There aren’t a lot of reasons why Ricky Blake would set his alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. on a crisp spring morning.
The opportunity to bag a gobbler, however, is an opportunity that excites the Conwayite enough to make him forego an extra hour or two of sleep.
“You have to get there before daylight,” Blake said. “If you know where they roosted the night before you can go ahead and set up. They like to roost over water. I’ve heard if they can hear their droppings they feel a lot safer.
“If you don’t know where they are, you can go to the area you know they frequent or have been seen and wait until just before daylight when the owls hoot and make the turkeys gobble.”
Blake’s hunting grounds is a 100-acre farm in the Lake Swamp community near Finklea that is owned by his wife, Pam, and other members of her family.
The land was purchased through a King’s grant, and once served as a meeting place where General Francis Marion and other American Revolutionary War officers met to strategize their campaign against the British occupation forces.
“The swamp around there used to be deep enough it was navigable and could be used to bring supplies to be used against the British,” Blake said.
The old home place on the property was donated to the Horry County Historical Society by Pam Blake’s aunt, Rebecca Johnson.
The farm itself has been designated a National Bicentennial Farm for belonging to the same family since the signing of the Constitution in 1787.
Bicentennial farm families were given certificates that say: 'In this, the 200th anniversary year of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is pleased to acknowledge the vital contribution of farm families to the growth and strength of this great nation.'
Families also received signs to display in front of their homes identifying them as National Bicentennial Farms.
Blake began hunting turkeys in the Lockhart community near Union with family members and friends.
“They had turkeys there long before Horry County ever had a turkey season,” Blake said. “They invited me when turkey hunting was just becoming popular with hunters, but others had been doing it for decades and just about wiped out the turkey population.”
According to Blake, turkeys were trapped in Union County as well as the Francis Marion National Forest and relocated to Horry County.
“It finally got populated enough we could have a season in Horry County,” he said. “Georgetown County started before we did and I started hunting at the Campfield Hunting Club at Plantersville. Years later, they opened a season in Horry County.”
In past years, turkey-hunting season was held during the month of April only. This year, the season runs from March 20 through May 5.
“They went from just a month to a longer period of time and now they think it’s too much,” Blake said. “They’re talking about adjusting it to less days.”
Hunters are currently limited to three gobblers per season, down from five in previous years. It is illegal to kill turkey hens.
According to Blake, the thrill is in the hunt.
“It’s finding them, figuring them out and calling them,” Blake said. “When you call a gobbler to you, it’s reversing nature because a gobbler gobbles to attract females. When you’re sitting out there and hear a gobbler, if he’s with a bunch of hens, you aren’t going to get him away from them. To hear that gobbling early in the morning sets you on fire.”
Killing a turkey is no easy task.
“They are so on alert,” he said. “If everything isn’t right, it can be difficult to hunt them. Other times, it seems like you can reel ‘em in on a fishing line. They can see so well and hear so well and they’re so skittish because of all the predators and everything. How they grow up can be what makes ‘em so hard to hunt.”
Wild turkeys are prey to a long list of predators including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, skunks, opossum, raccoons, snakes, hawks, owls, domestic dogs and humans.
“A small percentage of a clutch of eggs will hatch and reach maturity,” Blake said.
Blake uses a variety of calls to attract gobblers.
“All the different kinds of calls makes it interesting,” he said. “I started saving the wing bones and making calls out of them. That’s what the Indians did. There’s all kinds of calls. You can’t use electronic calls, that’s illegal.”
When it comes to being a successful turkey hunter, patience is a virtue.
“Patience kills turkeys,” Blake said. “You can’t move around a whole lot especially if you’re sitting on the ground. That’s why I started using a mobile popup line.”
According to Blake, wild turkey meat is different from domesticated birds.
“It’s a little bit tougher,” he said. “It can be stronger tasting. It’s like any other animal. It depends on what they’ve been eating, how they were kept after harvesting and how you cook ‘em.”
In addition to turkey hunting, Blake also enjoys hunting deer, other small game and squirrels, mainly to keep them out of his pecan trees.
His wife, who has killed a deer but not a turkey, accompanies him from time to time.
“I go when I can,” she said. “I like the nature, the stillness that you have to have, the anticipation of seeing what nature will do. Will it bring a turkey out and a deer out?”
Blake admits he’s far from an expert.
“I don’t claim to know everything about it,” he said. “I know enough to have fun and enjoy nature and lucky enough to get a turkey or two here and there. A lot of it is luck. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time and everything coming together.”