Milford Scott looks forward to turkey season the way most people anticipate Christmas.
"It's my favorite time of year," the Columbia County man said. "There's no other sport that separates the men from the boys like turkey hunting."
When statewide gobbler season opens next Saturday, Scott will join about 75,000 fellow Georgians in pursuit of the nation's most challenging game bird: the Eastern Wild Turkey.
"Before I got to hunting them, I made fun of people who shot turkeys," he said, laughing. "I figured anything that big's got to be too easy to kill."
But it's taken a full 30 years of annual practice to learn the tricks needed to bag gobblers consistently, he said. And some people never learn.
"Back when we first got turkeys, there weren't that many," he said. "Now there are more turkeys than there have ever been."
Haven Barnhill, a senior wildlife biologist and Georgia's statewide Wild Turkey Project coordinator, agrees.
"We are, basically, in the glory days of turkey hunting," Barnhill said. "It's probably as good this year as it will ever be."
Wild turkeys once thrived across North America, and their remains are found frequently in prehistoric archaeological digs.
During the 1700s, famed naturalist William Bartram wrote of dining on turkey and observing flocks that numbered in the hundreds. But their numbers soon plummeted due to market hunting and loss of habitat.
By 1900, a flock that once exceeded 7 million in Colonial times had eroded to 30,000, leading scientists of the era to predict that turkeys would follow the passenger pigeon and dodo into extinction.
Today, efforts by many states -- and the National Wild Turkey Federation, which pumped $1 million into Georgia's turkey program alone -- have restored the big birds nationwide.
There are now more than 4.5 million wild turkeys, compared with 1.3 million in 1973, according to the NWTF, based in nearby Edgefield, S.C.
Last year, Georgia hunters harvested about 54,000 birds, averaging .72 turkeys per hunter, or three times the success rate of a decade ago. In South Carolina, about 42,000 hunters harvested 11,261 gobblers in 1999.
South Carolina's season opens April 1 and closes May 1 in most of the state, with an earlier season already under way on private lands in 12 Lowcountry counties.
Augusta-area hunters will have great opportunities this season, due to a healthy flock -- numbering 400,000 -- and a successful 1998 breeding season that will fill the forests with 2-year-old birds this spring.
"Poult production during spring and summer of 1998 was good," Barnhill said. "The majority of our harvest is 2-year-old gobblers, so it'll be a great season.
"Additionally, acorn production was good last fall, especially white oaks, which means gobblers should have higher fat and energy levels."
Higher energy levels, of course, mean robust mating activity -- and more gobbling to excite spring callers like Scott.
"I'll be out there," he said, cradling his favorite call: a handmade cedar box he inherited decades ago.
"I don't go into the woods without this box," he said. "This call was my Daddy's. It's what taught me to call birds."
The call, a family heirloom with edges worn smooth from use, is more than a century old. "But it still works just fine," he said. "Just fine."
Scott hunts on private lands in Burke and McDuffie counties. But Barnhill advises there are abundant public areas with excellent turkey opportunities as well.
Georgia's turkey season, which runs through May 15, is the longest season in the United States and has a liberal, three-bird bag limit, Barnhill said.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.
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