Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!

Palouse Outdoors – Restoring an Heirloom

I don’t know when dad purchased the gun or from whom or where, but one of its few outings captured on film was in 1981. Dad had hunted a gray squirrel on his parent’s farm in what used to be the middle-of-nowhere Appalachia.

The Herrington and Richardson Topper Model 158 (H&R) was the shotgun built for everyone. An ordinary, functional firearm built for the budget-minded. Overly simplistic yet wholly reliable described the H&R firearms line from 1871 to 1986 under the parent company.

Dad’s H&R saw its last hunt somewhere around 1992 when a zealous child acting crafty with a gray squirrel failed to properly lock the action. I secured provisions for Brunswick stew and learned a frightening lesson in the process. The top-break action blew open, ejecting the casing and busting the gun’s forearm. Miraculously, I did not suffer the same consequence. As a pre-teen, I had little use for a busted gun or the ability or knowledge to repair it. I left it to rust in an attic for nearly thirty years.

Pre-restoration, rusted and forgotten. What’s pictured here comes with the Burchwood Casey kit (save for the gun).

Returning home in 2020, I finally decided to grab the old H&R from the attic and haul it back to Waitsburg. Given their basic style and seemingly low-grade stocks, H&R firearms don’t carry much monetary value. Given the gun was useless otherwise, I decided to try my hand at a home restoration job, finding my first experience to be as terrifying as expected.

Ordering a Burchwood Casey complete re-bluing kit, I went to work one afternoon in the shop, thinking the directions were straightforward and simplistic. I learned quickly, however, that our hot, dry summer climate play a major role in the complexity of the endeavor, so much so that I basically enjoyed doing the job twice.

The first crucial step was stripping the rust and bluing from the barrel and action. Using a kit-provided swab and applying the rust and blue removal chemical was easy, as was using steel wool to gently rub off rust and debris. The kerfuffle came when the stripping chemical began drying into a sticky paste on the barrel in the 90-degree heat.

Using the supplied degreaser, I quickly removed the gunk from the barrel, performing a second and third coat of rust and blue remover in some cases, quickly working the steel wool and sand paper to remove everything, then promptly cleaning.

Lesson 1: Perform your firearm restoration in a climate-controlled area.

Disassembled and ready for a makover.

During the rust/blue removal step, the directions say to clean the metal until it shines, taking great care in the process. Simple enough. The problem occurs where interpretations of “shine” may vary. My cleaning job resulted in what appeared to be a rust-free, lustrous surface, yet later during the bluing step, I learned otherwise.

Lesson 2: Sand and polish the metal at least twice again once you think you have it “shiny” using the rust removal chemical and degreasing thoroughly when finished. You want as near a mirror finish as possible.

Degreasing is another critical step as bluing will not work with unclean metal. Grease and oil prevent the bluing chemical from contacting the metal surface, creating a blotchy appearance. Be sure to use latex or nitrile gloves during the process as fingerprints can show plainly from skin oils. As with the rust and blue removal, once you think the parts are clean, degrease at least twice again, scrubbing diligently. Sanding tough areas when removing rust and bluing can help tremendously, the gun action being the most difficult area.

Sound fun so far? The above steps are simply tedious. Bluing is utter madness. Bluing is a clear chemical that reacts with the steel, darkening it to the rich, almost black finish most guns bear. The directions say to apply quickly, and thoroughly, with an optimal 30- to 45-second soak and no longer than 60 seconds. This could not be stressed enough, which led me to believe the gun would self-destruct at 61 seconds. I decided to blue the H&R barrel in three sections, similar to what the direction recommended.

Lesson 3: Blue the barrel one or two inches at a time. By the time I had the area evenly coated, the starting point had been sitting for 20 seconds, leaving an uneven soak time before washing in cold water and breaking the chemical reaction.

Although it would have been excruciatingly slow, wiping a single blue streak around the barrel at a time would have been far better in the long-run for creating an even finish and would have required about the same amount of time. Thankfully, the finished darkened as it “cured” over 24-hours.

Lesson 4: Coating many small areas is preferable over fewer large areas providing a better finish.  

Makeover complete, awaiting reassembly.

With the metals finally finished, I turned to the stock. The original wood was light and wide-grained with an orangish tint when finished. The replacement forearm was beautiful walnut. How to match them up?

Once sanded clean, I used “special walnut 224” stain from the hardware store for the stock, matching with the new forearm as close as possible. Wiping on two light coats with a rag, I then applied teak oil to both stock and forearm. Finally, a light wipe of clear furniture urethane gave gloss and superior weather protection that looked good to me.

Lesson 5: I am a better carpenter than metalsmith.

Overall, I was pleased with the outcome. The barrel finish could be better and the process simpler, knowing what I know now, but the result was far better than the prior condition. And, I suppose learning a new skill requires starting somewhere.

Regardless, the H&R heirloom found its way back into action, plucking a plump collared dove on its first outing as a reborn small game scattergun. A bird I doubt my dad had ever even heard of.

Back in Action!

Upland Pursuits: A Brief History of the H&R Topper Model 158

You recognize the name, but shrug with indifference at its mention. In mint condition, their shotguns compare not to the finer side-by-sides of the past. They sell for pennies on the dollar relative to the spendy, yet (occasionally) affordable names like Fox and L.C. Smith, and may as well be a door prize for simply viewing a Parker. Although less glamorous, the single-shot Harrington and Richardson (H&R) shotgun may arguably be one of the simplest and most prominent firearms to grace American hunting and shooting history.

H&R boasts an ornate heritage dating back to the inception of the company in 1871 as Wesson and Herrington in Worcester, MA. Established by Gilbert H. Harrington and William A. Richardson, the manufacturer we know as H&R was not so named until 1877. Harrington supposedly bought out Dan Wesson’s investment and re-branded with Richardson, carrying the H&R name and parent operation through 1986. Their doors remained closed until 1991 when a new company started under the name H&R 1871.

H&R was known into the 1880s for their revolvers, but evolved quickly to manufacture shotguns and rifles with dozens of different models. But the name as I and many others have come to know is married to their single-shot shotguns.

In 1901, H&R produced their first single-shot, the Model 1900. A series of small-bore .410 single-shots followed, chambered in two-inch in 1911, the Model 1915 chambered in 2.5-inch, then a three-inch chambering in 1937. It appears the more commonly known “Topper” model name did not appear until the 1940s.

The H&R Topper Model 158 (Topper 158) was manufactured between approximately 1962 and 1973, becoming the shotgun many of today’s hunters associate with the H&R name. While this model was chambered in everything from .17 to .300 magnum caliber, smooth bores appear to be most common.

The Topper 158, like its predecessors, carried a hardwood stock, but the rubber butt pad didn’t appear before this model, according to vintage advertising. Their actions were color case hardened, boasting a beautiful tiger-like, almost holographic striping. Twelve, 16, 20 gauge and .410 bores were available with barrel length ranging from 28- to 36-inches and housing an immaculate shell ejector. The 28-inch barrel package weighed a scant 5.5 pounds. The forearms on early models were held tight to the barrel with a center screw, which was changed to a sleeker clip-in mechanism in 1971.  

These guns may not have been dazzling, but their reputation as lightweight, reliable and affordable, led to hundreds of thousands of sales while in production. Original cost for a standard Topper shotgun was listed at $28.50 in 1957, and the Topper 158 at $36.95 in 1971, according to vintage advertising.

Present day value for a used Topper 158 in excellent conditions runs between $150-225, but monetary value does little justice for the antiquity of these “working class” scatterguns. But as W.E. (Bill) Goforth said in his in-depth volume on the H&R company, firearms enthusiasts are led to “…the belief that the value of a collectible firearm is measured by its cost.” This dismisses historical relevance, allowing monetary value alone to determine the “worth” of a firearm, exemplified by H&R.

Aside from monetary or historical significance, sentimental value can eclipse all. I inherited my father’s Topper 158 as a child and carried it after gray squirrels through the deciduous forest. I recently discovered a photo of my father taken at his parent’s home around 1981. He knelt in the yard clutching his one-year-old youngest son (me) and a gray squirrel, the Topper 158 leaning against the fence in the background. The photo triggered a desire to rescue and restore the gun as a piece of my father’s legacy. A shotgun built for everyone and fitting of his humble, reliable personality.


A tiny Trumbo with his father after a successful squirrel hunt with the Topper 158

The christening of the old 12-bore with renewed fashion came a nation away from its Virginia origin with a passing shot at a Eurasian collared dove. A bird I doubt my father had ever heard of. Memories overlaid by time rushed to the surface, cued by the thump of the light-weight single-barrel driving against my shoulder. 

With such talk of commonplace style and mechanics, it may be surprising that in 1880, H&R became the sole American licensee for the manufacture of quality English Anson & Deely double-barrel boxlock shotguns, manufacturing approximately 3,500 of various “grades” between 1882 and 1885. Not to belittle the company’s contribution to the U.S. armed forces over the years.

In November of 2000, the Marlin Firearms Company purchased the assets of H&R 1871, Inc. Presently marketing its products under the brand names of Harrington & Richardson® and New England Firearms®, H&R 1871 is currently the largest manufacturer of single shot shotguns and rifles in the world1. So why are single shot scatterguns so uncommonly seen afield? With a wealth of quality doubles and auto-loaders on the market, it seems hunters value the opportunity of additional rounds.  

The H&R name and Topper 158 have claimed their worthy place in American firearms history and the story continues with current Topper models. Still produced under the Harrington and Richardson name, the Topper Deluxe Classic sports a vented sight rib, screw-in choke tubes and checkered American walnut stock.

Various vintage Topper 158 and youth models can be found around $100 if you are willing to watch auctions and make some minor repairs. Cheap enough to determine for yourself the wingshooting “worth” of H&Rs classic single-shot. 


Getting the feel for a newly-restored classic.

Harvesting Nature Magazine – Continuing the Collared Dove Tradition

“I pulled the stock and barrels of the sleek Ruger “Red Label” twelve-gauge over/under from the green, leather-lined canvas case. It had been a little over a year since the fine double gun had seen the light of day, and nearly two years since it saw an upland bird season. It was odd to see it in my hands instead of Marvin’s.

As I stepped away from the truck, memories surface of the hunt prior in this same cover. Marvin and his bird dog, Felix, accompanied me beneath the pines and honey locust as we roused a staggering number of collared doves. Marvin carried the Red Label on every one of our upland hunts over the years, and our last collared dove hunt turned out to be our final hunt. Two short months later, the cancer that Marvin had nearly beaten finally bested him.

“Let’s see how I do with this thing” I spoke into the wind, as if Marvin was there with me.”

Read the rest of the story and find the recipe for a sweet Whiskey-Plum Glaze for your gamebird grilling in the Fall/Winter 2022 Harvesting Nature Magazine!

Pheasants Forever Journal – Women on the Wing Soars in Washington State

Published in the Pheasants Forever Journal Winter 2023 edition.

In 2022, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, Chapter #258, started a Women on the Wing program to diversify the Chapter’s outreach and opportunities. The initiate was wildly successful and contributed to the Chapter winning the Pheasants Forever National Award for Education and Outreach. I am extremely proud to be an active member and officer of Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever!

Palouse Outdoors – A Fine Morning for Waterfowl

As I neared the river, a fog bank appeared on the horizon – an impenetrable wall set along the highway corridor. It was disheartening to watch a beautiful January day disappear in the rearview as the sun-shrouding humidity swallowed me whole, but the foggy conditions were arguably better for jump-shooting waterfowl. Sunlight glinting from gun barrels and glasses betray me as I sneak through riparian grasses and timber.

Pulling onto the road shoulder, I prepared for the approximate half-mile hike into a serpentine river reach that is occupied by a healthy flock of mallards nearly every time I visit. I donned my camouflage rain jacket, evergreen wool Stetson and mittens, and strapped my camera bag to my back. It felt odd to carry the Red Label over/under without a setter leading the hunt, but the feel of the gun and the zipping sound it made when sliding from the case were comforting. A sign of good things to come.

The hike was peaceful. Juncos and sparrows flitted through the frosted kochia thickets, which stood in dark contrast to the golden cereal rye encircling them. A magpie cawed in the trees along the river. An eagle was perched in a prime location to keep watch on the water. Its large silhouette appeared raven-black through the mist. Somewhere up ahead, a single string of excited quacks caused me to pause and cock my head, like a hungry coyote listening to the scurry of a field mouse. About three hundred yards stood between me and the ducks.

The final one hundred yards was onerous. I followed a deer trail, which dipped into a frozen puddle that was flanked by crackling mats of reed canary grass. The ducks could not see me, but they would certainly hear me if I were careless, even with the ambient babble of the river at their feet.

Deliberate foot placement carried me around the icy water’s edge, avoiding downed tree limbs, and placing steps where the grass was heavily matted and unlikely to crackle. The ducks remained silent as I crept – the kind of silence that gets into my head when a gameplan nears fruition.

Maybe they already flushed, I thought. No, they didn’t. You would have heard them. Keep moving.

At the head of the long, frozen puddle, I dropped my camera bag and eased toward the river. Ten minutes passed as I tactfully stepped through common reeds that threatened to sway with the slightest bump and send a deafening “rrrriiipp” through the silence when contacted by synthetic fabrics.

Ahead was a sizable tree with low limbs, which I belly-crawled beneath the last time I tried this spot. I turned toward it, crossed behind a small willow patch, and instantly caught a glimpse of five drake mallards sitting on the backwater across the river. The sight of the ducks caused me to freeze. An act meant to avoid detection but often results in alerting game. A deer or another innocuous critter would not have stopped.

Turning toward the creek and taking two crouched steps sent at least twenty mallards skyward on a straightaway departure. They jumped about thirty yards out and quickly expanded that distance to fifty yards. I never bothered to shoulder the gun.

Cracking the breach on the Red Label, I plucked the shells while chuckling quietly and pondering what I might do differently next time. I may have blown the ducks out of the country, but at least I could forget about precariously tip-toeing my way out.

Once back across the icy expanse, I veered right toward the river again. My plan was to slip through an opening ahead and disappear into the tree cover for a still hunt. My path wound through kochia and poison hemlock that was alive with songbirds. Pausing briefly, I picked up the Nikon from where it hung against my chest and focused in on a Junco. It contrasted beautifully against the frosted weed skeletons, but my inability to remain still resulted in blurred images. Another mistake to laugh off as I moved closer to the river.

Moments later, I recognized a kingfisher perched statuesque in a tree above the water. My camera lens was only a two hundred millimeter – not nearly enough for the distance between us. How to maneuver closer?

Edging toward the river allowed me to close enough distance, but as I focused the camera, the kingfisher left its limb and vanished into thin air. Impeccable timing. Something I experience continually when trying to photograph, well, everything mobile and possessing free will.

An audible laugh erupted at the kingfisher’s timely departure. I had been so intent on snagging the photo that I paid little attention to my proximity to the river. My attention was suddenly redirected by a half dozen mallards lifting from the water, and again, I laughed out loud. A comedy of errors resulted from trying to capitalize on too many opportunities and failing at all of them for not devoting appropriate attention to a single task. One would think that after thirty years of repeating this mistake, I would have corrected my behavior by now. The definition of “insanity” comes to mind.

As the mallards departed, I turned toward the river to see a massive great blue heron lift off. My hand was on the camera when twenty more mallards blew up, but instead of the usual straight away exit over water, they flew left-to-right over land and in close proximity.

Realizing the shot opportunity triggered instinctive action to raise my gun. I singled out a drake and squeezed the trigger. While swinging on a second bird, I spied the drake drop from the flock. I engaged the safety and made haste to where the duck had fallen.

Mouthwatering recipes, namely confit, flashed through my mind as I hoisted the handsome bird and admired its plumage. The pattern and color complexity quickly captivated me – chocolate brown, emerald green, charcoal gray with black pepper flecks, and that iridescent violet flare across the wing. Simply stunning.

The foggy river scene with the contrasting shapes and gray-brown palette of weeds, grasses, and trees, provided a superb backdrop for burning the memory into immortal electrons – what would have been film in a past life. Satisfied that I had sufficiently captured the light and scene, I gathered my shotgun and bounty and strolled the river’s edge toward the truck to the melody of songbirds, and the soothing roll of water on its path to the ocean.

Upland Pursuits – The Wild Turkey Conservation Success Story

Published April 15th, 2023 in the La Grande Observer

One rainy fall morning, I found myself sitting quietly in an old hay shack on the edge of an alfalfa field. My friend Dan sat to my right. A calico barn cat desperate for friendship perched upon a hay bale to my left. As dawn cracked, the sound of raindrops pinging on the rusted tin roof was disrupted by a cacophony of turkey “yelps” from their roost far above us in a pine stand. The cat continued preening, uninterested, but Dan and I glanced at each other in curious anticipation.

Moments later, over one hundred Rio Grande turkeys sailed down from the roost into the alfalfa field before us. Video of the hunt shows turkeys gliding in from the pines for nearly five minutes. The discordant “kee-kee” and “yelp” calls from a flock that large were defeating as the birds gathered before eventually spreading across the emerald alfalfa carpet where they engaged in synchronized feeding.

Having never successfully hunted turkeys, it was hard to maintain my composure with that many birds front and center. A large jake (a juvenile male) finally separated from the flock, allowing a safe shot. Upon squeezing the trigger, it was unclear which, the cat or the shot wad, left the shack in the biggest hurry – the cat having launched from the haystack so quickly that it virtually vanished into thin air. At that moment, the largest flock of turkeys I had ever seen before or since lifted off, leaving the jake behind to bless my dinner table.

That parcel has produced most of my wild turkeys over the years, regularly holding flocks with greater than thirty birds during the fall and winter. This is common across the nation in areas with patchwork landscapes of agriculture, forest, and grasslands or pasture, making it hard to believe that the wild turkey was once pushed to the brink of extinction in North America.  

According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, approximately 10 million wild turkeys roamed North America at the time of European settlement – a fine food source for settlers. Like most “game species” known today, turkeys were hunted year-round without regulation for subsistence and the market.

As the eastern colonies grew and settlers moved across America, timber was cleared for agriculture and community development. The cumulative impact of hunting and habitat loss decimated and isolated wild turkey populations.

“Connecticut had lost its wild turkeys by 1813. Vermont held out until 1842 and other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada, in its supposed ancestral range[1].“

North American wild turkey populations plummeted below an estimated 250,000 by the 1930s, but pending legislation and the Great Depression would serve the wild turkey well.

In 1900, the first iteration of the Lacey Act regulated market hunting by prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that were illegally harvested, possessed, transported, or sold. This Act, in concert with early wildlife management regulations, reduced the overall hunting impact on turkey populations.

The Great Depression fell upon America in 1929, and over the following decade, homesteads and small farms were vacated as 14 million people sought work in cities and factories. With fields left fallow, natural succession converted former cropland to grasslands and shrublands. This natural landscape change resulted in the rebirth of wild turkey habitat.

Another keystone piece of legislation – the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 – established a conservation fund via excise tax placed on the sale of sporting goods and ammunition. These funds were used as seed money to establish large-scale conservation efforts. State fish and game agencies began trap-and-transport programs to reestablish turkeys throughout their native range. “By 1952, bird numbers nationwide had grown to 320,000[2].”

By 1973, the national wild turkey population estimate was about 1.3 million birds. At that time, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded with the mission of “wild turkey conservation and the preservation of North America’s hunting heritage.”

These and other conservation efforts have resulted in the recovery of wild turkeys with over 6 million estimated across 49 US States and five subspecies in 2014 – Eastern (4.5-4.7 million), Osceola or Florida (115,000), Rio Grande (853,000), Merriam’s (260,000), and Gould’s (1,200). This incredible recovery since 1973 is no simple coincidence with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Sitting quietly, tucked into the brush at the bottom of a canyon, I listened to the excited gobbles of seven Rio Grande toms echo between the canyon walls. A young but robust bird with an exceptional beard was en route, lured by my feeble attempts to mimic a hen turkey yelp. Moments later, I stroked the bird’s iridescent plumage in the evening sunlight while the other toms and a dozen hens made their way back up the canyon. The wild turkey is perhaps one of the greatest conservation successes in North America. Moments like this make me proud of our continental conservation model, and thankful for the opportunity to hunt one of this nation’s greatest game birds.

If you have not hunted wild turkeys, now is the time to join the ranks in one of America’s oldest hunting traditions.


[1] History of the Wild Turkey in North America. James Earl Kennamer, Mary C. Kennamer, and Ron Brenneman. National Wild Turkey Federation Bulletin No. 15.

[2] Wild turkeys: A conservation (and hunting) success story (usatoday.com)