John's Journal...

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

Learn About Tough Hunting for the Slave Ditch Gobbler, and 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.

With a scowl on his face, Joe Champion of Pine Hill, Alabama, reluctantly pushed the two buttons of his fighting purr call while screaming loud cuts and cackles on his diaphragm call. Then he said, “John, I see the bird at about 40 yards.” Although I whispered back that I’d spotted the tom too, my mind wouldn’t accept the 40-yard assessment of distance Champion had made. The white bobbing head I saw appeared to be at about 100 yards. When the turkey finally stepped behind a tree, at what I believed to be about 35 yards, I moved slightly and got my gun to my knee to prepare for the shot. Champion quietly asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was getting ready to take the shot.Click to enlarge

“You can’t take the shot like that,” Champion explained. “The turkey’s more to your right. I can see him strutting.” “No, he’s not,” I said. “That bird’s coming straight at me. Just keep calling. You’ve got that turkey hooked. We’ll reel him in to where we are.” Champion frowned, because my gun barrel wasn’t pointed in the direction of the turkey he was watching. “John, the turkey’s at 30 yards. You can take him now if you can shoot through the blow-down.” But I told Champion, “He’s behind a tree and steadily walking through the water. Once he comes out from behind that water oak tree, I’ll take the shot at the edge of the Slave Ditch.” I watched the turkey’s head bobbing through my Nikon riflescope as I readied for the shot. Gingerly, I pushed the safety to the off position. As I looked through my scope and concentrated on seeing the gobbler’s head and taking the shot, my ears rang from the constant sound of the fighting purr calls and the loud cutting and cackling sounds Champion still gave on his diaphragm call.

The gobbler waded through another small puddle of water – still at about what I judged to be 35 yards. My head down on the stock and my eye looking through the riflescope, I waited for the first sight of ivory to come from behind the tree. The gobbler’s head appeared first, but I couldn’t see the wattles and the body of the bird. I waited and held my shot. I wanted to make sure I could see the wattles and the beard before I squeezed the trigger. Finally, the tom stepped from behind the tree and stood erect looking for the hen. I let the crosshairs settle on the base of his wattles and squeezed the trigger. At the report of the gun, my gobbler went down. But a second tom that was much closer than the bird I shot became airborne. I raced from the blind to pick-up my prize. I crossed the Slave Ditch with one giant step and retrieved my bird from the water.Click to enlarge

I heard Champion come up behind me as he commented, “John, I never saw this turkey you shot. I was watching another gobbler in front of me, not 20 yards from the blind. The gobbler I looked at was in full strut but behind a blown-down tree. I thought you were aiming incorrectly. You sure nailed this bird, though. I wonder how far the shot was.” When I looked back at the blind, I too believed the distance of the shot had been greater than I first estimated. A dip in the ground between the blind and the turkey had caused me to misjudge the distance. However, when I paced off the distance from the turkey back to the blind, neither Champion or I could believe howfar the shot was – 53 yards. “I’ve never shot at a turkey that far before or come close to bagging one at that distance,” I told Champion. Champion commented, “If you hadn’t patterned your shotgun and been using your Nikon riflescope to aim accurately, you never would have killed the turkey. You’ve got a really-nice bird to take home. Look at these spurs and this beard! That’s the Slave Ditch Gobbler.” We didn’t realize how big the 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. According to Champion, “That bird’s at least a 4-year old. I’ve hunted him for several years. Last year, there were three gobblers in that area, and I took one of them. The Slave Ditch Gobbler was the dominant bird because he came charging right in to fight with the turkey strutting in front of me. If you hadn’t shot that tom, we probably would have had a turkey fight to watch.”

Lessons Learned From the Slave Ditch Gobbler:Click to enlarge
I’d never heard a person call as loudly, as much or for as long as Champion did when all hope seemed to be lost as the two gobblers walked away from us. I also learned a lesson from this hunt – to always believe the pattern board. I’d never liked No. 4 shot for turkeys and never wanted to shoot it. But when the pattern board dictated the Federal No. 4 Premium shot put the most pellets in the kill zone, I had to believe the pattern board and set aside my own personal shot shell preferences. My riflescope also provided the pinpoint accuracy I needed to aim precisely at the turkey’s neck to affect a kill at the extreme limits of a 3-inch magnum’s range. I became convinced of the value of scoping a turkey shotgun. The Slave Ditch Gobbler proved to me that a riflescope could make the difference in succeeding or failing to bag a legendary bird.

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: “When the Gobbler Is with Hens, You May Have to Use a Gobble Call. Watch What Happens.”

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Tomorrow: How to Make Your Scope and Gun More Effective for Taking Turkeys

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 4