John's Journal...

Battling the Slave Ditch Gobbler with Central Alabama’s Joe Champion

How I Hunted the Slave Ditch Gobbler, and You Can Watch a Turkey Hunting Video

Click to enlargeEditor’s Note: We didn’t realize how big this bird was until we weighed him. At 22 pounds and with a 1-1/2-inch beard and 1-inch spurs, the Slave Ditch Gobbler was one of the heaviest birds ever killed at Portland Landing near Selma, Alabama.

The next morning, we moved into the edge of a field adjacent to a swamp. Just before daylight, turkeys began to gobble. “That’s the Slave Ditch Gobbler,” Joe Champion of Pine Hill, Alabama, whispered. “I’ve hunted him before. He’s a big bird and at least 4-years old.” When I asked why Champion called this tom the Slave Ditch Gobbler, he answered, “This turkey likes to roost here over the Slave Ditch. The Alabama River always has flooded this entire area. Before the Civil War of the 1860s, when the river flooded, the cotton field was underwater, which would dClick to enlargeestroy the cotton crop. The farmer who owned this plantation had his slaves dig a ditch that ran from the edge of the cotton field through the swamp to allow the cotton field to drain even when the water got up. This ditch protected the crops from flooding. Ever since, the ditch, which is about 4-feet wide and 3-feet deep, has been known as the Slave Ditch. The turkey that roosts over it is called the Slave Ditch Gobbler. If you’ll leave me alone, I’ll try and call us a turkey. We can talk about the history of this place after we’ve got a gobbler in our hunting vests.”

We heard the hens calling and knew they were roosting with the gobblers. Although Champion tree called as soon as we heard the toms, the Slave Ditch Gobbler and his running buddy were more interested in the hens they could see rather than the hens they could hear. When the hens flew down, the gobblers followed them. Then from across the field, more hens flew in to get with the toms. Next, Champion clucked and yelped loudly as we sat hidden in our blind completely camouflaged in our Trebark camo clothing. One gobbler moved toward us and stood 40- to 50-yards from us – strutting and drumming to attempt to get the hen Champion imitated to come to him. We tried everything to break the gobbler out of his strut. We gave some soft purrs and scratched in the leaves, and then we were silent. But the bird wouldn’t move.

Champion next utilized an ancient-looking box and gave some soft yelps on it. The turkey gobbled. Then Champion changed calls and used his Preston Pittman diaphragm call. The turkey stopped, strutted and drummed but wouldn’t come to us. Every time the turkey started to walk away, Champion Click to enlargecalled to him, stopped the bird and caused him to strut. However, he couldn’t turn the turkey back to us. We tried to work the gobbler we had spotted and a second gobbler we couldn’t see for about 2 hours when the turkeys finally turned to walk away. That’s when Champion decided to, as he put it, “Throw the kitchen sink at them.” This last morning of the hunt, Champion was willing to do all in his power to call one of these gobblers back to within gun range.

We’d set-up a small blind in front of us. However, with all Champion’s moving, calling and beating his chest and legs with his hands to simulate wings beating in a gobbler fight, I was sure that if his calling hadn’t spooked the toms, all the movement Champion made would. But Champion – a veteran turkey hunter who’d chased the wily gobblers of south Alabama most of his life – was a man who not only hunted turkeys but lived with them and understood where they wanted to go and why, even before the toms knew where they wanted to walk. After about 10 minutes of constantly using a call to simulate the fighting purr of two gobblers, Champion whispered, “John, I’ve got to stop calling for a minute. My hands are cramping up. I’ve never called this much, or this long, before on a push-button box call.” As I evaluated our situation, I encouraged him to, “Keep calling. The turkeys are coming. I promise the cramp will go away.”Click to enlarge

Learn more about hunting legendary gobblers from John E. Phillips’ library of turkey-hunting books, including “The Turkey Hunter’s Bible,” “Turkey Tactics,” “Outdoor Life’s Complete Turkey Hunting,” “The Masters’ Secrets of Turkey Hunting” and “Hunter’s Specialties’ PhD Gobblers.” To learn more about these hunting books and others, visit, or call 205-967-3830.

To learn to call turkeys, you not only have to know what you need to do to call in the bird, but you need to know how the turkey responds to your calling. Since the turkey is in one place, and you’re always in a different place, many times you can’t see the turkey to watch the effects of your turkey calls. To solve this problem, we asked Bill Zearing, founder and president of Cody Game Calls, to be the caller, and we’ve asked Preston Pittman, who has won all 5 divisions of the World Turkey Calling Championship, to be the turkey. Each day, we’ll pose a different hunting scenario and ask these two legendary turkey callers/hunters to show us the types of calls you need to use and learn the different effects they have on turkeys.

Watch Video: “Trying to Call a Gobbler Away from His Hens”

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Tomorrow: Learn About Tough Hunting for the Slave Ditch Gobbler

Check back each day this week for more about "Battling the Slave Ditch Gobbler with Central Alabama’s Joe Champion"

Day 1: Begin the Turkey Hunt for the Slave Ditch Gobbler, and Watch a Turkey Hunting Video
Day 2: Get Ready For a Turkey War with the Slave Ditch Gobbler
Day 3: How I Hunted the Slave Ditch Gobbler, and You Can Watch a Turkey Hunting Video
Day 4: Learn About Tough Hunting for the Slave Ditch Gobbler, and Watch a Turkey Hunting Video
Day 5: How to Make Your Scope and Gun More Effective for Taking Turkeys and Watch a Turkey Hunting Video


Entry 558, Day 3