I recall writing a column for The Firing Line quite a few years back about wild turkeys and their introduction into San Luis Obispo County in the mid-20th century and their spread from there into most of the suitable habitat throughout the state. They now exist literally from Mexico to Oregon and are truly considered one of the best success stories of the introduction of any wildlife species into our state.
Many hunters consider the turkey the ultimate trophy of our upland game bird species. I had the experience of being a game warden working in San Luis Obispo County when we had our first legal turkey season in the late 1960’s. It was for two days, only in San Luis Obispo County, on a weekend in the spring. The limit was one “tom” per hunter for the season. Prior to that time we local wardens and biologists pretty much knew where the flocks were located around the county and the local landowners who had agreed to let turkeys be planted on their lands kept a pretty good watch over “their” flocks. The birds were not planted on public lands because the feeling within the Department of Fish & Game was they would not have their best chance of taking hold on public lands.
The turkeys did not create too much of an enforcement problem primarily due to the interest and protection provided by the landowners upon whose property they were planted. I recall making just two cases for out of season taking of turkeys in the nearly six years I was assigned in San Luis Obispo County.
San Luis Obispo County was the nursery grounds for the rest of California for many years. Over the years many hundreds of turkeys were trapped there by DFG personnel and transplanted to other counties up and down the state. Finally, in the mid 1960’s, the cooperative landowners sort of rebelled. At the beginning of the program, when they signed-on to have birds released on their lands, they were told that as soon as the flocks grew to significant numbers we would have a season and they could then hunt them. These landowners pointed out we were never going to have enough birds for them to hunt if we, the DFG, kept trapping and removing birds in wholesale numbers. There was much truth to their point of view and the first legal turkey hunt was held. Many of us had grave concerns that first season would be a slaughter. Most of the local flocks were quite predictable in their habits and, in many cases, would appear daily in the same known locations for handouts.
I remember the wife of the U.S Forest Service patrolman, who lived at the Upper Arroyo Guard Station just east of where Lopez Lake is now, feeding a fair sized flock of turkeys which strolled into her backyard almost every afternoon. The same was true at several back country ranch and farm yards around the county. Well, we were proven wrong. As soon as the first shots were fired the turkeys reverted to real wild and wily birds. We had brought in several extra game wardens to work the hunt and the biologists had established several check stations on roads coming out of the turkey areas to get some idea of hunter success. I personally did not check a single dead turkey in any hunter’s possession over the two days and the total bag for the county was less than ten birds as I now recall. We local wardens gave up all our concerns for the survival of the turkey flocks in San Luis Obispo County.
Now things have sort of come full circle. The turkeys have done so well in many areas they are sort of a problem in some ways. A few years back, the wine grape growers of the Napa-Sonoma area petitioned the Fish & Game Commission to have wild turkeys declared a nuisance. It seems they like grapes and the growers wanted to be able to shoot them at any time. In other areas turkeys have moved in to the edges of urban areas where they have been known to do damage to backyard gardens and newly planted lawns and other ornamental landscaping. I believe, but do not have any direct information, that this is one of the reasons certain air guns are now legal tools for taking turkeys. They allow the taking of turkeys in areas where firearms cannot lawfully be used.
Here in the area of Tehama County where I live turkeys are rather common. From time to time I harvest a tom during the spring season but have only harvested two or three over the last thirty years. Almost every year I have numerous opportunities but rarely avail myself of them. I did take a moderate sized tom last week, (Turkey season is open as I am writing this) in one of those memorable moments that make living on our small ranch such a pleasure, and has pretty well ruined me for existence in urban areas.
I was standing looking out the kitchen window while I was taste-testing the turkey soup cooking on the stove. I noted movement in the grass of the horse pasture just outside the fence separating the house yard from the pasture. There were two young toms feeding on the seed heads of the pasture grass. Distance from the kitchen window to the turkeys was about 25 yards.
About an hour later I heard a gobble. There was a more mature tom in the front yard! Somehow it does not seem sporting to ambush such critters off the front or back porch. I confess the tom I shot last week was a bit further away, about 150 yards down the road across from what we call our lower orchard. This required a stalk and a sneak and playing games with the tom for quite some time.
This one I can claim as an honest hunt, although I admit to a certain advantage over those who must drive out from the city to get to where the game is. I have also traveled to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming at various times in search of big game, only to return home without firing a shot.
That is certainly one of the main reasons we call it a “hunting license,” not a “killing license.”
The Firing Line, California Rifle and Pistol Association