For a lot of people, turkey hunting means surreptitiously slipping through the frozen-foods section at Publix to cut off the other shoppers.
But real turkey hunting — the kind that involves waiting in the woods, making funny sounds and avoiding snakebites — is one of the oldest pastimes in the Palmetto State, one that has grown in the past two decades as the turkey population has rebounded. So what makes South Carolina’s turkey population such a gravy train for hunters?
We asked Charles Ruth, turkey project supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.
Q. Are turkeys native to South Carolina?
A. Oh yeah. The turkey is native to North America, and when the first Europeans came over they carried some back to Europe. Those turkeys became domestic. Later, when other Europeans came back and brought turkeys with them, they were surprised to see that turkeys were already here. It’s truly a North American bird.
Q. Where can you hunt? Are you limited to preserves?
A. No, turkeys are found in all counties, depending on the habitat. If you flew over the state and jumped out of an airplane, you’d probably land fairly close to some turkeys. Unless there’s a local habitat issue, they’re widespread across the state.
Q. Do people hunt them in the spring and save them for Thanksgiving?
A. Sure. Just harvest it in the spring, and either scald it and pluck it or simply pluck it and freeze it.
Q. How do local turkeys taste?
A. They’re not nearly as fatty or as large as domestic birds, and their legs are often very, very tough and sinewy. These birds are flying and running a lot, so you’ve really got to work on (their legs and wings) to stew them down and make a good table product. They have a little more of what a lot of folks call a nuttier flavor than a store-bought bird. I mean that in a good way. I guess that’s just the natural foods that they’re consuming.
Q. What’s more fun to hunt, turkey or deer?
A. I probably lean more towards deer, but that said, turkey hunting is about the best thing going in the springtime. In the fall, most of your other species can be hunted. To me, it’s more of a challenge, simply because the deer operates on a 24-hour clock, while the turkey spends all of its night in the tree.
Q. Where do you come down on the roasted vs. fried debate?
A: If somebody can do it properly, it’s a coin toss. A lot has to do with the preparation, the dressing of the bird. Any time you’re dealing with game meat, dressing can make or break it. But if you’re skilled at either traditional roasting or baking vs. the more nouveau frying, it will work either way. I’ve done them both ways and they’re equally as good.
Q. Have you ever had a Tofurkey?
A. A what?
Q. A Tofurkey. It’s the vegetarian turkey. They even make ones that look like turkeys now.
A: No, I have not. That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it, but I’m not opposed to it. I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to eating.