RALEIGH — Hal Atkinson's journey through the world of the wild turkey has been a long and winding path from the hills of Virginia to the jungles of Guatemala. Early in his two-decade stint as chief of the Division of Wildlife Management of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Atkinson's interest in turkey hunting was sparked by turkey restoration efforts in North Carolina.
Atkinson's quest began with his friend and eventual executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Dick Hamilton.
"I guess back in the late '70s I went to see the turkey restoration work, and our guys were doing such a good job, I just kind of picked up on the fact that there were some turkeys around to hunt," Atkinson said. "We started going up into the hills of Virginia, and then, as the turkey population grew here and we had more opportunities to hunt here, it just became one of my primary loves.
That interest became a first love for the now-retired 65-year-old and has brought him face-to-snood with all the types of wild turkeys. With the five subspecies of the North American wild turkey already to his credit and some full-body mounts in full strut in his north Raleigh home, Atkinson, with encouragement from a friend, decided to head to Central America to pursue the ocellated turkey with its distinctive blue head and iridescent green and bronze feathers to complete a World Slam.
To some, the ultimate in wild turkey hunting is the World Slam -- taking one of each of the five North American subspecies and the only other species, the ocellated turkey.
A World Slam as designated by the National Wild Turkey Federation includes killing each of the subspecies: Eastern, Rio Grande, Florida (Osceola), Merriam's, Gould's and ocellated. Atkinson has yet to register all of his turkeys for the federation's record book.
Hunters face significant obstacles in shooting a World Slam.
"The most difficult aspect of getting the Slam is two-fold; first, finding the funds to travel. This can be a somewhat limiting factor as well as time; many people can't get off work," said Brian Dowler, public relations manager for the National Wild Turkey Federation and an avid turkey hunter for the past 15 years. "The most useful asset is the hunter's ability to network with other hunters. Lots of guys have the ability to hunt in their backyard but for a Slam, networking allows hunters to trade hunts in different locations and learn how the birds in an area are acting."
There are just 180 World Slams in the federation's record book, and only five belong to North Carolina residents.
Traveling to the hunt
Beginning in 2003, friends and colleagues presented opportunities for turkeys other than Easterns, and the first call was from a friend in Texas, biologist Gene Miller.
"He kept asking me to come down and kill a Rio," Atkinson said. "So I went down there with Gene. I was a shy caller, and still am, but he made me call that whole week. We called nine birds to the gun that week. That was a confidence builder."
Atkinson took his newfound confidence and in 2004 headed to Florida, where on the first day he bagged a big one.
"I killed one the first afternoon, a big old Osceola, a 20-pound bird," he said.
In 2005, Atkinson hopped on a flight with Bob Duncan, the executive director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who wanted to go to Mexico to hunt Gould's turkeys.
"We jumped in the airplane and flew down to Sonora, Mexico, down in the Sierra Madres," Atkinson said. "We killed a couple of Gould's turkeys. They have all that white on them. Boy, you can see them coming through the woods."
In 2007, Atkinson headed for a ranch in the southeastern part of Montana where he had hunted mule deer and knew the area held a lot of turkeys. He met a friend at the ranch, and they bagged two Merriam's.
"So I had five of them and so I thought, 'Well, you know man I won't ever go to Guatemala [for an ocellated]. It's too far to go,' " Atkinson said.
He was wrong. In 2008, he received a call from good friend David Blake, a member of the Wake County Wildlife Club, who said, "Let's go down there and kill us one of those ocellated turkeys."
Atkinson said he responded, " 'You've got to be crazy. You are talking about going in the jungle sure enough.' "
Welcome to the jungle
The jungle is a very different place to hunt for turkeys.
"It's very thick, it's very hot, it's very humid," Atkinson said. "But if you get your attitude right, and you say, 'I'm going to be in the jungle and I'm going to take a bath out of a five-gallon bucket of brown water,' you can do just fine."
After a five-hour drive from the airport with a stop at the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Atkinson and Blake found themselves in outfitter Lovette Williams' camp near Uaxactun in the northeast part of Guatemala.
"You go in the real jungle and everything you have is made from poles and tied together with vines," Atkinson said. "And you want a nice big pair of snake boots. We killed, three fer-de-lances in camp that week, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world."
Because of the stifling jungle conditions, each day became an endurance contest.
"We walked many miles down there. It was a 100 degrees and a 100 percent humidity," Atkinson said.
The jungle bird
Atkinson wanted to kill a bird in as much the same way as the locals did. After locating ("roosting") a bird the night before, the party left camp before daylight and set up as close to the bird as they dared.
With daylight creeping through the jungle, they heard the distinctive call of an ocellated and began their stalk. Atkinson and his guide inched toward the bird, and Atkinson spied the bird silhouetted against a brightening sky in a tree 20 yards away.
On signal from the guide, Atkinson hoisted a light 12 gauge, Russian-made, single-shot shotgun supplied by the outfitter and claimed his World Slam.
This was not the only ocellated he killed on that trip. For his second bird, he used an electronic call that Williams provided. (It is difficult to mimic ocellated calls.)
With two ocellated turkeys in his bag, Atkins strutted through border inspections on his way home with a World Slam.
"Every one of them has been kind of unique about the way we did it," he said, "and that's the fun of it."