YAKIMA, Wash. — Turkey day is just one week away, and if you still don’t have your holiday bird, there is still time to get one, or two, or four.
Oh sure, you can run down to the local supermarket and pick up a Butterball, but what’s the fun in that? If you really want a challenge, and something maybe a bit unique, you could head east, and try to bag a wild turkey for the Thanksgiving table.
This year, because wild turkey populations are in such good shape, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is allowing hunters to bag up to four wild turkeys during the long fall season.
According to the regulations, hunters with the appropriate tags, can bag two beardless turkeys, and two either sex turkeys during the fall season, now open in many far eastern Washington counties, through the end of the year.
Each tag costs resident hunters, who have a small game license, $15.90 each, so for less than 50 bucks you can bag enough birds to feed the whole family plus guests.
That is if you can find them. Hunting fall turkeys is different than hunting spring turkeys.
In the spring, only bearded turkeys can be taken, and 99 percent of all bearded turkeys are males, better known as toms. And about the only way to take a tom during that time of the year is to call one in by sounding like a lonesome hen looking for love.
During the fall it is a whole different ballgame. This is the time of year when turkeys bunch up into pretty good-sized flocks, lots of times hens in one big flock and toms in another. While they are never easy to pursue, it seems like in the fall the big birds are a little less wary.
I’ve had a flock of toms fly right down to within 40 yards of me a couple different times when I was deer hunting. I know they saw me, because I had a bright orange vest on, and they’d crane their necks and kind of give me a long stare. But once they determined I was of no danger, they went about their daily business of walking and scratching and eating whatever bugs or seeds or leaves they eat this time of year.
I’ve only bagged one big tom during the fall and that was in what might be called a more typical fall hunt. I spotted the small flock of about ten gobblers working along the edge of a wheat field. I snuck around to where I thought they were headed, but the turkeys, as they are often apt to do, spotted me and headed in about six directions, mostly towards the woods. I waited for a few minutes and then slowly and as quietly as I could snuck through the area where most of the birds headed.
Within a couple minutes I heard some raspy clucks, and a minute later a big tom stepped into the opening and bang, I had my Thanksgiving bird.
In some states dogs are allowed for fall hunting. The dogs are trained to scatter a flock, and then will come back and sit silently next to the hunter, who sets up and calls the flock back together after a while. Turkeys are very vocal and are most secure in flocks so they try to gather back together as soon as they can.
Turkey dogs are not legal in Washington but it is still possible to scatter a flock, and if you are patient enough, be there when they return to flock up.
I have also bagged a few fall hens, and most of those have come via the old fashioned spot and stalk method. Again, fall birds are a little less paranoid, and if you take it nice and slow you can often times get within shotgun range.
If you are thinking about hunting a wild turkey for the holiday feast, just know this, wild birds do not taste the same as farm-raised birds. Their diet is different and because they are out there trying to make a living every day, being in perpetual motion, they are not the big fat birds that you will get at the market.
But that doesn’t mean they are bad tasting. Yes, they have a bit of a wild taste, but prepared in the right way, they can make a fine meal.
A few Thanksgivings ago we put a wild hen turkey I had bagged earlier in the fall in a crock pot with some cream of mushroom soup and let it cook slowly for several hours before dinner. We had the traditional store-bought turkey in the oven too, and when both birds were placed on the table, it was hard to tell which one was the wild bird.
The secret is to cook them slowly and in a way that will not allow them to dry out. Google wild turkey recipes and a hundred different ones will pop up.
Thanksgiving is about upon us, but there is still time to go out and get your turkey. If you do go hunt one or two up for yourself, you’ll have a unique addition to your holiday meal, and some fun stories to tell around the table come next Thursday.
• Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org