Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce: Turkeys are worth the time

Five eager, hard-gobbling two-year-olds helped a hunt to an early end in Butler County.
Five eager, hard-gobbling two-year-olds helped a hunt to an early end in Butler County. The Wichita Eagle

“The three greatest gifts God ever gave me are a wonderful woman, smooth sipping whisky and two-year-old turkeys.”

An old-time Mississippi turkey hunter, circa. 1988.

BUTLER COUNTY – One morning last month, the wonderful woman of my past 33 years was still snoozing in bed. It was far too early for even a small sip of whiskey. But I felt blessed to have five 2-year-old toms roosted nearby.

They were gobbling in complete darkness when we’d arrived, and their enthusiasm increased as a growing grayness spread over the Little Walnut River valley. They responded at every gobbling tom and hooting barred owl within hearing.

They erupted in unison when I sent my morning’s fist hen calls into the air, and an unbroken gobble-fest stretched an enjoyable 20 or so seconds.

“That’s gotta be them,” I whispered to the camoed form half my size and beside me at the base of the big bur oak. “This could be fun.” It was.

The evening before, my 11-year-old friend, Jake Holem, and I had seen five toms in a big field. Noticeably larger than yearling jakes, they were a tad smaller in body and beard compared to older birds. But it was their demeanor, as much as their physical dimensions, that told me they were 2-year-olds.

An aged tom would probably have headed into the timber when we stopped across the field. Instead, the 2-year-olds barely paused before regaining their game of grab-fan as they chased each other around in a never-ending quest for dominance.

“Those are the birds we’ll want in the morning,” I told Jake as we watched the birds work their way towards a popular ridge-top roost.

Hunters revere 25-pound toms with 12-inch beards and razor-sharp spurs as long as golf tees. But it’s the 2-year-old gobblers that often define our spring seasons. High season harvests usually equate with a huge crop of 2-year-olds. Many times they’ve made up 60 percent or more of a state’s total kill, even with plenty of younger and older birds in the timber.

Long on hormones and short on hens because they can’t compete with bigger toms, 2-year-olds often come to calls as readily as freshman boys to the sounds of cheerleading practice. Often they gather in flocks from two to 10 of their own age. Again like teenage boys, the more such birds that are together the poorer their thinking and higher their degree of competition to get into trouble.

Some of my fondest memories of 35 spring seasons involve 2-year-old toms. In Cowley County, we had one do a high-wire act across a dead hackberry that had fallen across the top of a deep ravine. In Wyoming, a 2-year-old hopped from rock to rock down and up the walls of a steep canyon coming to calls.

In the Flint Hills I watched our then young son, Jerrod, use super-aggressive calling to peel a pair off a flock far on neighboring property. At the Lake of the Ozarks I shot a 2-year-old that flew nearly a quarter-mile across an arm of the lake. Turkeys of any age seldom do such things, but when it happens, it’s almost always done by 2-year-olds.

Two-year-olds build a hunter’s confidence. The flock near the Little Walnut made Jake think I’m a better caller than I probably am.

They gobbled at all of my calls from the roost and as they eventually came. They paused on a slight rise, hidden by brush, maybe 50 yards away and went into several long cluster gobbles. It was so loud we could feel as well as hear their calls. I could also feel Jake quivering with excitement through the bark of the tree.

I’d like to have let the birds put on a show at the decoys, but they came in on our wrong side. They caught a bit of movement as right-handed Jake moved his shotgun so he could shoot left-handed. Unlike older birds, they calmed at my soft calls and stuck around long enough for the boy to make a shot. At 21-plus pounds, it was heavy for a 2-year-old, but the nine-inch beard and 3/4-inch spurs were typical.

Such action is one advantage of working 2-year-old turkeys. One evening last week I enjoyed another.

Breast slabs of such birds are larger than those of jakes yet more tender than those of old toms. I placed the meat of a 2-year-old tom I’d killed opening day in a favored marinade, and then on the grill.

The wonderful woman I’d been blessed and I feasted well on our deck, but rather than sipping whiskey, my glass contained good white wine.

To the old hunter who uttered the quote at a spring camp we shared deep in Dixie, I’d like to add: