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Turkeys, Fair Game For Hunters - 2002-03-29

The wild turkey is a true native American, and was hunted by tribes in the northeast long before Europeans arrived on the continent. The meaty game bird was served at the Pilgrims' famous Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, and over the next 300 years became so popular that by the Great Depression of the 1930's, wild turkeys had been hunted nearly to the point of extinction.

But through the efforts of hunting and conservation groups, the population has recovered, and there are now more than 5.5 million wild turkeys in North America. And they are again fair game for hunters.

The thrill of the hunt is alive and well in America whether the prey is deer, rabbit or duck. However, game hunting is limited by law, so people can only hunt certain animals at certain times. In April, wild turkeys become the target of hunters in many eastern states - but according to Lieutenant Tim Coleman of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, these birds unlike their domesticated cousins - are crafty when it comes to keeping themselves off the dinner table.

"Unlike most other animals they're not colorblind. So they can really pick up on movement and they can really pick up on sound. Some of 'em you actually think they have a brain and thinkin' about 'I know he's over there, so I'm gonna fool him.' They're pretty smart," Mr. Coleman says.

It's the male turkeys in the cross hairs now, since the females which have chicks in the spring are off limits. But that's fine with Larry Case, who's been hunting turkeys for 20 years. The males, known as gobblers, can weigh up to nine kilograms. Mr. Case says the turkey's featherless head is its most striking feature, with a bright red wattle under its beak, and a long horsehair-like beard.

"Most hunters want the biggest male gobbler, some hunters brag about how heavy the turkey was. They want the beard, horsehair feather like appendage, they want one with a long beard and big sharp spurs. As the age of the bird increases the shape of the spurs curves and becomes sharper. That's kind of a trophy thing for the turkey hunter," Mr. Case explains.

Unlike big game hunters, who stalk their prey, turkey hunters must stay in one place and call a bird to them. That means they are out before dawn, encamped in a wooded area with medium cover. For Mr. Case, the perfect location for outsmarting the wild bird is a ridge on Cheat Mountain. It's there he waits for a gobbler to come within a couple hundred meters before he begins his hen call.

He makes the noise with a U-shaped piece of latex and metal called a diaphragm call, which fits into the roof of his mouth.

"Why it's so popular is you don't have to move your hands. Because once the turkey comes into range you can control your shotgun. You don't have to be foolin' with the more old fashioned call, the box call," Mr. Case says.

Some hunters believe the box call, a small wooden hand-sized square, works better, but Mr. Case says he'd be hard pressed to tell what sounds romantic to a male turkey.

"That is what is known as a yelp. The turkey yelps. They have a vocabulary just like many animals. That's kind of a 'I'm over here' call," he says.

As with any kind of hunting luck is a big part of the game. In heavily hunted areas, Larry Case says turkeys often figure out the difference between the calls of a beautiful turkey babe, and a deadly hunter.

"You can be the best turkey caller in the world and maybe he don't want to come in that day. It can happen very quickly if you're in the good place and you get a turkey to call to and he's gonna respond and all the variables line up to where he comes in range that day. Some people can hunt the entire season and not get a turkey that year," Mr. Case says.

But he adds, when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.

"The first glimpse of the turkey you're calling coming in it's exciting to a turkey hunter. Most people that I know who are good turkey hunters are good woodsmen. In that they learn a lot about the game, the habitat, what the game does, where it's at at different times of the day, how to track, how to look for signs, all that Daniel Boone type stuff," Mr. Case says.

Turkey hunters must also learn turkey hunting safety skills. Lt. Tim Coleman says more and more of the state's 130,000 licensed turkey hunters are taking classes before they head out into the woods, which has significantly cut down on the number of accidental shootings. Rule number one think like a turkey.

"If you would happen to see a hunter come into your area shout him off, don't try to wave him off. Because if he sees you moving he's going to try and take a shot. Better to lose a day's hunt than to lose your life," Mr. Coleman says.

A debate has been raging about whether a rifle or shot gun is safest to use when duping the devious birds, but in the end, the result is usually the same for the turkey. Nearly 18,000 of West Virginia's wild turkeys become dinner each spring.