It’s what might be called a rite of passage for Georgia hunters. Turkey season opened this past weekend in what could be likened to that of a five-year-old on Christmas Day. They couldn’t wait! This big-game fowl attracts almost as many hunting enthusiasts around the Morgan County area as does deer hunting. The big difference here is that instead of waiting for that 10-point trophy buck to come striding into gunshot range of your stand, this prey is called in to within range of the marksman looking for a trophy gobbler.
When looking around Morgan County for some of the best turkey hunters available, it became obvious that Jack Knight of Rutledge would be a good choice to learn the intricacies of enhancing a big bird to the table. Knight has been hunting turkey in the area since his youth, and is now passing on his life-long experiences and passion for the sport to his son, Luke.
When I say passion, I mean sho-nuff unadulterated love for chasing this native bird. In conversation with these two hunters, the excitement of reliving some of their best kills was obvious. They became animated, loud, and extremely high-strung when recounting those days when trophy gobblers were called in for the kill.
According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, the season officially opened on March 24 and will extend through May 15, 2018. However, an early special opportunity season for youth and mobility impaired persons was available on private land only during the weekend of March 17. Many, including the Knight family, took advantage of this early season to give their children a shot at getting an opportunity to grab a gobbler. Luke got a big bird during the weekend (see photo). Georgia’s statewide turkey regulations include a three gobbler maximum that includes the special opportunity season.
Knight, 47, talked about some of his earliest experiences chasing turkeys with these comments, “I really didn’t have anybody first hand to mentor me when I started hunting them in the mid-80’s before I even had a driver’s license. There were some people I looked up to like Steve Parker and his Dad. They’d been hunting since the 60’s, I guess, and knew more about the sport than most people in Morgan County at the time. I learned from listening to them and just being a sponge around other guys at Centennial Baptist that were taking up hunting them. Experience is the best teacher so that’s how I learned a lot of what I know today.”
The father-son team has been stalking this big-game bird since Luke was seven. In that first year with his Dad, the little guy didn’t even take a gun. Each successive year has seen him grow into the hunter he is today. He said, “I heard my first turkey that year just sitting with Dad and started carrying a gun a little the next year. I had a few screw-ups before I killed my first jake at nine.” For those of you like a few sportswriters in Morgan County, a jake is a one-year-old immature gobbler (male) with a beard usually less than 6” and only weighing about 12-15 pounds. He continued, “A few days later I killed my first longbeard and it was a good one. It weighed 19.5 pounds, had 1 and 3/16 inch spurs, and a 10 inch beard. Later in that first season I got my limit at nine years old.”
When asked why they are so passionate about the sport, Mr. Knight said, “It’s not really about the kill for me. It’s the cat-and-mouse of it.” Luke said, “So much can happen out there. It requires a lot of strategy.”
The twosome explained how different the hunt is compared to deer hunting, which they also participate in. “You’re actually reversing the roles of nature. You have to coax him to come to you. Usually, the males are calling to the hens and the hens come to him. We’re imitating the calls of the hens to try and get the gobblers to come to us. They get confused and a little curious why this female is calling and come to investigate it. It’s a challenge. Even though turkeys have no sense of smell, I’ve read that their hearing is about three times better than humans and their sense of sight is over 10 times that of humans. So, it’s a test of your skills against his.” The elder Knight told us that above all else was his turkey call, a well-worn Wingbone Gold with electrical tape holding it together. “You couldn’t buy this from me for any amount of money. It’s more important than my shotgun.”
The Knights usually hunt on public land areas and said that they believe the populations are trending downward. Despite that fact, the duo had maybe their best year on record in 2017 with both limiting out on longbeards. Jack said, “The coyotes and loss of habitat are affecting the numbers of birds. Hens usually lay 12-18 eggs in a clutch, but the poults (newborns) are highly susceptible for the first two weeks before they can fly. Only about 10-20% of them survive to adulthood due to these environmental factors.”
Last season, the youngster got his “magnum” bird, a 22.5 pounder, while Pops killed one in 1990 that, at the time, was tied for the state record in spur length at 1 and ¾ inches. He laughed, “That record doesn’t’ even come close to today’s. There’s so much more awareness today of what a big bird really is. That, along with better food plots and collecting information on what makes the birds grow has a lot to do with it too.”
Today, little Luke has grown out of his original shotgun, a Remington pump 20 gauge 870 youth model. He now totes a 12 gauge Franchi Affinity automatic that sports a Bushnell Red Dot scope. He claims he’s batting a thousand since receiving it on Christmas of 2016. He laughed when he bragged, “Since then, I’ve got a 100 percent kill ratio.” The first weekend of the season for youth, Luke bagged his first bird of the season, making it 14 total for this young man over his career.
He told us his perfect career path would include going to the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship as the starting second baseman for the Dogs (currently he is the starting second baseman for the MCHS JV Dogs). If that doesn’t work out, the A student plans on pursuing his outdoor passion by getting a degree in Wildlife Resources and Management. He said, “Outdoors is where I want to be. I can’t see myself sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life.” Neither can we Luke. Neither can we.