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Mountain Home Magazine

Talking Turkey

On Gobbler's Knob, Burt Cleveland lauds the longbeards.

Ten years ago: I had volunteered to host the annual spring conference for the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. At these gatherings of professional communicators, the fist day involves outdoor activities. In the northern tier of Penn’s Woods in May, the major outdoor activities are trout fishing and gobbler hunting (more on that momentarily).

Writers had the choice of trout angling via casting, spinning, or fly-fishing. Though I had secured a couple of guides, and provided directions, the escorts were gilding the lily. The fishing was self-guided. But, to add extra help, Sherwood Motel owner Bob Chesko posted the hatching flies on Pine Creek.

An amazing number of attendees opted for a rattlesnake hunt. My Main Line Philly friend, Tom Tatum, got all excited when he spotted a rattler and hunched down to take a photo. He heard another rattle and realized that another snake had crawled between his legs and within striking range of his butt.

The pursuit of turkeys presented a problem. Gobbler hunters, as a group, are a secretive sect of nimrods. I know many persons who have taken the bearded bronze birds nearly every season, and none will divulge the exact spot. I lined up Joe Davis to guide a highly feted and awarded writer and radio personality, Charlie Burchfield. According to Charlie, Joe blindfolded him until they were at the calling station. I got Russ Manney to guide Doyle Dietz, yet another big city columnist with a highly regarded radio show. Doyle also announced high school football games for years. He had announced Russ’s high school games and the hunt provided a great reunion for two football fans.

But, I needed a guide for the Keystone State’s “Mr. Turkey”—Bob Clark. Bob had been instrumental in founding the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and was elected its first state president. He had tagged numerous turkeys in numerous states. He had written books on the subject: Longbeards, Long Spurs and Fanned Tails, A Cure for Turkey Fever, and Bob Clark’s Wild Turkey Primer. In addition to his fame, reputation, and expertise, Bob had a rather acerbic way about him. Who could I get for him? It had to be the best bird guy we had, and there was only one who fit that bill: Burton Cleveland. So I phoned Burt at his home on Gobbler’s Knob (I swear. That’s his address.) in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.

Fifty years ago, with a fade-in to the present: I first met Burt when he was in eighth grade and I was a rookie teacher. I didn’t have him in class, but students told me that he called gobblers without a call—just using his own voice. I found that absurd, so I looked him up, and I was absolutely astounded. His voice call sounded more like a turkey than a turkey! I was so taken by his calling ability that I asked him to do the call for me at least once a week. I’d listen, smile, and walk away, shaking my head in amazement.

The gobblers’ woods were quite an uphill hike from Burt’s home in a small Tioga County town. He usually hunted with his best friend, Gary Gee, and the two slogged through swamps, chugged up mountain inclines, and slithered their way surreptitiously toward roosting sites. They made taking tom turkeys a religion of sorts. Nothing got in the way of their hunting. There lay a problem for me. I coached track and field, and Gary was the best half-miler I had. Both the young hunters were, shall we say, “pistols.” Gary was at practice most afternoons and he never missed a competition. But, every once in a while, they’d get a gobbler going and they’d stay in the woods until quitting time. In those days, quitting time was 11 a.m. Already late for morning classes, about once a week they simply skipped school. One time, they had hiked to Fay’s Fields, hunted until scholarly pursuits called, and then hitchhiked to school. My lovely bride, on her way to work, noticed two camo-clad guys with shotguns waving thumbs. She slowed, recognized my two pistols, picked them up, and delivered them to the high school office.

Burt and Gary remained hunting buddies for more than half a century. They hunted all over the United States. Several years, they had spring turkey tags for Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. They set a goal to take turkeys in each state in three days. Burt smiled slightly when he admitted, “Took us five days.”

Sports are about statistics. The hunting, fishing, hiking, and outdoor sports are no exception. For some, just length and maybe weight of the conquest will suffice. As in, “I took an eighteen-inch rainbow outa the Bear Run Hole on Pine Crick. Figure he weighed about two pounds. They were takin’ the wooly bugger.” Or “We hiked thirty miles on the Appalachian Trail last week in two days.” Or, “My kid shot a ten-point buck. We had a rough drag. Musta weighed more’n two-hundred pounds.”

Really good hunters keep really good records. Burt Cleveland keeps meticulous records, and evidence of them in various trophies. The Pennsylvania Game Commission keeps records on bear and deer. The bears are measured by weight and circumference of the aged skull. Burt has a number of bear skulls, with one listed in the PGC Record Book. His 700-pounder is a huge black rug that covers his pool table. During the first Pennsylvania early archery season for bear, he recorded the only bear taken on opening day.

But turkeys are really Burt’s thing, and gobbler mounts ll the trophy room. The NWTF maintains numerous classes of records for wild turkeys. There are four U.S. subspecies of wild turkeys: the Eastern that roams our hills and ranges from Canada to mid-Florida, west to the Mississippi, and with a fair number crossing the Big Muddy; the Merriam resides in the Rocky Mountains; the Osceola is hunted in south Florida only; the Rio Grande tracks the dust of America’s southwest. Take all four subspecies and a hunter qualifies for the Grand Slam. Additionally there are Gould’s in northwest Mexico, with a very sparse population in remote areas of Arizona. Add the Gould’s to the Grand Slam and you have a Royal Slam. Then, without doubt, the most beautiful turkey is the ocellated turkey that is found only in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. If one can harvest an ocellated and add it to the other slams, he or she can enter the records with a World Slam. The World Slam is the least accomplished feat in turkey hunting. When last checked, a guide in the Yucatan charged $10,000! Burt is a blue collar guy and, considering travel expenses alone, he is satis ed with the Grand Slam. He is also proud that he did it with no guides and no decoys.

Ten springs ago in Kansas, he took the Eastern, Merriam, and Rio Grande. He knew a relative of his brother’s wife, and he and three friends set out for Kansas, an eighteen-hour drive. They arrived in the Sunflower State at 2:30 p.m. By dark, they had killed three gobblers. One of the hunters had wounded a bird and they tracked it for some time. The next morning, they each had taken turkeys early. With seven turkeys in the back of a pick-up, they stopped for breakfast at a truck stop. As they got out, they noticed about twenty cars and trucks invading the parking lot and surrounding them. They feared the worst. It seems that word had spread about their gobbler success, and thirty or so locals simply wanted to know how they had done it. Burt held court, explaining the calling process. He even volunteered to take a couple Kansans out for a “lesson.”

Occasionally, nature provides an anomaly—think a drop-tine deer or a doe with small antlers. Once in a great while, a gobbler might have too much of that male hormone and have multiple spurs. Burt took one with six spurs. And then there’s the extremely rare hen that might have spurs. Many seasons ago, Burt shot just such a hen, and he holds the world record for longest spurred hen ever measured.

The NWTF also tracks turkey trophies by measurement, using certified weight, beard length, and spur length. Male turkeys sport beards growing out of their feathered breasts, and spurs, which are sharp protuberances arming their lower legs. The beards are to impress hens; the spurs are for fighting rivals in mating season. Burt has 186 beards on display on beard boards, devices he designed that are used by turkey hunters nationwide. His beard boards are mounted around the perimeter of his large trophy room. He started killing gobblers in the first Penn’s Woods spring season in 1968. He didn’t even think about retaining filled tags until 1980. His filled tags hang from a long string and weigh about a pound. His spurs, those not on mounts and preserved legs, comprise a forty-inch necklace.

All gifted hunters do some guiding, both informally and formally. Burt first guided hunters in Colorado, then in Missouri. One time in the “Show Me State,” Burt was among six hunters who killed eleven gobblers in two days. Burt said the birds had a total weight of 269 pounds with 1171⁄2 inches of beards. Now that’s record keeping.

He also loves working with youngsters, and he guided for gratis, and for the fun of it, for NWTF Jakes hunts for years. Jakes are young, small gobblers with short two- to three-inch beards. Hunts with the NWTF Jakes program—Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship—are specifically designed for youngsters ages twelve and younger.

Ten years ago: So, I contacted Burt and he was excited to hear from me. I asked if he’d help out with guiding Pennsylvania’s “Mr. Turkey.” He said he’d be delighted. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I asked if Burt knew anybody who could guide my friend Steve Piatt, editor of New York Outdoor News. “Sure,” he said, “Call Gary Gee.” Gary agreed to guide. I wondered about my two “pistols” from the late 1960s.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Burt after his morning hunt with “Mr. Turkey.” He said that they had a hot gobbler responding to his call but that they had to move closer. Bob Clark, then in his late seventies and nursing bad knees and hips, couldn’t cross a fence. Burt said it was six-wire fence strung so tight you could play banjo on it, and sadly opined, “If he could have crossed that fence, we’d have had that bird.”

Later, I chatted with Bob and questioned him about the hunt. I mentioned the fence. He huffed, “If he was any good, he could have called that bird right up to the fence like he was yankin’ it on a string!”

And thus read two great gobbler-getters stories. Thanks, Burt.

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