They’re smart, they’re quick, they’re fierce — and they’re tasty. They’re wild turkeys, and some say that the most authentic Thanksgiving dinner is the one you’ve gone out and hunted for yourself.
Turkeys weren’t the only meat at Plymouth Colony’s Thanksgiving dinners: William Bradford, the colony’s governor, recounted that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.”
But turkeys caught on in our national imagination. And why not? A turkey is big enough to provide a family meal’s worth of meat yet small enough to carry by hand. But a wild turkey doesn’t look or act much like the counterpart that ends up in a typical grocery-store case.
Since they depend on their muscles and wits to survive, these birds are lighter, stronger and a whole lot smarter than your average store-bought Butterball.
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“It’s pretty amazing to see a wild turkey take flight. You wouldn’t expect to see one fly, but they make it look effortless,” said Bruce McGlenn, a hunting instructor and ethical-hunting proponent (see sidebar) who hunts turkeys near his family cabin outside Kettle Falls, in Stevens County.
Most of Washington’s wild turkeys live in warm, dry but forested areas and are most concentrated in northeast Washington (Colville calls itself “Wild Turkey Capital of the Pacific Northwest” and holds “Wild Turkey Daze” every spring). Numbers have increased in the southeast as well, with pockets along the Cascades’ eastern foothills. Although spring turkey season is longer and statewide, one of three shorter fall seasons in limited areas of the state opens on Nov. 20 this year — just in time for Thanksgiving.
Unlike with, say, pheasants or ducks, hunters typically aim at birds while they’re on the ground. That doesn’t make it easy: The birds’ good senses of smell, hearing and eyesight make it hard to sneak up on them. Unlike the white ones you see accepting a presidential pardon, wild turkeys are camouflaged with multicolored feathers that the males puff out when they strut their stuff in mating season.
Wild turkeys are wily, too, a fact Benjamin Franklin noted when he famously criticized the bald eagle as a symbol for America: The turkey, Franklin said, was “in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Turkeys weren’t always part of the hunting picture in Washington: Native to the eastern and central United States, they were introduced here about 70 years ago. Since then, modern management practices have led to a more widespread turkey population. According to statistics from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), turkey-hunting numbers have grown from 428 hunters taking 65 birds in 1987 to about 13,700 taking 5,500 in the spring of 2011.
Still, turkey hunting is closely controlled, with the maximum per person usually set at one to three birds, depending on the season; a hunting license, valid turkey tag and reporting to WDFW are all required.
If you’ve never hunted, it’s not possible to just dash out and hunt a turkey (or anything, for that matter). But you could get started now with a goal of doing it next year. Here are some first steps:
• A Hunter Education certificate is required for all hunters born after 1971. Find information on the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife website: wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/huntered/
• Familiarize yourself with the WDFW hunting seasons, regulations and requirements. The department publishes a spring turkey-season pamphlet; fall information is in the big-game pamphlet. Pick up brochures at sporting-goods stores; information on the department’s website, wdfw.wa.gov, is constantly updated.
• Buy the appropriate license and turkey tags from the WDFW.
• Consider joining an organization or club. There are both general groups and those for specific types of hunters, including the National Wild Turkey Federation (www.nwtf.org
). Washington Outdoor Women (washingtonoutdoorwomen.org) offers women-specific hunting classes.
• Make sure you hunt in an appropriate time and place. Different regulations apply to different management areas. Also, never hunt on private land without permission.
• Consider hiring a guide for your first outing.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.