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Church of Burns

3/10/2010

MERIDIAN, Miss. — David Burns is adamant about turkey hunting.

There's a difference between being adamant and passionate. The later means zealous about the pursuit of these feathered birds that have captured so many imaginations. Burns is passionate, too.

He's more adamant than he is passionate with some outspoken, hardcore feelings when it comes to how people turkey hunt. But more on that later.

First, you have to look at how those feelings were created.

Burns, 55, started turkey hunting almost 40 years ago. He was a teenager hunting under the tutelage of a mentor that he simply refers to as "the old man."

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"You don't need to know his name,'' Burns said. "He was a game hog, pure and simple. He hunted everything.

"He had a hunting vest that was made out of an old suit vest. His wife had sewed on pockets all over it to carry his calls and stuff.

"I'd seen times when he would walk up to you and have a fawn in the back pack. A small spotted, dead fawn.

"Times weren't that hard."

But the old man was Burns' teacher. This was his lesson: The old man's turkey hunting tactic was to get Burns to scratch out a triangle with a garden rack, fill it with corn, cover it up and sit in a blind and wait for the turkey to show up.

Burns openly acknowledged that it wasn't legal. But that was how many turkey hunters killed turkeys back in those days. And it was the way Burns killed his first gobbler.

"I remember sitting in camp being proud of that turkey, petting it even, admiring it," Burns said.

Another gentleman had showed him how to use a box call the night before.

"It was an old Lynch box call and he showed me how to scratch out three yelps. He said, 'that was the mating call of the hen turkey. That's all you will ever need to know.'"

While Burns was sitting and admiring his first turkey, killed over a bait pile, another tom started gobbling "a quarter of a mile away."

"I grabbed my box call and ran out into the woods," Burns said. "I scratched out my yelps and he gobbled. There was this blow down with a clay root lying in front of me and I got behind it. I remember it like it was yesterday."

Burns scratched out another call on his box and "that gobbler stomped right up to me in shallow water."

"My life was transformed at that moment,'' Burns said. "I realized then what turkey hunting was all about. And I will tell you now you had better not have one of those damn decoys in your truck, no blind, no 3-1/2 inch bull— We're going to hunt him on his terms and were not going to shoot unless he's within 30 yards. If he's 35 and you know you can kill him, we're not going to kill him.

"I don't care what you see on television. I don't care if you think you can kill him at 60 yards. Anybody can do that. That's not the right way to do it.

"We're going to hunt the right way. We might never kill a turkey up here, but we're not going to do it the wrong way."

Burns' edict is to fool them totally.

"And if we can't do it that way in the morning, we can always go back and get it right the next time. That's what turkey hunting is all about.

"I was tickled to death to read on your Web site about the kids killing their turkeys but it really bothered me that they took such a long shot.

"What are we teaching our kids by doing that?"

He follows that edict, too. He's gone on hunts all over the country and refused to hunt if he thought there was bait involved or other things that didn't meet his standards.


Burns primarily hunts in the bottoms and hills of southeast Mississippi, where turkeys are plentiful in his home state, as well as a few miles across the border in Alabama.

He's so close to the line that, you can see Alabama from his front porch. Not that it looks any different. And not that you would be looking. The view is fantastic. But the spot you are looking from is even more so.

Burns' camp sits on a hill in the piney woods overlooking the red clay hills and black mud bottoms. The cabin is something to behold.

Every stick of wood is from Hurricane Katrina, the floor plans created by the amount of wood that was blown down by the storm.

"I was in a depression stage while I was building this sonofabitch," Burns said. "I always said I was going to build me a cabin up and a lake down here. Then the hurricane came and blew everything away and I had no choice."

The walls and ceilings are made of poplar, cedar, cherry, white oak, pine, sassafras, all of it destroyed and recovered from Burns' property after Hurricane Katrina wrecked this part of Mississippi. Even the windows were taken from one of 45 convenience stores Burns owns on the Gulf Coast. The stores were blown away but the windows survived the storm and were fit into the walls of his camp.

He doesn't have a name for the camp yet. Camp David is already taken. Camp Katrina would be fitting. But for this story it is the Church of Burns, where visitors hear the message from a preacher unafraid to throw the fire and brimstone of proper turkey hunting to those who need it.

His words on the right way to hunt were ringing in the rafters the night before a proper hunt in Mississippi.

It was still dark when Burns pulled his pickup truck to the side of the road. As is customary, three hunters — Burns, Wade Sims and an observer — split apart, stuck their hands in their pockets and listened.

After the first songbirds started singing, Burns cupped his hands and bellowed out a series of yelps. The only answer was more birds singing.

A few minutes later and the truck was racing to another spot and another, repeating the process with the same result.

On the fourth stop, Burns' owling produced a healthy gobble. Hands shot out of pockets, grabbed vests, guns, shells and camo. The trio quickly scrambled out into a power line right of way, down a hill and stopped.

Another owl call, and the gobbler cut it off. He was close, real close. But like many parts of the south, the green up of the forest was in full bloom. Judging the distance of a gobble through all the leaves is difficult, even more so when it cuts your owl call. A bellowing owl call next to you mostly drowns out a fervent gobble in that scenario.

Burns pressed on, determined to get close enough to set up. It quickly became too close, when 30 yards from the last stop, wings slapped tree branches and a gobbler pitched out of the trees determined to get as far away from the hunters as possible.

"That wasn't him was it?" Burns asked.

But the silence of the morning proved it was.

The trio was back on the move again. Walking, stopping, owling. Then walking, stopping, listening as a Burns fired up a cigarette. Repeating the process.

"We're going to have to take up smoking cigarettes so we can keep up with him,'' Sims said.

Three hours later, most of Burns' 3,000 acres had been covered, without even the hint of a gobbler.

"We must have walked 8 miles,'' Sims sad.

"More like 3," Burns said.

"Feels more like 8, so let's just call it 10,'' Sims added.

Either way, the trio was covered in sweat. And Burns was nonetheless deterred.

"That's the way it goes,'' he said. "The turkey wins most days. But tomorrow is another day."

Back at the Church of Burns the preaching started again, this time not from Burns, but from Leroy Broadway.

He and Burns share much of the same doctrine when it comes to turkey hunting.

A few weeks earlier, Broadway had gone on his 50th consecutive opening day in Mississippi. It was raining, but Broadway still went, spending part of his morning sitting under a deer stand.

"I told myself 'I'm not getting in that shooting house, but I'll get under it,''' Broadway said. "The roof leaked so bad that the water poured through the floor. But I stayed there anyway.

Once the rain stopped. Broadway was successful at calling in a gobbler. After 50 years and literally hundreds of gobblers in that time, it was only the second gobbler he had ever shot on an opening day.

Broadway is well into his 60s now and he's as hooked as ever.

"There's just something about hearing a turkey gobble,'' he said. "If it's opening day, I'm going. I go some days and don't carry a gun, but that's not near as fun. If you're not trying to kill him there's an edge that is missing."

Like Burns, he insists that turkey hunting should occur on the bird's terms: No shooting unless he's within 30 or 40 steps, no decoys and certainly no blinds.

During his tenure, he's seen turkey hunting transform greatly.

"When I started you yelped three times, no more and if he answered you, you waited because he would be there. It might be 5 o'clock but he'd be there.

"It took me about a year to figure out, he might be there at 5 o'clock, but I wouldn't be because I would be gone."

His early calls were lead horseshoes with a piece of prophylactic stretched over it. That evolved into snuff cans and pill bottle. But the big change has been the number of turkeys.

"I hear some folks talk about going for three years and not getting one,'' Broadway said. "I've hunted for three years and not heard one.

"In those early days, if you killed a turkey every three years, they'd put you in the newspaper. If you killed a jake, they'd put you in the paper."

In the past few decades the number of turkey hunters have grown right along with the turkey population. That growth has also changed how people perceive the "proper" way to hunt.

"When I started, I didn't know nothing,'' Broadway said. "Now a days a kid can watch TV and learn more that I learned in seven years.

"But they aren't learning the right way from those television shows. For instance, you decoy ducks. You call turkeys. You don't take no blind. No decoys. No 3 1/2-inch shells, no 10-gauge. You don't bait turkeys because it screws up the hunting all around you and you don't shoot a turkey at 60 yards.

"It's that other 20 yards that makes a turkey hunt."

Broadway and Burns sing the same tune. But he's quick to point out he hunts his way and doesn't want anyone to change him. So he doesn't try to change anyone either.

"I guess if a man wanted to hunt off of an elephant, let him hunt off an elephant. Just don't make me do it that way. There's no way I could hunt the way some of these guys go at it. They show up with a pack that looks like they are Santa Claus because they have so many toys packed in there.

"That's not me."

But it is the way many hunters around Meridian, Miss., see things, especially those in the neighborhood of the Church of Burns.