‘As the woods wake up, it’s my favorite time’: Turkey hunters relish spring season

Brandin Coates makes pot calls, box calls and mouth calls to attract wild turkeys.

Brandin Coates makes pot calls, box calls and mouth calls to attract wild turkeys. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Brandin Coates demonstrates a turkey call, dragging wood across slate mounted to a sounding board.

Brandin Coates demonstrates a turkey call, dragging wood across slate mounted to a sounding board. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Brandin Coates makes turkey calls in his Hawley workshop.

Brandin Coates makes turkey calls in his Hawley workshop. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Brandin Coates turns a turkey call on his small wood lathe in his Hawley workshop.

Brandin Coates turns a turkey call on his small wood lathe in his Hawley workshop. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Joe Judd with a wild turkey box call in his Shelburne home.

Joe Judd with a wild turkey box call in his Shelburne home. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Joe Judd with deer mounts of bucks he took with bow and arrow.

Joe Judd with deer mounts of bucks he took with bow and arrow. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

These turkey calls make up a small portion of the hunting gear on display in Joe Judds home.

These turkey calls make up a small portion of the hunting gear on display in Joe Judds home. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-17-2024 12:36 PM

The Boston Red Sox season will still be warming up by the end of this month, with about 110 games remaining before the playoffs. But outdoor sportsmen across Massachusetts will have already hung up their gear until around the time the World Series begins.

Spring turkey hunting season in the state spans April 29 to May 25 this year, meaning hunters have a little more than a month to kill two of the bearded game birds prized for their tasty meat.

“It’s been a great thing for me. It’s taken me places and allowed me to do things that I never thought I’d do,” said Joe Judd, a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and author of the “On The Ridge” hunting column for the Greenfield Recorder. “I don’t think of myself as an expert turkey hunter – I just managed to be around people that were better than me and they taught me.”

Rabbit was the first animal that Judd learned to hunt growing up in New York, and he eventually graduated to deer, squirrels, pheasants and other animals.

“None of it really consumed me the way turkey hunting did. You can communicate with deer, and I do, but not the same way you do with turkeys,” he said in his den, which serves almost as a small hunting museum of sorts. “The crux of turkey hunting is to sit down and call that bird to you. The idea is that you don’t take crazy shots, you don’t make stupid maneuvers.”

He explained the ideal spot to hit a turkey is in its head and neck.

According to the state’s website, the wild turkey was widespread in Massachusetts prior to European colonization. Due to habitat loss, the population was stamped out and the last known native bird was killed in 1851, 10 years before the start of the Civil War.

The division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s biologists trapped 37 turkeys in New York in the 1970s and released them in the Berkshires. The new flock grew and by fall of 1978 the estimated population was about 1,000 birds. More moved in from adjacent states and turkeys soon ranged throughout most parts of Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River. The wild turkey was named the state’s official game bird in 1991 — thanks, in part, to Judd, who lobbied for the designation. Judd even befriended Bill Weld, who was governor at the time, and taught him to hunt turkeys.

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“I used to tease him, I was like, ‘Don’t quit your day job,’” he recalled with a laugh. “He loved to turkey-hunt. He loved to use the calls. We became chums and we stayed in contact a number of years after he left office.”

Like Judd, Brandin Coates was a hunter who initially didn’t pursue turkeys.

“I never had any real interest in turkey hunting until my brother-in-law brought me [in 2009] and I saw how awesome it is and how addicting it is,” the longtime deer hunter recalled.

Four years ago, Coates combined his passion for turkey hunting with skills as a carpenter and founded Bitchin’ Hen Custom Turkey Calls in Hawley. The name comes from the sound of a turkey that’s yelping. A hen is a female turkey, whereas a young male turkey is known as a jake and an adult male turkey is a tom. Business is booming for Coates, who was forced to cut off orders.

“I’m a hunter, big time. It’s like my religion, almost,” he said with a laugh. “This, I fell in love with it — making turkey calls.”

Those calls did their job on May 1 — the third day of the season — when Coates notched “a double up” and he tagged two birds. He also got his first Vermont turkey on public land on May 8.

Hunters says wild turkey doesn’t taste the same as the type you buy in a supermarket. The wild variety is a darker, firmer meat and it’s healthier. Coates and Judd said they eat only the breasts, though some people enjoy the thighs and some even pickle the giblets, or the bird’s edible organs. Coates said he prefers to grind the breast meat and take it to work to eat it on sandwiches.

“It’s rewarding, you know?” he said. “I’m at work, making some money, eating something that I harvested myself. It’s all rewarding.”

And Coates said he is making sure turkey hunting remains a family affair, having taken his daughter, Laynie, for the first time when she was 12. At 17 years old, Laynie enjoyed her final Youth Day on April 27. Her father explained this is a day for hunters 17 and younger to head into the woods with a mentor and get a head-strong on turkey-hunting season. All youth hunters need to have taken the Basic Hunters Education and turkey safety courses. The Youth Turkey Hunt Program is offered by MassWildlife, the Massachusetts State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and participating sportsmen’s clubs.

Coates said his daughter got a great bird on Youth Day, which he said he hopes is “not our last time in the woods together.”

Today, the state populations are estimated at between 30,000 and 35,000 birds.

Mike Roche, of Orange, has written the Sportsman’s Corner column of the Athol Daily News since 1984, the same year he went turkey hunting for the first time, though he wasn’t successful until two years later when New England Outdoor Writers Association members got paired with experienced hunters.

“And that was the trigger right there, experiencing the whole thing with someone who knew what they were doing was really eye-opening,” he said.

Roche has since served as advisor to the Ralph C. Mahar School’s Fish ’N Game Club and a counselor and director of the Massachusetts Junior Conservation Camp. He is also a former Connecticut Valley District representative on the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board, a Massachusetts hunting education instructor and a licensed New York hunting guide.

Roche has for years been successfully hunting turkeys in Kansas, where his sister lives, and neighboring Missouri. Back home in Massachusetts, he is still waiting to bag his first bird of the season.

“So far, the turkeys are shutting me out. But I’ve had a good time, listening to the birds,” he said. “What I enjoy most about it is being in the spring woods in the morning. As the woods wake up, it’s my favorite time, and when a bird gobbles, that’s just frosting on the cake.”

Roche said he most loves to make turkey jerky, using a dehydrator.

“It’s different than domestic turkey, because it has flavor, that’s what I’ll say,” he said. “Turkeys have great hearing and great eyesight, but once in a while they make a mistake and you get to bring them home.”

As for required training and kill limits, most hunters will tell you they’re necessary in order to keep people safe and not deplete an animal’s population. Like Coates said — if skilled hunters get too good without any regulation, they’ll be no more hunting. In fact, as he believes the Massachusetts turkey population is dwindling, he feels hunters should be allowed to bag one bird per person.

Likewise, Judd is a staunch supporter of limits.

“I don’t think there should ever be anything that you can just go out and shoot at will,” he said. “I’ve always through my life tried to be an ethical hunter. I don’t believe in breaking the law. I know there’s a lot of guys out there that feel totally [the] opposite about that, but these laws are in place for a reason and they’re in place to protect the resources.

“For me, it’s got to be fair chase — he’s got a chance, I’ve got a chance,” he said. “And usually he wins.”

Judd, a former president of the National Wild Turkey Federation and a 2019 inductee into the New England Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame, said he likes to honor and remember the birds he kills by making decorations out of the primary tail feathers and making necklaces out of the spurs, the long claws or talons on the back of a turkey’s leg.

But Judd’s career in turkeys spans beyond hunting, writing and seminars — as he has emceed at least 200 turkey-calling competitions, which is probably exactly what you’re imagining. A panel of judges behind some type of screen analyze a series of calls people make with various instruments in different categories. The most recent one was in Concord, New Hampshire.

“It went well. I mean, the callers were all good. Some were better than others, but all good.,” Judd said. “Just getting up there to do it, it takes a lot, because it can be it’s a little intimidating.”

According to information from the state, wild turkeys are active during the day; roosting in large trees at night to avoid predators. Hens lay eggs after the first mating and the nest is a shallow, leaf-lined depression on the ground, and contains 12 to 15 eggs. Hatching occurs after a 28-day incubation period.

Broods typically appear in the first week of June. Young turkeys remain with their mother for at least four to five months and the birds learn from each other, often by imitation, and by associating with older, more experienced birds. They remember the layout of their home ranges and the location of various foods.

The state’s fall season is from Oct. 7 to Nov. 30 this year, though only archery equipment is permitted during certain periods. Hunting is prohibited on Sundays.

More information about turkey hunting in Massachusetts is available at tinyurl.com/MassTurkey1 and tinyurl.com/MassTurkey2.