by Gary Lewis
Hidden in the shade of my blind, I set the shotgun down and lifted my binocular. Fifty yards away, nine gobblers strutted and preened while 11 hens poked in the grass and leaf litter. More than half of the toms had beards so long they almost stepped on them. Even one of the hens had a beard, she reminded me of my 10th grade English teacher.
For ten minutes, I looked at each bird in detail. In the morning sun, the gobbler’s feathers shimmered. I had never seen so many big gobblers.
Two jakes separated from the rest and pulled a small group of hens with them. One jake strutted close enough, but I could afford to be choosy.
By mid-morning, the birds had all but dispersed. One pair of gobblers caught my attention. The boss bird had a ten-inch beard, while his lieutenant carried a beard that looked to be eight inches or longer. At one point, I had them within 40 yards of the blind, but they didn’t want to leave their hens, no matter how I pled on my slate call.
Nine hours after I started, an afternoon ambush put the pair in my sights at 30 yards. As the birds edged away, I put my bead on top of the nearest tom’s head and squeezed.
This bird had inch-long spurs, a beard that measured 8.25 inches, and enough bulk to tip the scales to 18 pounds, the biggest turkey I’ve ever put on the table.
In the spring season, only a male turkey (or a hen turkey with a beard) is a legal bird. First time hunters may wonder if they could tell a male from a female. There are definite differences. For the trophy hunter, there are a few rules that separate the men from the boys, or at least the toms from the jakes.
The crown of a gobbler’s head is white, while its face is mainly blue and red. Male turkeys have a prominent snood, the mostly useless appendage that grows above the beak. A gobbler’s noggin is completely bald while a female will have small feathers on her neck and head.
On the gobbler’s breast there is a series of coarse hair-like fibers called a beard. However, this is not a feature totally exclusive to the male.
Another feature that sets a tom apart is his spurs. Hens have no spurs. A first year tom’s spurs average about one-half-inch long. A two-year-old has longer spurs, to about one inch in length. A three-year-old or older bird will have spurs that measure between one inch and one-and-a-half inches. The older they are, the sharper the spur and the more likely it will have a bit of a curve.
The best way to differentiate between the sexes is by looking at the coloration of the body. The tips of a hen’s breast feathers are buff, giving females a brownish look while a tom’s breast feathers are tipped with black, giving him an iridescent sheen.
Beard length varies between the subspecies and the ground they inhabit. Here in Oregon, our birds are primarily Rio Grandes. Not as long-legged as the Osceola variety, their beards don’t grow as fast once they start stepping on them.
A gobbler with a beard over eight inches long is probably three years- old or older. If a bird has three-inch whiskers, chances are he is less than a year old.
The best way to tell the difference between a jake and a tom is to look at his fanned-out tail. On a one-year-old, six or seven tailfeathers will stand taller than the rest of the fan.
My first turkey, taken in 1998, was a younger bird that fooled me by strutting amongst a group of bigger toms. I guessed that because he was all fanned out, he was the dominant bird. But my bird weighed in at a tender 15 pounds.
Why does it matter? The gobbler currently ranked No. 1 in the Record Book for Oregon’s Big Game Animals tipped the scales at 37 pounds, more than twice as big as my first turkey, and a lot more meat for the table.
Contrary to what you may have heard, a wild turkey makes fine table fare. And the beard from a big boss bird makes a great memento of an April day in the blind.