February 2010
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From Southern Turkey Hunting, “The Swimming Turkey”

I suppose everyone knows as a general rule the Meleagris Galapvo doesn’t normally swim. Turkeys were not endowed with webbed feet or feathers and down like waterfowl that keep the body dry and warm in the water. The turkey foot is fully equipped for walking and running over all kinds of terrain, but is not made for swimming. The scales on the turkey foot and leg are a remarkable design by the Creator and keeps these extremities dry and somehow don’t freeze, but are still inept at swimming.

There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether or not turkey can swim. Sandys and Van Dyke (1904:265) states that the turkey performs poorly in the water. Audubon (1931:2) observed turkeys crossing a stream wrote: "The old and fat birds easily get over, even should the river be a mile in breadth; but the younger and less robust frequently fall in the water – not to be drowned, however, as might be imagined. They bring their wings close to their body, spread out their tail as support, stretch forward their neck, and, striking out their legs with great vigor, proceed rapidly towards the shore; on approaching which, should they find it too steep for landing, they cease their exertions for a few minutes, float down the stream until they come to an accessible part, and by a violent effort generally extricate themselves from the water." Additionally, on May 14, 1954, at the Little Shoal Creek embankment of Bankhead Lake, Alabama, a hen was observed calling excitedly to two poults in the water. Their age was estimated at ten days. The water was at least 100 yards wide. The hen had evidently flown across and was calling the poults to her (Martin and Atkenson, 1954). In any event, it is safe to assume turkeys do not naturally propel themselves across the surface of the water and this premise is the basis of the story of my swimming turkey.

I’ve hunted the wild turkey for most of my hunting life, having killed five of the six species (Occelated not included) and a total of over 225 birds. I’ve heard thousands of turkey stories from hunters over the years, but I consider the swimming turkey as one of the most unusual and bizarre tales I’ve known about. The story is true and happened in Tennessee on a place about 40 miles south of Nashville on a beautiful cattle farm where I had hunted many times.

I have served several years on the Board of Trustees of David Lipscomb University in Nashville, which is about 100 miles north of my hometown of Huntsville. The reason for this particular hunt was an executive committee meeting of the University on a Thursday. My plan was to check into a motel just off I-65 on Wednesday evening, try to roost one and hunt until 9 a.m. the next morning which would give me time to clean up, check out and drive to the meeting.

After checking into the motel, I drove eight miles to the place and hunted hard all the familiar spots which included climbing two steep hills. I didn’t see a turkey track or any fresh sign, was about to give up and was down to my last yelping spot. To my surprise at this last spot I got an answer, I got set up and tried all my tricks on this most vocal gobbler. My homemade striker box got answers, my new Roberts glass/slate rosewood peg call also received many answers and my Primos mouth callers also got numerous responses, but to no avail.

I knew I had tied into a tough old bird that was not going to be easily seduced. I waited until he flew up and figured he would be easy the next morning since I didn’t think he had any hens with him. I made the long trip in the dark back to my truck and almost felt sorry for the old boy who I felt sure was spending his last night all alone in the woods.

Shortly after going to bed that night it dawned on me, if I repeated the same trip the next morning I would have to leave at 8:15 or 8:30 which would cut my hunting time, if I was to make the 10 a.m. meeting. I got up and called the owner of the farm and asked if he had a key hidden to a gate much closer to the turkey. The owner said he did, told me where it was and I settled in for the night still feeling sorry for the gobbler on his terminal tree limb.

I arrived at the gate plenty early the next morning after a good breakfast and was full of confidence because I knew where my adversary was roosted. The revised walk saved me one steep hill and about 25 minutes of walking. I was a little early when I stopped on an open ridge overlooking the hollow and the roosted turkey. The heavens were brilliant with stars and the weather was perfect. The few minutes just before daybreak are very special to the turkey hunter, particularly if he is not in a hurry. It is during this time of the day I like to get down on one knee and thank God for this wonderful country and the privileges we enjoy as Americans and for just being a part of His creation.

The turkey sounded off on schedule and I had already set up by a predetermined huge oak tree just a little above his location. This should be easy and my meeting time safe; however, very little goes as planned when it comes to hunting the wild turkey.

To my amazement there were eight hens roosted in or near the oak tree by which I was sitting. How they got there I have no idea, they must have flown up after dark since I was there until you couldn’t see a watch. The gobbler flew down and I saw him strutting about 100 yards away. The hens also saw him and courteously flew to him and the entire group steadily moved away from me. So much for feeling sorry for this gobbler. I tried all kinds of calls and trickery, but to no avail, because this gobbler was at present a "happy camper" and had no need to go anywhere.

At this point it was 7 o’clock and my hunting time was evaporating. In the essence of time, I decided to leave the gobbler and try to locate another one. I retraced my steps to the top of the open ridge and encircled the entire place yelping loudly as I walked, for I was now hunting in desperation. Once I happened to see two hens pecking along, but no gobbler, for all my effort I didn’t even receive a peep. Eight o’clock found me looking at my watch and heading to the truck, walking down a long hollow in the pasture. I was still yelping as I walked, I don’t know why, other than hoping I may be uttering some turkey curse words at whichever turkey might choose to hear them. Finally when I was within about 100 yards of the truck I heard a gobble back up on the ridge about ¼ mile from where I started. At first I didn’t quite believe it was a gobble because of the lateness of the season and the trees being full of leaves that damper the sound. The gobbling was profuse and consistent and too much to leave even though it was 8:25. I reasoned I could spare maybe 20 minutes so I reloaded my gun, crossed a small creek and began climbing toward the gobbling turkey. I didn’t have to guess or speculate on direction because he was so constant and regular with his gobbling.

I climbed fast and through territory I had never seen and toward the most vocal turkey I’ve ever hunted. Upon arriving at the turkey’s general location, I realized he was in the open ridge pasture that I had started in, only he was at the extreme southwest corner. The time was 8:35 when I softly yelped, still 60 or so yards from the edge of the pasture. No time for cat and mouse games, so I shucked my vest and keeping only my striker box call and my mouth yelper, I crawled toward the fence at the edge of the pasture. When I was about 15 yards from the fence, I could make out the pasture edge and the fence. The spring foliage provided good concealment and fortunately there was a big hackberry tree directly between me and the gobbler. When I moved my head slightly to the left of the tree, I could see his fan about 40 yards away. I clucked on the box and he double gobbled and started toward me. The fence was nailed to the hackberry tree so I had been able to crawl to the fence unnoticed by the turkey. The turkey kept coming and gobbling, I was on my knees and my job was to be sure he was in range and my gun was properly threaded through the web wire fence. When he was at 25 yards, I "putted" at him after my front site was on his wattles. The turkey straightened up and I let loose a dose of #5s from my new Benelli shotgun.

The vegetation was less dense to the right of the hackberry so I immediately jumped in that direction to peer over the fence at my turkey. The fence was a good 47" web wire, so all I could do was watch the turkey flop in the pasture. Feeling things were about over, I stepped up about two feet on the fence as I started to cross it. To my amazement the turkey rose and flew while I was teetering on the fence. I couldn’t get a good bead on him and I saw him disappear behind a big red dirt bank bordering a small ½ acre pond. The only evidence of the turkey’s presence was some small waves emanating from near the bank in the pond. There was nothing to do now but cross the fence and pursue the whereabouts of the bird. Upon arriving at the top of the bank, I observed the turkey sitting much like a goose would sit on the water and paddling slowly with his wings and maybe his unobserved feet. He was ‘swimming’ in a circular path looking rather content, but getting farther and farther into the pond. Frantically, I looked around for a long limb to maybe rake him closer to the bank, but I couldn’t find one.

Time is of the essence now because it is 8:45 and my turkey is moving into deeper water fast. No time for strategizing, so I waded into the pond and, when I reached the "swimming" turkey, I was about waist deep in the water. I tried to direct his path in the water with my gun, but every time I got him close, he would maneuver away from my grip. Finally, I got him close enough and made a lunge for him, grabbing his neck with my left hand just below his head and drew him close to me.

At this point the turkey become unfocused from his leisurely "swim" and immediately attacked the one who had interrupted his aquatic experience. The turkey’s wings flailed me over the head, knocking off my hat and headnet. My gun, as well as everything else I had, was soaked with water. There is not a fountain in Paris or Rome that could rival the one the turkey was creating around me while I was fighting the mud and water trying to get out of that pond. At first I thought I could hold the turkey above my head to lessen the water flow, but after a few seconds this idea was abandoned. Next, I rationalized that if I partially submerged the turkey it would lessen the fantastic amount of water flowing around me, but this only made matters worse. My situation wasn’t getting any better; in fact, I had used up important minutes and was still over waist deep in the water holding a flogging turkey. Finally, I decided to just close my eyes, make for shore and ignore the beating and dousing I was receiving.

After much effort, I mucked out of the pond and laid the turkey on the top of the red bank that had originally hid my view of the turkey while I was teetering on the fence. I began then retrieving my hat and headnet from the pond when the turkey took his last death flop and wound up back in the pond. I retrieved him again, but with not as much fanfare as the first time.

Now I began to pick up my gear which was scattered on both sides of the fence and for several yards into the woods. The time on my wet watch was 8:53. With my gear gathered up, I climbed a nearby gate and ran downhill toward the truck. On the way I ran into a bunch of cows and calves with one old bull (friendly) that must have laughed at the sight of a soaking wet turkey hunter and his wet load running across the pasture. I arrived at the truck, threw my turkey in the bed and all my wet stuff in the rear seat. I then drove to the creek, got out my knife and bush clipper and jumped into the knee-deep creek with the turkey and "breasted" him on a little grassy bank in eight minutes. I then washed and put the breast in a plastic bag, loaded the bag in a cooler and drove quickly through two sets of gates and to the motel. The time was 9:24 which was already 24 minutes later than I had intended to leave for Nashville.

I dashed through the shower, threw on my clothes and shoes and the rest of my stuff in the pickup, and headed for Nashville after purchasing a sack of ice for my turkey. Fortunately the I-65 and Nashville traffic was light and I arrived at the meeting at 10:19, 19 minutes late. Several times during the meeting I caught myself smiling as I thought about the events of the morning.

At one of our committee breaks, one of my fellow board members said, "I noticed you were a little late this morning. Did you run into anything unusual on your trip to Nashville?"

My impulse was to tell this story, but I thought better of it and answered, "You wouldn’t believe it" and just let it go at that.

Raymond B. Jones is the author of "Southern Turkey Hunting: A Family Affair." This story and many others can be found in his book.