Erich Boese has been aiming for the classic turkey dinner on the wild side. Today, he has it.
An avid hunter, Boese, 25, grew up in Lodi and has been turkey hunting for the last three years. He’s been hoping to shoot and prepare his own Thanksgiving turkey ever since then, and this year he will finally do it. It is a goal that has become more possible, thanks to the increase of wild turkeys in the region in recent years.
On Monday, he took down an almost 18-pound bird with a shotgun on his parents’ property in Valley Springs.
The plan is to smoke the bird at his parents’ house and share it with friends and family today. Once the bird is cooked, he says it won’t be much different from most other Thanksgivings.
“If you see a store-bought bird next to a wild one, you can definitely tell the difference. The store-bought bird is going to be fatter with a lot of breast meat. The wild one is going to be skinnier,” Boese said. “The taste, though, is pretty close, with the wild turkey’s maybe a little bit gamier.”
Most people like their turkeys plump and mild; others like their bird wild. In recent years, there’s been a steady hike in the wild turkey population in California — and a surge, too, in those hunting the birds.
Some younger hunters have taken up turkey hunting, perhaps inspired by the female protagonist from “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen, a teen who is an adept hunter of small game.
Turkeys were found in California in prehistoric times, with evidence of the bird found in the La Brea Tar Pits. But they died out, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In 1877, private ranchers reintroduced the birds onto Santa Cruz Island, before the state began purchasing turkeys for distribution in 1908.
The state began expanding the number of counties that could hunt turkeys during the 1970s. San Joaquin County allows hunting them, but the turkey population remains low compared to nearby Calaveras County. According to the CDFW’s annual Game Taker Survey, 268, hunters visited Calaveras, but none of them bagged turkeys in 1974, the first year it was allowed there.
The most recent available survey is from 2010, with 586 hunters taking 319 turkeys in Calaveras during the fall alone. The fall is the more difficult of the two hunting season, with birds tending to stay close together and not responding to calls. The spring is when the turkeys mate and will typically come in close for a shot, according to CDFW lieutenant Patrick Foy.
Foy, 44, lives in Elk Grove and began turkey hunting in 1997, the same year he began working for the state. He says he’s seen a sharp upswing in the sport.
“There (has been) a slow decline in the sale of hunting licenses,” Foy said. “The turkey hunting seems to be the rare one that has really gone up over the last 15 years or so.
“I think part of it is that it is one (animal) where you can get pretty close to the target,” he said. “And another thing is that it’s one of the more humane hunts. You typically aim for the head so that its a quick kill. That and so you don’t get (shotgun) pellets in your meat.”
He added that the birds are flourishing because of strict bagging limits and good habitats.
Boese chalks up part of the reason to the difficulty involved in shooting a turkey, combined with friendly neighbors.
“It’s not encouraged, but you definitely see where people have been feeding the turkeys,” Boese said.
Foy says his 15-year-old daughter, Bridgette, is influenced by pop culture. Bridgette, a fan of the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, has shot Easter dinner for the family twice. The first two books have been turned into movies so far with the second, “Catching Fire,” in theaters now.
“I think Bridgette likes talking with her friends about the books and being able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done that. I know how to hunt,’” Foy said.
The fall turkey season starts the second Saturday of November and lasts for 30 days. The maximum number of birds per hunter per season is two, up one from last year. Foy says that biologists study the bird population each year and submit recommendations for what the limits should be.
Stockton’s Doug Morales grew up in a family of hunters and began bow hunting turkeys in 1979. He hunts on private land in Jenny Lind, and says it took years to get his first kill.
“There are tons and tons more (turkeys) now than when I started,” Morales said. “It took me two years to get my first turkey because I would hardly ever see them.”
For Morales, the trick in the fall is to learn which trees the turkeys frequently visit and figure a way to creep up to about 25 to 30 yards away. The subspecies he typically sees are the Rio Grandes, sporting a coppery to greenish-gold color.
“If you’re hunting the same area, you’re pretty much going to see the same group of birds,” Morales said.
Meanwhile, not all who go looking for turkeys are predators.
Kathy Grant is a docent coordinator of the nature area at Lodi Lake. She has recently been working with conservationist Go Green Club, made up of students from Tokay High School, and they see turkeys regularly.
“They fly along the corridor and we’ll see them grazing,” Grant said. “It’s nature’s gift.”
The birds have also been spotted at Sycamore Lane Kennels in western Lodi.
Employee Trish Tarrach has seen the same group of about seven turkeys in the nearby cherry orchards. Rain or shine, they will be looking for food, she says. They have even been known to block the roads and get aggressive.
“One time I had a turkey gobbling and chasing my car,” Tarrach said. “It was going at full sprint behind me and keeping up. I was impressed.”