A Hunting Accident, a Wary Gobbler, and One Last Hunt

This story, “Last Gobbler,” originally ran in the April 1981 issue of Outdoor Life. John Hafner

IT WAS 3 A.M. when Price Shurley’s alarm clock awoke him on the morning of April 8, 1969. Taking care not to disturb his wife, he eased out of bed, slipped into his camouflage coveralls, and double-checked his equipment. Assured his callers, headnet, shells, and knife were in their proper pockets, he shouldered his old Browning 12gauge automatic and stepped out onto the porch, closing the door behind him.

Outside it was dead calm. As was his custom, he looked up into the predawn sky. Overhead the stars sparkled brightly, bringing him promise of turkey gobbling and another beautiful spring day in the Mississippi woods. 

At 3:15 a.m. Shurley joined a hunting companion for breakfast at a McComb cafe. After a hearty breakfast they began the 11-mile drive to some woods in Amite County where the morning’s hunt would take place. Shurley had scouted the woods a number of times to locate turkeys and to study their movements. Two afternoons before he had made a blind of natural vegetation on a low ridge where he anticipated the turkeys would move after they came off the roost. Shurley planned to position his companion in this blind. 

At 4:45 a.m. the two men stepped from the truck and began the threequarter-mile hike that would take them to the hunting area. In due course the blind was located and Shurley’s friend took his seat. Shurley then continued on for a safe distance before sitting down with his back to a large pine. 

About 5:50 a.m. Shurley began to putt occasionally with his diaphragm mouth caller. Two hens answered his calls, and at about 6:45 a.m. they flew off their roosts to the ground. Shurley attempted to call them up, hoping that a silent gobbler would be present when they came into view. 

After about 15 minutes of intermittent calling, Shurley looked around and saw his companion approaching. He motioned to reveal his position, then looked back in the direction he expected the turkeys to appear. Shurley’s companion had indeed seen the movement, but to him it looked exactly like a gobbler’s head, and he shouldered his gun for the shot. When Shurley glanced back a moment later, he looked into the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with three-inch magnum shells at a range of 22 yards. He waved again, but it was too late. The gun roared, sending a load of No. 6 shot crashing into Shurley’s face. 

“It was a terrible hunting accident,” recalls J. E. Thornhill Jr. of McComb, Mississippi, who was a close friend of Price Shurley. “It always is when one friend shoots another. Price survived somehow, but he was totally blind for the rest of his life.” 

Thornhill believes the accident would have killed a lesser man. Shurley was a powerful specimen, standing six-feet five inches and weighing more than 250 pounds.

“He looked as though he could play defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers,” says Thornhill.

PRICE SHURLEY worked as a locomotive engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, but he was better known for his hunting and fishing abilities. He was generally acknowledged to be one of the finest turkey hunters in south Mississippi. Stories of his calling ability and hunting prowess were legion. He was 50 years old at the time of the accident.

He hunted all Mississippi game from deer to doves, but turkey hunting was his first love. He was also expert at hand-grabbing big catfish. It is said that Price Shurley had an uncanny sense of touch for big fish. Once he had located a catfish in a hollow log or up under a washed-out riverbank, he could take a twig and, by feeling the fish, estimate within ounces what the catfish would weigh when he finally wrestled it out of its lair.

“Because he was such a successful hunter and hand-grabber,” Thornhill recalls, “he was sometimes labeled as an outlaw by those who were jealous of his success. But in all my years afield with Price, I never saw him ‘outlaw’ any game.

The story’s original illustration is by Tommy Soloski. Outdoor Life

Shurley had always been a happy, sociable man, but after he lost his sight he became brooding and morose. Eventually he began hand-grabbing again, for it is touch and not sight that is important in this unique sport. On fishing trips he seemed to come out of his shell and revert to the old Price again. But when spring came and the scent of blooming dogwood filled the air Price Shurley really hurt.

“I guess there were just too many old gobblers in his mind for him to accept the fact that he had bagged his last one,” Thornhill reckons.

He recalls a day when he paid Price a visit. They sat on the porch and enjoyed a good talk about bygone days they had shared in the field.

“It was dusk and I was about to leave when Price asked me to stay a minute longer,” Thornhill remembers. “He went inside and returned with his old Browning autoloader in his hands. He said it was too good a turkey gun not to be in the field and he wanted to pass it along to me. I insisted on paying him for his shotgun. Driving home that evening I realized that Price had finally accepted the fact that he could never bag another gobbler. When I got home I put my gun in the rack, and I’ve used Price’s Browning since that day.”

Thornhill and other friends occasionally took Shurley with them on late afternoon rides through the big woods, where they would stop and listen for turkeys to gobble as they flew up to roost at twilight.

“I could never tell from Price’s reaction whether these outings helped or hurt him,” Thornhill recalls. “I do know that he liked to give advice to hunters who were having problems with smart gobblers. He listened carefully as the hunter told him about it. He would ask countless questions about the way the birds reacted to various calls and about the lay of the land. Then he would suggest a series of calls to try, or encourage a change in the position of the hunter’s blind. He always expected a report on how his advice had worked. I could sense his mental involvement and the pleasure he got from the tales I told him about smart turkeys I tried to work.

Thornhill recalls that Shurley’s physical adjustment to blindness was rapid. “When Price had his sight he was an amazing woodsman,” he said. “He used all his senses, and I learned a great deal from him when we were in the field together. I suppose being blind served to sharpen his already remarkable remaining senses. He could identify men by the sound of their walk and women by the scent of the cosmetics and perfume they used.

Thornhill considered taking Shurley along on a hunt so that he could listen to the calling and gobbling, but when he considered how tough it is to negotiate turkey woods where speed is often critical, he was afraid it would be too difficult for Price. He decided that if he ever roosted a bird alongside a road, he would invite Price to come along, but that perfect situation never seemed to appear.

Then about three years after the accident the spring turkey season rolled around. Halfway through the season Thornhill located a good gobbling turkey and tried to call him into range. This old tom resisted his most enticing calls for six days straight.

“Finally, I asked Price for advice,” Thornhill told me. “I told him everything I could remember about each hunt, recalling as many specific details as possible. He listened intently, quizzing me when I failed to make some point clear. While we talked, I remembered how his eyes used to sparkle when we plotted against an old boss gobbler.

“At last he settled back in his chair and said, ‘There’s some obstacle between you and your turkey-a fence, a thicket, a creek. There is some spot of ground there that he chooses not to cross. You have two options—come in from another direction or make him overcome his fear.’”

“A CREEK WOUND through those woods, and I told Price I had never been able to get a gobbler to fly across a creek. A big grin spread across his face, and he said, ‘Well, that’s one difference between you and me. I never had that problem.

“I wanted that gobbler badly, but I wanted even more to see if Price could call him across the creek, so without really considering the consequences, I told him I would pick him up at 4:00 a.m. He would do the calling and I would do the shooting.

At first he made no reply. He just sat there behind those dark glasses. Then I detected the trace of a smile and he said he would be ready.”

At dawn the two men were half a mile into the deep woods. They stood in silence as the sounds of a new day grew louder. Then way across the bottom an owl hooted and the old turkey gobbled from his roost tree in reply. Arm in arm, the hunters moved forward 300 yards while the turkey continued to gobble.

Thornhill helped Shurley take his seat at the base of a big tree. While he cut branches and fashioned a blind, Shurley raked away ground litter where they would sit side by side. As Thornhill sat down at his friend’s left side, the turkey gobbled from the ground. He was off the roost.

“Price put his mouth caller into place and began making a series of excited clucks, and the turkey answered immediately, as I knew he would,” Thornhill recalled. “Then for the next half hour Price and the bird exchanged calls. We could course the bird easily because he was so vocal, and I knew he was nearing the creek where he had stopped each day to gobble and strut for another hour. I whispered this information to Price, but he only replied ‘Sit still.’”

The gobbler did in fact stop at the creek, which was 80 yards or so away in front of the blind. He strutted and gobbled on the far side of the stream, walking back and forth over a 50-yard area. The tom raged and gobbled for 30 minutes, but Shurley made no reply. Thornhill strained his eyes for a glimpse of the turkey.

“And then the gobbler hushed, and I began to wonder if he had crossed the creek and was coming in or if he had found some hens and was moving away,” Thornhill said. “I was about to tell Price to call again when the turkey gobbled some distance away from his strutting area. Instantly Price began a call I had never heard before. It was a series of loud and broken cackles with some shrill whines and excited putts thrown in.

“The tom answered with a double gobble, and then we heard his heavy wings beating. I didn’t see him, but I could hear him as he flew across the creek and pitched in 75 yards or so off to our left front. I figured the turkey would come in from the left on Price’s side of the blind, but it wasn’t until I put my finger on the safety that it occurred to me to pass the shotgun to Price. He was making some soft clucks and purrs when I silently pushed the gun across his lap. ‘You kill him,’ I whispered. ‘I’ll help you kill him, Price.’”

When Shurley moved his hands to the smooth-worn stock of the Browning he whispered, “This is my gun.” It was; it was Price’s old turkey gun.

“By this time, my heart was in my throat,” Thornhill says. “Having that gobbler on our side of the creek was thrilling, but what we were about to try had me breathing so hard I was afraid the turkey would hear me. All this time Price sat there like a man made of stone.”

Minutes passed before the turkey gobbled again. They could tell he was 50 or 60 yards away now, but still out of sight. Luckily, he was still off to the left where the barrel of Price’s gun pointed as it lay across his lap. Thornhill said a silent prayer that the bird would hold his course.

The cover of the April 1981 issue, where this story first appeared featured an illustration by George Luther Schelling. Outdoor Life

“And then he gobbled again loud enough to knock off your hat, and Price let go a loud cackle right back at him, much louder than I would have dared to call,” Thornhill continued. “The turkey answered with a quick gobble, and Price countered with another cackle, to which the turkey double gobbled. Price had blown that turkey’s mind, and knew then it was only a matter of time before he came up. I prayed he would come in so Price could get a shot.

“We could hear the heavy drone of his strut and the rasping of his wing tips as they dragged the ground. He was moving slightly to the left again, and I looked past the tip of Price’s nose in an effort to see him.

“Then, suddenly, he appeared. He was in a full strut and every bit as big and beautiful as I knew he would be. His head was a flaming red with wattles as big as buckshot. His beard was a black stripe down his bronze breast. My heart was pounding as I whispered, “There he is,’ and Price silently slipped off the safety.”

The turkey stood motionless for several seconds and then moved slowly forward. When he stopped he was no more than 40 yards away. The turkey’s head was behind the trunk of a big pine. Thornhill whispered to Price to shoulder his gun, which he did in one fluid motion.

With the fingers of his right hand, Thornhill touched Price’s right elbow and pushed gently. Price responded, and the muzzle of the gun moved to the left. Thornhill looked down the side of the barrel and whispered, “Up—up some more,” and he saw the barrel settle on the half-hidden gobbler.

“Right there,” I whispered, and Price froze the gun in place. “From where I sat I was looking down the side of the barrel. As strong as Price Shurley was, I knew in my heart that he would hold the gun steady for as long as it might take to get the shot.”

Probably only seconds passed, but it dragged like hours while the two men sat waiting. The thought crossed Thornhill’s mind that Price had to kill this turkey. He hadn’t considered what failure might do to his friend. Now it came to him that the next moment might destroy Price Shurley. A miss now might accomplish what a magnum load of No. 6’s had failed to do on another turkey hunt.

Finally the gobbler stepped out, but he was partly screened by underbrush. He angled slightly to the left again, and again Thornhill pressed Price’s elbow. The muzzle inched to the left, and then the turkey stepped clear of the brush.

“Shoot,” Thornhill whispered, and the Browning roared.

“Price held the gun,” Thornhill reflects, “but the good Lord must have been with him, because the turkey went down with feathers flying.”

Thornhill sprang to his feet, dancing and yelling, “You got him, Price! You did it!” But when he looked down at Shurley, he was just sitting there with the shotgun across his lap. 

“I always went straight to my turkeys,” Price said quietly. 

Thornhill turned and ran to the fallen gobbler. He was a fine turkey with a 9 1/2-inch beard and long, hooked spurs. He carried him back to the blind man and placed the great bird across his legs. 

Price’s fingers worked their way to the spurs first, and he ran his thumb and index finger over them. Then he stroked the heavy beard and felt the tips of the wings, which had been worn blunt by strutting. He hefted the turkey and guessed the big tom’s weight at 20 pounds. 

“I couldn’t tell from the way Price reacted to the kill how he felt about it all,” Thornhill remembers. “I didn’t know what I should say, so I didn’t say anything. Price came to his feet, so I picked up the turkey and the gun and we started back to the truck. He took hold of my right forearm and we slowly worked our way out of the woods.

“On the ride home Price was quiet, and I understood. I knew he was thinking about everything that had taken place that morning and that he would come to some conclusion about what it all meant to him. I was worried sick that it had all been a tragic mistake, and that killing the tom would prevent Price from coming to terms with his blindness. 

“We must have been about halfway home when a grin crossed Price’s face, and he said, ‘I knew we would take him when he double gobbled on our side of the creek.’ 

“Relief swept over me, and we began to talk about every call Price had made, every answer the turkey had given, and every touch I had made on Price’s elbow. All the tension vanished, and we laughed and congratulated each other on our million-to-oneshot hunt. 

“We were almost home when Price asked, ‘He’s still in the bed of the truck, ain’t he?’ I glanced around and assured him the turkey was there. ‘Good,’ he said with a smile, ‘A turkey isn’t yours for sure till you close the oven door.’”

The two men showed that turkey all over the county and told the story of the hunt 100 times. And that hunt remained the high point of Price Shurley’s life for the rest of his days. He died in 1976 of natural causes not related to his hunting accident. 

“It was a crazy idea, and we didn’t set out to do it,” J. E. Thornhill told me. “I don’t think we could have done it again, but we did it that time, Price and me. And if I take a thousand turkeys before I am done, none of them will ever mean as much to me as Price Shurley’s last gobbler.” 

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