By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Although the outdoors had been a great part of his life, at age 47, Henri Billiot had never even heard a wild turkey gobble, much less hunted one. In fact, it took a disaster of epic proportions to provide the impetus for the Louisiana native to join in the grand tradition of the spring turkey season in Alabama – a storm called Katrina that left him with practically nothing.
Billiot lived in Saint Bernard Parish just outside New Orleans when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama. Saint Bernard Parish was among the hardest hit areas and basically remains uninhabited.
Billiot explained how he ended up in west central Alabama in his notable “sout Luziana” vernacular. Basically, the letter “h” is mostly missing in his speech. Therefore, one must determine perspective when he says “tree” to understand whether he means the woody plant that populates forests or the numeral that comes after two.
“I happened to be at deer camp in Choctaw County (Alabama) when Katrina was coming,” Billiot said. “Once Katrina came through, it took everything – guns, clothes, everything. It was all under 12 feet of water. The only clothes I had was some camouflage at the camp and a pair of warm-up pants. That’s all I had to my name.”
Billiot’s father spent three days in a boat next to his home during Katrina, but managed to survive.
The younger Billiot had been a commercial fisherman for seven years before he developed a severe allergic reaction to finfish. Shrimp, crawfish and oysters are fine, but anything with fins sends him into anaphylactic shock. Billiot left the boat and went to work for an ice company. He delivered ice seven days a week during the spring and summer to have enough time to hunt deer in the winter in Choctaw County, where he made numerous friends who relished his Cajun cooking.
With nothing left for him in Louisiana, Billiot went to work at The Shed Hunting Lodge for Larry Norton and Gray Mosley with one stipulation.
“Larry Norton told me if I was going to be a guide, I’d have to learn to call a turkey,” Billiot said. “I told him all you had to do was go to Piggly Wiggly and get a big Butterball. He laughed and broke out a little slate call that he made. Larry and Terry Rohm (both former champion turkey callers) sat there on the porch and showed me a couple of basic calls. Larry said that was all I needed to do. He said he would put me with different people and I could pick up certain techniques from different people. That way, you put your own style together.”
During his first turkey season in 2006, Billiot was handed a mouth diaphragm call to further his turkey-hunting development.
“They told me to stick it my ‘mout’ and try to blow some air through it,” he said. “They told me I might gag and choke a little bit but to stick with it. I wasn’t too sporty that first year. Then they gave me a crow call and owl call for locators. The crow wasn’t too bad, but the owl sounded a little sickening in the beginning.
“See, I’d never heard a turkey gobble, so when they said they heard a gobble over there, I’d look at them, like I didn’t hear ‘nuttin.’ Finally, my ears started tuning in for that certain sound. I finally got to sit down to my first bird with my friend (the late) James Vice. We worked and worked that bird, but the bird won the first round.”
Several hunts followed before there was a gobbler in gun range. Billiot was hunting with a client from Mobile when three turkeys started gobbling on the roost. As they were crossing a creek, the birds flew down into a green field.
“I told him they were in the green field and we started calling,” Billiot said. “I told him I could hear them coming through the briars. He couldn’t see them. I got my gun up and the first one popped up right in front of me. I shot him and he rolled down the hill. When I shot, one of the other birds pitched up and he got that one. That was my first bird. That was my first year.”
Then Billiot had his first encounter with a “bad” turkey, one that leaves many a turkey hunter with less sleep at night and sometimes borders on obsession.
“I played with this bird for 10 straight days,” he said. “I’d crow and he’d gobble. It was near the end of season. I told Larry, ‘I got him.’ I made a blind and took a decoy. I knew I had him. I waited until he gobbled on his own and started doing some tree yelps. I knew he was just going to fly down right in front of me. But he flew over my head into another pine tree, looked at the decoy and then turned and flew the other way. He didn’t gobble again that day.
“Then the next-to-last day of the season, it had rained the night before so I went and sat up in some bushes on the edge of the clear-cut. I saw his four hens out there and I said, ‘uh-huh, he’s close.’ I just did a little purring and a yelped a few times. The hens were easing off and all of a sudden, he popped out at 30 yards. I said, ‘You just made a mistake,’ and I rolled him. That was my first bird by myself. Now I’m addicted.”
Each year, experience adds to Billiot’s repertoire and understanding of turkey behavior. His familiarity with the terrain and habits of particular turkeys has increased his success each year. In fact, last year, Billiot’s knowledge allowed me to bag a bird. He knew how one bird liked to gobble but would always circle him at 50 to 75 yards. When the bird gobbled at his friction call, I raced 50 yards up the logging road and sat down by a small pine tree. About five minutes later, the turkey gobbled just as he stepped out into the logging road in front of the bead on my shotgun. If we had stuck together, I wouldn’t have had a shot.
Norton, who had hunted west central Alabama all his life, has been impressed with the strides Billiot has made in the turkey woods.
“Henri’s done really well and the main reason is he’s persistent,” Norton said. “I’ve seen lot of guys who said they wanted to be good turkey hunters, but Henri is one of the guys who stayed after it. Anything to do with hunting, he wants to be good at it. I put him with people with different styles that he could learn from – Terry Sullivan, Terry Rohm, Roland Tyson. The reason he’s come along so fast and is doing so well is he’s a very good listener and he pays attention to detail.
“He’s watched a ton of videos and asked questions on why they did this or why they didn’t do that. He’s pretty much got the calling part down. Now he’s learning that killing turkeys ain’t all about calling. It’s where to set up, how much to call, when to call, how to raise a turkey in the morning. Again, the main thing is he’s persistent. The guy who stays out there the most hours is going to kill the most turkeys.”
(PHOTOS) by David Rainer
Henri Billiot, right, and Terry Sullivan of Jemison teamed up to bag this Choctaw County gobbler recently. Billiot has become a die-hard turkey hunter in the five years since Hurricane Katrina washed away his existence in Louisiana.