ATLANTA — On a rainy night in Georgia, the stars came out as National Wild Turkey Federation CEO Rob Keck welcomed attendees to the 32nd annual NWTF Convention and Sport Show.
As his organization celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, Keck soon turned the stage over to country music star — and fellow turkey hunting enthusiast — Craig Morgan, who led the huge crowd in the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag.
Moments later, Challenger, a rescued and non-releasable American bald eagle cared for by the American Eagle Foundation of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., wowed the crowd as the symbol of our nation flew majestically throughout the banquet hall at Georgia's World Congress Center.
Then Keck welcomed turkey hunting enthusiast Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to the stage, from a turkey hunting pop-up blind no less.
After Keck told a story detailing a recent turkey hunt with Perdue, he presented a Hunting Heritage award to Perdue.
"That gobbler there with that longbeard that is hanging over that fellow's shoulder (on the award), he kind of looks like a grandfather," Perdue said.
"As a grandfather, I look forward (to the day) when my grandkids will have a turkey slung over their shoulder like that."
Later in the evening — as country music stars like Mike Snider; Daryle Singletary; Rhett Akins with his Realtree clad guitar and "Hung Up in the Holler" turkey hunting song; and headliner Tracy Lawrence prepared to play to thousands — Perdue was gracious enough to take a few moments out of his busy evening.
"We're glad to have them back," Perdue said. "They haven't been back since 1996; I hope they come (back) more often than that."
"It's a wonderful organization, very passionate about conservation, very passionate about a great game bird, and (their) restoration effort, every body is so excited about it."
Perdue observed that the NWTF's work is duly noted in his Peach Tree State.
"We're seeing more and more turkey hunters every year in Georgia and fortunately the flock is growing great as well," he said.
"It's a great sport and we're really passionate about it here in Georgia."
Mind you, Perdue isn't a photo op politician on a hunt — he knows firsthand the excitement of spring turkey hunting.
"I didn't grow up turkey hunting because there weren't any turkeys (here)," Perdue said. "I grew up as a bird hunter and training bird dogs. But I've been hunting them for about 10 years now and it's just as addictive as everybody says."
In addition to his considerable duties at the Statehouse, last spring, Perdue found enough spare time to visit Texas, Kansas, and Alabama on turkey hunts, as well as filling his turkey tags here in Georgia.
"I had a great year," Perdue smiled.
At Thursday night's welcome party, Perdue reminded convention goers that while much work has been accomplished with the wild turkey across North America, much work remains to be done.
That includes passing the torch of our hunting heritage and a sound conservation ethic on to the next generation.
"It's extremely important, the memories of how I grew up and the character that that instilled in me," Perdue said.
"I grew up on a farm and my dad told me that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.
"It did that and that's where I really got my heart for stewardship, for caring for the land, for caring for the wildlife, and making sure that we leave it better than we found it."
Perdue was quick to point out that leaving things better than found will require key partnerships with organizations like the NWTF.
"Government can't do it all," he said. "We've got a great effort here in land conservation in Georgia, but we rely on organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, other wildlife organizations, as well as private individuals and foundations.
"Partnering together we can conserve more with conservation easements as well as publicly accessible lands and we couldn't do it without these organizations."
As the governor prepared to return to his seat to be entertained by fellow Georgian Daryle Singletary, I posed one final question and queried Perdue about his turkey hunting plans this spring.
"All I can," he smiled.
Just like every one of the more than 30,000+ visitors expected to attend this weekend's NWTF Convention in Atlanta.