Gobbler Quest: A Turkey Hunting Story

by Chris McCotter

By C.C. McCotter with Duane Adams

This article begins a new series for W2, a series that follows and recalls the adventures of a man devoted to a quest to harvest a turkey in all 49 states that have them. A number of hunters have attempted this feat and an elite few have accomplished it. We hope to bring you the story of another Virginian to do so. It is our hope that you enjoy these articles, and they inspire you take up your own passion whether it be turkey hunting or achieving Master Angler status, upland hunting or even hiking the Appalachian Trail. Please meet Duane Adams and enjoy his turkey hunting story.

    In 1988 a simple five-word question started me on a journey that continues to this day.

   That question has led me to over 25 states, a foreign country and forged lifelong friendships and memories that I’ll never forget.

   The pursuit of the wild turkey is a rite of spring for over 2.5 million hunters making this game animal second only to the whitetail deer. These men and women all have one thing in common, the fact that we enjoy the challenge of chasing a mature Tom, interacting with him verbally, and bringing him to the decoy.

   More times than not the turkey wins this battle but it’s the challenge, the thrill and ultimately the beauty of the great outdoors that keeps bringing us back morning after morning after morning.

   In the United States there are four subspecies of wild turkeys: eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande and Merriam.

    Eastern wild turkeys are the most abundant and widespread of the four subspecies commonly occurring in the U.S. Their range covers most of the eastern half of the U.S. from Maine south to Florida, west to Minnesota and south across the eastern fringe of the Plains States to eastern Oklahoma and Texas; and in western Washington. Males range between 11-24 pounds, and females are around 5-12 pounds.

    Osceolas are a dark turkey with black wings that have small white bands on them and dark-brown-tipped tail feathers and live only in south Florida. The Osceola turkey got its name from Chief Osceola of the Seminole Indian nation, the only band of Native Americans who never surrendered or were captured by the United States government. Today about 100,000 wary and hard-to-hunt Osceolas live in central and south Florida, primarily south of Orlando, with the biggest males weighing about 20 pounds.

  Rio Grande turkeys inhabit the central and southwestern United States. Rios concentrate in the western desert regions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and other western states. Mexico also has a healthy population. They are characterized by tan-colored tips on their tail feathers, equal black and white barring on wing feathers and moderate gobbles and beards. Adult males weigh around 20 pounds while their female counterparts weigh around 8 to 12 pounds.

  Merriam turkeys are most abundant in the mountainous regions of the west. The Rocky Mountains are considered the central hub of the population. They are characterized by light colored tips on their tail feathers with more white and less black on their wing feathers. Adult males weigh around 18 to 30 pounds, and the females weigh around 8 to 12 pounds. They are considered to have the weakest gobble of all the subspecies and have short to moderate beard lengths.

  The other two turkey subspecies are located in Mexico: ocellated and Gould’s.

   The Ocellated turkey inhabits the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula as well as in parts of Belize and Guatemala. This is a prized turkey due to its iridescent plumage. The body feathers of both sexes are a mixture of bronze and green iridescent color. Although females can be duller with more green, the breast feathers do not generally differ and cannot be used to determine sex. Neither sex possesses the beard typically found in wild turkeys. Tail feathers of both sexes are bluish-grey with an eye-shaped, blue-bronze spot near the end with a bright gold tip. The spots, or ocelli (located on the tail), for which the ocellated turkey is named, have been likened to the patterning typically found on peacocks.

  Gould’s are found in the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico as well as northern Mexico. The bird was first described by J. Gould in 1856 during his travels in Mexico. Like the Merriam’s, the Gould’s is a bird of the mountains. It exists in very small numbers in Arizona and New Mexico along the U.S./Mexico border, but is abundant in the northwestern portions of Mexico 

     All turkeys are polygamous, which means one Tom mates with several hens. Much like a bull elk, a tom tries to gather and defend a harem of hens. The mating process is a long, drawn-out and complex affair, the details of which influence much of how we go about hunting these magnificent birds. In simplified terms, the male gobbles, struts and drums while displaying for his hens. Once a hen finally capitulates, breeding takes place, then the Tom moves on to another potential mate.

   After mating, the hen gradually becomes more solitary, eventually leaving the flock to lay a single egg. She then covers the egg with leaves and duff and returns to the flock or moves off on her own to feed. She’ll also roost with the rest of the flock in trees at night. The process is repeated as she lays roughly one egg a day, sitting for about an hour after laying each of their first five eggs. Afterwards, incubation time gradually increases with the laying of each subsequent egg. Once her clutch of 10-12 eggs is complete, she will incubate continuously, day and night, leaving the nest only for brief feeding recesses.

   While their sense of smell is rather poor, turkeys more than make up for it with their keen eyesight and hearing. The turkey’s eyesight is legendary, to which any veteran turkey hunter can attest. Rather than magnification, it is the rate at which they can assimilate detail, and their wide field of vision, which account for this. With eyes located on both sides of its head, a turkey can see in opposite directions simultaneously, and cover a field of view encompassing 300 degrees. Though they lack our telescopic vision, they can determine relative distances with a slight turn of the head.

   Studies suggest that they can hear in the subsonic and supersonic range, below and above the range humans hear. They also seem to be able to pinpoint the location of certain sounds. For instance, once you’ve yelped on a box call, that nearby gobbler seems to know precisely where you are; and if he’s so inclined, he can come to your exact location.

   Many hunters including myself, engage in harvesting what the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) designates as a “Slam”: Grand – All four U.S. subspecies, Royal – The Grand Slam plus the Gould’s, World – Royal Slam plus the Ocellated, Canadian – harvesting the Eastern and Merriam, Mexican – Rio Grande, Gould’s and Ocellated wild turkey harvested in Mexico only and finally, the Super Slam – harvesting a bird in all 49 US states that have a population (Alaska does not).

   My turkey hunting adventures have allowed me to complete all but the Canadian Slam and the Super Slam. To date I have harvested turkeys in 21 states..

  Chasing these amazing birds across the country allows hunters to experience the beauty of America from coast to coast, make new friends and understand the challenges facing the wild Turkey.

  I cannot stress enough, as hunters it’s our responsibility to manage and protect the population of these birds wherever they are located. From loss of habitat to predator loss, the turkey is facing challenges. The NWTF has many programs that allow landowners and hunters to be proactive in improving their habitat.

   There’s nothing like listening to the woods wake up on a spring morning and hearing the thunderous gobble of a mature Tom as he announces his presence to the world. The thrill of the game we play with him as we imitate the sounds of a hen. Trying to draw him into range is what gets us up at 4 am braving the ticks, snakes and weather to go head- to-head with America’s greatest game bird.

   I’m forever grateful to my friend Joe Staton, who long ago asked that question, “Want to go turkey hunting?” 

 I look forward to bringing you the tales of my adventures both successful and not in the coming months with the goal of inspiring you try turkey hunting.

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