The distance was too great to hear the shot, but thanks to cell phone magic I knew Mark had gotten a good gobbler. We were hunting on friend Zack Aultman’s place in South Georgia. At dawn, Billy Myers and I heard several gobblers, but they’d gone deadly quiet early. Getting Mark onto a turkey was kind of a big deal, long in the planning. So, with absolutely nothing happening in our section of woods, Billy and I broke contact early and headed back to the house so we could hear the story.
I was glad we did. Usually articulate, glib and always enthusiastic, Mark was a gibbering idiot, so excited his hands were still shaking. He and ace turkey caller Dow Kirkpatrick had set up in the middle of roosted gobblers. For the first hour of daylight the turkeys had put on a proper show, audio and visual. When the shot came, they had two big gobblers racing to the decoy, too close together to shoot, too similar in size to know which one to take. At the last second, they separated and the bird that appeared to be larger offered a clean shot.
Mark’s wife, Laurette, had hit the “record video” button, so I got a good look at the second gobbler, very mature with a long, thick beard. I’m not totally certain which was the bigger of the two, but Mark’s gobbler was a big-bodied, fully mature Eastern wild turkey, long beard and long, needle-sharp spurs. Not a bad first turkey!
Mark is Mark Haldane, veteran African PH, outfitting in coastal Mozambique’s Coutada 11 for 25 years, with extensive experience throughout Southern and East Africa and as far-flung as Cameroon and Ethiopia. So, here you have a seasoned and successful professional hunter, focusing much of the year on African dangerous game, reduced to a babbling bowl of Jell-O by his first encounter with an American wild turkey!
There’s more to the story than that. I’ve hunted with Mark Haldane almost annually for 15 years, mostly in Mozambique. No idea how many buffalo we’ve been in on together, for me, Donna, Brittany, son-in-law Brad, many other hunters. Even with decades of experience, Haldane is not one of the guys approaching burnout, for whom hunting has become just a job. He loves it, excitement and enthusiasm never flagging. Always calm and steadying, Mark is a thinking PH who tempers speed and aggression when called for with caution and patience.
For years now, he’s been saying that one of his few hunting dreams has been to hunt an American wild turkey, properly with all the calling and tactics he’s read so much about. If he could just get to the States during our spring gobbler season! In his business, in normal years that’s nearly impossible. Late winter is convention and marketing season, he’s been coming to the States annually in January and February for 29 years. The American spring, late March through May, when the gobblers are strutting, is the beginning of safari season, no time for play.
Then came the pandemic, not exactly a “normal” year. Almost no hunting in ’20…and no conventions in early ’21. Mark advised me he was coming to the States for marketing in mid-April, so I got to thinking. PHs are, after all, also hunters and it’s cool that a guy who hunts the stuff we all dream of—for a living—has his own hunting dreams. Surely, in April, a turkey hunt shouldn’t be such a tall order.
However, it wasn’t exactly a take-out order. I like to hunt turkeys and collectively, I’ve done a lot of it. The excitement is incredible when a big gobbler comes in gobbling and displaying. But, with apologies to my friends who are serious turkey hunters, I never caught the major passion for it. As a result, I’m (at best) a mediocre turkey hunter and sub-par as a turkey caller.
Usually, I’ve got enough birds on the Kansas place that I can scratch out a gobbler for myself, maybe a spare, with a minimal degree of competence. However, after multiple too-wet springs with poor nesting, our birds are so far down that I wouldn’t take a chance on a guy coming all the way from Africa to hunt my turkeys.
Time to ask for help. A few years ago, my friend Zack Aultman, his wife Debi and Donna and I shared a wonderful safari in Haldane’s camp in Mozambique. Zack has a pine plantation in Georgia. There’s never a sure thing for the wary Eastern wild turkeys, but Zack’s place is at least as good as any place I’ve ever seen. Weather is a huge factor in all turkey hunting and southern Georgia is almost tropical. Gobbling starts early and the season opens in late March.
Zack and Debi said, “Y’all come on down!” Awesome, but Mark and Laurette couldn’t get there until April 17. From the start, I was bit worried that we might be a bit late, finding the gobblers with hens. Or, maybe it would already be blistering hot, or pouring rain. Well, nobody can guarantee an Eastern gobbler, especially on a short hunt. All we could do was try. As a bonus, that area has a “feral hog problem” that always needs some solving, so I knew we’d have fun and just maybe Mark could get a gobbler.
In the event, the weather was perfect, mild and pleasant, no rain and little wind. We rallied at the Atlanta airport, Mark, Laurette, Donna and me, and headed south to descend upon Zack and Debi, stopping at Wal-Mart along the way so Mark could purchase his hunting license.
Donna and I inflict ourselves upon the beleaguered Aultmans every now and then, whether for fall whitetails or spring turkey season, so I know the system. Georgia has one of the best “on-line” licensing programs in the country, simple and fast. I wasn’t sure how it worked with a hunter from elsewhere, so decided to purchase over-the-counter, also simple and fast.
So it was that Mark got his long-dreamed of gobbler on the first morning. Yeah, per plan, maybe Zack stacked the deck just a wee bit. Among Zack’s buddies, Dow Kirkpatrick is rumored to be the best turkey caller. Donna hunted with Mark Shulte; I hunted with Billy Myers. I’ve hunted with all three, and they’re all damn good, so much better than me that I’m not entitled to an opinion. It can happen on any given day, or not. All three know the area well and had spots picked. Dow’s honey hole panned out and that was the outcome we all hoped for.
We all saw turkeys, but Haldane’s was the only gobbler in the short time we had. Not a problem, we’d put our African PH in primary position, and he came through like a champ. With his gobbler in the freezer, Mark and I both shot a couple of hogs in the evenings. That made it a darn good springtime outing, especially with Debi Aultman’s awesome southern-style cooking.
All too soon, we had to pack up and head back to Atlanta, so the Haldanes could get on with the serious business of selling safaris. It was springtime in America, and in the spring, hunters’ thoughts turn to turkeys. Texas was on their list of stops and just a few days later Mark sent me a picture with a good Rio Grande turkey. I’m just glad his first “bucket list” gobbler was an Eastern turkey, one of the tough ones.–Craig Boddington