better place than the Palmetto State
Parker Whedon, widely recognized as one of the grand old men of the turkey hunting world, has hunted South Carolina gobblers for portions of six decades.
"How things have changed," he said. "Early in my career, hunting was done in the fall and winter and simply finding a drove of turkeys was a special event. Even later, when we began hunting in the spring, just hearing a gobbler give voice meant a lot. Then too, not many people really knew a lot about the sport, and there were large sections of the state where the bird had been completely extirpated."
Today, as Whedon and anyone else who takes to the woods in the greening-up time of spring knows, America's big-game bird has come on like gangbusters.
"I'm not yet 50 years of age but I can remember a time when it was an 'event' just to find a fresh gobbler track in this part of the state," said Roy Turner, a consistently successful gobbler getter who lives at Fort Lawn. "Now I can hunt close to home - in Lancaster, Chester and Fairfield counties - and almost count on working a bird every time I go out.
"You know how Joey (his 10-year-old son) called you on the last day of the season to brag about his first gobbler? What he didn't say was that prior to him getting that bird we had had a whole bunch of other close encounters.
"At his age, even though I was in the woods constantly, there just weren't turkeys to be hunted. The 'good old days' turkey hunting are right now."
The accounts by Whedon and Turner, two die-hard turkey hunters separated by a generation and a half in terms of age, pretty well sum up the situation. The restocking that pioneers in the field such as the late Walt Schrader started in the 1950s has long since been completed, and today turkey hunting occurs in every county in South Carolina. At most, though not all, parts of the state the seasonal limit is five birds - one of the most liberal limits found anywhere.
Despite a generally poor hatch in the spring of 2005, that translates to the entire Palmetto State being a fine place to have a go after the monarchs of the spring woods.
There are two ways to look at the matter of "top spots" to hunt S.C. turkeys.
One focuses at those locations where turkeys are most abundant, while the second involves particular types of terrain or topography that turkeys find especially attractive. Let's take a closer look at both factors.
What terrain teaches
"Creeks and rivers are turkey highways," Whedon said, "and the experienced hunter can look at a topo map and have a decent idea of places particularly deserving of attention in a given area."
Beyond being regularly utilized as travel corridors, S.C. waterways have importance to turkeys in a wide variety of other ways. Larger streams afford a ready escape avenue, and turkeys will fly back and forth across rivers with regularity.
Sadly though, trying to coax one across a river, or for that matter just a little branch or even a ditch, can be so frustrating as to almost seem an exercise in futility.
Turkeys also love to roost above water, whether it's a tree alongside a stream or one somewhere deep in a swamp.
The old chestnut about a turkey never being more comfortable on the roost than when he can hear his droppings hit the water has considerable truth to it. In the spring, and that's the time of greatest interest to hunters, bottomlands and stream sides are among the first areas to show new vegetation as earth's rebirth begins. That greenery draws hens to feed, and where they go gobblers will follow.
Sandy bottoms and open areas along streams make prime strut zones, and toms use them regularly. The message, as Whedon put it, is clear: "Water needs to figure prominently in your hunting strategy."
Years ago, I was privileged, for several seasons in a row, to hunt the early season in the Low Country (at private lands in 11 counties, the season opens during mid-March rather than at the beginning of April) with Mark Drury and Steve Stoltz. Both are nationally known figures in the sport, with the former being the founder of M. A. D. Calls, while Stoltz is a top-level contest caller.
Our hunting took place in an area that featured a mixture of pine plantations, open fields, and hardwood swamps. Invariably, we had the most action, especially early in the morning, in the wetlands.
One morning, after a foray into a swamp with scattered island of dry land had produced a fine tom in one set-up and a bunch of frustration in another, the pair of hunters began talking.
"It's obvious these turkeys feel comfortable in the swamp," Drury said, "and wet feet don't bother them a bit. It may mean wading through muck and mud, but you've got to get to where they want to be. That's a lot easier than trying to call a turkey to where you want to be."
Of course the water equation isn't the whole story. For example, early in the spring, before hardwoods have leafed out, turkeys have a distinct preference for roosting in mature pines.
Similarly, during windy times, they'll roost low and at protected sides of hills.
They love a mixture of open areas (pastures, farm fields, power line rights-of-way) and mature woodland, while thickets and young pine plantations, except for nesting purposes, have little appeal.
Don't overlook favorite "sign posts," as Parker Whedon likes to call them, such as old sawdust piles turkeys use for dusting purposes, logging roads that form favored strutting grounds, and roosting areas that are known to have seen frequent use over an extended period of time.
As has been suggested, on a comparative basis with yesteryear, or for that matter, most other states, there aren't really any "bad" places in South Carolina to take to the spring woods with longbeards in mind.
That being said, some destinations deserve special attention, based on the fact that year after year they rank near the top in terms of number of turkeys killed and reported by hunters. When Roy Turner said he doesn't need to go much beyond his home area of stomping grounds of Lancaster, Chester, and Fairfield Counties, he spoke not only on the basis of personal experience but as a former taxidermist who, for many years had a check station at his shop.
He saw lots of birds taken from a nearby portion of the Central Piedmont Hunt Unit.
In truth, the piedmont area from counties such as York and Lancaster bordering the N.C. border, all the way down to those like Edgefield bordering Georgia, should be considered one of the state's "hot spots."
Similarly, several river drainages - the Catawba and Broad Rivers in the piedmont, along with the Great Pee Dee and the lower reaches of the Savannah River - deserve special mention. They offer prime habitat in the form of bottom lands; mature hardwood swamps with sloughs and what that wonderful old sporting scribe, Archibald Rutledge, called "secret places," and the scattered agricultural fields and pastures turkeys find so welcome for spring "bugging," green grass and strutting.
Portions of these areas lie within either the Sumter or Francis Marion National Forest (NF), and for the average "Joe Shotgunner" who has no options other than hunting at public land, that's heartening news.
Portions of the Francis Marion NF present some problems.
Even though lingering damage from Hurricane Hugo occurred almost two decades in the past, lingering damage in the form of downed trees that make movement almost impossible, together with much more recent devastation from an ice storm, make hunting impossible. However, large portions of the Francis Marion have recovered quite nicely and have plenty of birds.
In the Sumter NF, a bigger problem is the hodgepodge nature of its acreage, with lots of private in-holdings interspersed with public land. That places a premium on paying careful attention to the free Wildlife Management Areas maps the S. C. Department of Natural Resources publishes.
The wise hunter will look for large contiguous tracts, check to see what type of terrain is offered, and take it from there.
In the final analysis, the good news is virtually anywhere one hunts in the state, even in the areas where the annual limit is lower and where restocking took place relatively recently, there are realistic expectations of success. That doesn't translate to certainty of putting a tag on a leg sporting a rapier-like spur, for in this sport the only certainty is uncertainty.
It does mean, despite a poor hatch and the resultant situation of relatively few jakes wandering the woods, ample reason for optimism.
Editor's Note: For more information, check out the author's Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.