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'Great Faces, Great Places': Turkeys in S.D.

8/17/2005

Rapid City, S.D. — On an April morning, when at dawn tall ponderosa pines whisper to greet the rising sun, you are apt to hear the raspy gobbles of wild turkeys echoing in the canyons and bouncing off the peaks.

It's a tourist attraction seldom heard, being that the rush of visitors to the Black Hills is weeks away.

The famed stone faces on Mount Rushmore may wait patiently for summer visitors, but wild turkeys do not.

By the time tourist season arrives, those wild turkeys roaming the Black Hills return to being mostly reclusive and quiet. Call it unfortunate timing.

Oh, there remains plenty of visitor attractions in the Black Hills and plenty of piney campgrounds. Indeed, the massive visitor's parking lot at Rushmore will be busy once more when summer arrives.

Nobody around here seems to think $2 gas prices will stop folks from coming to see — as South Dakota boasts — "Great Faces, Great Places." We turkey hunters have a different view, of course.

The great face we yearn to see in the Black Hills isn't carved in granite. However, it is a patriotic face — red, white and blue — and that of a wild tom turkey in a mating mode.

OK, so it's not the prettiest mug in the Black Hills, but then Lincoln wasn't exactly handsome and Washington's nose was kinda big for his face. Jefferson won't win any beauty contest, either. Teddy Roosevelt was a Rough Rider and, well, looks the part.

So it was the other day as a few of us — turkey admirers all — were gushing about the beauty of a tom turkey that — even in death — was a marvelous creature to behold.

Its breast feathers glistened in the morning sun, reflecting shades of deep purple, gold and copper.

Its tail when fanned is a striking adornment, capable of fraying the nerves of turkey seekers of every ilk.

Protruding from the breast of male birds is a rather strange cluster of coarse hair like that of a horse's tail. It's called a beard.

Rarely but sometimes the hen bird will have a beard; a freak of nature, so to speak.

Tom turkeys also have spurs on their legs, the length of which depends on the bird's age.

A jake turkey, or yearling, has only small bumps for spurs. Mature toms, 2 years or older, may sport longer spurs that eventually reach an inch or more.

Spurs are weapons.

In a fight for male dominance, a pair of tom turkeys will gladly attempt to spur each other until a pecking order is determined.

The gobbler that captured our attention the other morning had a set of impressive spurs, almost needle sharp.

We guessed his age at 4 years or more.

His weight was just less than 20 pounds. The bird had come to a luring hen call, a move that turned out to be fatal.

The successful bowhunter was gladly recalling every detail of the hunt when somebody said it's too bad a tom turkey being such a gorgeous bird has such an ugly face. We paused and stared at the corpse.

It was tough to argue the point.

With a few minor revisions, we could have been ogling over a dead vulture. A tom turkey's head is mostly wads of wrinkled hairless skin that continues down the neck as unsightly bulges.

As if that wasn't ugly enough, from the top of his head there hangs a finger of fatty flesh called a snood, a name that doesn1t even sound pretty.

No matter. It's not easy to sway turkey admirers. Looks aren't everything.

This bird with a pea-size brain is about as captivating as a bird can be. It is predictably unpredictable, but also a consistent maker of hunting memories.

As one turkey admirer put it, sharing an April day in the presence of wild turkeys is an addiction for the human spirit.

Why this is so is not easy to explain. But there is no doubt.

This was my 39th April in the Black Hills, seeing great faces in great places.


Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling 888-755-3155.

April through June, Ron Schara's short feature "The Outdoor Beat" airs at 7:55 a.m. ET Sundays on ESPN2. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.