After a 4 a.m. wake-up, a nearly full moon lights the path on our magical adventure.
When we reach the meadow we scouted the day before, my father and I sit down and nestle ourselves against the base of a weathered ponderosa. Concealment is essential. Our blind is constructed of interwoven pine boughs and we wear head-to-toe camo. Breathing and blinking are the only permissible movements.
The glistening layer of frost on the forest floor turns to mist as sunlight begins to warm the earth. We listen for the unmistakable sounds of spirited gobbles and beating turkey wings. Soon, wild turkeys will fly the roost and descend on the meadows below in search of food and the company of a receptive hen.
I hear turkey wings flapping and signal the observation by discretely pointing to my ear. One, two, then three birds are on the ground and possibly headed our way. My dad, the turkey whisperer, lightly drags his striker across the face of his slate call, mimicking the purr of a contented hen. He beckons the gobbler to come our way. His trusty decoy, Henrietta, is positioned in the wet grass, freshly adorned with acrylic paint to make her eyes and beak stand out after many years afield.
Some mornings, a hot tom comes in on a string and gives us quick success. More often than not, we hunt for three to five days before finally harvesting a bird—or even getting a shot. Many people might underestimate the cunning wild turkey, and rightfully so. Most Americans’ turkey experience comes down to buying a perfectly plucked and pre-packaged bird from the grocery store shelf.
It’s easy to forget that to survive in the wild, America’s largest game bird must elude coyotes, goshawks, foxes, bobcats, and numerous other predators. Wild turkeys have incredible eyesight and hearing. They can reach speeds of up to twenty-five miles per hour while running, and fifty-five flying. They are travelers. If you don’t know their routine, or if they’re not being vocal, they can be exceedingly difficult to locate and call in.
Even on days when the birds don’t cooperate and we walk mile after mile, this hunt is magical. We scour the area for fresh tracks and scat, examining them closely to determine their age, and piece together any clues about the birds’ recent behavior or whereabouts. On these days, my dad bestows on me the wisdom he’s stockpiled over a lifetime of being a passionate outdoorsman and biologist. He points out the “bones” of a pine branch lying on the ground from a tassel-eared squirrel stripping its cambium layer for a meal. He theorizes that, based on the large cache of algae in a spring, it’s likely the only permanent water source in the canyon. I soak it all in and relish the opportunity to share this tangible enchantment of roaming the outdoors with him.
These trips are less about a harvest than they are the journey, but it’s especially rewarding to serve meat that took more skill to acquire than swiping a credit card. If you’re interested in hunting for your own wild harvested and hormone-free meat, a turkey hunt is the perfect place to start. From online calling tutorials to local skills based workshops, ample resources exist to prepare you before the next spring season. And summer hikes are a great way to become familiar with an area, its roads, and water sources.
Unlike most big game tags in New Mexico, you can simply buy a turkey tag over the counter, as opposed to having to apply for the annual big game draw. Residents can buy a game hunting license, the proper stamps, and a tag that’s good for two bearded spring birds for right around forty-five dollars. For more information on wild turkey hunts and regulations, visit wildlife.state.nm.us or the wildlife department in your state.
And if you luck into some wild turkey, consider making these Greek-Style Turkey Meatballs.
*This story comes to us from Edible New Mexico. Photos by Katie DeLorenzo.