Turkey Hunting Crosses Political Aisles
Bob McNally 03.30.16
In this season of strong political discontent, perhaps the best location for discovering common ground for some American statesmen is not in marble mansions, state or national capitals, or among courthouse barristers.
Perhaps the best place to foster harmony among varied political personalities with dedicated agendas is in the Great Outdoors.
More specifically, at daybreak in the turkey woods.
Stay with me here. I’m serious.
To understand this line of reasoning, it’s important to know that America’s millions of turkey hunters are a vastly different outdoor breed. They are a sharp-focused lot, not easily detoured from their pursuit of long beards and tall turkey necks.
They hunt bleary-eyed from before dawn to after dark. They walk miles upon miles to yelp at a few distant toms in hopes of hearing a gobbling bird and claiming a wide tail fan.
They grow leg and foot weary from hunting, but never tire of their sport. They are dedicated to their passion like few other outdoorsmen. Even other enthusiastic hunters and anglers not bitten by the turkey bug scratch their heads in wonder at the unending obsession of gobbler fanatics.
Because turkey hunters embrace a kind of band-of-brothers camaraderie, their group commonly transcends political passions that otherwise might cause swords to be crossed among people of differing views.
Republicans, democrats, and independents who chase gobblers are simply turkey hunters–not political gadflies. Biased opinions on far-reaching and controversial legislation in a government house quickly become good fellowship in turkey timber.
This is what Rob Keck, former CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation for 30 years, says about prominent turkey hunting politicians he has known.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate through my turkey hunting to have met a lot of remarkable men,” says Keck. “One of them was the late Florida Governor and U.S. Senator from Florida, Lawton Chiles.
“Lawton was as hard-core a turkey hunter as I’ve ever known and was great hunting friends with former U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker (under first President Bush), who’s a lifetime turkey hunter from Texas and a staunch republican. Lawton, of course, was a democrat, but it didn’t matter to him or Jim Baker because their passion and dedication to turkey hunting transcended party lines, and they hunted together at every opportunity and talked turkey hunting all the time.”
Lawton was such a fiercely devoted turkey hunter that he told Keck he hunted every single day of Florida’s spring season. He was governor, and living in Tallahassee, and there was a lot of good hunting near where he lived. He drove his secret service body guards crazy, however, because he was always trying to lose them when he’d go turkey hunting for a morning, which is best with only a single person in the woods.
Chiles was up long before daylight, back about mid-morning, taking a nap, and then doing his governor duties. He called Keck during that season and said the press was really hounding him because he wasn’t very available to them, and he said they were reporting he was looking tired and sickly.
“Heck,” said Lawton, according to Keck. “It’s turkey season. I’m up every morning at 4 a.m. and not back much before noon. When will those guys ever understand? It’s gobbler season for goodness sake, and I’m worn out from hunting so hard!”
One summer day Keck was with his daughter visiting colleges for her upcoming admission that fall, and his cell phone rang. It was Governor Chiles. He wanted to know if Rob was as depressed as he was that spring turkey hunting season was over, and he’d have to wait most of a year for it to come around again.
“He’d get me on the phone sometimes just to have me hear a new turkey call he was trying out and wanted to know what I thought of it,” Keck remembers with a slight laugh. “Lawton would come to our big annual NWTF convention and show up wearing a camo jacket and a weathered hunting hat that made him look like Jed Clampett. He’d just wander around the booths talking to hunters and call manufacturers, and loving every minute being around turkey hunters with his same passion for the sport.
“You’d never know this man was the governor of Florida. Then and there, he was just another turkey hunter living for his outdoor passion.”
Keck says Chiles had a friendly competition with then Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska (now ex-U.S. Senator Nelson). Florida or Florida State always seemed to play football against Nebraska late in the season, and the governors had a standing bet for the big game. The governor from the losing state school would have to host the winner on a great spring turkey hunt in their home state.
Lawton wanted to be the first governor to get a grand slam for all four major North American turkey species, Keck recalls. Rob helped set up a successful Merriam’s turkey hunt for Lawton and his son Ed Chiles. Lawton got his Merriam’s, and his turkey grand slam, and called Governor Nelson to brag a little.
But Nelson told Lawton, that not only did he, Nelson, already have his four bird slam, but that spring Nelson also had just taken a Gould’s in Mexico–yet a fifth turkey species.
“Lawton couldn’t believe it, and he called me and started making plans to get his Gould’s turkey and also his ocellated turkey,” Keck remembers. “But unfortunately, Lawton passed away before he could make those hunts.
“I don’t think anyone epitomized the passion and love for turkey hunting better than Lawton Chiles. He showed that turkey hunting was a common element that cut through all politics, race, and the hustle and bustle of modern living. Through turkey hunting Lawton was a passionate brother with millions of other sportsmen wherever they lived.
“Everyone who hunts the great birds understands that.”