Of Toughness and Turkeys

On a recent youth hunt in Wisconsin with my son Isaac, I was yet again reminded of the overall toughness of the wild turkey.  His bird came to the call as one of a group of five, looking and acting no different than the others.  Well after the shot, high-fives, and congratulations, came the revelation that its breast-bone was completely split in two.  Though a head shot, the chest area of the tom looked like it had been through a meat grinder.  The breast-bone itself was rough and ground down, and there were many colors, clotting, and other signs of infection.  Whether by a car or other accident, this bird was surely on its last leg, though it didn’t act as if it had a scratch.  Not that I needed a reminder of their tenacity, but I’m always amazed at the will of nature and resiliency I see in these critters. 

My first encounter with a wounded gobbler was only a few years into my introduction to turkey hunting.  I was nestled under some flowering cherry trees along a small field edge that butted up against an oak ridge the birds loved to roost on.  All-night thunderstorms gave way to a sunny morning, and the birds above and behind me were eager to greet the day.  First a few hens pitched over my head and down into the field below me about 100 yards away, and then 3 toms eventually touched down, coasting into the field after completing a “J”-shaped flight to properly survey their landing zone.  From the moment those toms hit the ground, there was no doubt who was boss.

The lead tom stayed tight to an old scratchy-throated hen that wouldn’t stay quiet.  The two subordinate birds were not allowed to strut, and each time they pushed the group, the boss gobbler turned around and grabbed them by the neck skin.  His punishment was visible at that distance, and sure looked painful!  Eventually the loudmouth hen had to saunter over to teach the sharp jenny I was trying so hard to be, a good lesson.  Big tom followed, and went down at 25 yards.

His spurs were over 1 ½”es, and his beard was the longest I’ve taken at 11 ¾”, but his body was destroyed and a gaunt 19lbs.  His tail feathers were shredded from someone who obviously shot him in the rear end while in full strut, and the back half of the bird was literally green with infection.  How this tom had the vigor to repeatedly fight off two different suitors to protect his right to breed, all while being mortally wounded was my first lesson in how stout a turkey can be.

Though there are many more gun hunters in the woods, I’ve seen as many or more turkeys suffer the effects of a poorly placed arrow.  While I’ve never seen an arrow sticking out of an alive, wild bird, I’ve been witness to a broadhead recovered from the breastbone of a turkey harvested long after the initial wound.  I’ve also encountered a dying turkey with an arrow wound from nearly a month prior.  I’ve even had to grab a shotgun to take down a bird I personally put an arrow up from its hip through the chest area.  Countless other times I’ve been witness to birds that were completely pin-wheeled, shot through the center to never be recovered.

Turkeys can take a lot of heat.  Gun or bow, it’s amazing what they can survive, and even thrive through.  That said, my aim in writing this is to implore everyone to take very seriously the responsibility that comes in purchasing a tag.  I’m a big proponent of increased opportunity in terms of season length, weapon choice, and overall flexibility, but I often wonder if this increased convenience allows us to be a bit too lazy or unprepared? 

For gun hunters, the ability to walk up and buy a tag should a free weekend and plentiful turkeys present themselves, might mean that you don’t make the time to pattern your gun to check for performance past 30 yards.  For archery hunters, perhaps increased opportunity to hunt multiple zones or time periods draws former gun-hunters and those less proficient with a bow towards that archery opportunity?  These are a few real scenarios that I’ve seen take place just this year, but I stop short of trying to characterize this as common or the norm among turkey hunters, no matter their weapon of choice.

Still, in looking back at all the tough-turkey experiences I’ve had over the years, I can’t help but highlight the importance of practicing with your weapon of choice.  For a gun hunter, leftover pheasant load and a full choke doesn’t always work past 25 yards, and for an archery hunter, deer accuracy plain doesn’t cut it.  Not to mention, turkeys move their body constantly, which at times can be overcome by the speed of lead shot, but certainly cannot at distance by an arrow.  Just as important is the shot choice itself, as turkeys deserve the best you can give them.

Usually it’s the middle of winter when the wind is howling and the temperature dips that I think about the coming spring’s tom clutching to a tree limb for dear life.  They endure, and can live through a whole lot more than you might think.  Nature can be tough on them, which is why they demand your respect and “A”-game when you hit the woods this spring.