The do-it-yourself spirit runs strong in Wyoming, and that even includes the Thanksgiving turkey.
Why go to the store and buy a bird when you can go shoot a wild one?
Well, it isn’t just as simple as going out and shooting one. Hunting wild turkeys is a challenging endeavor that requires skill and tenacity, an avid hunter said.
“They’re a remarkably smart bird. There’s a reason that Benjamin Franklin wanted them to be our national bird. They’re really clever,” Mike Lilygren of Lander told Cowboy State Daily. “They’ve completely fooled me more than once.”
‘Like Hunting Big Game’
Bird hunting is usually associated with wing-shooting over fields and marshes. But turkey hunting is different, Lilygren said.
It’s usually done in heavily forested mountains areas, and he said one of his favorite wild turkey hunting spots is in Wyoming’s Black Hills near Hulett.
“It’s kind of like deer hunting or elk hunting because of the terrain, you’re hiking around the mountains. But turkeys are a hell of a lot easier to throw over your shoulder and haul out,” he said.
Only male turkeys, or toms, may be legally hunted in Wyoming. There are two seasons, one in the spring and another in the fall.
Lilygren said he prefers to hunt during the spring season, when the turkeys are in the rut, or mating season.
One tactic is to don camouflage, find a good spot to hunker down and call a tom turkey in, much like one would call in a bull elk during the rut, he said.
It’s not quite like using duck or goose calls when hunting waterfowl, Lilygren said.
“When you’re calling ducks or geese, you’re trying to turn them on their flight path and bring them into your deeks (decoys),” he said. “With turkeys, you’re actually interacting one-on-one with that tom, like you’d interact with a bull elk. You can tell that they’re all hormoned up and they’re coming in hot. And that one-on-one interaction with a big tom is invigorating.”
Turkeys can also be hunted using “spot and stalk” tactics, Lilygren said. That involves spying the birds from a distance, and then figuring out the best way to sneak in close enough for a shot.
Turkeys don’t have a great sense of smell, but their eyes are incredibly sharp, Lilygren said. So, turkey hunters usually go in full camouflage, including face masks.
Hunters don’t blast turkeys out of the air as they’re flying. Wild turkeys can fly, but they prefer to walk or run to get where they’re going. So, hunters usually go for headshots when the big birds are on the ground — with a shotgun, archery tackle or occasionally with rifles.
“You can shoot turkeys with a rifle in Wyoming,” but scoring a hit on a bird’s head is extremely challenging said Lilygren, who has done it once.
Most shots are made at about 30 yards or closer with a bow or shotgun. Turkey hunting loads for shotguns are packed with dense, heavy shot. Hunters also use “ultra-full” chokes to keep the shot patters tight and concentrated on the bird’s head.
Shotgun chokes, or narrowing at the muzzle of the gun, determine how dense a shot pattern will be.
Lilygren recalled helping a friend’s 12-year-old daughter on a recent turkey hunt, and she made an incredible 52-yard shot with a 20-gauge shotgun that was outfitted with only a standard full choke.
“She was either really lucky or really good, but either way she hammered that tom,” Lilygren said.
One good thing about focusing shots on the head is, when eating a turkey, finding stray shotgun pellets isn’t a concern like it might be when dining on other wild fowl, he said.
“You don’t have to worry about shot. I’ve never had to pluck out shot pellets when I was eating a wild turkey,” Lilygren said.
A big Wyoming tom turkey, once field dressed, weighs in at about 18 pounds, Lilygren said.
Wild turkeys must scrape a living off the land, so they’re naturally tougher than commercially raised birds, he said.
“These are birds that had to work hard to survive,” he said. “They do a lot of walking and running, so their leg meat is going to be tougher than those of farm-raised birds.”
Lilygren said he generally takes only the breast meat and legs from wild turkeys. The breasts can be roasted and usually turn out tasty.
He recommends slow-roasting the legs like one would with pork, “until the meat is falling off the bone.”
He also once went through the trouble of hand-plucking a wild turkey, which he said was an arduous task, and then roasting it whole, just as with a store-bought bird. It turned out well, he said.
‘Wild Turkey Schnitzel’
For one particular wild turkey dish – schnitzel – Wyoming outdoorsman Steve Rinella recommends this recipe.
“Take a turkey breast, no skin and pound the crap out of it until it’s about 3/8 of an inch thick and even,” he said.
Season with salt and pepper and whatever else you like, then bread with panko and fry.
“It’s important to pat the breasts dry because for some reason wild turkeys are slimy,” he added.
‘Point Of Pride’
Whether a wild turkey is prepared for Thanksgiving, or any other time of year, there’s something special about putting food on your own table, Lilygren said.
“There is a point of pride when you roast up your bird, like any game meat you’ve harvested,” he said. “There’s just a special meaning to it.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.