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David Rainer: McCaleb crowned grand champion at Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt

Despite some challenging weather conditions, the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt last week was another resounding success with numerous hunters from across the nation bagging an Alabama bird.

“We had hot and humid weather to start and then a line of thunderstorms came through,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) at Wednesday’s awards luncheon. “But more than a third of people hunting ended up with a turkey.

Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship joins Governor Kay Ivey to present the Grand Champion trophies to Paul McCaleb, right, and landowner Russ Newman. (Billy Pope Photo)

“It has been a great success. We had more sponsors than we’ve ever had. We had more hunters (62) than we’ve ever had. We raised more money than we ever have for scholarships for our universities, our Hunters Helping the Hungry program, youth dove and duck hunting, Becoming An Outdoors-Woman, our mentored hunting programs and all the things we do to promote hunting and fishing and getting people outdoors in the state.”

Not only does the One-Shot Turkey Hunt showcase Alabama’s outdoors, but it also puts a spotlight on the many other amenities associated with doing business and living in the state.

“To be able to show how the outdoors we all enjoy here contributes to the quality of life in Alabama but also to use it as an economic development tool,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We want people to bring their businesses here, expand their businesses here and get to meet our people and see what a beautiful place we live in. It’s been a hugely successful event, not only for the hunters but we’re also thankful for the landowners who gave up their turkeys for somebody else to shoot one of their birds.”

Commissioner Blankenship said although Paul McCaleb was crowned Grand Champion of the 2024 Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt, he considers Governor Kay Ivey as the Grand Champion of promoting and supporting outdoors initiatives in Alabama.

“When we kicked things off, I said Alabama was blessed with our great outdoors,” Governor Ivey said before handing out the awards. “I hope you all got a good glimpse of Alabama. It’s not just the best place to visit; it’s the best place to work, build and raise a family, and to also play.”

McCaleb hunted with landowner Russ Newman near Union Springs when they managed to bag the winning gobbler, which weighed 22.3 pounds with a 10.375-inch beard and spurs that measured 1.3 and 1.1 inches for a total score of 67.375 points under the National Wild Turkey Federation scoring system.

“It was tough that morning,” Newman said. “The turkey we had been seeing was not cooperative, gobbled very little. When he hit the ground, that was it. We had a long day. We got stuck, and I had to walk back about a mile to the camp to get a tractor.”

After lunch the hunters went to an area where some birds had been showing up in a field and started to call. Lanier Burton and Joby Newman, Russ’s son, also served as guides on the hunt.

“I bet we didn’t call five times, and I looked up and said, ‘Mr. Paul, there’s a turkey to your left. He’s coming straight in.’ He was at 48 steps, and Mr. Paul hammered him; made a heck of a shot.”

McCaleb is a lifelong turkey hunter, bagging his first bird in 1972. He hunts turkeys with his son and grandson on a regular basis on their land in Walker County that is managed for deer and turkeys.

“It was pretty evident that the first turkey we fooled with was an old bird that was used to sitting up in the tree until his hens came up under him before he would pitch down,” McCaleb said. “He stayed in the tree for over an hour. He pitched down and went the other way.”

After getting the truck stuck and eating lunch, the host team took McCaleb to the spot where the turkeys were known to hang out.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to hunt with,” he said. “We came in on the creek side so we wouldn’t make much noise. We got set up, and the guys started calling. Within 10 minutes, Russ said, ‘Mr. Paul, don’t move.’ I had a tree blocking my vision on what he could see. I stayed frozen, and the turkey came out in an old logging road. I had picked out a tree he had to come by for him to be close enough for me to shoot. Luckily, that tree was about four feet wide. When he went behind that tree, I was able to get my knee up and my gun on my knee. He came from behind the tree, took three more steps and ran his head up. That’s when I shot him. It was 1:22 (p.m.).

“It was a quick hunt, but we were whooping and hollering like kids on Christmas morning. It was a very exciting hunt.”

First runner-up Daniel Moultrie bagged a bird in Chambers County with his dad, Dan. The turkey weighed 19.5 pounds with an 11-inch beard and 1-inch spurs for a total of 61.5 points.

“We heard them pitch down from the roost, and we started talking to them,” Daniel said. “We started walking down a road and then got set up real quick on a tree. There were two turkeys together. One was standing in the road and the other was walking into the woods. The one I ended up harvesting was the one walking in the woods. Once he got between two trees, I squeezed off on him.”

Dan, who recently acquired the property in Chambers County, said they started out on a hilltop to listen for birds because they weren’t as familiar with the topography. Meanwhile, on another section of the Moultrie property, ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, Chuck Sykes, and his hunter, Jon Zinnel from Federal Ammunition, were able to harvest a bird that didn’t quite make the leaderboard.

“We went to a high spot and started listening,” Dan said. “We heard them gobbling. The old rule is you never call to them in the tree. As soon as we heard them fly down. I yelped to them one time to see if they would respond. Then they came right back, double-gobbling. One thing Daniel understated about finding a tree to get set up on was I was saying, ‘Sit down. Sit down. Quick, quick, quick. They’re coming. They’re coming.’ I told him to shoot the one in the road, but the turkey in the woods was coming straight to us and would have busted us and putted if Daniel hadn’t shot him.

“For the last 12 years, we’ve always hunted on Easter weekend and gotten him a turkey. This was our Easter hunt.”

The second runner-up was another Bullock County turkey taken by Jeff Rabren, who hunted with Foster Pugh at Sanctuary Timber and Wildlife. Rabren’s bird weighed 22.3 pounds with a 9.5-inch beard and spurs of .9375 and 1 inch for a total of 60.625 points.

“It was beautiful. On the drive in, we saw about 10 deer and a rabbit jump in front of us,” Rabren said. “Our guide, Foster, is a master. We spent the next two-and-a-half hours following birds around. They were gobbling from daybreak until the second before the shot. The shot was thrilling, but the time following Foster around the property with him calling and talking back and forth was as thrilling as the shot itself.”

Pugh said it was a classic Alabama turkey hunt with a lot of gobbling on the roost and then a period of inactivity as the gobblers joined the hens.

“About 9:30, they started gobbling again,” Pugh said. “We got set up and started calling. Within a couple of minutes, they were on top of us. That’s the way you want it to happen.”

Third runner-up John Bricken is another diehard turkey hunter who had been in the turkey woods almost every day since the season started. He hunted with landowner Hunter Smith at High Ridge Plantation outside Union Springs. Bricken’s bird weighed 18.6 pounds with a 10.75-inch beard and spurs just under an inch for a total of 58.8 points.

“We got on some turkeys early that didn’t cooperate,” Bricken said. “We got on this one about 8 o’clock. He was by himself in a pine stand that had been burned about a month ago. He had to come over a little ridge to check us out, and that’s when we got him.”

Commissioner Blankenship said the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt, which is held every two years, attracts an interesting mix of people.

“You’ve got some landowners and hunters who are diehard turkey hunters, and they want that biggest bird,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “They’ve been thinking about it, keeping an eye on the big birds so they can win this. Then you’ve got other people who have never hunted, and they are excited just to hear a bird or see a bird. To see those smiles on their faces when they shoot their first turkey, that is really priceless. The thing that is most exciting to me is we’re blessed with so many hunting opportunities here. Alabama is such a beautiful place. It is awesome for us to be able to showcase that to these executives looking to do business or expand business here. I love using outdoor recreation to help grow the economy in Alabama. I think that is exciting.

“Governor Ivey has been so supportive because she knows what the great outdoors means to the people who live here but also to get people to move here, work and raise a family. She wants to grow our state.”

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