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November 22nd, 2006 12:00 am Bradley Campbell | Featured Stories

Let's Stalk Turkey

We sent our young intern into the woods with a shotgun, with the hope he'd shoot us a Thanksgiving bird.

Thankgiving is all about the bird. But wild-turkey hunting is all about the poop. A couple of wet Sunday mornings ago I skirted a meadow, shotgun ready, to search for the elongated, J-shaped turds of a tom. Yet even if I had found some, I'd be lucky if they led me to a turkey.

Dave Budeau, upland game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says, "Success rates for a turkey hunt are about 40 percent." That's about equal to the percent of women who always orgasm during sex. (Well, at least according to good ol' Dr. Kinsey.)

And since I'm a virgin to hunting—of any kind—I knew my chances of bagging one would be slim.

I went out to the backwoods of Polk County to see what makes wild-turkey hunting the fastest-growing form of hunting in the U.S., according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and why Oregon is a great place to do it—close to 6,029 turkeys were shot during the state's previous fall and spring seasons.

I also wanted to see if I could actually kill a turkey. I heard it could be...fun. "There's nothing better than a tom coming across a field at you, strutting, their face all full with color, looking fierce," says Travis Pollack of the Northwest Armory, a Portland gun shop. Pollack has hunted wild turkey for 13 years and bagged more than 28 birds. He's hunted almost every available animal in Oregon, and wild turkey continues to be one of his favorites.

He's not the only turkey tracker. Although the most popular target for Oregon hunters is black-tailed deer (which were hunted in excess of 110,000 last year), this fall season, the state made 3,000 turkey tags available to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis, with the expectation that 750 or more birds will be shot. But they didn't factor in my participation this season. Or the insider knowledge others, like Pollack, provided me.

Pollack helped me understand that I wasn't hunting a Butterball. "Most people think that turkeys are stupid birds," he says. "But they're actually smart birds, with incredible eyesight. They can pick out your silhouette and even human skin tones from a long distance away," he told me.

Basically, I was up against a ground hawk.

In order to compensate for this acute turkey eyesight, professional hunters encourage head-to-toe camouflage. One needs to blend into the background like a true predator. Camouflage clothing increases the chance for a successful hunt, but it also makes you invisible to other hunters who may be in the area. I decided to choose safety over stealth and wore a blaze-orange cap and fleece vest over the top of a black raincoat and pants. I'm not getting shot for my Thanksgiving dinner.

I also used a gun from the 1940s. It hadn't been fired in over a decade. I loaded it with some new shells and hoped it still worked as I crouched near some trampled grass to look for more shit.

The turkeys I stalked were first publicly introduced to Oregon in 1961. But privately, folks have been introducing them all the way back to the 1800s. "It was primarily done by sportsmen," says Budeau. "Now it's done by people who like to feed them. And a lot of people like turkeys."

The current state estimates for wild turkey populations are between 40,000 and 50,000. That figure comprises two subspecies: the svelte Rio Grande, with rust-colored tail feathers, and the plump Merriam's, with tail feathers edged in a cream-colored hue. With good stats backing me up—and tail feathers shaking in my head—I thought I should be able to find one. I kept my finger on the trigger and went in deeper.

But was I just wasting my time? It's one of the many existential questions an omnivore faces while hunting. You start to question the point of it all. Right now I could be at a New Seasons Market, buying a delicious, free-range, organic bird raised in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. Claudia Knotek, community relations manager for New Seasons, sold me on their quality over the phone. "Our turkeys come from a family ranch," she explains. "They have no additives, grow up in a natural environment, and are given lots of exercise and raised on a vegetarian diet."

I guess that's great and all, but I want more: I want a turkey with the skill to shake-and-bake a bobcat; a turkey that flies every night to roost in Douglas fir trees; a natural, super-organic turkey that I spent hours tracking in the backcountry; a real Oregonian turkey, an edible Tom McCall.

That's why I'm out here—to taste my own bird. "Wild turkey is extremely flavorful," says Pollack. "The meat is dark and lean, as their muscles are actually being used. They're out there living. Everything is natural."

Unfortunately, fall is the worst time of the year to hunt wild turkey. Even though it's legal to kill either sex, there's no turkey sex going on. To really experience the popularity of turkey hunting, I needed to wait until the spring season, when the turkeys can be attracted with mating calls. But that would've taken five months of patience, something I forgot to pack.

After two hours in the rain I had seen two blue jays, one tree frog, a horse and some cattle tracks. But no wild turkey. By then my shotgun began to get heavy, and curiously attractive. I desperately wanted to fire it. I toggled the safety button back and forth like some weird kind of foreplay. I felt a need to shoot.

"What the fuck's going on?" I thought to myself.

Later, Andrew M. Guest, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Portland, suggested that it could have been a need to resolve a cognitive dissonance. "You're out there with a gun, you've committed to giving it a try even if it seems a bit odd, so to resolve the dissonance you need to finish it off," he explained.

Minutes before I gave up on the turkey hunt, I fired the shotgun into a pile of brush. Smoke came out of the barrel, and the recoil bruised my shoulder. It satisfied me for a bit, but I left for home feeling incomplete. On this day, the turkey won.

As the Spanish philosopher JosÉ Ortega y Gasset once said, "One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted." Think of it like sex: You haven't really experienced it until you orgasm. I went hunting for wild turkey, but I'm still waiting for my first kill. And with another month left of the fall turkey season, I still have time to come.

Wanna bag your own bird? 2006 general fall turkey season lasts through Dec. 31 in Oregon's Curry, Josephine, Jackson, Coos, Douglas, Lane, Benton, Polk, Marion and Lunn counties, although we hear that "in or around Roseburg" is the best place to hunt. Oregon resident hunting licenses ($22.50), a three-day nonresident hunting license for migratory waterfowl and upland birds ($21.50) and "Turkey Tags" for Oregon residents ($18) and nonresidents ($64) are all available at local Fred Meyer stores. Get yer boomstick at Northwest Armory, 12632 SE McLoughlin Blvd. #1, 654-7974. A recommended shotgun for turkey hunting is a Remington 870 pump ($260-$280).
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