Back in the Good Old Days, we were permitted to shoot “Jakes,” which is the term most of us use for young turkey gobblers. Since the Mississippi River bottomland woods I usually hunted in was knee-high in bull nettle by early spring when the season started, I rarely looked for a beard on my turkeys. If a head stuck up out of the bull nettle, and it was red, that turkey was going to get shot at.
The which did not necessarily mean a fatal encounter for the turkey, because I have long been famous for missing wild turkeys – there’s even a book to that effect! They do something to me, and although in my lifetime I have honestly fired over 1000 shotgun rounds at turkeys, I can only admit to bringing maybe 250 back to camp. I used to take a box of shells (that was back when there were 25 shells in a box!) for a weekend turkey hunt on Woodstock or Montgomery Island.
Howsomever, the state Game & Fish people decided a few years ago that young turkeys needed to be spared to grow in statue and wisdom, so now a hunter has to examine (on the hoof, now: we ain’t talking ground-checking!) the bird’s breast before firing, to see if it has a long enough beard to legal.
Therefore, when a veteran turkey hunter is taking a neophyte along for the hunt, care must be taken to instruct the rookie on what comprises legal game. Sometimes that ain’t enough either. I once took a neighbor with me, and we were seated against a big sycamore, me facing south, Rick facing west, which let me cover to the right shooting left-handed, and him cover to the left shooting right-handed. I’d been calling a little over a half-hour when I heard, “Psst! Psst!” and cocked an ear to hear him ask softly, “Is-that-a-turkey?”
This was a farm boy, so turkeys had been a part of his life forever. So I assumed that whatever he had sighted was far off, and started scanning the woods. “Not out there!” he hissed. “Right here!” Sure enough, a big gobbler stood in the logging road, thirty yards away – but he didn’t stand there long, he took flight!
“So, that was a turkey, huh?” Rick mused.
“What did you think it was, a penguin?!” I snorted. He later said he meant to ask if it was a gobbler, legal to shoot. Sure.
I took my bride with me one time, and had a turkey coming, gobbling every other step, so we were ready. I thought. When he stepped into a clearing in range, Betsy exclaimed, “Isn’t his head red?!!” Out loud! As the big gobbler spun to take flight, she calmly noted, “Wonder how much he weighs?” Out loud, again!
We ought to introduce our children and grandchildren to blood sports as soon as possible, and here again, we must take pains to describe beforehand what turkeys look like, how they approach, and which ones are legal game. Oftimes, the youngster has much better vision than the adult anyway, so the extra pair of eyes is really appreciated, and the kid is urged to watch carefully and report movement to the adult, so that the elderly one may be aware of what’s out of peripheral vision.
The youngster in question was only five years old, but had hunted deer and doves with granddaddy, so a spring turkey hunt was a natural progression. They got to the woods and hooted, and a gobbler answered immediately from his roost close to a small field. The hunters snuk within 150 yards of the roost tree, and the adult stuck up two hen decoys in the edge of the field, then blinded himself and the boy nearby, sticking up branches before them. He loaded his gun as the dawn came, picked up his call, and clucked. Across the field, the turkey double-gobbled, and sailed out of the tree, landing in a half strut right before the decoys! The youngster jumped to his feet, pointed, and shouted, “THERE’S ONE NOW!”
The rest of the day, the man complimented the kid on how well he could see and identify a wild turkey gobbler, as he should have. But they didn’t see another.