WASHINGTON – While most American families ambush their Thanksgiving turkey in the sterile aisles of the local supermarket, some have battled nature to serve up a more traditional wild bird.
In the spring, David Johnson of Salisbury took to the woods and harvested two of Maryland’s wild turkeys.
After being plucked and cleaned, one of the birds went into the freezer to await becoming the guest of honor at the Johnson family’s Thanksgiving feast.
“I just think it’s a better quality meat,” Johnson said. “I really believe it’s not as dry as the domestic birds.”
Johnson said everyone in his family likes the taste of the wild turkeys he cooks, but others may not be quite as enthusiastic.
“It’s tasty. It’s got its own flavor,” said Chris Karinja, Johnson’s friend and the Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation. But, “if you were to put two birds on a table and do a blind taste test I’d say a Butterball” would win.
Taste aside, dead or alive, a wild turkey looks quite different from a store-bought bird. Turkeys raised on farms have white feathers and a lot of white meat, while undomesticated birds have darker feathers and more dark meat.
Aside from being more natural than a farm-raised bird, a study by North Dakota State University showed that wild turkeys are barely different in the amount of protein, fat and cholesterol per serving.
Johnson, 56, has been hunting turkey since 1987 and is now Maryland’s NWTF president.
“Basically, a friend of mine introduced me to turkey hunting and I fell in love with it,” he said.
Johnson said one of the things he loves is that turkey hunting allows him to be outside in the springtime “when everything is coming alive.”
He’s not alone either, every state except Alaska has at least one turkey hunting season and the NWTF Web site claims close to 3 million turkey hunters in the U.S.
Maryland has two turkey seasons, with the spring hunt bringing in the most birds because it is longer, includes the entire state and hunters are allowed to bring in two turkeys each.
According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources each spring season sees almost 13,000 hunters and this year’s hunt broke the state record with 3,136 birds bagged.
The shorter fall season is only open in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties and only yields about 150-250 turkeys each year.
Turkey hunting may be a popular hobby, but it’s not a good way to save on the cost of your Thanksgiving feast.
“It would be much cheaper to buy them in a store,” said Karinja. “You are not doing this to save money on food.”
Like any hobby, Karinja said, turkey hunting has necessary expenses and most people have an endless wish list of extras they would like to have.
First you need a hunting license, which in Maryland costs $24.50 for residents ages 16-64, $10.50 for kids and $5 for seniors.
If you want to go out of state, the costs jump dramatically. Maryland charges $65 for kids and $130 for adults.
Then you need something to execute the kill. The weapon of choice is a shotgun, which Karinja said costs around $500, with ammo running about $25 a box.
Next, you need the right clothes, said Karinja “because with turkey hunting you want to be in camouflage from head to toe.”
The camouflaged outfits run about $150-$250, he said, and are necessary because turkeys have tremendous eyesight and hearing so you have to either ambush them or call them to where you are hiding.
Speaking of calls, there are a myriad on the market and they don’t all sound the same so you probably want to get several. Then you will want a vest to keep them organized and handy while you hunt.
Of course it might not be comfortable to sit or squat on the ground, so you’d probably want to get a portable seat.
Add it all up, and you can easily spend more than $1,000 to hunt a bird that Karinja said weighs 10-25 lbs. before it’s plucked and cleaned.
Compare that to a store-bought turkey, which is typically less than $2 a pound and you might try to find another way to make your Thanksgiving a wild one.
“If I were ever to figure out how much it costs me per pound I probably wouldn’t do it,” Karinja said.
Of course for hunters there is more to gain from bagging a wild turkey than simply a main course for Thanksgiving dinner.
Johnson has gotten home decor. “I’ve got 2 mounted,” he said.
As for Karinja, “It brings back a tradition of what our forefathers did before the day and age of supermarkets and food stores.”