Hunters bent on having an ultratraditional feast still have time – and a season – to bag a wild turkey for Thanksgiving.
General turkey seasons re-opened this week in Washington and portions of Idaho.
Washington hunters can continue hunting through Dec. 15 in much of the eastern half of the state; Idaho Panhandle hunters have a continuous generall fall turkey season from Sept. 15-Dec. 15.
Idaho’s Clearwater region late-fall season opened Thursday on private land only and will continue through Dec. 31.
Fall turkey hunting is much less popular than it is in the spring, when hunters try to lure large toms into shotgun range during the birds’ mating season. Many hunters liken spring hunting to bugling for bull elk during the rut.
Calling, however, can still be a key tactic in the fall. As the days shorten and the weather worsens, turkeys move to lower elevations and begin to assemble into large groups. That can make them difficult to stalk.
So fall hunters, according to traditional methods, generally find a group of birds and bust it up. Then they hunker down and attempt to call the birds back together. They can shoot both hens and toms.
“I try to locate them just with binoculars,” said Mike Butler, an avid turkey hunter from Clarkston. “I’ll glass an area and find a flock and work my way into them, move in to bust them up and use the lost call, the hen call, to bring them back in.”
Butler said the “kee kee,” “kee kee run” and the “hen assembly” calls are all effective ways to entice scattered birds into range.
“Basically you sound like a young turkey that is trying to get back with the group,” said Barnabas Koka, Northwest director of field operations for the National Wild Turkey Federation, who lives near Dworshak Reservoir. “It’s like a high pitch, almost a whistle. It’s a young bird saying it’s lost and you just call them back to that location and get them into shotgun range.”
The tactic can be almost too effective. Butler said in the fall, turkeys tend to only fly about 100 yards or so when the group is disturbed. When they are called back in, sometimes they arrive in large numbers and present hunters with a quandary.
“Usually the biggest problem in the fall is the flocks are generally larger and they kind of hang tight. Sometimes you will be in them and there will be 20 to 30 birds and you have to be careful not to pull the trigger or you will knock down two or three birds.”
Koka said another tactic is to locate where the birds are roosting or feeding, and essentially stake them out and ambush one as it walks by.
He cautioned hunters planning to serve turkey on Thanksgiving that the lean meat of wild birds can be difficult to cook, even though they are in their “fattest” and best condition of the year as they head into winter.
“People think they are going to get themselves a Butterball,” he said.
“A wild bird doesn’t belong in the oven. It’s just going to dry up on you. There is no fat on them.”
“When you cook a wild turkey, you have to make sure you lock in the juices with deep-fat frying or you have to put them in an (oven) bag. If you put one in the oven and try to bake it like you would a normal turkey, you will be greatly disappointed.”
Smoking is also a good way to prepare wild turkeys, Koka said.
Idaho hunters can kill as many as three turkeys in the fall season, but only one per day. The state allows hunters to kill as many as two during the spring hunt. Those who have killed one or more toms in the spring must count those against their annual bag limit. Those who haven’t shot a spring bird can use all three tags during the fall.
Washington allows hunters to take only one bird in the fall, regardless of whether or not they filled their spring tags.
Dave Koehler, a wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston, estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of the annual turkey harvest happens in the fall. The fall hunts are designed to disperse birds and reduce complaints from landowners. Turkeys often gather in large groups around cattle feeding lots.
“They have caused quite a bit of hate and discontent at those types of operations,” he said.
When fall hunting was first approved, the department often directed hunters to areas with chronic problems. John Nelson, the department’s sportsmen-landowner coordinator, said the complaints have dropped and fall turkey hunters have learned where to pursue them.
“For the most part, it’s very seldom that I get complaints anymore.”
However, he said people who feed turkeys often end up attracting many more birds than they care to deal with.
“That is one of the first things I ask, especially if we are going to send hunters in their direction, is they discontinue feeding.”
Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.