An Unexpected Encounter in the Field

The land and wildlife manager at Palmetto Bluff goes on a turkey hunt—and gets the surprise of his life

Photo: Courtesy of Palmetto Bluff

At South Carolina’s Palmetto Bluff, one man is known among residents, visitors, and staff as one of the property’s most prominent characters—and perhaps the foremost expert on its inner workings. As the Conservancy director of the coastal community, Jay Walea has been working the land for nearly three decades, having overseen its transition from quiet Lowcountry conservancy to one of the South’s most beloved ecotourism destinations. Below is Walea’s firsthand account of an especially surprising day on the job:

My mom had a saying: “The Lord takes care of children and fools.” Over my twenty-eight-year career here at Palmetto Bluff, this saying has applied to me on more than one occasion, especially during run-ins with wildlife. While some of these encounters were funny, some were dangerous, and some downright scary. This particular case was all three.

Photo: John Roberts

Palmetto Bluff’s Conservancy director, Jay Walea.

It was a chilly morning in March, and the first chance I’d gotten all season to turkey hunt for myself. I’d been listening every day that week, having pinpointed the roost of an old Palmetto Bluff gobbler. As quiet as a mouse, I slipped along the edge of No. 8 Swamp with just a sliver of moonlight to guide me. I soon reached my destination, a slash pine flat right next to the fire line that separated the hill from the swamp. That week, the gobbler had roosted every day at the other end of the flat. I nestled in, allowing myself a shot at the gobbler if he came straight up the flat, or a shot down the fire line if it tried to circle me.

Photo: Courtesy of Palmetto Bluff

On the hunt at Palmetto Bluff.

It wasn’t long before the first glimmer of sunlight streaked through the forest. All around me, the birds were wide awake and singing, happy to see the morning sun. When the first crow called, it immediately triggered a response from the big gobbler, which had been silent up until that moment. It was exactly where I thought it would be. I started my calling routine with a soft, subtle series of tree yelps, and it gobbled back instantly. After a few more yelps, I let out a fly-down cackle, and with that, it double gobbled and pitched out of a tree less than one hundred yards away. Once on the ground, the gobbler began closing the distance, enticed by my seductive calls. Hubba-hubba, old fella.

Illustration: Amanda Davis

Sitting on the ground with my shotgun on my knee, I was fully camouflaged and ready to harvest this unassuming gobbler, no doubt thinking it was about to meet an early morning romance. Suddenly, the gobbling stopped. I wasn’t worried—turkeys do that often, playing hard to get while coyly hoping the hen will come the rest of the way up the flat herself. I quit my calling, knowing the gobbler would most likely come looking for the hen a few moments later. 

After about ten minutes of silence, however, I noticed not only that the turkey had quit gobbling, but the birdsong had gone quiet as well. The dead calm hung heavy in the air.

Behind me, I heard what could only be a snake slithering through the palmetto thicket. Several minutes passed, and the sound drew closer and closer to my tree. I’ve never been afraid of snakes—they have crawled across my legs while I’ve been turkey hunting on several occasions. I was eager, however, to see what kind of snake was approaching. With most of my attention on the flat in front of me, expecting to see the gobbler at any moment, I could still hear the slithering noise making its way to the tree I was sitting against. And then, there was the sound of something breathing behind me. 

You can always hear a snake crawling through palmettos, but you can never hear its breath. Cautiously, I turned to see what other creature was breathing down my neck when all of a sudden, a bobcat pounced, meeting me in midair. All that was going through my mind was the show When Animals Attack!, though I’m sure all it could think was, “That is the biggest, ugliest hen turkey I have ever seen!”

The Lord takes care of children and fools, and I’m no child. Had I been unaware of my surroundings and not heard the cat approaching, I could have easily ended up with a lap full of angry kitty. The bobcat had heard my hen calls and approached in pursuit of a tasty breakfast. Bobcats prey on birds and rodents, but they are not a threat to humans or their pets unless they are cornered or threatened. We must have scared about ten years off of each other’s lives.

Illustration: Amanda Davis

In the end, what felt like minutes was really only a few seconds. The cat diverted her leap and landed in the middle of the fire line, less than five feet from me. She sat down panting, clearly as frightened as I was. By now, I had trained my shotgun on her, but I quickly realized she wasn’t a threat. Pulling down my camo mask so she could see my face, I said, “Go on! Get out of here!” Still startled, she walked a bit farther into the woods before sitting down again, still trying to catch her breath. After about five minutes, she got up and moved quickly away,
probably thinking about becoming a vegetarian. —
Jay Walea, Conservancy director at Palmetto Bluff

Throughout the year, Walea hosts regular tours, hikes, lectures, and field trips for Palmetto Bluff residents and guests. To book your own customized Lowcountry wildlife experience at Palmetto Bluff, click here