Growing up in southern Jefferson County, FL, on the family farm, I had plenty of room to roam and explore the beautiful rolling hills and creek bottoms that were located on our farm and surrounding neighbors’ properties. My father, W.J., had restocked a few turkeys back in the late ’50s on our farm, and I reckon they were somewhat successful because we had a lot of turkeys then, but very few deer.
Dad had carried me turkey hunting several times in the fall with an older gentleman, Mr. Pitts. We would basically ride around and try to bust up some fall flocks and call them back in as they reassembled. I was probably 12 or 13 at the time in the early ’70s, and we harvested two nice gobblers during those fall hunts.
I think it was in the Spring of 1972-1973, Dad gave me a small slate call that was made by a gentleman named Tiny Conner. It was a slat call that the top actually fit into the bottom portion that held the slate. Man, I wish I still had that call.
My Dad exposed me to hunting in a lot of different ways growing up…dove and quail hunting early on, deer hunting later on. But that Spring, he introduced me to turkey hunting…not actually carrying me himself, because he had never really Spring turkey hunted himself. There was a County road adjacent to our family property called the WPA Road, which was constructed back in the Depression. It traveled for several miles through a lot of property the St. Joe Paper Company owned at the time, which was open to the public. It had one large hill on it that was called The Blue Pond Hill. The pond sat at the bottom of the hill. I recall Daddy and I drove over one late afternoon and stopped on top of the hill, got out with that little Tiny Conner slate call, and proceeded to begin calling. We had a gobbler answer us, either on the roost or just late that afternoon. That’s probably the first time I ever heard a turkey gobble. I think Daddy told me it was Spring turkey season, and I could go hunt.
There weren’t a lot of people in our area back then that turkey hunted. I decided to go right by myself that next weekend or so. I remember Daddy letting me use our old farm truck to drive to the back of the farm that morning, and I walked into a series of little fields right about daylight. I walked over into a field where we had heard that gobbler a few days earlier. Shortly after daylight, I began to hear him gobble on the roost, and I went kind of towards where I believed he was located in another field which was a little closer to where he was roosted. I began calling a little bit, and he seemed to answer me or was just gobbling on his own…who knows. He kept gobbling pretty steady, and I could tell that he was moving from my right to my left a couple of hundred yards away, and not really getting closer to me, but rather seemed to be moving towards the field that I had walked through earlier.
Probably the only thing I did right that morning was I haul-tailed back around to that little field I had previously walked through. There was a large debris pile, logs, and trees, that had been piled up in this little 2-3-acre field. I was shooting an old 12-gauge Remington 1100 humpback made on a Browning pattern with 2 3/4 inch No. 2s shells. One thing I knew is turkeys had X-ray vision. As I hid in the middle of that pile, I could hardly see out of it. As I settled in, I called a couple of times, and the gobbler answered me.
A few minutes went by, and I hadn’t heard anything. The sun was beginning to peak over the treetops into the field. About that time, I was looking around the edge of the field, and as the gobbler steps into the edge of the field, he goes into full strut and double gobbles. I had quite a hard time catching my breath, my heart was beating so fast. It’s a memory I will always treasure. As the gobbler strutted further into the field, he began feeding on nut grass, sprouts, etc., where the field had been plowed in preparation for planting. As he moved from my left to right, and probably 40-50 steps, he was moving toward a blind spot where I knew I wouldn’t be able to see him. I was sitting there thinking that I needed to stand up to be able to shoot out of this pile of trees…first mistake, not having a clear vision of the field. Thinking as soon as I stood up, he would probably fly because, with his X-ray vision, he knew I was there. But I had to chance it. I had to shoot right then. As I stood up, I had my gun on him. He had no idea I was there. But when I did stand up, he immediately saw me and stuck out his long neck. Who knows where I was aiming…head/body…probably body, I shot. And as he took off flying, I shoot again and again as he flew over the treetops.
To say I was disappointed or heartbroken is an understatement. I wanted to carry that turkey back to show my Daddy so bad, I had tears in my eyes. But as I drove back to the house, seeing that gobbler strut and gobble lit a burning desire in me for turkey hunting.
There weren’t any video or tv shows back then, Mossy Oak camo or decoys, and really none of my peers or relatives Spring turkey hunted, so it was all by trial and error. One person that was a well-known turkey hunter at that time was Dr. John Ward, who was our family doctor in Monticello. We only had two doctors in the whole county back then, and he was one of them. Dr. Ward dove-hunted with Daddy periodically. That’s how I met Dr. Ward’s son, Charlie, and became fast friends with him. I think Dr. Ward carried Charlie and I Spring turkey hunting a couple of times. I do remember Dr. Ward giving me my first mouth call, which was a Penn Woods diaphragm call. Charlie and I became lifelong friends. We remain close to this day, and have harvested more turkeys together than we can remember.
As I grew older, Charlie and I, and another friend, Richard Brumbley, Spring turkey hunted every possible day we could…before school, after school, weekends. It was all just trial and error. We had a lot of turkeys back then, so it was a lot of error. It was not uncommon for us to hear five or six different gobblers on a morning hunt. I didn’t realize then as I do now, but I grew up turkey hunting in some of the prettiest hardwood bottoms with sand creeks, white oaks, beech and magnolia trees, etc., perfect turkey habitat.
After a lot of trial, I kind of began figuring out things to do to be a successful hunter. One of the better lessons I learned from experience is when to be and not to be aggressive. When you have a gobbler that is using a certain area as a strut zone, field, open hammock, etc., and let’s say you are very close to getting a shot one morning, don’t make the mistake of pressuring him and ever letting him know you are there if you are not in the correct position. Try to pattern him to be in a better position the next morning, and there’s a good chance he will possibly be in the same area. If you spook him the first morning, that game is over.
Looking back on that first Spring morning, it has influenced my life and career extensively. It was the first time that I had experienced an adrenaline rush like I had never experienced before in the outdoors, and I just wanted more and more. I had become addicted to turkey hunting and wasn’t even aware. Gradually, I became more successful as the years went by and began guiding friends and family. I had the pleasure of guiding on a few tv shows; one of the first being “The Outdoor Trail” with Wayne Pearson in the early ’80s. After my father passed away in ’88, I changed careers from farming/tree nursery to a land management position at Honey Lake Plantation located in Madison County, and shortly thereafter, River Ridge Plantation in Leon County. To say River Ridge, which was located along the Ochlocknee River, had turkeys is an understatement. I was so blessed to have managed the turkeys on both of those properties. Hopefully, I have given back and raised more turkeys on these properties than I have ever taken. I also became a life member of the NWTF in the early ’80s.
Turkey hunting has allowed me to meet some people from all over the United States who became life-long friends because of our common love for the hunt, including a few dignitaries that I would have never had the pleasure of hunting with and guiding, including the late Governor Lawton Chiles and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as Judges, politicians, and celebrities, also including Cuz Strickland of Mossy Oak Productions. A good friend of mine, Brian Proctor, and I began a non-profit called Red Hills Wounded Warrior Group guiding countless wounded veterans over the past decade. Along with the assistance of adjoining landowners and numerous friends, it has truly been an honor and pleasure to guide our true American heroes with some of them harvesting their first turkey. Also, I am a big advocate of hunting with and guiding our youth in becoming future outdoors persons.
As I look back on that first Spring turkey hunt, me being a little redneck farming boy from Jefferson County that loved exploring in the woods, seeing that gobbler come gobbling and strutting into that field that early morning gave me a passion for the outdoors that has shaped my life and career from land management to now a land broker. Hopefully, through my years, I have passed along the passion and knowledge of turkey hunting experiences to my kids, grandkids, and a host of friends. I feel so blessed by God, from that first Spring morning to now, to be able to hear the whippoorwills sing, to see beautiful sunrises, dogwoods blooming, and the woods coming alive; and, of course, to see and hear more gobblers in my lifetime than I can truly even count. However, the first solo hunt will forever be engrained as a shaping moment. A magical, formative memory, that forever shaped me into the sportsman and conservationist that I am today.
Written by Walter Hatchett