What’s A Shooter?
A few weeks ago while waiting for a vendor at the Outdoor News Deer and Turkey Classic, I couldn’t help but overhear a discussion amongst a few fellow hunters when some familiar deer jargon began to pop-up. They spoke of some turkeys being “3 ½ year olds,” birds that were “mature” gobblers, and then the term “shooter” came up. I did my best to bite my tongue, though I must admit, I do cringe a bit when the deer drama related to pass/shoot encroaches on the turkey world.
Several times in the past few years I’ve had friends and acquaintances pass up adult toms, in the hopes that a bigger one would come along. Sometimes they were rewarded for their patience, and other times, not so much. Far be it from me to tell anyone who observes the legal boundaries of turkey hunting what they should or should not be shooting, but in the words of Mossy Oak Legend Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, “Who the hell passes up a longbeard?”
This sentiment comes perhaps not as much from opinion as experience, with a few observations tacked on for evidence. The first being that field-judging of turkeys is difficult at best, and impossible for most. Beard length, weight, and spur length - being the most desirable characteristics of a bird from a trophy perspective – are also some of the most difficult metrics to estimate on-the-foot. Typical male spring turkey viewing happens when birds are in strut, when toms appear larger than in any other position. With breast pushed out, the beard is visible yet framed against a similar colored background, making its length difficult to assess. As they drag their wing tips, they frequently cover their spurs from almost all viewing angles. If you could see them, and I’ve tried many times, you’d need a spotting scope to gauge size at all but the closest distances. That would be only if they’re holding still which they rarely are. Of course we also know how difficult it is to sneak peeks at birds that are within shotgun range. Furthermore, even if out of strut and walking, their back toe is often mistaken for a long spur. When it comes to weight and overall size, you often need a measuring stick tom from which to judge against. Even then, it’s hard to know the low-end size of the bird with whom you’re comparing and contrasting, such that the “big” tom of the group may only be 20 pounds.
Another bit of turkey truth is that there’s no such thing as QTM (Quality Turkey Management). Biological pressures such as breeding and nesting dynamics, along with a different spot in the food chain prevents the carry-forward and holding of larger individuals. While somewhat similar in that toms breed multiple hens just the way a buck would breed several does, hens will re-nest multiple times if necessary to ensure a hatch of any quality. This is because mortality rates between deer and turkeys, especially at young ages are completely different for a varying list of reasons. While it’s true that male birds can be beaten-back in terms of hunting pressure, there’s no evidence, biologically or otherwise to suggest that passing on a young male will ensure or promote a flock with larger, beard-dragging, long-spurred gobblers. In fact, noted Turkey Biologist Lovett E. Williams suggests that in the fall, killing a jake instead of a hen is least harmful to the flock given the 50% mortality often observed for jakes over winter from year 1 to year 2.
More than a decade ago I was hunting our farm with my cousin for a group of toms I’d been seeing regularly. This group of 7 longbeards was a rowdy bunch, always chasing each other and quite literally, always on the move. It wasn’t until later in the season when the scrawny looking group came in all at once and we both were able to slap a tag on some turkey legs. My cousin’s bird while weighing in at only 17lbs, was the first triple-beard I’ve ever seen, and he had some great hooks. Run thin from the breeding season activities and competitive pecking-order games, these were among some of the smallest gobblers I’d ever seen harvested, but we had no clue, even though we took them inside of 20 yards. More importantly, had we known their weight and chosen to “pass,” we’d have missed out on a truly great experience and a unique bird to boot.
All of which is part of the fun of turkey hunting. There’s no such thing as “antler shaming,” “ground-shrinkage,” or “shooter’s remorse.” To me, any longbeard is a trophy, and though I personally choose to pass on jakes in the spring-time, some of the best hunts I’ve ever been on, with the strongest gobbling and most incredible action have been for jakes we’ve harvested and enjoyed all the same.
Get out this spring and do your best to not worry as much about what’s a “shooter,” and focus on having fun while harvesting any legal bird that makes you happy.