Rob Keck: The Godfather of Turkey Hunting
The name Rob Keck has been synonymous with turkey hunting for over five decades—no other turkey hunter in history has contributed more to the incredible return of the wild turkey in North America. Keck has played a huge role in educating hunters, conservationists, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers in the development of modern-day turkey hunting.
Keck harvested his first wild turkey on November 23, 1963. He was 13 years old. “As long as I live, I will never forget looking down the barrel of my hammerless Savage single-shot 12-gauge at my first long-beard there on the edge of the laurel up on the side of Sullivan Mountain in Pennsylvania,” Keck says. “Watching that turkey come to the calls I made on my Louis Stevenson box call was the hook that launched my life-long love affair with the wild turkey.”
As a teenager, Keck’s passion for the outdoors burned in his soul, the flames kindled by the hunting adventures of his dad, grandpa, and uncles. “I read the Pennsylvania Game News magazine and watched Call of the Outdoors TV on a regular basis, too,” Keck says. “That local show out of Lancaster inspired me with a desire to perfect my turkey calling.”
Perhaps Call of the Wild TV inspired the slogan Keck used at the end of Turkey Call TV while he served as CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, “Will you answer the call?”
“My dad often attended the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg,” Keck says.“As a little kid, I’d tag along. There were only a few vendors with turkey calls, and those call makers became my mentors.”
In 1978, Keck, then a young Pennsylvania school teacher, was hired to become the CEO of the fledgling National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). The job set him apart from every other turkey hunter in the country. Essentially a regional organization at the time, by 1997, under the masterful leadership of Keck, the NWTF had expanded into one of the most successful hunter-supported conservation organizations in the nation.
In true fashion, Keck credits the cooperative efforts of many agencies and individuals for the amazing return of the wild turkey. “It was prime time,” Keck says. “Interest in turkey hunting had steadily grown. Only 30 states held turkey seasons when I began my career with NWTF. The whole story of the successful reintroduction of the wild turkey across this country is the culmination of all of the work of NWTF volunteers, many state agency partners, as well as cooperate partners, and some individual partners, who all worked tirelessly to trap and transfer wild turkeys from one place of occupied habitat to another place of unoccupied habitat.”
“Target 2000” was the title of our program to have populations of birds in every state that had suitable habitat,” Keck continues. “We did just that, by reestablishing all subspecies to their former range and beyond. We sent turkeys to Ontario, Canada, from seven states. Those initial releases have now established populations in other provinces. Through cooperation with Mexican officials, we transferred Gould’s turkeys from Sonora to Arizona and New Mexico, reestablishing a fifth subspecies.”
Through Keck’s incredible leadership skills to bring the efforts of so many agencies and untold numbers of volunteers together, it became possible for turkey hunters to hunt Easterns, Rios, Merriam’s, Osceolas, and finally Gould’s wild turkeys within the boundaries of the continental United States and Hawaii. Indeed, turkey hunters dreams had come true. “In the early days of the restoration effort, any time there was an announcement about a turkey meeting, whether it be a calling contest, a seminar, or a meeting led by a state biologist, rooms would be packed,” Keck says. “People were hungry for information about wild turkeys.”
When Rob Keck left the NWTF on June 1, 2008, the organization boasted over 550,000 members in 50 states and 16 foreign countries. In his 30-year tenure, he successfully took a fledgling organization and turned it into a strong and highly effective wildlife partnership with the nation’s myriad wildlife agencies.
Today, the United States harbors over 7 million turkeys and 3 million turkey hunters. From 1985 until Keck stepped down, more than $285 million from the NWTF and its cooperators was spent conserving over 13 million acres of wildlife habitat, establishing education efforts, and upholding the strongest of American hunting traditions. “The greatest thing about this entire successful reintroduction story is the fact that it was not about just one person, or agency,” Keck says. “It was about a great partnership of people from all walks of life, professionals and non-professionals. Often the NWTF is given the credit, but it can’t take it all. Wild turkeys are owned by the individual states, and the citizens of those states can lay claim to them. The NWTF was in a great position to orchestrate the trap and transfer of birds from one state to another and to foreign countries.”
The restoration of the wild turkey in the United States became one of the greatest wildlife management feats of all time. “Everybody can take pride in this great accomplishment,” Keck says. “The American hunter has to take a bow, because they are the people who paid the bill through license sales, special stamps and permits, and also through the tax funds of the Pittman-Robertson Act.”
A lot of trial and error went into the wealth of success stories the NWTF stacked up over three decades. Keck credits the media for helping to spread the word about the wild turkey program. “We held media days and events to entice the media to let the general public know about the role that hunters had to play in restoration and conservation of wildlife,” he says.
As a career ambassador for the wild turkey, Keck spread the word everywhere he could about his passion for turkey hunting, including the White House. “Karl Rove, adviser to George W. Bush, approached me at a White House Christmas Party once,” Keck remembers. “He told me I had caused a problem by giving President George W. Bush a turkey call. He further stated that one yelp meant the President needed Vice President Cheney, two yelps meant he wanted Condoleezza Rice, and three yells meant he wanted Rove himself.”
Rob Keck became the first turkey hunter to take birds in all 49 states. He took his first bird as a teenager in his home state of Pennsylvania, and his 49th in 1997, in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation of North Dakota. His turkey hunt in Hawaii was, however, his favorite. “We were at about 5,000 feet on a foggy, almost frosty morning,” Keck recalls. “A full moon shimmered across the waves of the Pacific. I had to owl hoot. Turkeys gobbled from every direction. I had found paradise.”
And that’s when turkey hunters began calling Rob Keck the Godfather of Turkey hunting, a fitting title.