Tyler Hitchler was at his in-laws to watch Nebraska play Penn State when he spotted them out the kitchen window.
A dozen turkeys, strutting through the Fontanelle, Neb., backyard. Thanksgiving dinner with the feathers still attached.
He grabbed his bow and arrow, slipped out the back door and crouched behind the above-ground pool. Aim at the base of the neck — so it dies instantly with the breast meat still intact — and shoot. In a minute, maybe less, he had his bird.
Sure beats waiting in line at the grocery store.
The 24-year-old is part of a shrinking flock. Fall turkey hunting has declined over the past several seasons, said upland game manager Jeff Lusk of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Permit sales dipped in 2008 and again in 2010 before dropping below 11,500 last year. The commission often sells more than 12,000 permits.
Lusk said it's too early to tell whether that trend will continue this year.
It's likely these fall turkey hunters are stalking their holiday dinner — 40 percent of kills are in November. Hitchler bagged his first in October. He snagged his second then Nov. 10 and froze it for Thanksgiving Day.
He rejoined his in-laws to watch the first half of the Husker game shortly after the kill. He called his experience earlier this month “lazy man hunting.” For others, hunting in the fall is more difficult.
“They don't make any noise. They won't come to calls. The odds of seeing turkeys are pretty low,” Hitchler said.
Wild turkeys like Hitchler's are typically smaller than most store-bought varieties, though toms can weigh upward of 30 pounds. Hunting your dinner isn't necessarily cheaper than buying it. A permit for a resident is $23 and climbs to $90 for out-of-state visitors. Hitchler prefers it, though.
“When you kill your own food, you appreciate it more,” he said. You're thankful for the animal's sacrifice, he added, and nature treats the bird better than many industrial farms.
“It's organic,” he said. “They haven't been treated. I like the idea of a free-range turkey. They're leaner. The fat in the turkey is better for you.”
Hitchler lives in Omaha, where he studies medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He grew up hunting in Fremont, Neb., his hometown. It's only his second year killing a bird to serve over the holiday. His father-in-law introduced him to the new tradition.
Hitchler typically hunts turkeys in the spring. The spring season is more popular statewide, too. The Game and Parks Commission sold more than 35,000 spring turkey permits in 2011, about three times the number they sold in the fall last year.
The spring is mating season, so toms, or male turkeys, are typically out roaming, looking for a hen. They respond to a hunter's call.
That's not the case in the fall, but “they're here,” Hitchler said, referring to his in-laws' backyard. “We might as well.”
Lusk speculated that they might sell more permits this year. The commission extended the season through Jan. 31, leaving more time to bag a turkey. Fall turkey season usually ends Dec. 31.
Lusk said the availability of other game might also impact turkey hunting. A fatal infection, called epizootic hemorrhagic disease, is killing deer in the area. It surfaced this summer. “The number of deer available is either lower or perceived to be lower by hunters,” Lusk said, which means they might turn their attention instead to turkeys, which are more populous.
Hitchler's hen is 10 or 12 pounds, enough to feed that many people, depending on their appetites. He's in charge of preparing the main course on Thursday.
His doesn't look like a traditional turkey. It's skinned — pulling out each feather by hand is an arduous task, he said. He separated the breast from the bone, too, and removed both turkey legs. He seasons the bird with salt, cracked black pepper, sage, garlic and onion, then cooks it on low for several hours in a crockpot, swimming in chicken stock to keep it tender and moist.
“I usually don't screw it up,” he said, laughing.
“Wild turkey is my favorite game.”
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