quietly into the new cover.
Today, because of efforts such as these, there are now shootable flocks in 23 of the 39 states where the bird originally flourished. One of the best turkey ranges in the country is in Florida, and the bird's future here, as in the other states to which it has been restored, at last seems secure.
"When I bought this land six years ago," says Charles Payson, on whose 12,000-acre Florida ranch the photograph on the previous page was taken, "I was told there were some turkeys on it but not enough to matter one way or the other. I was interested in quail and this was some of the best natural quail cover I had ever seen—but it was also superb natural turkey cover. All the birds seemed to need to multiply was a couple of years of no-gunning and protection from poachers. Today we have hundreds of turkeys, most of them in an enormous cedar swamp, and they are the biggest attraction on the property. Now when I invite friends down to hunt, they don't even think about quail. All they want is to take home a turkey."
There are not so many that the value of the trophy has been diminished, but Payson's guests do get more birds than most gunners. A typical turkey shoot starts at about 4:30 in the morning, well before the sun is up. The hunters are driven out by buggy to the edge of the cedar swamp. Here they build makeshift blinds from palmetto leaves or just find a spot in the broomstraw for cover.
"Some people come equipped with all kinds of elaborate turkey calls to lure the birds in," says Payson, "but most of the time it isn't necessary to use them. If a hunter can sit quietly enough, sooner or later a flock will come feeding out of the swamp into the open."
"The waiting is the real test," says Dr. Davis of his turkey hunt at Payson's. "It's a long time until sunup when you are crouched in a blind, and time seems to stop altogether when those turkeys appear at the edge of the swamp. This is when you discover muscles you didn't think you had and the chiggers begin to bite and a fly buzzes around your face. Every time one of those turkeys looks up and goes "putt" you are sure it's talking to you. And while the birds are taking their good old time moving into range, the gun gets heavier and your arms get shakier.
"Then you start to worry about whether the cramp you have developed in your leg is going to throw you off balance when you stand up to shoot. And when you do stand up, and the birds let out a yelp as they clamor into the air, it's such a surprise that you sometimes forget to pull the trigger."
"This is the most amazing part of turkey shooting," says Payson, who flies down from New York almost every weekend during the November-January turkey season in Florida. "I have seen more buck fever on turkeys, even among experienced hunters, than on any other game. Part of it is because of the slow-motion way a turkey flaps its wings when it takes off. It doesn't look like it is going anywhere but actually it is moving at tremendous speed. I had one chap down here who was so surprised when a flock flushed in front of him that he dropped his gun."