(Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Marty Fischer’s new book, Limbhangers and 4-Letter Words. This 208-page hardcover book contains 23 chapters detailing the trials and tribulations of a turkey hunting fanatic. Fischer, a lifelong resident of southeastern Georgia is a professional wingshooter and shooting instructor. This is his first book on turkey hunting. For more information on Fischer’s video productions and hunting products, visit www.marty-fischer.com. )
Thank you Lord for not letting me catch it at an early age. I suspect that my life would have been much different if I had. Oh, I had lots of excuses as to why I didn’t catch it, but most of the time I resolved to myself that I was just too busy in the spring to catch a disease I didn’t really need.
Of course I’m talking about the turkey hunting disease that seems to take hold of every hunter who ventures to the turkey woods each spring. If you’ve been to the turkey woods and dealt with a wild turkey gobbler face to face, you know that once you’ve got the disease, there’s no cure to make it go simply away. The symptoms are the same for everyone come the Ides of March: a lack of significant sleep, a loss of production at work, anxiety, mood swings and a general disinterest in anything not turkey related. The disease only lasts for a number of weeks, and just how long it lasts depends on where you live. Some hunters are lucky. Either they live near state line boundaries, which allow them to hunt more than one state or they have the disease bad enough that they hunt in states that either open their season early or close them late.
I never had the opportunity to be exposed to the rites of spring as a youngster. If my home state had a turkey season during the formative years of my hunting experiences, I didn’t know about it. My dad never hunted the wild turkey. Nor did any of his friends. We grew up hunting squirrels, doves, ducks, and the whitetail deer.
Deer hunting in the south, as I knew it was a social thing. My dad was a member of a deer hunting club near home, and on some occasions he hunted by invitation with a long time friend and his family on thousands of acres owned and leased by the family. All of the deer hunting we did before 1970 was with dogs.
The routine was always the same. We’d get up much too early for a young man like me who played football and basketball in the fall and winter months growing up. We only hunted on Saturdays during the season and occasionally around Christmas and New Years Day. We’d have breakfast at one of the greasy spoons around town and head to the designated meeting location to begin our hunt.
Some of the guys on the hunt were invited because they owned a pack of dogs. There were always four or five pickups with dog boxes at the meeting place. The dogs in those boxes varied by breed, but most of them were hounds of some sort. While the most popular hound breed was the Walker, these buys would bring any type of dog that would “run” a deer. Believe it or not, I’ve seen everything from and Airedale to a Labrador retriever with a bell around his neck used on a deer drive. In fact, one of the best deer dogs I ever saw was an Airedale. The guys at the hunting club called him “that hippie dog” because of his long scraggly hair, but once he got on the trail of a buck, he was relentless.
Hunting with dogs was big tradition in the south for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was the most effective way to see a deer since the vegetation in that region of the country tended to be very thick during the first half of the season. There weren’t many places where you could see more than 75 yards, so our hunting was with shotguns loaded with buckshot. Second, running deer with dogs was as much about the chase as it was bout some guy harvesting a deer that would be divided amongst the participants in the hunt.
For the most part, this type of hunting proved to be pretty boring to an antsy teenager like me. Once you were dropped off on your stand location, you were instructed to stay there until someone came by to pick you up.
Hunting with dogs could never bear any resemblance to turkey hunting, but the sound of a pack of deer dogs getting closer and closer to your location could significantly increase your heart rate. Back then there weren’t many deer in my state, so you only shot bucks. There was no such thing as trophy management, and any buck with visible antlers was legal. I did manage to take a few nice bucks back then, and any time you bagged a buck with eight or more points, you were somewhat of a hunting legend around town for a short time.
In all of my early years of hunting, I don’t remember ever seeing a wild turkey, In fact, I don’t even remember seeing a turkey track, but then I wasn’t looking for one either. I never heard of anyone harvesting a wild turkey in my hometown. We lived to hunt the whitetail deer, squirrels and the wood duck that always seemed to be in abundance.
I do remember my dad arranging to get seven wild turkeys from the State of Georgia in the early 1970s to be released on his small farm in Effingham County. At the time the state had a restocking program underway, and landowners that wanted to be responsible for releasing birds onto their land were able to get them.
A few years after the initial release of those turkeys, I began seeing a few mature birds around my dad’s small farm, but it never crossed my mind that someone would actually hunt them. Man did I waste a few years of my hunting life.
I did go out once when I found out Georgia had a turkey season, and I remember the experience distinctly. I had driven out to my dad’s farm one spring morning and when I got out of the truck I heard a gobble “wearing it out” at the back of one of the fields a quarter mile behind the house.
For some strange reason I had purchased a little push pull call to play with in the truck and I had my shotgun and ammo in the back seat. I always had a change of camo clothing in the truck so I quickly slipped into something a “little more comfortable.” For all I knew, I was ready to go turkey hunting. Keep in mind that I had no turkey hunting mentor, and the extent of my hunting had always been for birds and animals in the fall and winter months. I was a pretty good woodsman by then, but I honestly had no idea how to call, set up on or hunt the wild turkey.
I sneaked down the edge of the field and made it to the woods where the bird had been gobbling. I quickly sat down against a big oak and squeezed the plunger on my call. After about four yelps he answered with a thunderous gobble not 50 yards from me. Unfortunately the vegetation was so thick where I had set up that I couldn’t see him. He gobbled again and again, and it was apparent that he was getting closer with each gobble. This was too good. I hadn’t been sitting there more than five minutes, and I was about to have a big gobbler sitting in my lap.
About that time I realized that my back was itching terribly from mosquito bites. I has sat down in an area that was thick with the little buzzing rascals and turkey or not, I couldn’t stay there and be still. Moments later the gobbler was right behind a bush hammering away not 25 yards from me. He was taking his sweet time coming in, and in my mind, I couldn’t wait a second longer. My back was being eaten alive, so threw up my hands and walked away from what had to be a monster bird. I scratched my back and legs all the way back to my dad’s house, but I didn’t tell him how stupid I’d been. Instead I hurried home and took the only oatmeal bath I’d ever had to take the itch out of hundreds of mosquito bites on by back.
That was my first exposure to the wild turkey on his terms, and I can only say that I got whipped badly. All I got from that short hunt was dose of reality, a lesson in humility and a crappy oatmeal bath. It was my first day at turkey school, and I can honestly say that I’ve spent many days in the school since that time.
I never realized how lucky I was to grow up in a small town in southeast Georgia. Life there was pretty uncomplicated. As a kid I hunted, fished, played sports in school and in anyone’s yard who would organize a game. Our hunting area was primarily in the beautiful hardwood swamp that bordered the Savannah River. Little did I know at the time that those thousands of acres of river bottomland were home to some of the best wild turkey habitat found in North America.
Over time I got bored with hunting deer being chased by dogs, and I can safely say that it’s been about 35 years since I’ve manned a stand waiting for a deer to be pushed past me. Don’t get me wrong, I still hunt deer with a passion, but my methods have changed. I do find that I can do my turkey scouting during deer season and my deer scouting while turkey hunting. The more time you spend on the ground, the more you’ll know about your hunting area.
I mentioned that my dad did introduce me to duck hunting, which pretty much became a disease as well. I remember driving to my favorite duck hole before school during duck season. My brother and I would try to bag a couple of wood ducks each before heading to the classroom. Fortunately my high school principal was a duck hunter too, so he understood my desire to hunt. We missed homeroom a few times, but the grades didn’t suffer at all. If anything, they got better during the hunting season.
I do remember being able to bring my shotgun to school as long as I put it away in the trunk or under the seat. Of course, such actions these days would get me suspended from school for life.
While sports were a very important part of my high school years, I also played the cornet in the school band. Music seemed to come pretty easy to me, so learning how to make the right sounds come out of a duck call came pretty naturally. I must say though that I never understood why I wanted to learn to blow a duck call when 99 percent of our duck hunting was for wood ducks.
But learn I did, to the point of winning a number of sanctioned duck calling championships and finishing in the top five in the World Duck Calling Championships in Stuttgart, Arkansas. You might say that I really enjoyed communicating with the birds, and turkey hunting provided the same thrill.
It’s hard to say when the turkey hunting disease really hit me. I went a few times with friends and had a great time. But it wasn’t something that made me want to abandon my other hobbies in the spring.
Perhaps it was the first time I actually had a bird walk up to me. I had the good fortune of being hired as the shooting pro on a TV series called Suzuki Great Outdoors, which was seen on ESPN in the early to mid 1990s. Former footballer Larry Csonka and I went to a place called Bent Creek Lodge in Alabama for a turkey hunt. I didn’t take a bird on that trip, but I do remember having one walk up to me that absolutely turned me inside out.
My guide and I located a bird that must have been 200 yards away. He suggested that we sit and wait him out, so I found a comfortable tree and took a seat. I heard a few yelps on the guide’s call, but I never heard a gobble come from the bird after we set up.
Suddenly the words “there he is” echoed in my ears and I looked up just in time to see the massive gobbler walking quickly about 40 yards from the gun. I snapped off a shot and the big bird folded up and hit the ground. We raced to the spot where he fell, but found no sign of the gobbler.
As you might imagine, my guide looked at me in disbelief. It was obvious that I didn’t know ‘jack’ about hunting the wild turkey, and I suspect that he was glad to get rid of me later that day. The hunt turned out to be a disaster, but the seed was planted. There had to be a better way, and I was determined to learn it. As you can see, my turkey hunting career started off in a pretty shaky manner. It could only get better.
You might say that the real and serious turkey hunting period of my life started with I caught up with my old duck hunting partner, Dan Shealy. He and I were buddies when we attended Georgia Southern College. We hunted deer, doves and ducks together until I moved away from the area. When I returned some years later and rekindled my friendship with him, I discovered that he had caught the disease. He had tow more hinting buddies at that time- Ray Darley and Bill Chisholm, and they had the disease too.
Shealy confided in me that he had learned to hunt turkeys from a friend of his who he said had coffee cans full of turkey beards. This guy was old school and he was hunting the wild turkey when hunting them wasn’t cool. He told me that to be a good turkey hunter, I would have to look at the woods like I never had before.
“I know how much you like to call birds,” he told me. “But the best turkey hunters aren’t necessarily the best callers. They are the best woodsmen, No one can actually think like a turkey, but those hunters who do it the best tend to be the most successful.”
With our friendship ignited after 10 or so years of being on hold, we hunted together every chance we got, and it didn’t take me long to realize that my buddy had become very accomplished in the turkey woods. We studied our hunting area like we had never done so before. We knew where the turkeys roosted and we knew where they liked to spend the day. We became more observant to turkey sign than we ever did deer sign. The sight of a gobbler track or dropping always drew instant elation, observation, analysis and conversation. We logged every sighting for use during the turkey season, and we learned hoe to move through the turkey woods virtually undetected. The one thing we did learn was that every day in the turkey woods was a school day. You never stop learning when pursuing the wild turkey, and every gobbler in existence can teach you something that you can use down the road.
So I got it. It bit me as hard as my first bout of puppy love. Of course the puppy love eventually went away as I got older, but the turkey hunting disease didn’t. When turkey season arrives I go as often as I can. Unfortunately I do have a job, but I do my best to not let it get in the way from mid-March through May. And if I could find a way to stop the postman from dropping of bills in my mailbox during the spring, I’d probably just hunt every day. Yes, I’ve got the disease, and I hope it never goes away.