Georgia's spring turkey season has been memorable for some - and traumatic for others.
A Department of Natural Resources ranger remains hospitalized with critical wounds from a shotgun blast; the hunter who shot him awaits a grand jury's decision on criminal charges.
Cpl. Leon Tucker, a 21-year DNR veteran, joined two other law enforcement rangers the morning of March 24 - opening day of turkey season - to check an area in Lowndes County where illegal bait had been discovered.
The officers noticed a decoy on a logging road, and Tucker approached the area where the hunter likely was hidden. Moments later, a shot was fired and Tucker's colleagues heard the officer screaming in pain.
The shooter, 42-year-old Winsel Thomas Love, had fired a load of three-inch magnum No. 5 shot into the officer's thighs and groin from about 50 feet away.
The dense cloud of lead ripped away flesh and obliterated portions of the femoral arteries in both of Tucker's legs. Bleeding was extensive. Shock set in quickly.
Tucker's colleagues feared he would die.
"This has been quite an ordeal for him and for his family," said DNR Capt. Howard Hensley. "But he's been a champ through all of this."
Surgeons have been working constantly to repair the damage from the shotgun blast, even rebuilding portions of Tucker's femoral arteries. The prospects for recovery are promising, but it will take time.
"He's supposed to begin rehabilitation on Monday," Capt. Hensley said.
The shooter, meanwhile, awaits possible criminal charges in the case.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the DNR Critical Investigation Reconstruction Team reconstructed and mapped out the accident as part of their report to the district attorney and grand jury, Capt. Hensley said.
The case is scheduled for presentation to grand jurors later this month. Possible charges that could evolve from the incident include felony misuse of a firearm, Capt. Hensley said.
The incident, by the way, marks a major - although unwanted - milestone for Georgia's DNR law enforcement section. Until this year, no officer ever was shot in the line of duty.
Col. Ron Bailey, chief of DNR's law enforcement section, said all rangers undergo extensive training designed to avoid such unfortunate incidents.
"Their training teaches them how to react to difficult situations," he said. "And all of our officers involved in this incident were following the usual procedures and taking the proper precautions."
The shooting is the only accident reported so far during the spring turkey season, which runs through May 15 and typically attracts more than 80,000 hunters.
During the past eight years, only 12 other turkey hunting accidents have been reported, and none were fatal.
Hunting accidents statewide during the 2000-2001 season numbered 56 - including the recent tragedy. That figure represents a decline of almost 30 percent from the 84 accidents reported during the 1999-2000 season.
GATOR HUNTING, ANYONE?
South Carolina is one of few states with a legal alligator hunting season, and landowners wishing to participate in this year's harvest have until May 1 to enroll.
The unusual hunting involves the use of snatch hooks and baited snares and is allowed only in seven coastal counties.
During last year's season, Berkeley County's harvest of 60 gators was the largest, followed by Colleton with 39 gators, according to Walt Rhodes, South Carolina DNR's alligator project supervisor.
The harvested gators averaged 7 feet, 1 inch long, with the largest being 11 feet, 8 inches, he said. A total of 1,268 pounds of meat was harvested, with a value of $6,500.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.