Big Bird Down
By: Jeff Helsdon
Whether it's your first gobbler or you've struggled with a harvested bird in the past, these steps will help you get the most out of it
A gobble makes the hunter aware of the approaching tom as it answers the call. Slowly, a black spot that appeared about 100 yards away transforms into a dark body with a colourful head. Waiting patiently as the bird approaches, the hunter slowly moves the gun to rest on the gobbler's head.
Bang! The turkey goes down. Now what? While ensuring legal requirements to meet the province's hunting laws are followed, the hunter has decisions to make about how to clean the bird and what, if anything, to do with its trophy parts.
The first step is to ensure the bird is indeed dead. Don't start celebrating until it's a sure thing the gobbler isn't going to be one that goes down hard and then gets up 30 seconds later – to escape. Always put another shell in the chamber and slowly approach the bird, with gun at the ready to deliver a killing shot, if needed.
Once you're sure the bird is dead and have marked out the date and time of the kill on your tag, attach it to a leg. What you do next concerns one of the most important safety rules in turkey hunting. The bird shouldn't just be slung over your back, but first put into a blaze-orange bag designed to transport birds or have some type of blaze-orange attached conspicuously to it. The orange mesh bag supplied with some full-bodied decoys is perfect for carrying out the real thing, too.
Bringing it Home
Legally, cleaning the bird at the kill site is not an option. David Critchlow, provincial enforcement specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources, said the regulations require the seal to still be attached to the leg while the bird is being transported. It can only be cleaned and the seal removed when at the hunter's residence and no longer being transported.
As soon as you arrive home, or even in the field if you have a cell phone, ensure you report your kill by phoning the ministry's toll-free number (1-800-288-1155). Not only is it the law to report harvested turkeys, the information is an integral part of the formula the ministry uses to make population estimates.
Prior to cleaning your turkey, make a decision about how it will be cooked. If you're only going to use the breast, there's no use plucking it. But, if the bird is headed to the fryer or roasting pan, plucking is best.
Breasting a turkey is much the same as breasting a pheasant, duck, or goose, just on a larger scale. Since most hunters are familiar with this technique, I won't delve deeply into it.
Consider using the legs or wings, too. They're tougher, but can be used for stews, soups, or ground meat. Ethically, hunters should never waste any edible part of harvested game.
Plucking feathers is a whole different story and a lot more work. A plucked bird does offer more cooking options. There are ways to make this chore easier. I've always breasted birds, but fellow turkey hunter Mike Rusnak is the opposite and is a big advocate of plucking.
He uses a pail large enough to dunk the whole bird. Heat enough water to cover the bird in the pail and remove it from the heat just prior to it starting to boil. Then, dip the bird into the water for 45 seconds, but no longer. "If you leave it too long, you will blanch it," Rusnak warned.
The feathers should then pluck off cleanly. Have a pail of cold water nearby to dip your hands into to remove feathers that will stick to them. Once the main feathers are removed, ignite a rolled-up newspaper to singe off the fine feathers. Remove the head below the neck, then cut under the breastbone and remove the entrails.
With the bird cleaned (or maybe before, depending on your intentions), decisions should be made about keeping any of the trophy parts of the gobbler.
The most popular parts are the tail and the beard. Taxidermist Rick Davis advises to be careful of the tail when transporting the bird. If shafts in the tail feathers break, they can't be fixed. If you're considering a European mount with the tail and feathers up the back attached or mounting the whole bird, he also cautions to not leave it laying on one side. Feather slippage can occur in the part of the bird laying against the ground. Hang it so it will cool better.
Whether drying the tail for display or to add some life to a gobbler decoy, keep a couple of important points in mind. After cutting the tail out of the bird, remove all flesh and fat. Davis says, sooner or later, flesh or fat could attract bugs. Salt or borax the remaining fresh flesh, then spread the tail on a piece of Styrofoam and pin it in position.
To remove a turkey's beard, cut into the bird to include removing a few feathers and flesh above the beard. With the beard out, remove the flesh and feathers. Ensure you don't cut too far into the beard or it will fall apart. Again, treat the open end with salt or borax.
Many options exist for displaying other portions of a turkey. Necklaces can be made from the spurs, the feet can be bronzed and made into bookends, and bones can be made into a wing-bone call. See the Web sites below for ideas.
One final consideration is whether you want to enter your gobbler in the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters' wild turkey registry.