By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
The first time I sat at the base of a broad oak and listened for turkeys walking through the woods, I was taken in spirit back to my Boy Scouting days, and not because of the beauty of the trees or the grandeur of the scene, but for opposite reasons.
When I was growing up, nobody I knew was a turkey hunter, mainly because turkeys didn’t exist in many places my mentors had access to hunt and, besides, they were fishing specialists anyway. As it was, the first spring turkey hunt I had an opportunity to witness began on the first day I went to work for Mossy Oak, 11 years ago next month.
My first day on the job found me headed to Giles Island, near Natchez where I was to help entertain some industry partners while I learned the ropes of my new profession.
Giles Island lies just off the east side of the Mississippi River south of Natchez and spans roughly 9,000 acres. It’s a fantastic spot for deer, turkeys, mosquitoes and all sorts of other critters. Like any professional operation, they have guides for every hunting party. I arrived at mid-afternoon, said hello to everyone, then we hit the woods in two-man teams to hunt, but primarily to listen for turkeys, mainly with the intent of finding where birds might be roosting overnight, the better to know where to begin the next morning.
Turkeys in the Deep South, I’ve since learned, don’t gobble much in the afternoons, and especially not early in the season as this was. We were primarily hoping to hear the big birds flying up into a tree at sundown. The guide I was with called every great long once in a while, if only to break the monotony. The woods were silent for a long time, then we began to hear a rustling in the leaves down the hill. Maybe a deer. Maybe a raccoon. Maybe an armadillo. Nope. Skunk.
Not coming to the calls, just waddling along in our general direction, getting closer to us all the time.
Early in my formative years, I had some very close encounters with skunks while on a Boy Scout camping trip in the Smokey Mountains, the most outstanding of which involved a skunk walking up from behind me and putting its nose into the plate of spaghetti I was eating while seated on a concrete slab in the campground. In that case, I left my plastic fork standing upright in the noodles, eased away and left the skunk to his dinner without getting sprayed.
This encounter was shaping up differently, though. This skunk didn’t know we were there and, by the time it occurred to us to just get up and ease away, he was way too close to risk startling. I was holding a loaded shotgun but, being new to all this, wasn’t sure whether shooting a skunk on a turkey hunt constituted some major breach of etiquette. As I was steeling my nerves to let the skunk, which was inside 10 yards now, walk across my leg, the guide let out a groan and kicked at a fallen branch that extended almost to where the skunk stood. Never before or since have I had to resist such a powerful urge to turn wrongside out and run for cover. As it was, the skunk bowed up momentarily, froze for several long seconds, then angled off slightly and left us unsprayed, passing on the downhill side.
Ten minutes later, when we caught our breath, I asked the guide if I should have shot the skunk when he was at 25 yards and, barring that, what we should have done differently.
“I don’t know,” he said, which, while not instructive, at least made it unanimous. A decade later, I don’t either.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak Brand Camo in West Point.