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My hands gripped the barrel of my semiautomatic shotgun tightly, as I sat back against a beech tree, waiting for my prey. Dusk was steadily approaching, the light fading into a dull, autumnal grey over upstate New York. As the fatigue of an eight-hour hunt in temperatures hovering just above freezing set in, it was clear that this would be my last chance of the day to shoot a wild turkey.
My guide sat close by, making alternately squawking and warbling turkey calls to lure the hardy birds ever closer. We could see several adult females (hens) and a young male turkey (a gobbler), crossing a clearing about 50 yards away, but the thick undergrowth made it impossible to get a good shot. Suddenly, a stray turkey appeared between two trees in the distance, hesitating as it decided whether to follow the flock or head toward our enticing calls.
I squeezed the trigger, and the sudden, deafening shotgun blast left a harsh ringing in my right ear. Given my lack of experience with shooting a gun and the thick foliage obscuring the bird, I assumed I missed . I stood up, resigned to call it a day, even as my guide and his dog excitedly ran in the direction I had shot. A few seconds later, they reappeared, holding an adult hen by the legs as it thrashed about in its dying throes. Adrenaline soared through my bloodstream as I realized that I had successfully hunted and killed a turkey.
The turkey is the centrepiece of the US Thanksgiving tradition, though the specimens we eat today are a far cry from their hunted wild relatives, reminiscent of the birds early settlers would have found and Native Americans hunted. Fattened, flightless, farm-raised, store-bought turkeys bear little resemblance to their tough, feral cousins that tromp through the forests, prairies, and scrublands of every state in the US except for Alaska.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the widely held belief that Native Americans and Pilgrims (pre-colonial settlers from England) ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 may not be true. Although the bird thrived in pre-colonial America, the organization claims that turkey did not become a Thanksgiving staple until the 1800s. When Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey appear on the nation's first seal, the more regal bald eagle won out.
By the early 20th Century, the wild turkey neared extinction as its available habitat decreased. Conservation efforts and trap-and-transfer programs, in which turkeys were caught and moved to under-populated areas, brought the population back to healthy levels by the 1960s. Today, turkey hunting is popular throughout the US, and many hunters claim that the thrill and required skill is greater than that of hunting deer. Each state has different requirements, but generally a first-time hunter must complete a safety education course in order to purchase a permit. In New York state, you must pass a written exam upon completion of a 10-hour class, after which you are required to buy a small game license and a turkey permit.
Hunting is allowed on certain public and -- with the owner's permission -- private land, allowing experienced hunters to set out on their own. But a great option for a first-timer is to hire a guide or visit a hunting lodge that offers room and board and experienced guides. I stayed at Turkey Trot Acres, a warm and inviting lodge located in the small town of Candor, New York. Peter Clare and his wife Sherry run this “ma and pa” operation, which has been around since 1987. Sherry rustles up massive amounts of home-cooked food while Peter and his team of skilled guides take hunters out into the nearby countryside. They use a specially bred dog, informally called the Appalachian Turkey Dog, to assist.
According to Clare, turkey hunting is much easier in the spring, because that is when the birds mate and males are out looking for females. In autumn, however, the birds are in survival mode and are not as brazen. The dogs help with hunting by running ahead, locating a flock of turkeys, and “busting” or scattering them. At that point hunters hunker down and wait, using turkey calls to lure them back. The turkeys' nature is to return to the area from which they were scattered, but hunters must be as still as possible -- even a small movement will spook the birds.