The book on beards

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Video what is the longest turkey beard ever recorded

SHERIDAN, Ind. Like the antlers on a deer, a turkey’s beard is a secondary sexual characteristic. But because beards don’t vary as widely as antlers, they have never been as coveted as antlers by hunters.

Even still, the NWTF keeps records of the longest beards, and when someone bags a bird with an unusual one, it warrants notice by the hunting community.

When Joe Bacon set out to fill his Indiana turkey tag in 2002, he certainly wasn’t looking for the longest beard in Indiana history. He was only hoping to redeem himself.

With one shot he accomplished both.

Joe Bacon, Indiana record holder with one of the many toms he has harvested with beards in the 12-inch range. Joe Bacon

As the long-time president of the Indiana Deer Hunter’s Association, Bacon’s is a recognized name in Indiana. His accomplishments on behalf of hunters and habitat are eclipsed only by his knowledge of hunting.

But despite his knowledge of the outdoors, Bacon has always been humble regarding all but one subject.

“I have always maintained it is nearly impossible to miss a turkey with a shotgun,” he said.

Then it happened to him twice.

Knowing how confident Bacon was of his shot, his hunting partners were stunned when they heard him shoot on opening day, but return to camp with no turkey over his shoulder.

“I missed,” he hesitantly admitted to his brethren. “But for the life of me, I can’t say why.”

The opportunity was too good to ignore for his hunting partners who promptly reminded him of his declaration: “no one should ever miss a turkey with a scatter gun.”

Undeterred by his squandered opportunity, Bacon set out the next morning determined to make good.

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Shortly after daylight another shot rang out from Bacon’s hunting spot.

But as Bacon approached the cabin for a second day in a row without a tom to show for his shot, he was as frustrated and dumbfounded as his partners.

“I went back to the gun range and found my gun pattern was way off. I had been shooting that gun for years and the pattern had never moved,” he said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand how it could have gotten so far out of whack just sitting in my gun case over the winter, but it did.”

With his gun properly sighted-in, he took to the woods for a third day in a row this time a little more humble. His only goal on the third day: fill his tag with anything except a jake.

A trail camera catches a glimpse of a rare gobbler with two beards at the author’s farm. Don Mulligan

When a tom responded to his call from the other side of a hill, he was pleasantly surprised.

“As soon as I saw the full fan crest over the rise, I positioned my gun for a shot,” he said. “When his head and neck followed, I squeezed the trigger and he went down.”

Simply thankful he didn’t miss, Bacon approached the gobbler and started inspecting his bird.

“Initially, I saw a five-inch beard sticking out, but upon further inspection, found a second beard tucked under his breast feathers,” he said.

After some careful picking, Bacon uncovered about a dozen 18-inch beard feathers. He knew this was something special and carefully stuffed the bird into his vest to take to a check station for verification.

Along the way, the fragile bird beard got jostled around and two-inches broke off its end. The final measurement was still an even 16-inches, which remains as Indiana’s longest beard in the NWTF’s record book. Because it had two beards, it was considered atypical.

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Weird beards

Longer typical and atypical beards have been recorded than the rope on Bacon’s bird in several other states. His Indiana record now registers as the 19th longest beard in North America.

Only approximately 10 percent of all hens have beards, like this one in Indiana. Don Mulligan

Cody May’s 2007 eastern wild turkey holds the current record for the longest beard. It was harvested in Texas and sported a freakish 22.5-inch beard.

But length isn’t the only feature that makes turkey beards interesting.

Bob Eriksen, NWTF Regional Biologist has studied turkey beards for years and finds them fascinating.

“I am probably asked about double beards and bearded hens more than anything,” he said.

Ten to twenty percent of all hens have beards, he said. Their beards are usually shorter and consist of fewer strands or bristles than beards on gobblers.

The function, if any, of a hen’s beard, however, is a mystery.

On male turkeys, beards help other turkeys determine sex, age and condition. In the case of a bearded hen those factors are not as critical in the mating process.

“Bearded hens don’t mate less frequently than non-bearded hens, and their clutches aren’t any smaller,” Eriksen said.

Gobblers with more than one beard are even more rare than bearded hens.

A recent survey of 1000- banded wild turkeys revealed only four percent of them had more than one beard. Each beard needs to grow from its own, separate sheath.

Occasionally turkey beards have a reddish-orange hue. These are more typical on jakes, but sometimes persist on older birds as well. NWTF

In his article Wild Turkey Oddities Weird Beards, Eriksen wrote that beards grow throughout the life of a turkey, and can consist of only a few bristles or up to 600.

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“Beards almost never exceed 12-inches because at that point they are continually shortened when they drag on the ground or get weighted down with ice in the winter,” he explained. “Beards in excess of 16-inches are quite rare.”

Bacon agreed that beards as long as the one on his Indiana record book bird are quite rare.

Though he has killed countless turkeys with beards in the 12-inch range, he has neither killed nor seen another turkey like the one he harvested and redeemed himself with in 2002.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>