Vermont Turkey Restoration
By Pete Quinlan
America's wild turkey populations dropped to all-time lows after a century of over-hunting and land-clearing by humans. Then their favorite mast crop vanished when American chestnut forests were wiped out by an infestation of exotic parasites. By 1950, wildlife biologists adopted restrictive hunting seasons and sportsmen willingly financed restoration efforts, primarily releasing pen-raised wild birds and setting corn cribs.
A handful of dedicated sportsmen in the local Barre Fish & Game Club like outdoor writer Percy Angwin and local granite salesman Eugene Stefanazzi had seen wild turkey habitat and were sure Vermont's diverse forests and farm lands would be equally productive. As a member of both the New England Outdoor Writers Association and Outdoor Writers Association of America, "Perk" knew turkey experts like Dr. Roger Latham of Pennsylvania and obtained their advice for truly wild turkeys to release.
The sole Vermont Fish & Game Department turkey program at the time was a closed hunting season and they granted the club permits for stocking turkeys before nesting season so natural survival instincts would be passed to their chicks. Most of our turkeys came from the Allegheny Mountains in southwest Pennsylvania, where wild birds were raised in giant pens in natural habitat so human contact was minimized.
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Blessed by profits from a popular sports show, the club annually purchased and released small flocks of mixed age and sex within a 300 square mile area of central Vermont. After some six years this small effort proved that turkeys could nest successfully and survive some nasty winters, breed and nest again. While I was chairman of the club's game committee I personally got to transport, wrestle and leg-band a few dozen turkeys before releasing them. When I learned that cannon-netting waterfowl for banding was just adapted to relocating wild turkey flocks I wrote eleven states that did it to obtain some netted turkeys. I received two positive replies - provided we established a cooperative program with the Fish & Wildlife Department.
Unfortunately, before we could even discuss the plan the Vermont Legislature allowed UNLIMITED turkey hunting and our established population of $25 birds were quickly wiped out before they could expand. Sickened by politics and greedy meat hunters, we stopped our proven restoration project and I gave all my turkey restoration correspondence to Vermont's Chief Wildlife Biologist, Ben Day. A few years later the turkey season was re-closed and turkey biologist Bill Drake was hired to continue turkey restoration in Pawlet - with cannon-netted birds!
Despite Vermont's rapid restoration of turkey populations in southern zones and open gobbler hunting seasons there, I could not bear to hunt them for years. Then in 1975 I scouted five gobblers and quickly filled my tag with waterfowl loads in my 12-gauge Remington 1100. It seemed so easy I decided to "smoke" some turkey with an antique English fowler I had used for small game, ducks and geese. I stayed with my favorite goose loads which included 3.5 drams of 2-F black powder, a Herters' "Vandalia" closed-cup plastic wad, 1-3/8 ounces of #5 copper-plated lead shot and 1/16-inch cardboard over-shot wad. That combination successfully "smoked" my next three Vermont gobblers - plus one coyote that cut my gobbler off and stalked me!
I may well have been the first Vermonter to get wild turkeys with a muzzle-loading shotgun in a few centuries but since then my old buddy Dick Bullard has bagged two jakes with a single shot from his flintlock "trade musket"! There is no doubt that primitive weapons add lots more sport to any kind of hunting and bet somebody will use a bow to make a double turkey "shis-kabob" with one arrow! It simply proves that you don't need a 10-gauge 3-1/2 inch magnum with a special screw-in choke tube to bag a gobbler.
Today the wild turkey is abundant throughout America and smart enough to know their calling attracts both two and four-legged hunters. Our challenge is no longer restoration of these amazing birds but just to bag some.
Pete Quinlan is an award-winning outdoor sports writer, past president and long time trustee of the Barre Fish & Game Club.
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