Column: Turkey hunting pilgrimage pays offMay 8, 2019
Column by Brandon Butler
There were no turkeys in northwest Indiana when I was growing up in the 1990s. My formative years were spent hunting deer, rabbit and pheasant. I wanted to turkey hunt. I read countless turkey hunting articles and watched every video I could get my hands on, but back then, chasing gobblers was as much a fantasy as chasing elk. A decade later, wild turkeys were roaming all over the region. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) was largely responsible.
As I near the halfway mark, I suppose it’s safe to discuss a personal quest I’ve created for myself. It’s called 50 in 50 by 50: A Hunter’s Quest to Experience America. The gist of it is, I must hunt and take at least one animal in every state by the time I turn 50 years old. The deeper meaning behind the quest is my desire to see this country from sea to shining sea through the lens of a hunter. I want to experience traditions from Maine to Montana and everywhere in between, and to know what it means to be a hunter in Texas and how that differs from being a hunter in California. The people I meet and the places I see form the stories that are my trophies. Eventually, I’ll write a book about the quest. Look for it on a shelf near you in 2030, assuming there are still printed books then.
The plan is to culminate the quest 10 years from now on my 50th birthday in Hawaii. I hope to shoot a wild pig and have it prepared for a traditional luau to celebrate both the end of the quest and the milestone of having lived half of a century. Last week, I checked South Carolina off my list with a turkey trip I’ll never forget in Edgefield, home of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Because of my experience living through the restoration of the wild turkey in northwest Indiana, I’ve internalized this incredible bird as my personal symbol of wildlife conservation. Of course, I recognize the countless species of animals and plants that have been restored through endless examples of conservation efforts, but it’s the turkey that has moved me the most and it’s the hundreds of thousands of citizen conservationists who, through their gifts of time and money, drove the efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
That’s why it meant so much to me to visit the NWTF headquarters to both tour the onsite facilities, including an exceptional museum, and hunt turkeys in what I and many others consider the holy land of the Meleagris gallopavo, better known as the wild turkey.
Like most trips, this one had its challenges. After navigating the most unbearable airport I’ve ever experienced in Atlanta, I wasn’t on my way to Edgefield, which was nearly a three hour drive, until after 9:30 p.m. With a 5:00 a.m. wake up time, I didn’t expect to get much sleep, but at least enough to be somewhat conscious in the morning. My rental car broke down 15 minutes after leaving the airport and when roadside assistance finally had me back on my way, the Edgefield ETA had become 3:00 a.m. Fueled with energy shots and coffee, I made it in time to sleep for an hour and a half before meeting my host, Mr. Steve Jordan.
After Mr. Jordan dropped me off at my blind, I fought falling asleep until I heard the first gobble. Once that magical sound of spring rang out, it didn’t matter how little sleep I had, I was dialed in. Mr. Jordan has a rule about not shooting jakes on his property, so I strained hard to see a beard on the bird as he made his way towards the blind through the dimness of an overcast dawn. As he crept along the edge of the woods, I just couldn’t tell if he was a mature gobbler or not. Before I knew it, the bird disappeared into the pines. I’ll never know if he was a longbeard or a jake, but I certainly wasn’t willing to risk disappointing my generous host.
The rest of the morning was fruitless, but exploring Edgefield during the middle of the day was great. I had a burger at the historic Billiard Parlor and was able to spend a good amount of time touring the NWTF facilities, including the new Col. Tom Kelly display. I got a kick out of the giant turkey statues all over downtown. Edgefield seems to know what butters its bread. The evening hunt only produced one shot opportunity, but that time I was sure it was a jake, so as the youngster skirted my blind I just watched with joy as he waddled off into his future. Who knows what that holds, but hopefully it’s at least a couple of years spent strutting and gobbling.
The second morning of my hunt was amazing. It takes occasionally spending time in the turkey woods with folks like Travis Sumner to realize how mediocre my skills really are. I mean this fella can flat call turkeys. We located a bird on the roost and set up on him, and it was sweet, sweet music until I sent a load of 4 shot to end the show. Travis is employed by NWTF and is an incredible example of the professionals on their staff and he serves as class act ambassador for the organization.
With a bird in hand, I packed up and headed back to Atlanta to spend the night catching up with an old friend and his wife, and to meet their one-year old baby girl. As I recounted the experience I had in Edgefield to my friends, I realized this hunt is exactly why I’m pursing 50 in 50 by 50. I am so grateful for the NWTF. The work they have done over the last forty-plus years not only allowed me to take a turkey on this hunt, but to hunt turkeys throughout my quest all across America.
See you down the trail…
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