Dear Writing Huntress,
Turkey season is almost here! My dad usually hunts with my brothers, but this year is the first time that I get to go, too. I’m nervous because my dad says hunting turkeys is really hard — harder than I can even imagine. What’s the deal with turkeys? Are they really that hard to hunt?
Looking for Longbeards in Lake Placid
Dear Looking for Longbeards,
Allow me to extend my deepest well wishes on your upcoming season! Unfortunately, I am well versed in the difficulty of turkey hunting. I’ve spent 6 seasons stalking my Thanksgiving main dish, with no success yet. I hate to tell you this, but turkey hunting is just as difficult as your dad says.
Turkeys that are stalked by modern hunters are a nervous bunch, with a long history. Turkeys of North America were multitudinous pre-American colonization. We know this because, as Jim Spencer notes in his book, Turkey Hunting Digest, “Turkey bones are among the most common animal remains in the kitchen middens of American Indians.” Documentation shows that these abundant birds served as beginner targets for early hunters: “Many Indian tribes considered them fit game only for beginners … sent young boys out with bows … to bring home a turkey.”
That being said, you’re probably wondering why the turkeys of today are afraid of their own shadows. Once American colonists and their unregulated hunting arrived in North America, the brainless, trusting birds of yesteryear faced their final days. As early as the late 1700s, turkeys began disappearing and in the early 1900s, the plight of the turkey appeared to be a lost cause. Unfortunately, for everybody except the turkeys, the Great Depression hit. The period forced many farmers and rural dwellers into cities, leaving in their wakes vast tracks of empty, human-free land where turkeys propagated and lived sans illegal hunting and habitat destruction. This epoch of turkey freedom, according to Glenn Sapir’s book, Hunt Wild Turkey!, strengthened when conservation practices and new laws became established, “thus helping pave the way for a comeback.” Once the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) formed in 1973, the turkeys rebounded, thanks to the NWTF’s conservation efforts and catch-and-release of birds into habitat.
Thrive and rebound they did. It ended up as a blessing, as well as a curse for the contemporary hunter. Yes, we’re thrilled they can be hunted to fill our hungry bellies, but they have a strong lineage. As Spencer writes, “Today’s bird is wary and cautious because only the wariest and most cautious … survived to pass their traits down.”
As if that didn’t stack the odds against hunters any more, we have the actual bird with which to contend. Fortunately, turkeys aren’t smart. According to Spencer, the big bird’s brain could “rattle around in a ping-pong ball,” so outsmarting this bird isn’t the issue — it’s outmaneuvering it. This is made all the more difficult given turkeys’ innate instincts. Turkeys have a natural force field woven into their DNA, thanks to 2 of their senses: sight and hearing. Sapir writes, “Hunters are … amazed at the bird’s ability to hone in on calls and to pick up even the slightest movement.” Sapir also notes it’s against a turkey’s internal inclinations to listen to a hunter’s call, “In fact, when you hunt, you are trying to get the tom to come to you, making him do the opposite of what nature has programmed him to do. He’ll stand out in an opening and gobble and strut. The hens will come to come him.”
Besides being wary and possessing keen survival instincts, turkeys are one of the most unpredictable creatures on earth. A few years ago, in North Carolina, my husband, Mike, set up while perfectly hidden next to a small clearing. Suddenly, a tom began responding to his amorous hen call. They chatted back-and-forth, until the tom came within shooting range. As Mike lined up the shot, a real hen began to cluck somewhere nearby. The tom ran the opposite direction, fleeing from a real hen, after initially being enticed by a faux one. This tale illustrates how perfectly a hunt can go, until the turkey arrives. Everything can be ideal, from your call, to positioning, and you may still go home empty-handed.
Turkey hunting is complex, but a successful outcome isn’t just meat for the freezer; it’s recognition you’ve outmaneuvered one of the trickiest targets in North America. Absorb every bit of knowledge you can from your dad while you hunt, because, as any turkey hunter will tell you, the true way to learn to hunt the tasty birds is through experience.
The Writing Huntress will be embarking on a turkey hunt hosted by Benelli USA from March 14 through 18 in Ozona, Texas. WH will be covering her hunt via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #BenelliTexasTurkeyAdventure. Be sure to follow along to see if she finally lands her first turkey after 6 long seasons of hard work!
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