F&S Classics: This Old Bird Knows Turkeys
R. Wayne Bailey has been hunting and studying wild turkeys for 60-plus years, and he is the deadliest thing in the spring woods.
Editor’s Note – We have some exciting news: F&S editor-at-large T. Edward Nickens has a new book out! The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life is a collection of his best and most beloved adventures, essays, and columns from Field & Stream. You can purchase the book online, or wherever books are sold. To celebrate, all week we’ll be sharing some of our favorite classic tales from Nickens. Today’s entry, “This Old Bird Knows Turkeys,” was first published in the March 2005 issue.
The old man shuffles through the woods ahead of me, making more noise than he knows he should. He is tall and lean and 83 years old, and he carries a battered Winchester 12-gauge autoloader sheathed in peeling camouflage paint. He steps over the merest sticks and branches with difficulty. An hour earlier, in the muted glow of his truck’s dome light, he’d catalogued his infirmities as an apology for the slow pace of the hunt about to begin. “I’ve only got one eye left,” he told me, “and I lost my sense of smell years ago.” He pointed to a pair of hearing aids. “I can’t hardly hear a turkey unless he gobbles in my ear, even with these things.”
His excuses delivered, the old man grinned. Just two days earlier, in the woods of Caswell County, North Carolina, a tom turkey made the mistake of gobbling a bit too close to R. Wayne Bailey. “He only sounded off one time, but that was one time too many,” Bailey said, his smile stretching a thin face fuzzed with white whiskers. “Ten minutes later he was flopping on the ground.”
Back from the Edge
That was wild turkey No. 239 for Bailey, one of America’s preeminent wild turkey field biologists and the point man for turkey restoration efforts across much of the East. Born in tiny Rock, West Virginia, in 1918, Bailey went to work for that state’s game department in 1945. He live-trapped his first wild turkey a few years later, capturing the bird with a homemade net jury-rigged from plumbing pipe and dropped from the ceiling of a state park picnic shelter.
By the time he retired in 1980 as the project leader for North Carolina’s restoration effort, Bailey had live-trapped hundreds of turkeys in West Virginia and North Carolina and shipped the first wild birds ever released in Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. He’s watched the Eastern wild turkey’s rise from near oblivion with the wide-eyed astonishment of a scientist and the appreciation of a die-hard hunter.
Bailey came to turkey science with the heart of a hunter. He grew up gunning for the table—rabbits, squirrels, grouse, ducks, groundhogs, whatever would fill a Great Depression pot. Even then, he says, there was a mystique about the wild turkey. “They were very rare in those days,” he says, “but West Virginia still had an open season. My goal was to bag a wild turkey before they became extinct.”
By any measure the restoration of the Eastern turkey is one of modern wildlife management’s greatest success stories, and one of modern hunting’s finest hours. Gunned down to a record low level by 1973, Eastern turkey populations since have been nursed to more than 6.4 million. Tens of thousands of birds were live-trapped and transplanted from state to state, aided to a great degree by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Bailey’s first fieldwork with the West Virginia Conservation Commission involved clipping the toenails of trapped rabbits to mark them for a mortality study, but it wasn’t long before he discovered his true aptitude. He was crazy about turkeys: He snared them with drop nets and walk-in wire traps, spending long days in the blind.
Then, during the early 1970s, cannon-propelled nets revolutionized the task of capturing wild animals for study and transport. Thirty feet wide and 50 feet long, the nets were cabled to 5-pound projectiles and launched over feeding turkeys with black powder-powered mortars. A quantum leap over fussy, small-scale drop nets and box traps, the practice nonetheless required stealth and skill. Flocks were lured to the target area with bait. On the day the trap was set, camouflaging the net was critical because turkeys needed to be within 2 to 5 feet of it, with their heads down, for the launch to work efficiently.
And skittish turkeys were only a part of the challenge. Areas that supported populations large enough for successful trapping operations were jealously guarded by locals who were incensed that birds were being removed. Biologists would return to their setups to discover sabotaged nets, equipment, and blinds. Technicians began to cover their tracks. They hauled blinds, nets, and bait into the woods before daylight and varied the routes they used to check on sites, like moonshiners, telling no one about the locations.
Through it all, Bailey never lost his enthusiasm for the birds. “As I sat in the trap blinds, listening to a gobble or even a movement in the leaves that I knew was a turkey, my heart would pound so loud you could hear it,” he says.
Up on the ridge we listen to a pair of turkeys gobbling, a half dozen times or more. With each successive call from Bailey, the farthest bird cuts the distance, moving closer to the challenger it detects at the base of the ridge. Bailey leans close. “I think it’s going to be a good morning,” he whispers, then pauses for a moment. “But it takes a turkey to tell you just how good a morning it’s going to be.”