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Photo by Gary Petty / Sale Creek's Robyn McDonald fires a practice round with her 12-gauge muzzleloaded shotgun. Despite the added challenges that come with turkey hunting with such a weapon because of the need to reload, McDonald shot two birds in three days at the start of Tennessee's spring season this month.

This story was updated at 7:25 p.m. on April 30, 2019, to correct two errors. The original story stated that a jake is the common term for a young female turkey; a jake is a young male turkey. In addition, the story referred to the Knight TK2000 12-gauge muzzleloader first as a shotgun and then as a rifle; it is a shotgun.

Wild turkeys are among Tennessee's most prized game, but the reasons why these birds are particularly dear to two local ladies are different in each case.

Chattanooga's Diane Daniels has long supported conservation and reintroduction efforts that made hunting wild turkeys possible, but only recently did she go turkey hunting herself.

As for Sale Creek's Robyn McDonald, April 4 — the first day of Tennessee's 2020 spring turkey hunting season, which ends May 17 — could not get here soon enough. She was on the hunt the day after and shot a gobbler from 60 yards away.

"I was sitting by myself and called one in that afternoon," said the 55-year-old McDonald, a mother of three who retired from nursing 16 years ago. "I had a hen feeding to my right, a live hen, and so of course that acted like a live decoy. That always works to your benefit."

Tennessee's bag limit of bearded turkeys is four per spring season and only one per day, and she got halfway to her annual number two days later while hunting with Josh Painter, a fellow member of the local Cherokee Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

"He calls really well, and he had set out some decoys," McDonald said. "He called four hens in, and of course that's like having live decoys. That just adds to the fun. We sat there for about an hour and a half when we had a tom come in and took off after that jake."

A tom is a mature male turkey, while a jake is a young male turkey.

"It was pretty fun," McDonald added. "It was within about 20 yards, so he got in really close."

 

'Model of inspiration'

McDonald hunts on some 300 acres of land owned by she and her husband, Jody. They have several chicken houses, raise cattle and grow hay. She finds her way to the woods sometimes twice a day with hopes a tom will come within range.

Her turkey hunting gun of choice is a Knight TK2000, a 12-gauge muzzleloaded shotgun made in Athens, Tennessee. The 45-inch gun weighs 7 1/2 pounds and has a barrel designed to shoot 85% of the shot in a 30-inch diameter at 40 yards. She shoots with 90 grains of powder.

"I bought a muzzleloaded shotgun last year and didn't even know they existed," McDonald said. "I just wanted a long barrel to get it registered with the NWTF."

McDonald's first gun was a .22 rifle, and her first hunting experience was for squirrels with her brothers. Later she moved on to bigger game.

"About 2013, I started noticing the deer more around here. We would take pictures of them in the field," said McDonald, who is also an avid hiker. "I probably have a thousand pictures of deer and turkey, and I just said hey, 'You know what, I think I want to start hunting.'

"I called my brother Larry, and he said, 'I'll bring you a rifle,' and he did. I had it about a day and had not even shot it. He told me it was on, and that is all that I needed to know. I went out behind the house that morning about 10 o'clock and finally saw a buck coming through and shot him, and I'm like, 'Oh, that's OK, I can do this.'"

Five years ago she added turkey to her list of game at the suggestion of a neighbor and fellow hunter. This year marked the first time she bagged more than one bird in a season.

While her husband doesn't hunt or fish, McDonald does both and so do their children: Breanna, 19, Joseph, 17, and Corbyn, 13. Breanna even joined her mother in hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 100-mile challenge in 2016. McDonald, who also has 280 miles towards the park's 900-mile club, said it is sometimes difficult to fit hiking in with hunting, fishing and working on a farm.

Still, McDonald tries to find time for her hobbies and has supported turkey conservation as a member of the NWTF for four years. It's possible she is Tennessee's first female who harvested a turkey with a muzzleloaded shotgun.

Painter called McDonald "a true woodsman" and pointed out that when she finally began turkey hunting "she came out with a bang." He also noted that through the NWTF's Women in the Outdoors program and choices such as hunting with a muzzleloader, she is acting as a mentor "and proving women can succeed in the spring woods just as well as men."

"Recently she had made a post to social media detailing her last hunt with pictures of her harvest," Painter said. "One of her friends, a middle-aged female, reached out to her stating she would like to try to turkey hunt this year. It's that model of inspiration that make her a great asset to the Cherokee Chapter and the National Wild Turkey Federation, leaving a legacy behind for years to come."

 

'A different bird'

Daniels, who moved to Chattanooga six years ago from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, has been a NWTF member even longer — since 1983 — but only went hunting for the first time until earlier this month.

Daniels said she and a few others in the Rocky Mount area started a NWTF chapter and worked for several years to raise money to purchase turkeys and bring them into the area.

"They were not any turkeys to be found," she said.

The work it required to change that — "We've got a very good population in that area now," McDonald reported — is part of the reason it took her so long to get around to hunting.

"When you went to where they took the cannons (that fire) the nets (for trapping) and the boxes you had to ship them in, it was very expensive," McDonald explained. "I don't know. I just worked so hard to bring them back, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. You have to shoot them to keep the populations going, but I just couldn't."

While she has maintained her original NWTF membership in North Carolina, the petroleum business retiree is also a member of the local chapter and considered a major donor, a level of contribution marked by giving $5,000 or more.

Don Oscai, president of the local NWTF chapter, recalled after a meeting was called and he and Daniels were the only members who showed up, he told her she could leave because it didn't look like anyone else was coming. She refused, saying items still needed to be discussed for an upcoming banquet.

"An hour and half later, I walked out more committed to the NWTF than when I walked in," he said. "Somewhere along our conversation she informed me that she had been a member of the NWTF for, I believe she said, 36 years and had never killed a bird! How do I or anyone else respond to or explain that?

"She has a passion for the outdoors, loves to turkey hunt, observe and enjoys being around those who are conservation-minded and promote the outdoors to our youth. She has come in asking what she can do, and we are a better chapter for having her. She is a different bird."

Daniels found the Cherokee Chapter quite a change from Rocky Mount.

"This chapter is strictly devoted to children," she said. "The kids come, and they are our future hunters."

To help Daniels to move past her reluctance to actually kill a turkey, Harrison resident Steve Farmer told her, "You are going to go with me and shoot a turkey."

Her reply: "Well, maybe. I am just hoping that I can."

Even the willingness to try turkey hunting is something she called "a milestone in my life."

It also meant laying out the money to purchase clothing and other gear. With Farmer her hunting partner, when she comes across a turkey she plans to be looking down the barrel of a .410.

For her, a day outdoors is one well spent.

"If I can hunt turkeys, if I can go deer hunting, if I can fish," she said, "I am going to do it."

Contact Gary Petty at sports@timesfreepress.com.

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