May 13, 2021
Congratulations! That big gobbler that's been giving you fits for half the season now lies at your feet. Your hide was perfect, your calling spot-on and you made your shot count. The proof is right there—all 22 pounds of him.
And once you get home, it'll be straight into the freezer with him, right? Well, hold on just a second.
Sure, that bird's going to taste great, but is merely turning it into a few meals truly making the most of it? While prized for specific portions of meat, there are plenty of uses for much of what is found on a turkey, and that goes beyond what you throw into the deep fryer or the crockpot.
So, let's discuss what's on the menu above and beyond … well, what’s on the menu … when it comes to processing your spring gobbler.
We begin with the parts of your gobbler destined for the dinner table. Most turkey hunters, I believe, dress their bird by removing the breast fillets and preparing them any number of ways, inlcuding as breaded strips or, my personal favorite, vegetable stir fry.
But don't forget about the legs and thighs. Thighs can be prepared by themselves; the drumsticks, however, are often a bit chewy and filled with knife tendons. My play is to debone both legs and thighs and use the meat for stew or, better yet, combine it with chunked breast meat and pressure can it in broth.
There's a reason domestic, store-bought turkeys come with a small bag including the neck, liver, heart and gizzard, aka the giblets. One word: Gravy. There's no reason you shouldn't do the same with your wild bird.
Hand-pluck the neck to the base of the head and—if not shot-damaged to the point of being unusable—remove as much of it as possible. After removing and separating the breast halves, legs and thighs, simply remove the liver, heart and gizzard. Don’t forget that the gizzard must be butterflied and rinsed, and the tough, inedible lining needs to be peeled away.
THE WHOLE SHEBANG
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the option of plucking your gobbler whole and transforming it, more or less, into the wild version of a Butterball. I'm partial to dry-plucking; however, scalding and wet-plucking is certainly a viable alternative.
Either way, turkeys are a cinch to pluck, albeit a bit time consuming. Gut your bird, saving the internal organs as discussed above, then rinse well and he's ready for the oven or deep fryer.
I always tossed my gobbler heads into the refuse container until a buddy convinced my wife and I to begin saving ours. He gives them to a taxidermist friend who freeze-dries them and uses them—quite realistically—for his customers' full-body turkey mounts. No sense trashing that which can be used.
The list of uses for wild turkey feathers is practically endless. Wing feathers—the primary flight feathers—are coveted by do-it-yourselfers who use them as fletching material for hand-made cedar hunting arrows or for making old-time quill writing pens. Crafters, artisans and interior decorators are also usually delighted to find a source of beautiful primary or tail feathers. Body feathers can be used in trout and panfish flies.
After plucking the feathers, make sure they're clean and dry and store them in paper bags according to type (plastic bags can trap moisture and lead to mold and/or rot). Then, put the word out, perhaps by social media, that you have feathers available. However, be sure to check your state and local regulations as they pertain to the gifting of any portions of legally harvested wild game.
In seasons past there were three general paths a gobbler's fan might take. Many were (unfortunately) discarded. Others were dismantled, with the individual tail feathers used for decorative purposes. And some were preserved in their entirety, mounted on an attractive wooden plaque and displayed.
Today, while the latter two remain popular uses for fans, many successful hunters are turning their gobbler's fan into an extremely effective piece of hunting gear. Many believe nothing reflects light more naturally than an actual gobbler fan, and using one with a full-strut decoy lends unmatched realism. Or use it on its own as part of a fanning—or "reaping"—strategy.
Spurs—and entire legs for that matter—can be preserved and used in any number of ways. Taxidermists, for instance, will typically have a use for them. However, the portions of the legs to which the spurs are attached are often removed, cleaned, dried and strung on a rawhide lace, making for eye-catching yet inexpensive mounted memories.
There's nothing like using a part of one turkey to call in another, and this can be done with a wingbone yelper. Three bones from a gobbler's wing—the radius, ulna and humerus—make up such a call. After removing the trio, it's a matter of fleshing, boiling, cleaning, drying, cutting, fitting and gluing. Time consuming? Sure. Difficult? Not really.
Note: This article was featured in the Midwest edition of April's Game & Fish Magazine.