The Principles and Ethics of a GameKeeper
By David Hawley
If ever I have taken the simple freedoms surrounding a turkey hunt for granted, I never would again, not after a weekend in the Georgia spring woods. It was a late February evening and my thoughts were, as expected, on the spring turkey season that was at the time a mere two weeks away. As I slipped off into a daydream of a past hunt, I was jolted back to reality with the buzzing of my cell phone. I looked down at the caller ID and saw that it was close friend Brian Proctor, whose photos grace the pages of “Wild Turkey Report.” “Got me any strutting pics yet?” I asked Brian upon answering. “Not yet man, I’ll be going out this weekend and will get you some,” replied Brian. Then his tone changed, and I knew he had a request for me.
“I was talking with Walter Hatchett, (of Southlands Plantation in Bainbridge, Georgia) and we’re having our annual Red Hills Wounded Warrior Hunt in mid-April. We’d love for you to come down and help us out if you’d be available.”
Without hesitation or thought, I released an enthusiastic “of course,” not really considering any pre-determined scheduling conflicts or the like. Giving my talents and time for only one weekend would certainly not be too much to ask, given the fact these heroes gave of themselves for the country that provides the freedoms we enjoy every day.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to help assist injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in their adjustment back to civilian life via recreational programs and other activities.
The Red Hills Wounded Warrior Group (RHWWG) is a chapter of the national organization that is based out of Tallahassee, Florida and was founded in 2011 by Brian Proctor and Walter Hatchett in hopes that they would be able to provide outdoor recreational activities for eligible veterans in north Florida and south Georgia. Since their inception, they have already hosted over thirty injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at Southlands Plantation in Bainbridge, Georgia, with the recent hunt bringing in ten heroes.
The support for the RHWWG has been overwhelming, as I could certainly attest to after the weekend of April 14-15, 2012. Not only was the 6,000 acre Southlands Plantation and all its amenities made available for the hunters, but other local hunters gave of their time and property to take some of the veterans. Local restaurants and caterers donated meals. A high school lacrosse team rose over $3,000 for the RHWWG annual campaign. Mossy Oak gave each hunter a full set of Break-Up Infinity camo. Each warrior was visibly grateful for the outpouring of support, yet it may have been those of us blessed to assist in the event that were the most grateful.
I arrived into camp late Thursday afternoon and met with others who had arrived early. One was Jake Lerner, who had been on the last years’ turkey hunt and had not been successful despite several close calls. Lerner was to be guided the next morning by “Turkey Thug” Keith Kelley, and filmed by Mossy Oak Productions’ Jamison “Buck” Standard, and Lerner was so excited about the weekend’s hunt that his enthusiasm permeated into the rest of our group.
The next morning I met up with “my hunter” for the weekend, Sgt. Eric Fletcher from Tallahassee, Florida and Cody Langford, who would be accompanying us to film all the action as well as lend his expertise in traversing the property. Fletcher, 27, was a Marine Scout Sniper with three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan who was struck by both an IED and an enemy hand grenade. For his injuries, he received two Purple Hearts. He has recovered remarkably and now serves for a contract company at the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. This would be only his third time to go turkey hunting, and we hoped that the third time would be the charm.
Hatchett had sent us to a spot on the plantation where he had heard quite a few birds gobbling earlier in the week. We arrived in the pre-dawn darkness and set up along a road with winded downhill into a creek bottom. At 6:45, the woods became alive with gobbling, jakes calking, and hens cackling. I made an attempt to join the conversation, but for the time being was simply “another turkey.”
Soon after fly-down, the momentum began to shift our way. I spotted two longbeards slipping around to our left and up the hill, but while I was trying to get Eric repositioned, a wad of jakes appeared at point blank range, forcing us to terminate all movement. The longbeards ceased the opportunity to make a full circle on us and show up directly behind us at 15 yards. We were pinned down and simply had to endure their piercing gobbling and bone-rattling drumming. After what seemed like an eternity, the gobblers “smelled a rat” and disappeared into the Georgia landscape before we could get a shot off.
Fletcher, Langford, and I shared a quick laugh at how we were all shaking “like leaves on the trees” when the birds had gotten so close.
The next morning’s events were even more nerve-wracking. Hatchett had an area near the Flint River that he knew held three or four gobbling turkeys. Just like the morning prior, we eased into the area before the roosters could crow and set up on the edge on a three-acre clover patch. A turkey began gobbling just off the northeast corner of the field, and I began sweetly telling him that I was available this morning.
Upon flying down, he strutted and gobbled just over the lip of the field and out of our view. The gobbler finally emerged at 80 yards and the proverbial chess game began. I reached for my Cody slate and began softly clucking and purring. Twenty minutes later, the gobbler stood stone still at 33 yards as Fletcher and I were both nearing hyperventilation. Fletcher took a careful aim, squeezed the trigger, and watched as the boss gobbler sailed off into the sunrise.
I was at one of those junctures where I did not really know what to say to Fletcher. I did not know what emotions were flowing through his head or heart. Here was a guy whose job is to be a marksman, and he missed a turkey stand still at 33 steps. All I could do is give him a pat on the back and tell him that “it’s part of it.” I knew that this miss meant more to Fletcher than simply going without fresh fried turkey, each pull of the trigger is a source of pride for him. It just goes to show you that anyone can miss a turkey.
I was determined to not allow Fletcher to go home empty handed and on a sour note. After an unsuccessful day of cutting and running, we teamed up with Hatchett for the final morning’s hunt. Proctor had seen three big longbeards crossing the road right before dark during the evening before, and we certainly wanted to use any “most recent information” we had available.
We heard our targeted turkeys just across a small creek bottom from our listening spot. We decided that getting down into the creek bottom would be our best bet, and Fletcher and Hatchett set up on a large oak tree twenty yards in front of me. Our initial tree yelps were enthusiastically welcomed by both gobblers, who soon pitched out into the thinned pine plantation on the creek’s eastern bank and starting easing our way. As the gobblers inched closer, my heart rate climbed, partly due to the excitement of the hunt but more so out of anxiety on Fletcher’s behalf. I said a quick prayer, asking God to give Fletcher a steady hand, and my prayers were soon answered with the roar of the shotgun and the roll of the big longbeard.
As I was running out to the turkey, Fletcher gave me a huge high-five and exclaimed “thank you buddy!” Thank me? I was the one who should be thanking him. For all that he and his brothers-in-arms gave for our country, so that we may have the simple joys in life such as turkey hunting, helping him bag a gobbler was the least I could do.
As we returned to camp the enormity of the occasion caught up with me. The hunt may have been “just that” in practicality, but in reality it was a rehabilitation session for each man. For the soldiers, it was a reminder that there are people such as Brian Proctor, Walter Hatchett, and countless others who truly care for each of them. For those fortunate ones who assisted in the hunt, it reminded us of why our country has been and will continue to be the greatest country in the world. Because of men like Sgt. Eric Fletcher, I know that as long as I am able, I will have the freedom to set foot in the pre-dawn darkness and chase a spring gobbler. For that, I am eternally grateful.
For more information on the Red Hills Wounded Warrior Group, please visit their website at www.redhillswoundedwarrior.com. All donations are tax-deductible.