By Chris Larsen
It certainly wasn’t a textbook turkey harvest but there he was laying in the place I last saw him, a dandy Eastern gobbler. I started this autumn day in a traditional turkey setup. The birds were scouted and it wasn’t a matter of “if” but “when” this flock of turkeys would move into the clearing in front of me. The sound of turkeys coming out of the trees filled the air about 45 minutes earlier. Then yelping. Lots of yelping. Gobblers tend to let the girls do most of the talking this time of year. But I could hear them moving closer.
It wasn’t long and I spotted movement. One turkey after another sauntered over the ridge. They weren’t in a hurry but the group moved in a slow and steady pace, like a freight train muscling up a mountainside. As I readied myself for a much anticipated shot, my plan was foiled. I wasn’t spotted. I didn’t make an unnatural noise. These birds were just on their way to somewhere other than the patch of tender forest grass I was hunting. In the spring a hunter could probably talk a gobbler into coming over to take a look. But these birds had feeding on their mind, not relations. They kept moving and as soon as they had appeared, they were gone.
After a few hours of waiting and fruitless calling, I decided to head back to the cabin to regroup. It was a sizeable hike and the trip would take me through the heart of the woods so taking it slow and being ready for a quick shot would be prudent. In a matter of a few minutes, the decision to keep hunting on my walk paid off. As I walked down the draw, two turkeys crossed from one ridge to the next. I pulled up the Benelli and kept moving slowly as if training for the SWAT team. Five more steps and a dozen heads popped up 25 yards away. As I swung to pick out a target, a red head appeared from behind a stump and as the trigger was squeezed the forest erupted in a whoosh of feathers and newly fallen leaves.
The bird was behind a log when I fired. I saw only his head. The commotion and my excitement left me unsure of the lethality of my shot. But as I crossed over the great fallen oak, uncertainty transformed into elation. This gobbler had probably traveled the woods for three years. His inch and a half spikes provided a handle that assisted me in carrying 20+ pounds of turkey back to the cabin. A ten inch beard confirmed that this was indeed a bird that was no longer wet behind the snood.
Wisconsin is home to the Eastern wild turkey. With an estimated population of over five million birds nationwide, it’s the most common of the five subspecies. The Eastern is the quintessential All-American bird. The Eastern wild turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving and the it is still a staple of our culture. The Eastern’s chief range extends north, south, and east from Missouri with smaller transplanted groups scattered throughout the west. The Eastern is the largest subspecies with adult gobblers pushing the scales over 25 pounds and hens weighing between 8 and 12 pounds.
The tips of the Eastern’s tail feather’s are chestnut brown as are the coverts, the smaller feathers covering the base of the fan. The wing and body feathers are a complex pattern of metallic silver, copper, and black. Their diet typically consists of succulent grasses, acorns, hickory nuts, agricultural waste grains, and even insects. Easterns have proven to be adaptable to nearly any habitat but prefer hardwood forests adjacent to open meadows and fields. If adequate food is available, flocks tend to stick to a specific home range throughout their life cycle.
The Eastern is known to be the most challenging wild turkey to pursue. But I’m sure there are hunters out west that would argue with that assessment. The Rio and Merriam’s keep those folks busy. Due to the Eastern’s burgeoning population and adaptability, the it is undeniably the most hunted wild turkey subspecies. And since they call my home range their home range, the Eastern is my favorite too.