THE FIRST wild turkey I ever saw slipped across the woods road like a frightened brown ghost and disappeared into the undergrowth to be seen no more. That was a long time ago. I was a very small boy, riding in Granddad's buggy, returning from a fishing trip in a portion of the Tallahatchie River bottoms. It was then known locally as Carrier Bottom in honor of a large sawmill complex in Sardis, Miss. The huge piece of well-cut-over woods was sometimes called Bobo Bottom in honor of the well-known Bobo family and for which a lake had also been named. Grandpa and I had been fishing on that same Bobo Lake, using, of course, cane poles and fishing with worms and a few grasshoppers we would catch by hand at the fishing site.
I don't remember exactly how the fishing trip went, but when Grandpa told me that what we had seen was a wild turkey hen, he captured my attention completely and probably helped make wild turkeys an almost lifetime obsession for me… an obsession that still exists after more years than I care to admit to.
My obsession was further nurtured a few years later while listening to turkey tales told by other family members, notably a couple of great uncles, Dabney and Blount Irby. Much of their turkey hunting had been done in the somewhat famous Sulphur River bottoms in Bowie County, Texas, back in 1900 and 1901 when they, along with my then young Dad, were farming rented land. The venture proved pretty worthless except for the fact that good turkey hunting existed nearby.
There is some reason to believe this abundance had a damaging effect on their farming activities because it was there that my Uncle Dabney gained undying fame for a quotation regarding their farming. It seems that Uncle Blount, the businessman of the team, began insisting that Uncle Dabney stop hunting and get his cotton crop planted. According to my Dad, Uncle Dabney cleared his throat, knocked out his pipe and said, “Blount Irby, I am going to kill a gobbler this spring or lose a crop!” My understanding is that a bit later he managed to bag a bird and eventually planted a crop.
I hunted imaginary turkeys in Tallahatchie County hill country back when I was in high school, lured into hunting them by an eccentric old fellow who lived in a sheet iron shack way back in those then pretty wild woods that made up the Loess Bluffs of Mississippi. He had told me that he had encountered a drove of turkeys back in those hills and I believed him. As a result, I hunted fruitlessly for several days until I finally wandered up on my eccentric friend who was hunting with me. He was down on his knees in the leaves, scratching out a spot that might appear to be turkey scratchings and actually making imitation turkey tracks with a stick. I caught him red-handed and he only grinned and remarked that I was having such a fine time hunting those birds that he thought he would help me along by showing me some scratchings and tracks.
The first wild turkey I ever recall hearing gobble was also a long time ago in the Coldwater River bottoms of Tate County, Miss. I was bass fishing on a small nameless bayou and a jake gobbler sounded off very nearby. It was several years later before I realized that the sound was that of a jake gobbler attempting to gobble. A remnant population of turkeys hung on in that bottom and still remained after the great explosion of turkeys in Mississippi right after World War II.
One of the best tales I ever heard about those Coldwater River bottom birds came from my friend Hiram “Bully” West, who lives in Grenada, Miss. Bully was a “born again” turkey hunter even back when turkeys were almost extinct. Once when he was camping alone in the bottoms, he heard and saw a big gobbler go to roost just at dusk. Fearing he couldn't find the spot the next day, Bully just made himself as comfortable as he could nearby, built himself a tiny fire and camped with that gobbler until dawn. Ironically, when dawn arrived, no gobble came from the roosting site and Bully realized that the bird had moved in the night, a trait old gobblers use fairly often.
Fall turkey seasons are opening now in some states. Missouri opened Oct. 13. Alabama and Mississippi will follow soon. I can hardly wait!