A select few people involved in the outdoors reach what is called “larger than life” status. Some achieve that level because of their hunting and/or fishing skills, philanthropy or contributions to education with a goal to ensure cherished outdoors traditions are available to future generations.
One of those legendary figures was a man whose magnetic personality and voracious appetites for food and the pursuit of turkeys puts him near the top of the list.
Despite his death in a fiery car crash a little more than 25 years ago, Ben Rodgers Lee of Coffeeville is still revered as the person who brought turkey hunting to the outdoors mainstream through his videos, seminars, media and publications.
Unfortunately, I never got to hunt with Lee, but I know several people who did a lot more than hunt with Rodger Lee, as his closest friends called him.
When I spotted an unopened Ben Lee diaphragm call on an online auction recently, I was compelled to post a bid. It wasn’t for my collection but for a friend I’ve been hunting with for more than 25 years. Fortunately, I won the bid and called Larry Norton and told him I had a call I wanted to give him.
After turkey hunting recently with Norton in Choctaw County, Alabama, I handed him the package with a Ben Lee Black Widow call.
“Where did you find that?” he asked, beaming.
After I told him, he said he had one of the last calls made with Ben’s photo on the package.
Naturally, anyone who has hunted turkeys for a while has heard of Ben Lee and the stories that accompany his legend.
Norton, who hails from Pennington, was a member of Lee’s pro staff and calling team back in the ‘80s and had way more Ben Lee stories than will fit in the confines of this column. Highlights will have to suffice.
Norton, who would go on to win back-to-back World Championship turkey calling contests, said some of Ben’s antics overshadowed his ability as a turkey hunter.
“I’ve hunted with the best in the world – Preston Pittman, Eddie Salter, Will Primos, the Drury brothers (Mark and Terry), Cuz Strickland – and none of them could hold a candle to Ben in the turkey woods,” Norton said. “Ben said when you’re working a turkey, you just about turn into one. You try to think what that gobbler is thinking, what the hens are thinking and what you would do if you were the gobbler.
“Ben told me that calling is only one-third of killing a turkey. Another third is sitting in the right place. The other third is to know the critter you are hunting, what he likes to eat and where he likes to walk the roads. You’ve got to do your homework. Find the strut marks and the gobbler tracks in the road with no hens. Those are the easy pickings. You get them first.”
Like legendary angler Roland Martin insists there’s a fish next to every stump, Norton said Lee insisted there is one constant in turkey hunting.
“Ben told me that if a turkey answers you, I mean cuts you off when you’re calling, he is killable,” Norton said. “That gobbler is saying he’s got business where he is, and he will come see you when he gets done. I can’t tell you how true that’s been for me over the years.
“Ben always told me that if I fooled with a turkey for two or three days early in the season, all the other hunters had killed all the easy turkeys by then. He said to leave the tough turkeys alone. Get the easy turkeys out the way and then start fooling with the old turkeys.”
Lee also said that competition calling doesn’t necessarily translate to calling turkeys in the woods.
“He taught me the turkeys didn’t care if I was a world champion,” Norton said. “It what’s you say and when you say it. You’ve got to learn the turkey language. Clucking and purring means feeding. Aggressive clucking and purring means they’ve seen something that they don’t know what it is. He taught me that you’ve got to know what to say and when to say it.”
As much as Lee was known for his turkey hunting, Norton said his willingness to stick up for the little guy was one of his most treasured personality traits.
“Ben was a good person,” Norton said. “He would give you the shirt off his back. He was always very polite, but he did not tolerate people looking down on other people. He wasn’t going to put up with it. It was, ‘Accept me for who I am and I’ll accept you for who you are.’ That always impressed me about Ben.”
When it came to food, Norton said the late Tom Fegely, a well-known outdoor writer, relayed a story about the aftermath of a hunt with Ben in Clarke County that defied physics.
“Fegely said they hunted that morning without any luck,” Norton said. “Ben stopped at a country store and bought two apple pies and two 2-liter Cokes. These weren’t the turnovers; these were full-sized apple pies like grandma made.”
Tom thought the pies were for dessert after lunch until Ben opened one pie box and dumped the contents into his hand. Ben ate the whole pie and downed one bottle of Coke. A few more miles down the road, Ben opened the other pie box and repeated the performance.
“When they got to Ben’s house, Miss Patsy, Ben’s wife at the time, had cooked biscuits, eggs, bacon, ham and grits,” Norton said. “Tom said, ‘We sat down and ate breakfast then. I have never seen any human being able to eat that much.’”
GET YOUR FORK: From the Turkey Woods to Your Dinner Table
Norton had a similar story when he and Ben, who went from more than 400 pounds to less than 200 after gastric bypass surgery, went to a calling contest in Atlanta at an upscale hotel.
“I’m as lost as a goose,” Norton said. “I’m a country boy come to the big city. We were in our camouflage in this fancy restaurant where everybody else had on coats and ties and dinner dresses. When the waiter asked what we wanted, Ben told him he wanted a steak, pointing to the next table. ‘That’s the filet mignon,’ the waiter said. Ben said, ‘I want five of them.’ The waiter said, ‘Sir?’ Ben said, ‘I want five filet mignons.’ The people around us starting glancing our way. The waiter said, ‘You want five filets for five people?’ Ben said, ‘No, I want five filets for one person. And I want five baked taters and five salads. And bring me plenty of crackers.’
“When we got through, we went into the bar so Ben could get a nightcap. And this is the kind of person Ben Rodgers Lee was to me. We were two rednecks with camouflage clothes on with all these suit-and-tie business folks. Within 10 minutes, there were 75 people in suits and ties and dinner dresses gathered around Ben laughing. He was telling stories. Ben told them that if he could tell these stories to country boys, they deserved to hear them, too.”
Although there are countless Ben Lee turkey hunting stories, one that has stood the test of time is one that occurred with his best friend, Franklin Baxter, in Texas.
“Ben was crawling up to get in position on a turkey that had hung up and wasn’t coming any farther,” Norton said, recounting that Ben and Franklin had told him the same story at different times. “Franklin was behind Ben and saw a rattlesnake strike Ben on the backside. Franklin said, “Rodger Lee, a rattlesnake just bit you.” Then Ben said, ‘Well, this turkey is going to die before I do.’
“Ben shot the turkey, walked back by the rattlesnake and whopped him in the head with a stick and stuck him in his turkey vest to verify exactly what kind of snake it was. Franklin said they walked into the emergency room and a nurse met them. She asked if she could help, and Ben said, ‘A rattlesnake just bit me.’
“She asked if he was sure it was a rattlesnake. Franklin said Ben reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the rattlesnake and tried to hand it to the nurse. You know what happened then. The nurse stumbled backward and ran through the door hollering for the doctor. She was screaming, ‘This man’s got a snake in here.’”
The legend lives on even if the man does not.
This story is springtime bonus coverage for turkey season hunters. Click here for our Turkey & Turkey Hunting downloads including the 2017 Turkey & Turkey Hunting Annual and Spring issues along with other CDs, books and more.