Hunting wild turkey, the traditional main course of the US holiday meal, is an adrenaline rush and a learning exercise in food consumption.

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.

“What people like about turkey hunting is the communication,” Clare said, a tall man with a grey Buffalo Bill-style mullet and goatee. “The vocalization and intensity of the one-on-one, the mental game that's involved of trying to beat them in their own backyard, that's the challenge.” This autumn is Clare's 49th turkey season (autumn and spring are each their own season) and he prefers to keep things basic by avoiding high-tech hunting gadgets and dressing in beige and tan instead of camouflage.  Turkeys can see in colour, but wearing shades of brown allows you to blend sufficiently into the surroundings. Wearing colour while sitting on the ground making turkey calls can also be very dangerous, as an imprudent hunter may mistake you for a turkey -- male birds' plumage contains splashes of colour. For safety, turkey hunters generally wear blaze orange while walking to a new location, but all colour must be removed while calling the birds. A few times a year, Clare offers “retro hunts”, in which visiting hunters eschew camouflage, decoys or blinds and rely solely upon old fashioned patience and skill. Patience seems to be the key to any successful turkey hunt. Hours may pass with no sign of a bird, and then suddenly you hear warbling in all directions as the turkeys try to rejoin their flock. “That's all this game is,” Clare said, “You go from chicken [excrement] to chicken salad in a heartbeat.”

Back at the lodge, Clare butchers your kill for you on a wooden table outside the main house. He does not recommend roasting the bird whole in the classic Thanksgiving fashion, as wild turkeys tend to be tougher than their farm-bred counterparts and they dry out much faster. Instead, he removes the breast meat for cooking, along with the legs and thighs which are great for making stock. Sherry’s recipe for a stuffed, rolled turkey breast is a deliciously juicy and slightly gamier version of your typical turkey dinner. If you want to keep a trophy of your kill, Peter will cut off the prehistoric-looking feet and beautiful tail feathers. He recommends covering the gory bits where they were severed with salt or borax for a few days to dry them out. Then you can mount them on the backing of your choice.

Autumn turkey hunting is thrilling. After hours of sitting in the cold woods, when a turkey enters your line of sight and you click off the safety of your gun, the adrenaline rush is primeval, exhilarating and somewhat frightening.

But it also provides a chance to better understand where our food actually comes from. Although they might not have eaten turkey, the Pilgrims and Native Americans who shared that first Thanksgiving meal nearly four hundred years ago surely appreciated just how difficult their food was to obtain. A wild turkey hunt gives us the rare chance to fully comprehend that the pre-packaged meat on our plates was once a living, breathing creature, and it offers a visceral connection to the Thanksgiving tradition that brings US families together every year. If the turkey on your carving board just happens to be one that you bagged yourself, even better.