In Memorium: Turkey Biologist Lovett Williams

fredLovett Williams, longtime Turkey & Turkey Hunting contributor and one of the most recognized turkey biologists in history, died. Lovett was a dear friend and a true turkey man. I thought it was appropriate to post a feature Jim Casada wrote about Lovett in the April 2013 T&TH. Rest in peace, Lovett. — Brian Lovett

As many folks in the world of the wild turkey already know, thanks to the sport’s extremely active grapevine, iconic wildlife biologist, researcher, author and hunter Lovett Williams has been stricken by a neurological disease that is progressive and irreversible.

I learned of this a year or so ago and found the news devastating. Not only was Lovett a longtime friend, but we had hunted together, exchanged ideas and swapped stories, and through the years, he had been the subject of several of my articles. When I needed an unfailing reference source for information on controversial matters — such as turkey behavior, whether to shoot jakes, the biological impact of fall hunting or anything connected with the wild turkey— he was the man. Qualified responses — words such as “possibly,” “perhaps” or “maybe,” and thoughts such as, “We need more research,” or, “The jury’s still out on that” — did not exist for Lovett. When you asked him a question about turkeys, one of two things occurred. He offered a straightforward answer backed by intimate first-hand knowledge, or he simply said, “I don’t know.”

In other words, Lovett is not given to equivocation or beating around the bush. He is forthright, almost brutally honest and willing to step on toes — whether they belonged to academic types, field biologists or know-it-all hunters — when they need a bit of tromping. Everything he says or writes comes from an immense reservoir of knowledge.
In doing background for this article, I discovered a piece on Lovett I wrote for this magazine almost two decades ago. In it, my opening paragraph concluded, “There is little question that Williams is unrivaled when it comes to name recognition as an expert on the wild turkey in both the scientific and hunting communities.”

Through the ensuing years, he enhanced that already stellar reputation in impressive fashion. Part of that process involved regular contributions to these pages. From the beginnings of Turkey & Turkey Hunting, readers have been richly blessed by his consistently insightful, interesting and informative pieces. Typical of the man and his stellar work ethic, when it became clear that he would soon be unable to communicate verbally or through the written word, Lovett put his nose to the grindstone and churned out dozens of features and columns for this magazine. That explains why, despite his health problems, you have continued to read his material.

Famed Western artist Charles Russell once said that in his paintings, he wanted to “get it all down before it’s all gone.” He was referring to the rapidly vanishing old West. Lovett took a similar approach, although in his case, he wanted to get it all down before his mental capacity to do so was gone. His gritty determination to share as much accumulated knowledge as possible while he still had time provides some measure of a remarkable man.

Man of the Land
While pondering an appropriate way to pay tribute to Lovett, I thought it would be fitting to touch on dimensions of his Renaissance-like qualities it was my privilege to experience. Accordingly, what follows is a series of brief snapshots of him in a variety of capacities. They come from correspondence, shared times in hunting camps at his Fisheating Creek operation and elsewhere and numerous occasions when our paths crossed through the years.

To venture afield with Lovett was to be privy to a continuing, in-depth education in natural history. You could ask him about a dainty flower or giant tree and be assured of an informed response. For example, on a live oak, he might point out resurrection fern, offer a learned dissertation on Spanish moss — including some of the uses humans had historically made of it — or talk about the critters that feasted on its mast in fall. Incidentally, all of that actually happened one afternoon when we each shot a limit of wood ducks that flew into a grove of oaks to feast on the acorns. A passel of gray squirrels also figured in the game bag, and as we headed back to camp in the gloaming, we had a delightful afternoon of hunting behind us and the makings of a fine game supper ahead of us. Best, my knowledge of the flora and fauna of Florida’s woods had been upgraded appreciably.

Speaking of the food we carried home from the woods on that hunt, I cleaned it, and Lovett cooked it. He was a first-rate hand in the kitchen, and if ever a man knew how to live off the land, it was him. During a memorable stay of several days at Fisheating Creek, much of the menu featured products of the nearby woods, swamp and creek. That was when turkey hunting was limited to a half day in Florida, so afternoons were open for other pursuits. About toddy time each day, Lovett would head to the woods with his .22 rifle. Soon, he would return with a couple of armadillos in tow. They would, soon enough, become appetizers for his guests.

Similarly, when I decided to spend a few hours fishing in the creek that gave the camp its name, he said, “If you catch any decent-sized gar, bring them back to camp. I know how to use them.” Daily, we whetted our appetites on armadillo, rattlesnake and gar as a prelude to serious dining on Earth’s rich bounty. At one time or another, the menu featured “swamp cabbage” (hearts of the Sabal palm) in a rich, savory stew; raw as the main ingredient in a salad; and pickled as an hors d’oeuvre. Then there was succulent meat from a young wild hog, first as the main dish one evening and then as leftovers turned into chopped barbecue for sandwiches, not to mention the incomparable delight of wild turkey tenders.

That might not be normal camp fare, and I suspect that today’s uppity bureaucrats would make much of it off limits in a commercial operation, but man alive was it fine. In fact, having some experience in producing such books, I suggested that Lovett compile his recipes and knowledge into a volume such as Florida Cracker Cooking or Eating Wild the Florida Way.

Unparalleled Writer
He never wrote such a book, yet there was no shortage of production from his prolific pen on other fronts. In fact, I always benefitted from chatting with him about his approach to writing, work habits and the next project. The articles and columns he contributed to Turkey & Turkey Hunting, numerous though they are, form but a tiny portion of his prodigious literary outpouring. In terms of a legacy — and his contributions in many fields are sure to endure — his books will have the greatest prominence. They include, in original order of publication, The Book of the Wild Turkey (1981), The Voice and Vocabulary of the Wild Turkey (1984), Studies of the Wild Turkey in Florida (1988, co-authored with David H. Austin), The Art & Science of Wild Turkey Hunting (1989), Wild Turkey Country (1991), Managing Wild Turkeys in Florida (1991), After the Hunt (1996), Hunting the Gould’s Wild Turkey in Mexico (no date, circa 2002), Wild Turkey Hunting & Management (2006) and The Ocellated Turkey in the Land of the Maya (2010, co-authored with Erick H. Baur and Neal F. Eichholz). Several of these books appeared in paperbound and hardbound versions.

Lovett was equally active in recording and filming wild turkeys. His Real Turkeys tapes (later CDs) remain invaluable for anyone wanting to master turkey talk. Once, he showed me how he set up blinds, arranged equipment and meticulously prepared — a bedrock quality of everything he did — to capture turkey sounds on tape or video birds in the wild. He was equally devoted to the history of the sport, which, given my background in that field, particularly appealed to me. In company with two other veterans, Larry Hearn and Parker Whedon, in 1984, he founded Old Masters Publishing. Under that imprint, they reprinted three rare classics of the sport’s literature: E.A. McIlhenny’s The Wild Turkey and Its Hunting, Simon Everitt’s Tales of Wild Turkey Hunting and Henry Edwards Davis’ The American Wild Turkey. Lovett would later buy out his partners and reprint a fourth volume, Tom Turpin’s Hunting the Wild Turkey.

Callmaker, Hunter
Less well known is Lovett’s work as a callmaker. He told me that for years, his turkey hunting involved only woodsmanship, with calling having no role. Even after he became a trained biologist, he harbored doubts about the efficacy of calling, but an experience with a master using his natural voice and a hunt where he listened to Parker Whedon run a wingbone changed his perspective. Lovett became an exceptional hand with a wingbone call and crafted many of them through the years, complete with an attractively designed lanyard attached with a separate piece of turkey bone. Quite small, these two-piece calls are particularly effective for kee-keeing and producing high, keen notes associated with young hens.

Then there was Lovett the hunter. He began hunting turkeys as a college undergraduate, and I think one of the many characteristics that separated him from the standard run of wildlife biologists was his extraordinary skill as a hunter. Unquestionably, hours without end in blinds observing turkeys — this was in pre-Thermacell days in mosquito purgatory — helped mold him as a hunter, but so did infinite patience, superior woodcraft and that indefinable but real feel for the sport that defines a true turkey man. I was privileged to accompany him in successfully stalking a fall turkey. From the outset, I doubted it could be done and stated that my presence would only complicate an already problematic undertaking. Lovett just smiled and said, “Follow in my footsteps, and do what I signal or say.” Forty-five minutes later, we stood admiring a fine Osceola as I tried mentally to encompass what had just transpired. Suffice it to say, I’d experienced a brief but impressive lesson in turkey hunting woodsmanship performed at the highest level.

Viewed from any of the perspectives mentioned — author, hunter, researcher, videographer, photographer, camp cook, wildlife biologist or student of natural history — Lovett was a master. Yet those aspects of his career I was privileged to know personally, although undeniably impressive, form only part of the picture. He was also a teacher, shrewd entrepreneur, mentor to aspiring biologists, leader in pioneering hunts for the ocellated subspecies and dedicated to working with indigenous peoples to help them use wildlife resources to improve their way of living.

A Turkey Man For the Ages
During almost four decades as a writer and someone who has wandered in constant wonder through the world of the wild turkey and mingled with those captivated by the grand bird’s allure, it has been my privilege to venture afield with scores of talented hunters. Moreover, I have shaken and howdied with many other stalwarts, and through assiduous reading and research have cultivated at least a vicarious acquaintance with most of the sport’s luminaries, past and present. With that as perspective, let me conclude in a Lovett-like unambiguous fashion. I believe that in the sweeping compass of turkey hunting’s rich history, no individual has had an impact comparable to that of Lovett. He is a treasure who gifts us with a mark beyond measure. He has enriched the sport in a fashion that places those of us who cherish the lure and lore of turkey hunting forever in his debt.

One thought on “In Memorium: Turkey Biologist Lovett Williams

  1. wardenofthewoods

    A TRUE loss to the turkey hunting community! Lovett’s Biology column in T&TH were the first I would turn to! Lovett genuinely educated me, a little ol Hoosier longbeard chaser miles away, through his writings and inspired me as well! My heart hurts to know of the loss! My sympathies to Michelle, his daughter and the Williams family! Lovett may you rest and live forever in the sounds of the wild turkey.

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