The Springtime Strut
By Gary Lewis
Indians across the country ate a lot of turkey and used their feathers for decoration, but the Native Americans that made their home in the land we call Oregon, seldom saw a turkey feather. Here, a quill from Meleagris gallopavo was a symbol of adventure. To get one, a hunter had to travel many sleeps to the east.
Today, thanks to the foresight of the National Wild Turkey Federation and Oregon sportsmen, we have a turkey hunting tradition. And you don't have to travel far to find them.
My friend Steve Waller, owner of Cabin Creek Kennels north of Roseburg, asked me to come and watch him train his pudelpointers to find deer and elk antlers. He knew me well enough to mention he had a few longbeards on his land. I made my plans to coincide with opening day of turkey season.
Two young gobblers and four hens fed on the far side of the clearing on a bench among the oak trees. One of the jakes strutted while the others fed. I watched through my Alpen binocular and mentally measured spurs and beard. Characteristic of a jake, seven center feathers stood taller than the rest of his fan. He dragged his wingtips on the ground and displayed, back and forth.
I dragged my striker against the slate. The jake continued to strut. I changed the tone – putt, putt, putt – and the bird gobbled. I had his number, but my call brought in another young gobbler and his hens. He headed straight for me and my hen decoy and turned at five yards.
That's when it occurred to me it might be a difficult task to call gobblers where all the males already had hens. When even jakes have a flock, there are a lot of hens. Usually, the gobbler stays with the hens he knows rather than chasing the siren's call.
After 20 minutes had passed, I had nine gobblers and eleven hens at the far end of the clearing. One of the hens sported a four-inch beard. Half a dozen of the toms had beards so long they almost stepped on them. The jakes, now outclassed, gave ground. A grumpy old gobbler with a beat-up fan, kept the younger birds away.
I could afford to be picky. I wanted a long-spurred bird with an eight-inch beard.
After an hour, the birds began to separate. Two jakes with five hens headed my way. I putt-putt-putted on the call.
Bolder now, the dominant jake with a three-inch beard, strutted and dragged his wingtips less than two yards from my decoy; eight yards from the business end of my shotgun. He couldn't get any satisfaction, so he headed up the hill with his hens.
In the afternoon, I moved the blind closer to the crossing point and put the decoy into hiding.
A few minutes later, I had turkeys coming to the call. 35 yards away, the dominant tom postured, as if to say, 'Look at me girls.' The girls clucked, as if to say, 'Let's eat some bugs.'
Puffed up, his tail in full fan, the boss bird's wattle was bright red, the skin around his eyes was blue and the top of his head was white as an eagle's.
35 yards is within the effective range of a load of No. 6 Fiocchi, but there were branches in the way. I 'putted' on the call, but the birds, instead of taking the trail toward me, followed the hens into the canyon. I figured I'd never see those birds again unless I could get in front of them.
Back at the house, Steve was working with the dogs. I told him what had happened and he calculated where they'd headed. "They're probably feeling some pressure," he said. "Maybe we can get ahead of them."
The longbeards strutted among the hens, strung out in a line inside the trees. A fence and the oak trees made them feel secure, but when the birds separated, I picked one of the toms and set the bead at the top of his head.
This bird had inch-long spurs, a beard that measured 8.25 inches and enough bulk to tip the scales to 18 pounds, the biggest turkey I've ever put on the table.
A hunter can make use of nearly all the bird. Spurs can go on a necklace and the wing bone can be turned into a call like the Indians used. The beard can be kept as a trophy and the feathers turned into fly-tying materials or spun in a wreath for Thanksgiving. You'll need 60 tail feathers to complete a wreath. That means you'll need to bag at least three birds. Fortunately, we have a lot of turkeys in our state and the feather is still a symbol of adventure, of good days spent afield, a bow and arrow or a shotgun in hand.