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The Turkey Hunters: Catching Up With Tes Randle Jolly

Tes Randle Jolly is one of the country's top wildlife photographers.

Tes Randle Jolly is one of the country's top wildlife photographers.

Editor’s note: “The Turkey Hunters” is a blog that profiles notable folks in the turkey hunting industry. In this installment, we chat with turkey photographer extraordinaire Tes Randle Jolly.

Tes Randle Jolly is an outdoors and wildlife photographer and writer, and a frequent contributor to Turkey & Turkey Hunting.

T&TH: Tes, how long have you turkey hunted, and how did you get started?

Jolly: I’ve been hunting turkeys since 1989. A good friend and deer hunting buddy, Johnny Johnson, is also an avid turkey hunter. In 1989, he invited me to hunt turkeys deep in a central Alabama swamp where we deer hunted. The very first hunt, we set up in foggy bottom under moss-draped oaks. My heart leaped at the nearby sound of two thunderous gobbles in the damp gloom. Johnny invited the gobblers to fly down our way with almost inaudible clucks. The sight of those two strutters, beards swinging, trot/waddling in full strut toward us nearly took my breath away. Johnny whispered, “You better shoot one before they run over us!” I tagged one, a true limbhanger, at close range, and from that day I was hooked. Turkey photography is my specialty, and turkey hunting remains a passion.

T&TH: How do you continue to capture such unique, vibrant turkey images year after year?

Jolly:  If you read the book Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto, you’ll know why. Simply, it’s an intense passion and attraction to this unique and beautiful bird specie. Communication with both hens and gobblers is addicting. Turkeys are never boring. Each year, new birds appear, though I’ve been lucky enough to photograph some gobblers for several consecutive years. Photographing turkeys and their behavior in their environment is a never-ending challenge. Countless hours often within mere yards are spent learning the habits of a flock or gobbler. Placing blinds where I can capture them throughout their natural world, not in a back yard, is the ultimate reward. Sharing the uncommon beauty and unique behavior of wild turkeys with Turkey & Turkey Hunting’s readers and turkey enthusiasts is my goal. Top-quality Nikon gear produces the outstanding image quality worthy of publication.

T&TH: What are some things you’ve learned from photographing turkeys that most hunters might not know?

Jolly: I keep a journal, and here are a few non-scientific observations of turkeys being turkeys —at least the ones I’ve been near.

During the egg-laying period, some gobblers will squat and nap in the shade during midday, often on a field edge where they will resume strutting for hens that return to the area to feed in the afternoon. Comically, every few minutes, the gobbler’s head will periscope up out of the weeds checking it’s surroundings and then disappear back into the grassy sea. Busy spring gobblers often rest and feed during midday hours when hunters are napping or at lunch.

Turkeys that don’t fly down at dawn in early spring aren’t necessarily frightened or hung up from your calling. They are often feeding on tree buds. I’ve watched them feed for an hour or more.
It’s helpful to know when toms aren’t gobbling that nearby hens often emit an ascending yelp when a gobbler spits and drums. Jakes sometimes yelp in response, too, but it sounds similar to a dog barking.
A gobbler’s snood has a life of its own; a hairy, wrinkled slinky of skin. It’s length seems proportional to the degree of the bird’s arousal.
Sequence photographs show at the beginning of a gobble a tom lowers its beak to the neck, opens its mouth wide open as if to suck in air and then extends the head and neck as it gobbles. The inner eyelid almost always closes once during the gobble. Often, the extended snood is trapped in the beak during the gobble.
A jake’s skull cap has an open groove down the middle that is usually closed at maturity.
Turkeys sometimes tree-hop long distances when going to roost and before flydown.
Wing-stretches, like wing checks, often signal a bird will leave the area soon.
A nesting hen’s favored afternoon dusting area is often where a lonely gobbler hangs out.
A gobbler in charge of a hen flock today could be a satellite tom tomorrow.
A gobbler fight can be brutal and similar to a wrestling match when beaks are locked. Consider this fight I witnessed. After the initial wing-flogging and spur jabs, two longbeards battled for 23 minutes in a breast-shoving and neck-twisting match. The victor actually twisted its opponent’s neck till it lost balance. Both were bloodied and minus a pile of feathers.  A nearby hen never looked up from feeding.
Jakes live in a confused world their first spring. Some days, they’re tolerated in the flock. Other days, everyone wants to kick their a@#! No wonder they gang up like teen-age boys. In a group, they can be fearless.
T&TH: What gives you the greatest joy in hunting or photography?
Jolly: In photographing, my greatest joy no doubt stems from my Native American heritage. I experience great joy being close to wildlife and nature. There is a thrill that comes from interacting at close range in order to capture the essence of the wild turkey’s beauty and behavior, and then share those moments with others to educate and inform. In hunting, the greatest joy is really the entire outdoor experience that puts me close to God and nature, hones my hunting skills and puts healthy meat on the table. As we say in the South, wild turkeys eat good.

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