On April 15th the annual spring wild turkey season opens in The East Kootenay region of British Columbia and hunters will take to the woods in search of the elusive wild Tom turkey. Turkey hunting is, by far the most fun my son and I have hunting. All winter long there have been huge flocks alongside roads and out in the middle of big open fields. Come spring time getting yourself a wild turkey must be pretty easy – right? Not so fast. All winter long you can see huge herds of elk standing around out in the open yet in the fall many people swear there are no elk in the East Kootenay let alone any legal 6-point bulls. Well turkey hunting is no different. Spring is their strut (breeding season) and come spring the large winter flocks break up and disperse across the landscape. The senses of the mature breeding Toms and the old Mama hens become heightened. Fragmented across the landscape in search of love, wild turkeys become very hard (some even say impossible) to find come spring.
Wild turkeys are a challenge to hunt – one, because they are so hard to find and two, they are difficult to get close too when you do find them. They are not necessarily super smart – it’s just that they are scared of everything that moves. Even if you are dressed head to toe in camo and hidden in the most secure location – you move just a tiny bit (even your eyes) and a Tom will spot you before he gets within range. In fact, if you don’t move he will still probably see you and run away. If you don’t move but you think about moving – he will spot you and run away. It may be easier to randomly throw a dart on a map in the middle of the Rockies, hike to that exact spot and find a full curl bighorn ram than it is to harvest a wild Tom turkey! But….pursuing a wild turkey is one of the most fun hunting opportunities available in the Kootenays.
The Merriam’s range within the East Kootenay extends north up the Rocky Mountain Trench to around the 50th parallel – making the East Kootenay region the northern most extent of the wild turkey’s range in North America. Wild turkeys that are living on the fringe of their range (i.e., limits of their climatic adaptability) are known to experience more frequent and severe population crashes than populations in lower latitudes. The leading edge of northern wild turkey populations are also known to ebb and flow with the severity of winters. Rise and fall of local turkey populations are likely do more to these climatic variables than predation like some suggest.
Wild turkey hunting contributes about $200 million to the US economy each year. Although wild turkey hunting in BC is nowhere near that magnitude it is no less important to the local economy or way of life in the East Kootenay region. The popularity of the sport in this province is adding to government revenue and helping support social programs and local businesses. Some money from every hunting license purchased in BC goes directly in the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund , which is used to support fish and wildlife enhancement programs throughout the province.
The Merriam’s wild turkey is classified as an introduced (alien) wildlife species in BC; however, it is not true that the government wants to eradicate wild turkeys just because of their non-native status. Hunting seasons for the Merriam’s wild turkey in BC are based on conservation principles derived from scientific studies from the USA. Conservation-based hunting seasons ensure the majority of breeding is completed before the male only spring hunting season starts.
Some of the region’s wild turkey flocks are considered to be “farmstead” flocks – sustained by the habitat and food sources available on private farmland. Since the East Kootenay region has a history of wildlife-agriculture conflicts, the East Kootenay Wild Turkey Association (EKWTA), in partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), completed a study in 2011 that assessed the effect of Merriam’s wild turkey on the region’s commercial agriculture producers. The study concluded:
- Wild turkeys are not causing significant wide-spread losses to commercial agriculture producers in the East Kootenay.
- Nearly half of the producers indicate wild turkeys provide some type of beneficial service.
- Wild turkeys do not pose a risk of disease transfer to domestic livestock.
- There is a general interest and tolerance among agriculture producers regarding wild turkeys as long as damages do not exceed current levels.
- 75% of producers reported that allowing hunting on their private land is the main action taken to reduce negative effects caused by wild turkeys.
Well what about getting out there and harvesting a wild turkey? To increase your chances of getting, or least hearing a wild turkey this spring hunting season – here are a few tips to help you have fun trying to get one:
- Location, location, location. Locating turkeys before the season will increase your odds. Looking for sign like feathers (from fighting), poop, ground scratching and dust baths. Turkeys love to rip apart old cow pies in search of insects and fresh plant shoots.
- All the right stuff. Look for areas with combinations of high forest ridge tops (roosting habitat), open meadows or fields (morning fly-down, feeding and strutting habitat) and semi-open forest or brushy habitat (feeding habitat) all within a 1 or 2km square radius.
- No need for fancy calling techniques. Learn a few basic hen calls – but don’t worry that you are not an “expert” caller like you see on television – that’s just how they sell game calls. Any excited Tom turkey – like an enraged bull elk will answer to a variety of calls even some pretty bad ones. A bit of practice and you will get a Tom to answer you.
- Sit down and shut up. Spend more time sitting and listening and less time calling. Turkeys can be amazingly quite and sometimes soft clucks are your only indication that turkeys are around you. Just like some bull elk – Tom turkeys have been known to sneak in on you without making a sound – that is until one makes that loud “put …put” sound which means – “Hey everyone there is danger over there under that tree – run away!”
- Be ready before calling. Always find a place to sit, set up your decoys, and identify your shooting lane BEFORE you call. Some tom turkeys respond to a hen call by running flat out towards you and they can book it – covering a half kilometer in a few minutes they can be at your location before you are ready. Then all you hear is that loud “put…put” sound. Trust me.
- Face the music. The best location to set up your decoys and position yourself is in a spot where the first time the Tom sees your decoys he will be within range. Backing yourself up against cover that prevents a Tom from coming in from behind you is advantageous. Always set up and face the direction you know the Tom is coming from when you hear him. Don’t think you can get him to stroll past you to some nice spot beside you. Always face the direction the Tom is coming from. Trust me.
- Early to bed early to rise. Be out in the woods and set up in your hunting spot in the dark. At the first hint of light the action starts!
- Look, listen and learn. Learning the turkey’s daily patterns, movements and habits within a given landscape will ultimately lead to your best opportunity for one of these giant birds.
- Know your distances. At your hunting spot- use a range finder and mentally mark your maximum shotgun range.
But why go through all that effort to get a wild turkey when they taste terrible? Unlike their domestic counter parts, wild turkey is totally organic and as free ranging as you can get. Wild turkey breast meat is as tasty and as tender as domestic turkey meat; however, because they work hard for a living, their drumsticks and dark meat are tougher – if cooked improperly. The trick is to use a slow cooker for the dark meat.
A few facts about turkey meat:
- Besides not having growth hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals, wild turkey meat is higher in percent protein, lower fat content, lower cholesterol and higher in calories than domestic turkey meat.
- Turkey contains selenium which plays an essential role in helping to eliminate cancer-friendly free radicals in the body.
- Turkey is a good source of vitamins B3 and B6. Vitamin B3 helps lower blood cholesterol and Vitamin B6 aids in the production of anti-bodies.
- Turkey is naturally low in fat without the skin, it only contain 1 gram of fat per ounce of meat.
- Turkey contains folic acid, zinc and potassium. These nutrients have been found to protect against birth defects, protect against heart disease and aids in tissue repair.
- Turkey contains amino acid tryptophan which is essential for T cells, a type of immune system cell that kills cancer cells.
Mark is the Field Program Director for the East Kootenay Wild Turkey Association, BC’s only chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.