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Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Hunting365: A South Carolina Sojourn

By Lynn Burkhead
ESPNOutdoors.com

For golfers, it's Amen Corner at The Masters. For tennis players, it's the pristine lawn of Wimbledon's Centre Court. And for football players, it's the gridiron where the next Vince Lombardi Trophy will be awarded to this year's Super Bowl champs.

For turkey hunters and conservationists like Brian Dowler, all roads eventually lead towards Edgefield, S.C. where the NWTF is located.
In almost every sport and pastime there is hallowed ground, a spot so revered that it fills the thoughts and dreams of those who compete.

For me — a spring turkey hunter — it's the forests of the Southland, places where tough old Eastern longbeards earn legendary nicknames and develop wickedly devilish fame at the local blue plate special café as hunters commiserate over a plate full of pancakes, a steaming bowl of grits and a bottomless cup of steaming java.

Up until this spring, despite years of turkey hunting experience west of the Mississippi, I had never ventured to those poison ivy infested southern woodlands where — along with the gobbler rich states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia — the modern turkey hunter was born.

Part of it was circumstance — I had never really received a serious invitation to hunt turkeys back East.

Part of it was the checkbook — why spend hard-earned money to travel and hunt on the other side of the Big Muddy when I had plenty of Rio Grande longbeards to keep me entertained here in the southern Great Plains?

And part of it — if I'm honest — was that I feared privately that my turkey hunting skills wouldn't measure up to what those tough old Eastern longbeards required.

With all of that in mind, I found myself wandering through the Columbia, S.C., airport this past spring season, wondering with a bit of trepidation just how my first sojourn onto turkey hunting's sacred soil would turn out.

A few minutes later, I would begin to get my answer as the National Wild Turkey Federation's Brian Dowler gave this weary traveler with a duffle bag a lift towards Edgefield, S.C.

I had met Dowler a couple of times before at various industry events and he had seemed pleasant enough and well-suited to his job of keeping writers informed about the happenings of the NWTF.

What I began to discover as the miles melted away in the pine studded uplands of South Carolina is that Dowler isn't merely some corporate stiff, faithfully spinning the company line.

He believes it all the way to the soles of his camo snake boots.

Turkey hunter Brian Dowler feeds his flintlock shotgun as countless other South Carolina hunters and American patriots did back in the 1700s.
As I found out over an extraordinary southern style dinner that night, Dowler is an extremely likable fellow who, both in the office and out of it, truly lives and breaths turkey hunting when spring is in the air—albeit in a slightly different fashion than I am accustomed to.

The next morning, a day before my three-day hunt for Palmetto State longbeards was scheduled to commence in the low country of South Carolina, a cup of java helped me shake the pre-dawn cobwebs loose as Dowler gathered his gear… from a time gone by, I might add.

While I wasn't licensed to hunt yet, that wouldn't prevent me from tagging along with my Nikon in tow to photograph Brian doing what he loves best.

And that is turkey hunting with a hand-built flintlock shotgun just as his daddy taught him to do when Dowler was a youngster in the rugged mountains of his native West Virginia.

"Ready?" Dowler queried as he checked his primitive gear.

"Yep," I yawned back, curious as to what I would find in South Carolina that day as I allowed Dowler to help me step back in time.

Sometime later, after a serendipitous drive through the dark timberland, I stepped out of the SUV at the gate and took a deep breath of thick southern air fresh from the Atlantic.

After Dowler loaded his lengthy sporting arm with powder and shot, we stepped past a historical marker—more on that later — and weaved our way deep onto the property of Dowler's hunting club.

Finally arriving at his chosen first-light listening post, the brisk walk had helped remove any hint of early morning chill.

For a while, we remained quiet and motionless as the cloudy dawn spilled onto the continent.

As we did, nothing but the soft sounds of songbirds greeted our straining ears.

But as the time that transitions a spring turkey hunter's heart from eternal hope to the doldrums of despair arrived on our watches, the cagey longbeard that Dowler was after let loose with a faint gobble in a remote corner of the property.

Saying not a word, we turned towards each other, sporting the big grins of Alice's Cheshire cat — it was "game on" in the shadow of Edgefield.

For Dowler, the game was beginning to wear on him after he'd shown up for more than a dozen frustrating mornings in a row.

Living as close as he does to both his work and his play, the NWTF's main PR man had walked into the office of the organization's splendid headquarters more than once this spring with his camo still on and a war story to tell.

As I would learn later that day, the Edgefield headquarters is my kind of place — camo in the office is hardly frowned upon and coffee pot tales of turkey hunting woes or joy are not only welcome, they are eagerly expected.

That's because the Edgefield crew isn't just passionately dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey, they are also equally committed to protecting — and when the schedule allows, participating in — the priceless hunting heritage that springtime in America brings.

Back at Dowler's listening post, I wondered what kind of story we would have later that morning when we rendezvoused with the rest of our crew.

Brian Dowler calls with a primitive turkey call made of West Virginia flint and a whittled and burned striker inserted into a cow horn holder.
For a time, things looked promising as Dowler's soft yelps and interspersed barred owl call occassionally caused the tom to gobble faintly.

As he worked the bird delicately, Dowler pulled a wingbone call from his vest that his dad had fashioned from the first turkey that Dowler had killed as a boy.

Moments later, some of the sweetest yelps a turkey hunter can make were enticing the unseen longbeard.

After that, Dowler reached back into his vest and pulled out yet another reminder of turkey hunting's grand past.

Certainly primitive looking by today's polished turkey call making standards, the simple rectangular piece of West Virginia flint gave a surprisingly soft and realistic hen yelp when he scratched the whittled and burned striker peg across its rough surface.

The weathered cow-horn holder that cradled Dowler's primal striker only served to add to the morning's experience.

Even so, the tom didn't seem too impressed by Dowler's nod to the past. As his feathered lineage had done for countless generations before him, the old bird flew down and began the familiar routine of locked jaws and a steadfast refusal to betray his position once again.

So much for love being in the air — it apparently was on the ground now with the silent longbeard and a winsome hen.

What to do? With the carefully managed hunting club sporting several food plots, a recent burn, and plenty of hardwoods and pines for toms to gobble, strut, and continue the turkey's life cycle in, we dutifully marched on, hoping to strike up another longbeard looking for love.

In the process, we inadvertently stirred up images long ago silenced by the relentless march of time when we wandered past a small cemetery plot.

A simple and humble site that would be easy to miss, our reverent visit to these worn gravestones provided a powerful reminder of our nation's incredible birth from the fevered pitch of the American Revolution that once gripped these same woods in the Palmetto State.

The headstone that quickly caught my attention was part of the reason for the historical marker that guarded the entrance gate to the property.

This grave site marked the final resting place for Capt. Arthur Simkins, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, a statesman in the South Carolina General Assembly, and one of the founders of nearby Edgefield.

As I sat there taking it all in, I could only wonder what this man had been like and what his legacy had proven to be.

NWTF's Brian Dowler looks to a by-gone era in American turkey hunting and history as he examines the gravesite of Capt. Arthur Simkins.
Was Capt. Simkins a turkey hunter?

What was his family's fate during the fierce struggle for our nation's independence?

How strong was the steely glint of freedom and courage in his battle weary eyes?

And what were his feelings when our nation's victory against England ensured that the treasured Declaration of Independence would be more than mere words on paper and a timeline-changing reality that would help to redefine the history of the world?

As the wind whispered gently through the pines, it didn't take much in the way of imagination to close my eyes and hear the concussion of flintlocks ushering their hand-loads through these same Cedar Fields Plantation woods that we were standing in.

Some of those flintlock firings were undoubtedly to put a plump Eastern turkey or two on the table of a hungry colonist.

And many, many more were fired in a number of pivotal battles that ensued across South Carolina's uplands and lowlands as the patriots endured the hellacious struggle for independence and the chance to worship God openly and freely.

After a time of remembering what has been—both in the bounty of this land's wild game resources and in the struggle for our precious freedom—Dowler and I silently arose and began to head back in the general direction of the gate.

And though later that morning we crossed by that spot's historical marker the same way that we came in — without a longbeard — we left anything but empty-handed.