In three hours of hunting in three different spots, I had seen two hens and one jake. Both hens had come to within 20 yards, but the jake paid me no attention. Otherwise, not a single turkey had gobbled that morning.
At 10 a.m., a shotgun report roared across the pasture field to the south. Only one other hunter had permission to hunt turkey on this farm, and I had passed his pickup parked along the dirt lane when I arrived. Having never met the hunter, I decided this would be a good opportunity to make his acquaintance and see how he had done.
Cresting a wooded hill, I spied two hunters in full camouflage, a hundred yards away beside a line of cattle feeders. I called out and walked toward them.
"I heard a shot. Did one of you guys bag a bird?" I asked as I extended a friendly greeting.
The younger of the two hunters, the one with permission to hunt on the farm, smiled.
"I killed a jake on the back ridge," he said. "Not much of a bird. He was with a hen. I gave one call, and he came walking right in to 15 steps."
"All right!" I exclaimed. "Where is it?"
"I laid him in one of those cattle feeders." With hardly a pause he added, "Did you hear that tom gobble to the north just moments ago? I'm hoping to call in a tom for my friend."
"No," I responded, surprised at his lack of interest in the bird he had just shot.
"I'm going to finish my hunt on the south side of the farm," I said. "Good luck on the rest of your hunt. And congratulations on your bird."
The two hunters walked toward where they thought they had heard a turkey gobble. I looked for the jake as I passed the cattle feeders, and I found him in the last one. It was a small bird. A thin beard-maybe three inches-protruded from its chest, and it had buttons for spurs. It was also untagged. As I walked to where I planned to continue my hunt, I wondered whether the young hunter had simply forgotten to tag the bird, or whether he planned to leave the bird untagged so he could continue to hunt for a mature gobbler. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that something illegal was afoot.
I contacted the county conservation agent that afternoon, and he said he would look for the hunter's name on the weekend check sheet. The following week I learned that the hunter had not checked the bird and had received a citation for poaching.
I wondered why the young man deemed the jake unworthy of tagging. Why, in fact, do many hunters, after bagging a jake, seem ashamed of the bird when talking to their friends? The answer lies in a misunderstanding concerning the true challenge of turkey hunting. Jakes, or juvenile males, weigh less than most mature gobblers. Their beards and spurs are also shorter, but weight, beard and spur length are not the measures that define the challenge of turkey hunting.
No other game animal is more alert or cautious than a wild turkey. From the day they hatch until the day they die, turkeys are highly desired targets for a host of predators. They live in constant vigilance against danger. For survival, nature has provided them peerless eyesight and hearing and hair-trigger reflexes, of which they make good use.
By spring, jakes have eluded daily perils for 10 months. They are woods-wise veterans and masters of survival. As such, they are elusive prey for any predator, from bobcats to camo-clad humans carrying tightly choked shotguns. Therefore, a jake called in and cleanly killed with one shot represents superior woodsmanship.
Despite the difficulty of calling a jake into shotgun range, some hunters choose to limit their hunting efforts to old toms. Long of spur and beard, gobblers three years old and older comprise a much smaller portion of the spring turkey population than do jakes. For that reason, hunting only mature gobblers makes a tough sport even tougher.
Some hunters claim that older gobblers are more difficult to lure in with calls. Honest analysis, however, would probably reveal that old gobblers are not more difficult to call in than jakes. They simply require different hunting techniques.
Older toms typically do most of the breeding. They have strutting sites where they gobble and attract hens. Skilled hunters scout and find these sites, determine how gobblers travel to them and then hunt along these travel ways. An old tom is easy to call in when a hunter sets up along the turkey's travel route.
Some old gobblers roost with their harem of hens every night and pitch down to them in the morning. To call one of these gobblers, knowledgeable hunters challenge the dominant hen of the flock and call her in. The others often follow, as will the tom.
Another strategy veteran hunters use to lure in an old gobbler is to listen to the gobbler fly up with his hens in the evening, then scatter the flock at dusk. In the morning, the tom will more likely come to a hunter's hen call.
Jakes have different social roles than old gobblers. They typically don't have a strutting zone where hens come to them to breed, and they usually don't command a harem. Also, they tend to travel with other jakes.
Naturally, jakes will respond to hen calls in the spring, but they will also come to gobbler yelps. A time-honored way to tag a bird out of a group of unresponsive jakes is to scatter them, wait 30 minutes or so, and then call in one of the jakes with gobbler yelps. Separated from the security of numbers, panicky jakes are eager to rejoin their group, and they're not as cautious.
Whether you're hunting a jake or an old gobbler, the basic principles of turkey hunting always remain constant. Scouting, sitting still, patience, good calling, proper position and accurate shooting are the keys to consistent success. When you combine these principles to bag a bird, you have measured up to one of the greatest challenges Missouri has to offer. The age of the bird doesn't matter. Simply bagging a bird is sufficient reason to be both thankful and proud.
Whether the bird you kill this spring is a gobbler or a jake, converting it to a tasty main course is easy. Fried turkey breast is a delicious old-time favorite.
Remove the breast meat from the breastbone. Cut the meat across the grain into strips and soak them in milk. Coat the turkey strips in flour well mixed with seasoned salt. Either deep- or pan-fry.
You can also wrap the breasts in bacon and cook them on a smoker. Use a meat thermometer. When the internal temperature of the breasts reaches 150 degrees, the meat is done. Forget about the 180 degrees recommended for domestic fowl. A wild turkey will go dry if it gets that hot.
For the meat on the legs, thighs and carcass, boil it until tender. Let cool, and then strip off all meat. Grind the meat in a food processor and then add Miracle Whip and pickle relish to make turkey salad.
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