To a Vermonter, anyone from below the Massachusetts line is a Southerner, and Southerners are suspect. A nasal New Jersey accent draws stares. A Deep South drawl will turn a Holstein's head and set most Vermonters wondering, "What is that he's talking?"
That is, most Vermonters. Turkey hunters are different.
Vermont turkey hunters revere Southerners, notably a select group of turkey-hunting greats whose calling and hunting abilities transcend their origins—men like Ben Rogers Lee of Coffeeville, Ala.; Rob Keck of Edgefield, S.C.; and Leroy Braumgardt of Moscow Mills, Mo. Vermont hunters are so in awe of these virtuosos of yelp, cackle, cluck and gobble that during spring turkey season, which lasts for 16 days, starting on the first Saturday in May, anyone who knows about kudzu vines, says "y'all" or orders pre-sweetened iced tea ("Fool Yankees think you can make cold tea sweet by pouring sugar in it. Heck, sugar just sinks to the bottom of the glass and sits there") commands respect.
For example: An inveterate local hunter discovered on the night before opening day that he would have to share the private land he planned to hunt. So at 3 a.m. the next day he parked his girl friend's car, which bore Mississippi plates, prominently near his cover.
Then he addressed an envelope to Ben Rogers Lee, the gobbling guru of turkey hunters, crumpled it and tossed it casually on the dashboard with that revered name clearly visible through the windshield—a move akin to leaving seven Wilson T-2000 rackets with " Jimmy Connors" stitched on their covers in a car next to the municipal courts. That hunter may not have mastered the fly-down cackle on his 3-D diaphragm mouth call, but he has acquired a knack for intimidation, which is as much a part of turkey hunting as camouflage clothing and friendly lies.
What draws the Southern apostles of the wild turkey to the land of unsweetened tea and leads Vermonters to sport license plates reading GOBBL and TURKY is a new but astonishingly successful turkey-management program that is producing an abundance of large, sassy birds in the southern half of the state. "There hadn't been a wild turkey seen in Vermont since the 1850s," says Jeff Wallin, the state turkey biologist who spends the three weekends of the season running a checking station in Pawlet from the tailgate of his truck. "The birds weren't hunted out; their habitat was destroyed. Eighty percent of the forests were cleared for farmland, and the turkeys didn't have cover or food. Today, many of the farms have been abandoned and are overgrown with cover.
"In 1969 we released 17 New York birds over on that ridge." He points to a beech-covered hill half a mile away. "The next year we trapped another 14 birds in New York and let them go up in Hubbardton. Then the birds just did their thing."
Their thing was to reproduce so successfully that by 1973 the population was estimated at 600 birds. That spring, 579 hunting permits were issued by lottery for a 12-day season, gobblers, or males, only. Twenty-three turkeys were shot. The average weight of adult birds—turkeys older than a year—was 20.3 pounds, Goliaths by turkey standards.
"Last spring, we conservatively estimated the population to be between 6,000 and 8,000 birds," says Wallin. "And that's about what it is today, close to the carrying capacity of the land down here. Turkeys won't overpopulate like deer, but they're extending their range. They're farther north now than they were historically. They cover a lot of ground, and they eat almost anything, so they're very adaptable.
"They're getting smarter, too. The success rate for the '73 season was 4%. Last year it was 2.3%—we issued 9,219 permits and checked in 210 birds. More birds are taken in the fall season [when either sex may be hunted], but the population is so strong now that we've started live-trapping birds to ship out to other states—New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire. Last year we even flew 15 birds to West Germany."