How to Clean Your Wild Turkey

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Turkey hunting can take you through the complete spectrum of extreme emotions.  From zero to hero, then back again.  Just when you thought the gig was up, and your opportunity was fading, you connect on the spring gobbler of your dreams.  After the high-fives, texts, and immediate calls to buddies are over, and a heaping plate of pancakes has been eaten, you should be thinking about what you’d like to do with your bird.  Well before the celebration even, you might consider just how you’d like to preserve the memory, and prepare the meat.

The good news is that you usually have a few hours, especially if the weather is anywhere south of the 50 degree mark.  Even in summer-like temperatures with an afternoon-killed bird, you’ve got a bit of time to decide how you’d like to prepare your bird.  In any scenario, keep him in a cool, shaded place, out of direct sunlight.  In most states, you’ve been required to legally tag him by now, but you also need to register that bird for your state fish and game department.  This is a crucial, and legal step, don’t forget to do it as wildlife managers rely on self-reporting of these statistics to help determine tag numbers and success rates.

If the weather is warm and you won’t have time to process the bird for a bit, at least remove the internal organs by making a small slice between the rear tip of the breast bone and the vent.  Reach in with your hands and remove the entrails, being careful to fully remove the heart, kidneys, intestines, and pesky lung matter.  Usually the lung bits nestle between the rib bones towards the front and bottom portions of the chest cavity, so it pays to run your fingers like a rake down the gaps of these ribs to pull out all the lung matter.  Especially if you’ll be cooking the bird whole, you’ll want this step done well. 

For me, the road forks at “to pluck, or not to pluck.”  An adult wild turkey sports somewhere between 5,000 – 6,000 feathers, and if you’d like to roast, smoke, or otherwise cook your bird whole, you’ll get the chance to pull out all of them.  I can tell you from hard-won experience that plucking a turkey is never as bad as you last remembered it, and goes quicker than you might expect provided you do so in the “sweet spot”; a period of time that persists one hour after kill time, and no more than 2-3 hours later.  Pluck too soon after you kill the bird and you tend to rip the warm skin when trying to pull multiple feathers.  Pluck too late, and you’ll find that more of the pin feathers stay with the turkey, making for a poor looking bird with inedible skin. 

Of course you can always scald a turkey to make plucking go more quickly.  This process involves removing the head and wing sections of the bird while you heat a large cauldron of water anywhere past 150 degrees or so.  At that temperature, you can soak the bird a good 20 or 30 seconds, but if you use boiling water, a couple seconds in the bath is all you’ll get before you start to cook your turkey.  Good kitchen gloves allow you to handle the hot bird and help with maximum feather removal.  I’m not a huge fan of scalding the bird, mostly on account of the extra materials and time it takes.  I’ll admit it probably does a better job than just my claws alone can, but I can do a reasonable job in quicker time without too much hassle overall. 

My process for plucking starts by timing it correctly, between one and three hours after the kill, and starts with removing the tail-fan, beard, and spurs for momentos.  To properly remove the tail-fan, collapse it and hold near the base above the vent.  It’s somewhat independent of the rest of the turkey’s body.  Grasp near the base, then slice between the vent and tail-fan base, then down to the backbone, being careful to leave some skin (with feathers).  It’s fine to come up the back a bit, as some of the nicest feathers for display come from there.  Pull the beard slightly, and cut just behind the waxy and fatty base, leaving just ¼ inch of that trim attached to the beard.  For the legs, straighten them, then cut the front of the knee joint and straighten firmly until you feel it dislocate.  Cut and remove the entire foot from here.

The tail-fan needs some careful attention and fat removal around the base of each feather, and there are some great online tutorials for this step alone.  Borax is the preferred preserving agent I use, and feet, beard, and fan each get a liberal dose while they sit and dry atop some cardboard in my garage for a few weeks.  Take a little bit of extra time here and you’ll always have options, but do it poorly, quickly, or both and you’ll find that bugs will get the best of your bird.

Remove feathers by the neck of the bird working back towards the breast and back.  I like plucking up to the wing joint before removing it.  Straighten the wing, then cut the webbed skin toward the open part of the joint before breaking it by hand.  From here, the knife does the rest of the work to fully remove the wing.  Continue until all feathers have been removed, and have a goal for this thing to be as pretty as a store-bought bird.  Remove any bird shot just below the skin, and if you haven’t already removed the entrails, do so now.  Lots of clean water is now required to wash your bird, inside and out until it runs fully clean.  If you have the opportunity to put it in some salty water and refrigerate overnight, it’s a good option.  My mother always preferred this with poultry and usually the salt both drew out blood and slightly brined the meat.

Of course you’re not required to pluck a turkey.  Especially when I’m traveling to hunt, it’s simply more convenient to pull back the skin and slice out the breasts.  The innermost portions of are the “tenders” and have a long, sinewy tendon that starts up near the wing joint and continues through the length of it.  I like to leave that tendon connected to the bird and slice the tenders off of it, both sides contain some of the choicest meat on the bird.  These are prime candidates for immediate cooking.  The legs come out easily by splaying them outward to dislocate the hip joints, then cutting between and down to remove the whole leg and thigh portion. 

Whole birds I wrap in freezer paper (several layers), tape up, and label well for the deep freeze, while breast meat I like to put in two layers of freezer bags.  Remember to label well if you are freezing, as different cuts deserve different treatment.  Breast meat cooks up very well, though definitely benefits from a brine of any sort to help retain moisture in the meat and add flavor.  The leg meat works really well when braised, especially in a crockpot.  Whole birds smoke very well, and can be roasted like your Thanksgiving turkey, but again, benefit from a stint in brine and continual basting. 

If all of this sounds like a lot, it can be, but the trick is to keep grinning.  Realize you’re among the lucky few who get to tag one, and take your time as you enjoy the process.      

Early Season Turkey Hunting Tips

Open patches of ground were key to taking this turkey, as they provided the best feeding areas for this gobbler’s hens.

Open patches of ground were key to taking this turkey, as they provided the best feeding areas for this gobbler’s hens.

Early Birds

“Birds of a feather flock together” has a figurative meaning, but in regards to early spring turkey hunts, the phrase applies in a more literal sense. Across the country, if you’re hunting early, you’re more often than not hunting groups of birds rather than individual toms. That’s especially true in years where unseasonable cold and winter weather patterns stretch far into spring, pushing back the breeding season and putting more state hunts into the “early” category.

Sure, you’re hunting birds that haven’t seen a decoy or its owner since last year at the earliest, but you’re also facing the hardest competition of all, and that’s a live hen. In the event of a late spring, mother nature applies extra pressure to pack in as much breeding activity when more favorable weather does come, making it that much more difficult to go against the real thing. For those reasons or more, you need a set of strategies to deal with the 80/20 rule, being that the majority of the turkeys are bunched-up in a very small part of available habitat.

A Fresh Scout

First and foremost, you can’t kill a turkey where they ain’t, so the value of scouting is dramatically more important early in the season compared to late. In the latter portions of the season, forlorn gobblers are wandering aimlessly, looking for the last hens of spring as the majority have been bred and are sitting on nests. Striking up a conversation then with a random bird is easier as they’re looking for you, whereas early, most toms have already found what they’re looking for.

Not all scouting is created equal, and especially with changing weather patterns and a rapidly progressing breeding season, the freshest information is best. While it’s good to have a flock located, along with a “Plan B” property or two to fall back on, the few days and hours directly before your season will provide the ultimate in actionable intel. You’re not just looking to find out what fields or openings these big flocks are working, you’re getting there early and keeping your distance, scouting with optics preferably. It’s difficult to beat multiple sets of eyes, and you want a vantage of the entire operation to see how the entire organism moves, retreats, and flows from one area to the next. You want precise information, like field-edge openings, funnels, and specific fence-posts or trees that the majority of birds move past.

Blind Appeal

As you hunt birds in these fields, even old pros of the turkey woods are well served by some sort of blind to conceal movements. Big groups are notorious for enveloping your position, as hens or jakes abound within range before picking you off, while the toms stay just outside of what it takes to put them down. In a blind, you have some flexibility to move, throw your calls in differing directions, and the ability to use scratching, hat-flapping, and other high-movement type calls you’d never be able to get away with out in the open. In the north, a blind will also handily house a small propane heater, something that may be a requirement for a sit of any length during the early youth seasons.

Perhaps the best part of this type of hunting early season, is that you’re going to see birds. Setting up in a well-scouted open area, where you are likely to see birds throughout the day, offers some unique insight into a turkey’s world. So much of what I’ve learned about calling, specifically what types of calls to make, and when, comes from the lessons learned huddled inside a blind as birds work all around me. So often we focus on gobblers and how they interact with your calling, how they decoy, or ways to best hunt them overall, we miss out on how much hens really run the show during the early part of the year.

All About the Hens

A lead-hen’s stomach, and the patterns she finds most convenient or safe, will often determine the manner and location of your hunting during the early season. From there, even if you’re in the right place at the right time, calling too aggressively or during the wrong time can have you shunned as a wise-old matriarchal hen leads her group of turkeys, gobblers and all, in the opposite direction. Flock talk then is of the utmost importance. Soft contented clucks, with some check yelps and purrs mixed in are the order of the early spring, especially with birds in sight, as you’re trying to mimic a group of feeding hens to fool the live hens, not an upstart jenny looking to steal toms.    

Roost Options

Field hunts can also be frustrating, sometimes taking you so close, yet still too far. For that reason, you also want roost locations, and not just general information, but specifics down to which trees the toms will favor vs. the rest of the flock. Keep in mind, it’s a dangerous play to be anywhere too close to these locations in-person, both scouting and hunting, but if your field or strut zone play is a low percentage one, your best bet is often to get on them right from the roost.

With early being the order of the season, think about getting within 100 yds of the roost a good hour or more before first light, minimizing your chance to spook birds. Cover is sparse early, so use your own best judgment on exact distances, but keep in mind that you may be hunting this group throughout the season, so it’s often best to stay conservative. Depending on how tight the toms roost to the hens, try to get near a reasonable landing zone or just off of it while putting your back to those hens. Avoid overcalling and hanging a tom on the limb, offering him just enough to drop out of the tree and hunt you down, without keeping him up on the branch while waiting for all the hens to fly down and saunter up to his roost tree.

Whether your move is a field-edge or the deep woods right off of the roost, early birds will test your patience and require you to hunt the hens just as much as the toms. If all else fails, see what you can do to get that lead hen talking. A loudmouth lead-hen has been the downfall of many a great tom, and do your best to mimic her. As her frustration and volume grows for the home-wrecker jenny you’re imitating, step on her calls and cut her off a few times. While it can be a last ditch effort, it’s often the deal-maker on a tough-hunting flock that won’t move any way but away from you.   

The Bird That Changed it All

I stand at my grandma’s place in town, with cousin Todd Heinrich and the first bird we took in 1996.

I stand at my grandma’s place in town, with cousin Todd Heinrich and the first bird we took in 1996.

My introduction to turkey hunting did not play out like the fairytales you see on so many TV hunts these days.  I didn’t luck out on my first sit, or have someone that dropped me in a blind and called in a bird for me.  I was 14, and all I knew about turkeys came from some deer stand observations the previous fall.  The results showed, with my first 3 years being completely unproductive, at least in terms of harvesting a bird.  At that time, I wasn’t always lucky enough to draw a license, and the only tagging I did was tagging along with friends and family as they struggled through the learning process as well.  I’m thankful for those failures however, because the impact of our first then left an indelible mark.  It was a defining moment for me, and more importantly, a hunt that continues to teach, as have many of the hunts I’ve journaled over the years.  Some are more memorable than others, but each one has lessons embedded deep within the story of that experience.  This article describes the first in a series of hunts that changed the way I think about turkey hunting, and shaped my strategies and tactics forever. 

I knew calling was a “big-deal” in turkey hunting, as the few resources that were out there in the early 1990’s made heavy mention of it.  That, and most calls you purchased at the time came with an instructional cassette tape.  I couldn’t blow a mouth call well, but a slate was easy enough to get both good sound, and a number of different turkey vocalizations out of.  Still, against my ear, and that of the turkeys, I continued to beller and blast ridges and valleys with the poor sounds of a diaphragm.  I remember the sound being more similar to an upset goose than any self-respecting hen turkey, but I persisted nonetheless.  Faint and far off gobbles was all I’d ever hear while hunting multiple days that first season.  I never saw a bird, and what hearing of them I did could’ve been shock gobbles more than an interested tom anyway. 

Year 2 was far different.  I cut my teeth, and found a way to blow no less than 10 separate chances at toms.  It was an embarrassment of riches, at least from the perspective of the sheer number of birds I contacted.  They were everywhere, and I was terrible.  I had one bird come from the top of a ravine all the way to the stream and valley floor below, many hundreds of yards straight to my calling, only to hang up on downed brush throughout the pasture I was sitting in.  I had another bird literally rush me as I was setting up along an open field edge.  Still another I hung in the tree 40 yards from me as it gobbled at every noise I made, before making me, and flying down the opposite direction.  If there was a way to mess up a bird, I became good at it.  Yet I was seeing birds, and even attracting them to my position, getting better and better with that mouth call as I heard hens wake up around me and go about their daily business. 

By the latter part of my third season, I’d seen a few tricks that birds can play, but never had that magical moment where a bird strutted across a wide open space, lured to the call as if entranced.  That is, until a fine April morning in a steep-sided pasture of grass and cattle.  The birds roosted in a ravine through which we had to sneak, early enough so as not to wake them.  That left us in fine position at the upper end and head of the pasture, as birds sailed down and out of trees to the bottom corner of it.  They had no interest in us, and proceeded to work in circles throughout the lower end for nearly an hour.  They chased each other, strutted, gobbled, fought, and ate.  Truly it was an incredible sight as cardinals boomed, and the sun eventually cut back the haze hanging throughout the valley. 

Every few minutes or so I offered a couple yelps, to no avail, as birds eventually worked further down the valley and away from us.  At least until I broke out an old slate.  Cheap plastic in construction, with a soft but hollow sound, it certainly didn’t sound good to my ears.  To a young tom that day in 1996, it was the best thing he’d ever heard.  Eager to put on a show, his first move was to reveal himself, 150 yards below us, emerging just from the timber to dance and gobble without approaching.  This kept on for long minutes, though by now I was learning to shut up as much as call.  Patience came harder to me then, but over the course of the next 30 minutes, I’d watch him continue his processional in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back type of march.  Up the hill he came, quite silently save the intense “pffffffffffffffft, vvvvvvvvrooooooom” sound I’d later come to know as spitting and drumming.  It took an eternity for him to reach the 30 yard mark, and the Winchester pump that poked between the top two strands of barbed wire rang throughout the valley.  It was this bird’s end, and my beginning. 

It was an “aha” moment for me as a hunter, and a student.  When something clicks like that spring morning did for me, it sinks into your grey matter and leaves you wanting more, making you anxious to learn more in the process.  That bird hated the “better” sounding call, favored the “poor” sounding one, and even then approached in a cautious, measured manner.  The more I’d call, the harder he’d strut.  Luckily for me, I believed that call sounded bad, so I used it far more sparingly than the one I was more confident in.  As long as he was coming my way, I wasn’t talking, and it made all the difference.  So did our early approach.  Hanging a bird in the tree on that same ravine roost the year previous reminded me of that. 

It was the first in a number of landmark hunts that I’d like to share with readers, as each was a complete breakthrough for me and the way I approached the sport.  I’m guessing that many of you who’ve hunted them a few years have had similar experiences.  It’s these hunts that continue to mold our hunting future, often for better but sometimes for worse.  The amazing part is that no matter how many states I’ve hunted, weapons I’ve used, or turkeys I’ve taken, I still have these hunts from time to time.  Most recently, a Wisconsin hunt last season, again forever changed the way I’ll look at field birds.  More on that story to come, and until then, break out your turkey gear and think of warmer days and gobbling turkeys.                    

The Keys to Successful Jig Fishing

Few baits will ever be as successful as the plain lead-head jig.  As a bait-delivery method or a stand-alone option, it excels for multiple species throughout the country, moving water or stagnant, stained or clear.  It can be swam, hopped, plopped, dropped, dragged, shook, pitched, and fished vertically, among other presentations.  No matter how you choose to fish it, there’s a species that’ll eat it on every water body near you.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to fish, and it can be downright challenging if you’ve never been much for jig-fishing. 

I learned to fish jigs on a river system in current, which is quite the curveball compared to natural lakes.  With moving water, you need to take into account more variables like sweep, casting angle, mono vs. braid, among others.  However, with a few pointers, anyone can catch fish with jigs.  Here’s a few to get you started in the right direction.

Use the Right Tools for the Job – Start with a lightweight, high-quality carbon-fiber (no fiberglass) rod in an Extra Fast (XF) action, along with a featherweight reel combination.  Jig-fishing, perhaps more than any other technique relies heavily on feel, and you simply can’t feel much with poor equipment.  While there are techniques that don’t require you to spend as much on a rod and reel, here’s one instance where you really get what you pay for, and better tech quite simply leads to more fish. 

Line – Start with braid and a fluorocarbon leader of a few feet in length, joined by an Albright Special or Uni-to-Uni knot.  This offers you the best ability to feel the jig, while still having some stealth with the nearly translucent fluorocarbon line up against the jig itself.  Mono can excel in certain situations, especially in current where the sweep and way it cuts through the water presents the jig differently, but braid offers you the best feel overall.

Map the Bottom – Your first couple of casts should be an exploratory mission, as you decipher clues that are telegraphed back to your rod-hand.  Cast out and let the jig settle to bottom.  Then slowly drag it back to you, hopping or with mixed-in quicker pulls along the way.  You’re actively figuring out substrate at distance, such that you can understand the big picture and where fish will be holding.  Like any experiment, start with a “control” retrieve, and compare various types of retrieves thereafter. 

No Cross-Wind Casting – No matter the orientation of shore or where you’re pitching, wind could be the single largest inhibitor to your catch-total for the day.  Position your back to the wind, or directly face it to enjoy far better direct contact with what your jig is doing.  Drift into a crosswind, and every fish in the lake could hit your bait on a single retrieve, and you’d never know it because of the huge bow in your line.  Wind triggers many fish species up shallow, so on these days, mitigate the effect by keeping your rod-tip close to the water and off to one side of the boat to reduce that problem.

Stay Back in Clear Water – Jig fishing can only be productive in the clear shallows when you’re not driving over fish.  In hyper-clear water bodies like Mille Lacs, this means fish spook in 10FOW or even more, meaning you have to stay over deep water and simply pitch a little bit further up to the zones you’d like to cover.

Fish From the Outside In – When fish are schooled up near cover, it pays to work your casts from the outside in.  As you pick off fish after fish from the outside, you have less chance of disturbing an entire school by casting up to the center of the most prime piece of cover.

When Vertical, Stay That Way – Vertical jigging works really well in deeper water, but only if you keep your rod tip directly over the top of the bait.  Poor boat control when fishing vertically leads to baits off bottom, and less ability to detect bites, especially when the bait is under the boat. 

Re-Bait – Whether plastics or live-bait, degraded or destroyed additions to a jig hinder the action and direct appeal.  Resist the temptation to leave it on for “one-more-cast” and put your best bait forward.  It’s amazing how selective fish can be at times, and at the end of the day you may only use a handful more minnows or plastic grubs.  Call that cheap insurance to a successful bite. 

Focus – Probably the single biggest deterrent to catching fish on a jig is distracted fishing.  If you prefer to doze off, drink coffee, or otherwise just relax, start trolling or bobber fishing.  The best jig anglers I know are machines.  They’re casting, processing bottom content, hooking walleyes, and positioning the boat for the next cast.  They’re mentally engaged nearly all of the time, as they pick apart pieces of structure bit-by-bit.  While it’s true that the more you pay attention for any fishing scenario, the more you’ll catch, with jig-fishing it’s absolutely critical.    

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What Jig to Fish & When

We are programmed to understand that not all lure types are created equal, with different baits serving different needs seasonally for varying species.  What about baits in the same class however?  While we grasp the thought that a jerkbait is not the same as a spinnerbait, we tend not to distinguish characteristics in-class, with jigs being no exception.  That said, there is a huge number of jig-styles, sizes, shapes, and colors, with all sorts of hardware and appendages molded-in or otherwise attached. 

I have my favorites, but I thought I would call in the advice of successful Dakotas guide and Northland Tackle Pro-Team Coordinator Cody Roswick.  Cody knows his way around both North and South Dakota, often using jigs to guide his clients to quality fish no matter where the bite takes him, or what technique the day calls for.  Like with most guides and pro’s I have fished with, small details frequently reap huge dividends, so it pays to pair the right jig to the scenarios you fish.  Here is a quick run-down of some popular styles, and how to go about choosing which variety to use, and when.  

Jigs For Minnows – These two are an original pairing that have stood the test of time, and Cody fishes them primarily during the early season.  With designs like the Fire-Ball that offer a secondary-eye to attach stinger hooks being extremely successful.  Having the option to attach that extra treble for short-striking fish can really be handy, even if you start the day without.  For larger minnows like shiners, consider this option or other jig types with a long shank that places the business end of the hook further back on the minnow. 

Jigs For Crawlers/Leeches – For the most part, you have quite a few options here, especially with leeches as provided you hook them in the sucker or just underneath, you will not have to worry too much about the hook holding your bait.  With crawlers however, you will want a keeper at the base of the jig ball itself to retain the bait and prevent it from sliding down the hook shank un-naturally. 

Jigs For Plastics – As water temperatures warm, live-bait options for walleyes lose favor to plastic imitations, but you will want some different jig designs for fishing them.  Cody says, “Wire barbs for keepers will prevent everything from bluegills to bass pulling at the tail end of the plastic all the way down to the hook bend.”  Roswick continues, “Not only does this rip your plastics option of choice, it frequently causes the bait to run un-true.”  Premium models that do the best job of avoiding this issue will have dual-barbs or wire-keepers that truly lock the plastic to the base of the jighead. 

Stand Up Jigs – Use this type of jig style in river areas when trying to drag bottom, or lakes when again trying to trace as close to the substrate as possible.  Often, bottom contact can be a crucial part of the presentation, and that is when stand-ups are worth their weight.  “These jigs shine in helping fish suck that bait off of bottom, as the hook points up and back at a 45 degree angle in their face,” mentions Cody.

Jig/Spinner Combinations – This group encompasses a number of jigheads from thumper-style models with a swivel and blade beneath them, to a whistler-style jig with an in-line twin-rotating blade.  Both perform similar tasks in creating flash and vibration to attract fish from distance.  “This can be important in river systems or natural lakes with limited visibility,” says Cody.  “I use them a lot with live-bait when fishing vertically, especially deep river systems.”

Current Cutter – Pill-Shaped Jigheads – Speaking of rivers, current-cutter style jigheads have made some strides in recent years, as the pill-shaped and more elongated design simply offers less drag in current.  “That allows you to fish lighter, while still getting down to the fish,” says Roswick, a key component to many river situations where current can keep a jig higher in the water column than you want it.

Floating Jigs – Of course, one of the best ways to stay near bottom is to rely on another weighting system other than the jig to keep you pinned there.  That makes floating jig head options a mainstay in many anglers’ boxes.  Present livebait in any manner with confidence, knowing your bait will float just above the snags.  Add some current to the mix, and many designs like the Gumdrop or Phelps-Floater will jog side to side like a crankbait for added action.

Hair Jigs -  Whether animal hair like bucktail, marabou, or other synthetic materials, these skirted jigs are often tipped with bait and presented both vertically or casted.  You will need different weights to satisfy the various depths, but hair is a great way to add bulk, color, and life to an otherwise plain offering.  In lakes and rivers, hair jigs do not get as much press as they deserve.

Weedless Jigs – Designs like the Weed Weasel and others with plastic deflectors in front of the hook point are classic heavy cover options.  Roswick who fishes the trees of North Dakota’s Devil’s Lake says, “They’re a mainstay for me anywhere near weeds or timber, and they have a heavy hook if you need to horse them out of nasty cover.”  Tip them with your live bait of choice, and consider them anytime you are afraid to throw other jig styles into the thick stuff.