March 20, 2014
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When a morning in turkey woods in Alabama can impress one of the most experienced hunters in the world, it speaks a great deal about what the state has to offer in natural resources.
Dr. James Earl Kennamer of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) joined about 70 other hunters for the revival of the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt after a six-year hiatus.
Headquartered at the Marriott Legends in Prattville, the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt paired industry and business executives, celebrities and outdoors media with gracious landowners and some of the top guides in the state for the two-day event.
Kennamer, NWTF’s Chief Conservation Officer for more than 30 years, went to Shenandoah Plantation with Tom Lanier and guide Robert Moorer. Although Kennamer has hunted turkeys all over North America, he said the hunt at Shenandoah ranked right up with the best.
“This morning was absolutely unbelievable,” Kennamer said. “It was like what you hear when you call the NWTF and get put on hold. There were at least a dozen gobblers. They were gobbling on the roost. They flew down and were fighting. The one I killed was one of the two satellite birds off to one side.
“It was as good a morning as you ever hope to have in the woods, and I’ve been in the turkey woods a long, long time. I killed my first turkey 52 years ago. This is as good as it gets. This hunt was in the top five of any hunt I’ve been able to be a part of.”
While Kennamer added another top experience to his turkey history, one hunter started his turkey career at the event and came away with the winner’s cup.
Gabe Thornton of Academy Sports + Outdoors, one of the hunt’s sponsors since its inception, went with Dan Moultrie, Hunt Chairman. Thornton had never hunted turkeys before. Was he in for a treat on the property where four of the past winning gobblers in the Governor’s Hunt were taken.
“By the time we got to where we were going to hunt, we started hearing the birds,” Thornton said. “There was one gobbler in particular that was fairly close to us. Dan did a good job of calling and got him to gobble at us. Then it started raining a little, and the gobblers went to a field. We thought we might lose him, but the rain settled down a little. Dan called in four hens off a hill. We didn’t hear a gobble for about an hour.
“We decided to be patient, and Dan decided to let the hens do the work for us. They hung around us for about 45 minutes. Then comes this big drumming sound from behind us. I couldn’t see, but it sounded like a sub-woofer in a car, a big 18-inch sub-woofer.”
Thornton knew the gobbler was very close, but he still couldn’t see the bird. Moultrie had the bird spotted and watched as Thornton struggled to keep the shotgun in position to shoot.
“My arm started shaking from holding the gun up so long,” Thornton said. “Finally, I see the bird slowly rounding the corner. He comes out from behind some trees. I could hear my heart beating. There was a lot of pressure. Dan is telling me to be still and not move.”
Then the gobbler got distracted by the live hens and started walking toward the females.
“Dan told me that if he started to walk away he would whistle to get him to stick his head up,” Thornton said. “Dan whistled and the bird stopped and stuck his neck up to look. I shot and he dropped. There was a lot of high-fiving going on after that.
“It took me a good 45 minutes after the shot to quit shaking. Dan was fired up, too. It was a great experience.”
Thornton’s bird weighed 23.6 pounds, sported a 10 3/8-inch beard with spurs of 1 3/8 and 1 1/4 inches for a total score (NWTF system) of 70.6 points, the second-largest bird taken in the history of the hunt.
“From listening last week, we knew there were turkeys in the area,” Moultrie said. “We got lucky. That’s a great turkey Gabe killed. He got excited, but I may have been as excited as he was. When the turkey came in strutting, he’d never seen a turkey strutting before. I told him if the bird was in strut that I would whistle and get him to drop (his fan) down. When I whistled, the turkey stuck his neck up and Gabe made a great shot, about 35 yards. This is a great turkey. The biggest ever turned in at this event was 73 points, so this is a great turkey.”
Thornton wasn’t the only hunter to bag his first bird at the Governor’s Hunt. However, Robert DeWitt’s tale is one of perseverance. DeWitt, the outdoor writer at the Tuscaloosa News, had hunted every Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt and had never shot a bird.
The final morning of the hunt changed all that. DeWitt, hunting with Chris Schnarr at Joe Whitt’s farm near Union Springs, said the inclement weather on the first day made hunting tough, so his hunting partners were scrambling to find a willing bird on Wednesday.
“Chris finally got a bird to gobble after we had moved,” said DeWitt, whose bird finished runner-up at 64 points. “I was in a blind and Chris was outside. The bird started coming in from my right. I’m right-handed, so I had to turn around to try to get my gun around.
“He finally walked around enough to where I could finally see him. All I could see was his head and neck between two trees, but that’s all you need.”
N. Gunter Guy Jr., Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said it took a great deal of work by a dedicated group of volunteers on the various committees to get the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt on track again.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way the event came off after a six-year hiatus,” Guy said. “But it’s all the people who make it happen. Everybody seems to have been excited about it. Everybody tells me they’re happy we brought the event back.”
Gov. Robert Bentley, who welcomed the hunters and business leaders to Alabama at the start of the hunt, said one of the main purposes of the hunt is to expose potential industry and business entities to the hospitality and favorable economic climate of the state.
“This turkey hunt is a great economic development tool because it allows people to experience the great state of Alabama in a way that would never be seen in a corporate board room,” Gov. Bentley said. “The hunt also allows us to develop great relationships with companies that are interested in Alabama.”
The hunt is financed by donations and sponsorships through the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation. Proceeds from the event go to scholarships at Auburn University and the University of Alabama, as well as funding Alabama youth hunts and the Hunters Helping the Hungry, Archery in the Schools and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman programs.
Sponsorships for the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt went fast, according to the Commissioner.
“I hope that’s an indication that the economy is doing better,” Guy said. “We had some great industry and business folks here, including Remington, which just announced an expansion into Alabama. We had representatives from Academy Sports and Outdoors and PRADCO. Every one of them I talked to was excited about the event, and I haven’t seen anybody who didn’t have a smile on their face and didn’t have a good time. We had a great two days. We could have had a little better weather, but I’m very pleased with the way it turned out.”
PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) Gabe Thornton, left, and Dan Moultrie, Hunt Chairman for the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt, display the winning turkey taken during the 2014 hunt that recently was held in central Alabama. The turkey’s spurs measured 1 3/8 and 1 1/4 inches. James Earl Kennamer, bottom photo center, who has taken turkeys all over North America, rated his hunt at Shenandoah Plantation near Union Springs among the top five in his storied career. Shenandoah owner Tom Lanier, right, and guide Robert Moorer join in Kennamer’s celebration.