Community Sports

Thursday, Mar 21 2013 05:12 PM

Steve Merlo: Wild turkeys can pose big challenge to hunters

By The Bakersfield Californian

B enjamin Franklin, one of our nations's founding fathers, believed the bald e agle should not have been chosen to represent the United States as our national symbol. He felt that the more deserving choice should have been the wild turkey, for a lot of reasons.

While I am content with the eventual selection because of the eagle's patriotic nobility and fierce-looking nature, I can see why Mr. Franklin raised such a fuss. The wild turkey grows much larger than his distant cousin, possesses an acute wariness to danger, will fight if necessary and displays our national red, white and blue colors when strutting or aroused. Besides, he's one smart cookie, can be hunted in season, and comes to properly presented calls and decoys. His flesh tastes wonderful for those lucky enough to bag one of the incredibly intelligent birds and his numbers are dramatically increasing well into the millions across the U.S.

Hunting wild turkeys can require a specialized and sometimes expensive approach. Since most birds in our area are found on private property, gaining access to hunt them can be a frustrating experience. Most land owners, for whatever reasons, are reluctant to allow open hunting on their ground, but a few have found a way to close the gap between hunters by offering pay-to-hunt venues. With the economy in such turmoil, most land owners need cash flow, so instead of the proverbial "cash cow," the "cash turkey" often fills the bill. That's a strong plus for both parties.

This is not to say that the majestic birds cannot be taken on National Forest or BLM properties, but the amount of time, work and money necessary to score sometimes outweighs the easier alternative. Such is the case of one turkey that eluded me for half a decade.

Several years ago, while trout fishing, I discovered a resident flock of wild turkeys living in the Greenhorn Mountain/Cedar Creek area. I decided to try my luck, and after locating a large tom gobbling his fool head off the night before, I set up a decoy within 100 yards of his roost well before next morning's first light. When the bird finally flew off the roost after answering my plaintive yelps, he immediately ran the other direction.

This went on over a several week period; I called, he ran. Then I tried the mostly silent treatment and still he ran the other way. I never did get that bird to commit, so the following year I went back. This time, he didn't run, but instead, snuck up on me from behind, gobbling from less than 10 yards away and scaring the Dickens out of me. By the time I turned to fire, he had put a huge rock pile between us and escaped unscathed. I never saw or heard him again that season.

Like Ahab's Moby Dick, my obsession with this individual bird grew. He eluded me the following two seasons by coming excitingly to the call, then staying just out of range for several hours before slinking back into the woods. He did this both years, really making me feel like a super-dumb Elmer Fudd.

The next spring, the five- or six-year-old bird must have been nearing the end of his life because he made an unusually dumb mistake. I like to think I finally outsmarted him, because on that last day, I called from my usual spot then painfully crawled back behind me 50 yards. Sure enough, 30 minutes later he came by, eyeing and scrutinizing every rock and bush between the old blind and the new.

Standing fanned out in full strut, to this day he remains one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Carrying at least an 11-inch beard that seemingly dragged the ground, the bird limped when he walked, perhaps an indication of his first meeting with another hunter when he was still a jake. Stepping behind a tree, he allowed me to raise the gun, take aim and fire.

The loud click of a firing pin landing on an empty barrel sounded like a bomb going off. In my excitement, I had forgotten to load a round into the chamber, and before I could cycle the gun, the bird "putted" loudly and was gone, putting most of the trees in the forest between him and me. I never saw or heard him again, and to this day, the incredible luck of this turkey gobbler still amazes me. I've killed a lot of toms since then, but his story remains the fodder of grandfather tales that I'll tell my grandkids some day.

A current California hunting license is needed to hunt wild turkeys. The limit remains one bearded turkey per day and a total of three for the year. Wild turkey season begins March 30.

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