Tradition a popular fundraiser

The first thing you need to know about turkey shoots is that no turkeys get shot.

The second thing you need to know is that in the Lowcountry, turkey shoots are as much a rite of fall as eating oysters — and they are, like oysters, something you really owe it to yourself to try at least once because preconceived notions can be deceiving.

In a turkey shoot, participants use a shotgun to fire at paper targets. The object of the game is to come the closest to the bull's eye. The winner gets a supermarket gift certificate that can be used toward a turkey or ham. (Years ago, the prize was an actual frozen turkey.)

One shot at the target will run you $3 at most local shoots, and the money raised goes to Lowcountry charities.

Until last week, I hadn't been to a turkey shoot since, oh, about 1970. Back then, my dad used to take me with him to a shoot sponsored by the Island Club. It was held at the edge of the marsh on a little piece of land right off Ben Sawyer Boulevard on the Sullivan's Island side of the bridge. It was just a few miles from our house, and it gave Dad, who loved to hunt and was an outstanding shot, a chance to test his marksmanship in a friendly rivalry with fellow sportsmen (and sportswomen), and perhaps win a turkey as well.

I was too young to shoot back then, but I liked the competition and rooting for Dad. I liked standing with him and his friends around the rusty old barrel where there was always a popping, crackling fire going. Smoke would billow out of the barrel and across the marsh, and we'd keep our hands warm at the fire until it was Dad's turn to shoot.

The closest I've come to a turkey shoot in the many years since those days is my back porch. It's about halfway between the house where I grew up and the East Cooper Outboard Motor Club's annual turkey shoot, which takes place on Goldbug Island at the foot of the Ben Sawyer Bridge (on the Mount Pleasant side). On these cool November nights, my husband, Bill, and I can sit on our back porch in the evenings and hear the crack of the guns coming across the marsh, just like the smoke used to do when I was a little girl.

Last week, we decided to head over to Goldbug Island to check it out.

Take a shot

If you think you've got to be an experienced hunter or a crack shot to take part in a turkey shoot or have a chance of winning, you might want to talk to Caitlin Blackwell. The 17-year-old Wando student won a handful of gift certificates at Goldbug Island last week.

Does she hunt a lot or practice up for the competition? "No," she says. "This is pretty much the only time all year that I shoot."

Bo Stallings, who heads up the turkey shoot for the club, says that's not an unusual story. "We have 9-year-old girls come out here and beat all the old men all the time," he says.

Stallings says you don't even have to own a gun to participate; you can borrow one on-site from the club. No need to bring any shells, either. The club provides them, either 12-gauge or .410.

On Goldbug Island, things get rolling about 6:30 p.m. As soon as 10 people sign up to shoot, that's a round. Ten targets, each one bearing the name of a competitor, are posted on boards 75 feet away from where the competitors stand. They step up one at a time to fire, then all 10 targets are collected and brought to a table for judging.

When the moment of truth arrives, everyone crowds the table, peering over each other's shoulders to see who won. Club member Al Nagel presides over the judging with the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer.

"Read 'em and weep!" he proclaims, calling out the names on the targets as the field is narrowed. "Nice pattern on this one here. ... Parker, sorry about this one. ... Tony, you were there, buddy, but no cigar, pal. ... OK, inner circle on this one — now it's getting interesting!"

Adding it all up

Whether you're shooting or just watching and enjoying the competition, Lowcountry turkey shoots all add up to a good time for participants and some big bucks for charities.

Over the years, the Outboard Motor Club's shoot has supported East Cooper Meals on Wheels, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Carolina Children's Charities, East Cooper Community Outreach and East Cooper Scholarship Fund, among many other causes.

Stallings says that one night last week, the turkey shoot went 39 rounds. Ten people shooting per round, $3 per shot — and that was just one night out of the three-weeklong fundraiser.

In addition to raising money through the entry fees, the club also has a food stand at the turkey shoot where you can buy hot dogs and chili, chips, soft drinks, hot chocolate and T-shirts.

That's the biggest change from the turkey shoots of my childhood, but it's a welcome one. Dad and I could have used a little hot chocolate by the fire back then.