“Let me not die while I am still alive. ”
Now We’re Talking Turkey
I've hunted wild ducks, grouse, pheasants and other game birds with varying levels of enthusiasm for 40 years. But I had never seen anything like this: two resplendent four-foot-tall adult male wild turkeys, all bronze and black and iridescent, galloping on stilt-like legs across a cattle pasture the size of two football fields. And on this sparkling spring afternoon, they were racing right toward me!
I was dressed head to toe in camouflage clothing designed for the occasion, sitting on a camouflaged stool, cradling a camouflaged 12-gauge Italian-made shotgun, peering out a narrow slit in a camouflaged nylon blind that my guide and I had set up in the rustling palmetto trees an hour earlier.
My mouth was as parched as cotton balls. My heart pounded. My sweaty hands shook as I gripped the gun.
"Shhhh," whispered Jeff Budz, forefinger to his lips, covered by a mesh facemask, his other hand lightly on my shoulder. Budz is an expert's expert: He has bagged more wild turkey grand slams (see sidebar) than any hunter in the history of the sport. A mere 20 yards in front of us, six juvenile male turkeys or "jakes" were nonchalantly pecking at and prancing around a bedraggled mounted tom turkey, tail fanned, and two sleeker dusky mounted hens. Jeff had skillfully lured in the young males by scratching discreetly on his cedar box call, making the soft cluck-cluck-cluck sounds of pre-mating hens.
In a flash, the scene outside our cozy cave-tent was mayhem. The two mature toms, feathers flared, scarlet and blue-white heads leading the testosterone charge, dangerous spurred claws slashing, were jumping on everything that moved–and the "stuffer" decoys that didn't. Gobble-gobble-gobble. All was whirring, colliding, flailing, ferocious motion. Instantly the air filled with giant birds.
How could I think about killing such gorgeous creatures? Easily. First, I relish the taste of wild game, properly and reverentially prepared. Second, there are plenty of birds running wild–so many that they have become a nuisance. As recently as the 1930s, the species was nearly wiped out, with an estimated 30,000 birds holding on in isolated pockets of habitat. But today, more than seven million wild birds thrive from coast to coast. Every state except Alaska (too far north) has a carefully managed hunting season.
And hunters were instrumental in funding the hugely successful restoration.
I looked down the barrel, saw red, and squeezed the trigger. KABOOM! I had bagged my first wild turkey.
March through May is the most popular season for turkey hunting, when the mature toms are aggressively rounding up breeding hens and fighting off competing males. You may legally hunt wild turkeys in every state except Alaska, according to regulations and seasons set by state management agencies. Hunting expert Jeff Budz says his favorite states in which to pursue wild turkeys on both expansive public and private lands are Florida (Osceola subspecies), Kansas (Rio Grande subspecies), Missouri (Eastern subspecies) and Nebraska (Merriam's subspecies).
For information on 2012 seasons and license requirements, contact Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, www.myfwc.com,
(850) 488-4676; Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, www.kdwpt.state.ks.us, (620) 672-5911, Missouri Department of Conservation, www.missouriconservation.org, (573) 751-4115; Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, www.outdoornebraska.org, (402) 471-0641.
Among hunters of America's grandest game bird, the wild turkey–Meleagris gallopavo–bagging all four subspecies will get you listed in the prestigious grand slam record book of the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S.C.
Of the four subspecies, the Eastern–whose white-tipped tail feathers the Wampanoag visitors wore braided in their hair to the first Thanksgiving–is by far the most abundant, with more than five million birds throughout 38 states and four provinces. The other subspecies include the Rio, with one million throughout the dry bottomlands of Texas and the desert Southwest; the Merriam's, with 300,000 gobbling in the Ponderosa uplands of the Rockies and Western plains; and the Osceola, with 100,000 strutting and nesting in the palmetto prairies and cypress swamps of central and southern Florida. (There's actually also a fifth subspecies, the Gould's, which are the largest wild turkeys, but they're found primarily in northwestern Mexico. A few hundred pairs still breed in southern Arizona, where the bird is protected.)