Marion County, South Carolina is not quite Low Country but it’s close. William Tecumseh Sherman passed only a horseback ride from here. There are palmettos galore. There are acres and acres of loblolly drooped in Spanish moss. There are cypress swamps abetting cottonmouths, chiggers, noseeums and mosquitos as big as the game birds. The soil in Marion County is so sandy it’s easy to imagine the region being former sea floor like the geologists hypothesize. The county’s eponym was Brigadier General Francis Marion of the Continental Army whose nomme de guerre was the Swamp Fox because he was an early adopter of guerilla tactics, a giant pain in Cornwallis’s ass and a hero of the American Revolution. Marion was as well a prodigious Cherokee murderer, slave owner and South Carolina state senator. Thousands of years before the Swap Fox’s arrival the Lumber River which flows through Marion County snaked on itself so hard that the meander was cut off from the main flow leaving behind Huggins Lake, an oxbow, down at the end of—you already know this—Huggins Lake Road. Shore of the lake’s belly is maybe a 100 yards from the porch of the cabin my brother and I were using as a base of operations in the final week of spring gobbler season.
Our host was Billy, a country hoss, a timber man handy with the Linnaean names of trees, and a 12-Bravo engineer who upon returning from his tour of Iraq resumed hunting and fishing with zeal even greater than before, if also with a few questions about what it all might mean. We were amply outfitted with guns, shells, decoys, camouflage, calls, a case of beer, a bottle of rye and a cooler full of charcuterie hauled all the way down from Dutch country Pennsylvania. And we were tight with anticipation for killing a longbeard. In spring the turkey game goes like this: hear a gobbler. Set up. Make like a hen and call the poor beautiful bastard to his doom. It’s easier said than done. Turkeys are big sneaky dinosaur birds. They are inexplicably haughty with red, white, and blue convict heads. They possess breathtakingly iridescent plumage and a call that punches you in the middle making you tremble for the terrible beauty of the eastern arboreal canopy and all its inhabitants. Turkeys can see sunlight glinting off gunmetal at a thousand yards, hear better than owls and dogs put together, and if they could smell at all you’d never ever see one, let alone eat him for dinner.
Right around dusk we walked the lake road to a wooded point bordering a three-acre rapeseed field just beginning to flower. A conventional tactic is to locate roosted gobblers the night before the hunt so as to know where to set up in the morning. Spring gobblers are so full of testosterone they will gobble from the roost at just about anything that shocks them into doing so. Owls, woodpeckers, hawks, crows—you name it, a gobbler has probably hollered at it from treetop. I myself have heard gobbled answers to a slamming screen door, an English Setter, and a semi jake-breaking down a mountain pass miles away. You see, spring is mating season and the toms are deliriously eager. They gobble on the roost and they gobble on the ground and if they believe hens are near to see them they will spread tail fans wide, dragging wingtips alongside, and with swollen breasts strut like big ol’ hard-ons about the forest floor. To see one do this makes you fall in love, hen or human.
There at the point Billy blew an owl call. No response. An owl hooted back, but we weren’t hunting owls. We heard peep frogs, mocking birds, nightingales, a whippoorwill, a truck out on the hard road, but no turkeys. Billy said that his grandma wouldn’t let him go barefoot for the summer until the whippoorwills sang. While I was thinking about that, dark started to settle. Billy called again, “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all.” Still nothing. I got an itch on my neck. And then another. Then on my arm, and the other arm. My brother slapped his own neck, and Billy cursed. We were in a cloud of noseeums, swatting and itching, going bat-shit crazy with infestation. On the jog back to the cabin we decided for an unorthodox tactic: find a gobbler in the morning even if cost us the ideal set up.
And in fact it did cost us.
But before all that we stuffed our faces with bresaola, molasses ham, pancetta tarese, wiess- and bratwurst: Yankee food to be sure, but good enough to make you forget all allegiances. We had tumblers of rye and cans of beer in nifty neoprene sleeves embroidered with Billy’s employer’s name. I told the one about the time my Benelli misfired on a tom with a beard so long it was dragging in the dirt. I was so mad I wanted to turn the goddamn thing on myself if I could’ve counted on it to throw lead. My brother got us laughing about the time a group of jakes about crawled into his lap so desperate they were to find the hen he’d been pretending to be.
“It ain’t just turkeys,” Billy said. “Think of what you’d’ve done to get next to a girl when you were 14. Everything but buy one, and I ain’t ruled that out yet.”
“No argument here,” my brother said. “If there’s anything better, god kept it himself.
“You mean women or turkeys?” I said.
Billy laughed reloading his neoprene sleeve, “I thought you carpetbaggers didn’t believe in god.”
In the morning we were out with an hour of full dark to go, soundless as humans can be, which is not very, getting to our listening posts. I hunkered down and closed my eyes. Spring mornings to me are what I guess a passion play is for believers. When the fog lifts from the low spots, when dogwoods make rose windows in the new sunlight and birdsong grows in a chorus so loud you can’t whisper to your neighbor, I feel a confirmation of all that I believe. You probably would too. I have to say how struck I was by the similarity between the South Carolina and the Pennsylvania gobbler woods and I began to wonder, believe really, that you could learn to tell time by which birds were calling when. And then a gobbler sounded off. Four, maybe five hundred yards out, in the wood behind the rapeseed. Then another gobbler west of him. Another east. And another and another. Had to have been seven spread out before us, all gobbling with abandon. I had gooseflesh on my arms and a thumping in my chest. But we needed to cross the rapeseed, and to do so would risk detection, especially if those toms intended on flying down to the field. We made our way over to the point and followed the tree line in, approaching the belly of the lake west of the cabin. The trees gave us cover but the woods made us louder. It was far from ideal.
We set up on what I figured to be the first gobbler we heard. He was still calling from the roost but not as often. We got the decoys out, set up quickly, waited. A tree gobble sounds different than a ground gobble in ways you can imagine. The next time this turkey called we knew he was on the ground. Billy gave a soft yelp. The tom roared back at us double. This is happening I thought. Billy shook his head. I didn’t know why. We waited. We waited a long time for the tom to call again, to give us a sign. We hoped to hear him again but closer. We did not. Billy didn’t call. The gobbler understood there was a hen here. That was our assumption. There was no point calling again. Turkeys don’t need to hear many fake turkey calls before they know what a fake turkey sounds like. Finally another gobble, but no closer. Billy called again, a louder yelp. The tom roared twice, one on top of another and fearsome. But no closer. Billy shook his head again. My gun was up, safe off. Surely this bird was going to close. He gobbled again. No closer. It went on like that for a long time. Calling, gobbling. No closer. Then Billy stood up, gathered decoys. I didn’t want to move. To me it was still a live situation. My brother looked unsure. We fell back a half a football field. The tom called twice while we did so.
“What are we doing?”
“What about it?”
My brother laughed. “The bird’s on the island?”
“In the lake. Peninsula. He’s gonna stay there ’cause he’s safe and he knows it. The hens are coming to him today.”
“How deep is the lake?”
“12 feet of water.” Billy spit. “About half that in moccasins.”
“That bastard. How far to hike around.”
The gobbler kept calling but it sounded like taunting now. We hunted hard the rest of the morning covering gobs of ground, beautiful ground: hardwoods, pines, cypress trees, food plots. There was turkey sign everywhere: tracks in the mud, tracks in the sand. Wing feathers and tail feathers. J-shaped turkey scat. Deer spoor. Hog spoor. And snakes. But we had no more contact with the sneaky dinosaur birds that day or the next. Like a lot of things turkey hunting is easier to talk about than do.
“Bastards,” we said, and we said it a lot. Then as we approached the cabin yard and slung up our empty shotguns, a turkey flushed from the mowed edge into the pines. Billy saw a beard as the bird lifted and arched like an Iroquois chopper, glided into the wood.
“Bastard,” my brother said.
“That’s him,” Billy said.
“How do you know?”
“He’s flying back across the lake.”
After we packed and loaded the trucks we cleaned the cabin and chowed a snack of left-over sausage. My brother said sausage this good might be evidence of a higher power. I told Billy he’d be home in time for Sunday School. Billy laughed and told me he hoped it was a long drive back to Yankee-ville. He was right. 9 hours north. But gobbler season opened next week in Pennsylvania, whereas down here it was done.