61 Notches

For one family, turkey hunting is more than a hobby — it’s a legacy filled with life lessons that has carried through the generations.

“I do not hunt turkeys because I want to, I hunt them because I have to.
I would, really, rather not. I am helpless in the grip of my compulsion.”
– Tom Kelly, “Tenth Legion”  

I am, admittedly, not a turkey hunter, though I feel as if turkeys always find me sitting in a deer stand while hunting at my family’s camp in Stockton. I have, however, found myself fascinated by others who spend countless hours hunting, calling and tracking the elusive eastern wild turkey. According to my friend Harris Oppenheimer, “Turkey hunting is not a hobby. You have to be somewhat of a glutton for punishment.” His father, William, agrees. “It’s not a very relaxing way to spend your Saturday.”

Part of this owes to the fact that Southern Alabama, specifically along the banks of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, has the distinction of being one of the most difficult environments in which to successfully hunt turkey. Visibility is severely limited by trees, underbrush and the terrain. Over time, the turkeys have learned how to avoid hunters, having been hunted for generations in the area. A good turkey hunter relies on his abilities to call a turkey in close and remain still and quiet, acting quickly when the time comes. Once it sees you, you better have already pulled the trigger or the bird will be gone. While this is a common process, there is no set formula to being a successful turkey hunter — you have to go out over and over again, trying different tactics, utilizing different calls and hunting different areas. 

Harris, Harris Jr. and William Oppenheimer photographed at Applewhite Place in March 2019 after Harris Jr.’s first kill.

The Journey Begins

As I sit with three generations of turkey hunters in William’s living room, surrounded by notched shotguns, various turkey calls and mountains of pictures, I quickly realize that this is a major way of life in their family. Strangely enough, William’s father was not a huge turkey hunter, with only a few kills throughout his lifetime. William’s journey began as a teenager, hunting with his mentor Dr. Robert O. “Bobby” Harris III in the woods around Clarke County. He shot his first turkey in the late 1960s using his grandfather’s Winchester Model 12 — a 16-gauge pump shotgun. His grandfather, Dr. Ward B. Hirleman, had notched 58 of his turkey kills into the stock of the Model 12, and William promptly added a 59th notch to memorialize his first kill. William decided to put that shotgun away for the next generation of turkey hunters and began using a Browning pump shotgun that was a gift from his wife. He ultimately retired it upon receiving a Beretta double barrel 12-gauge from the family of his late best friend and turkey-hunting accomplice, Nick Holmes III. It was 30 years before another notch was added to the Model 12.

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William’s son Harris was named in honor of William’s hunting mentor, Dr. Bobby Harris. William and Harris had their first successful turkey hunt together in the spring of 1989, but it was not until the final day of the 1998 spring season that the stars aligned, and Harris harvested his first turkey. After deftly maneuvering around a field near the Alabama River at their hunting club, Kidd Graveyard, in Monroe County, five gobblers appeared in a single-file line. Harris aimed and shot his great-grandfather’s Model 12 to take down his first turkey. William, thinking Harris had missed, shot one of the fleeing gobblers. When the smoke cleared, William realized they had both made successful shots. The old Model 12 had earned an additional notch to rest alongside the other 59. It was time to re-retire the Model 12 — but that wouldn’t last for long.

Continuing the Tradition

As a fifth-generation turkey hunter, it seems that Harris Jr. was destined to follow in his family’s footsteps. After a few years of turkey hunting without his own weapon, it was time to take the old Model 12 out of retirement for Harris Jr.’s first turkey. During a late weekend in March of 2019, three generations of Oppenheimer men traveled to Applewhite Place just outside of Augusta, Georgia, which was founded by William’s family back in 1825. During their hunt on the first day, the turkeys were too far away for Harris Jr. to hit with the Model 12, forcing his father to take the shot, which only stoked the flames of Harris Jr.’s desire to harvest a turkey himself.

Fortunately, on the way back to the cabin later that afternoon, right before dark, they saw multiple turkeys out in a field. With this new intel, Harris and his son spent the night nearby. Early the next morning, they sat themselves up near the field just before daybreak — it didn’t take long for the turkeys to start gobbling. Just as Harris was able to get eyes on two turkeys about 50 yards out, the turkeys started running toward the hunters. Harris, Jr. waited, waited, waited, while his dad began to whisper-shout, “Shoot, shoot, shoot!” Once the turkeys got within 11 steps of the younger Harris, he finally pulled the trigger. BOOM! Notch 61 was added to the old Model 12 and it was promptly re-retired for the next generation.   

A Lesson in Patience

Back in William’s living room, I’m enthralled with the tales of how each one bagged their first turkey. “It’s an overwhelming sensation — as soon as you kill one turkey, you’re ready to go back out again,” says Harris. I notice Harris Jr. sitting on the couch quietly, so I lean over to ask what the most important thing he has learned while turkey hunting. “Patience,” he says, “It can be nerve-racking, but it’s fun once you are finally able to kill the turkey. I just love the thrill of going out there.” His grandfather adds, “Patience kills more turkeys than anything else. Patience in waiting for them to come in, patience to sit still, patience in all aspects.” 

Patience — something I believe we can all learn from, even if we aren’t hunters.

Patrick Byrne is a Sewanee English major disguised as an engineering and construction professional, who also enjoys spending time outdoors.

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