Turkey holiday puts spotlight on Wyoming’s bright turkey history
Cheyenne, WY. – The gobbling of the famed and glamorized first Thanksgiving took nearly three centuries to resonate to the Equality State. But it rings loud across much of Wyoming now and is far from reaching a crescendo.
It wasn’t until 1955 when hunters could harvest the historic wild turkey in Wyoming, and its hunting interest has continued to gain momentum since.
In 1935, the Game and Fish Department swapped some sage grouse to New Mexico for 15 Merriam’s turkeys – nine hens and six toms. The imports were released on the George Waln Ranch on Cottonwood Creek in Platte County that spring and were reported to lure some of the ranch’s domestic turkeys with them into the Laramie Mountains. The turkeys thrived in these hills west of Wheatland under the auspices of ranchers and the Game and Fish and were estimated to number over 1,000 by 1947.
These Wyomingites had nearly as much reverence for the bird as famous statesmen and inventor Benjamin Franklin did by touting the turkey as our national bird. Those Laramie Peak birds served as seed stock for several futile reintroduction attempts across the state until birds were sowed into the fertile habitat of the Black Hills in 1951-52. Thirty-three Platte County turkeys along with 15 more New Mexico transplants found new roosts near Redwater Creek in the northwest Black Hills. When combined probably with some transplants that strayed over from South Dakota releases, the introduction served as the foundation for Wyoming’s most recognized turkey hunt Area.
Fall turkey hunting is a different ballgame than the camouflaged calling of the spring. Although turkeys can spot hunter orange, but with corresponding big game seasons still underway, veteran turkey hunter Harry Harju, urges all fall turkey hunters to wear orange for safety.
He suggests hunters position themselves on atop ridges or knobs and listen for birds coming off their roosts and to look for tracks, scratching and droppings to begin the search. “Hens will often respond to a call which can help pinpoint a stalk, but they won’t come to calls in the fall,” he said, while recommending the “lost yelping call” for hens to respond to. He encourages stealth when stalking because, “There can be a lot of eyes in the flock late in the season.”
Compared to domestic turkeys, wild turkeys have less fat and consequently tend to be a little drier. Harju suggests using a “cooking bag” to help the fowl retain its natural moisture. Another technique is to strap bacon strips across the breast, covering with foil and then removing the foil a few minutes before serving to brown the bird. “When cooking, understand wild turkeys won’t stay on their backs like domestic birds, and may need to be propped up,” he adds.
Guests will detect the longer legs and a proportionally smaller, more angular breast, and the fuller flavor most people enjoy hands down over the commercial variety. The taste is primarily the result of the birds forest buffet. Traditionally “mast” or hardwood nut eaters, Wyoming turkeys seek hawthorne and scrub oak nuts plus chokecherry, plums, currants and buffalo berry. Seasonally the birds will also pluck tender grass shoots and buds.
Juvenile turkeys garner the favor of farmers and ranchers by feeding almost exclusively on grasshoppers their first summer. Adults snare hoppers, too, when the insects are real abundant. Ranchers often return the favor by letting the birds use their yards as winter refuge from deep snow.
As spring approaches, birds start inching up elevation and flocks of gobblers or adult males start disbanding. Come March, gobblers start establishing areas or “strutting grounds” along the edge of creek bottoms or forest. With loud gobbles and strutting posture, males amass a several-hen harem and drive smaller rivals off.
Hens nest in the strutting ground vicinity and close to reliable water. The females lay about two eggs every three days until a clutch of 10 to 13 is produced. After about 28 days of incubation, with no help from the gobblers, the chicks meet the world. Within a week the chicks start flying and roost in trees thereafter. Hens and their brood, often joined by like combos, stay together until the next breeding season.
Last fall 1,778 hunters put 941 turkeys on the table in Wyoming.