Rebecca Martinez – Roving Reporter
CHURCHVILLE — Before the sun rose over the Churchville farm, Eddy Pitsenbarger, News Leader photographer Pat Jarrett and I were in the woods, sitting on the ground with our backs to a tree. We were listening for the calls of wild turkeys that might be roosting in nearby trees.
Fall turkey hunting season ended Nov. 6, giving way to deer season, but each year, just before sunrise, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reopens turkey hunting season on Thanksgiving Day. To take advantage of the special occasion, Pitsenbarger agreed to take us hunting on his property.
Pitsenbarger, a bricklayer and Churchville native who bagged his first bird 36 years ago, made it clear from the start that turkeys are skittish creatures, and if we had any hope of harvesting one, we’d have to be very, very still.
“I tell people any old squaw can kill a deer, but you better be a Mingo if you’re going to kill a turkey,” Pitsenbarger said, referencing Daniel Boone’s American-Indian friend and fellow hunter. “To deer, every man is a stump if he sits still; to a turkey, every stump is a man.”
Pitsenbarger sounded a convincing gobble from his turkey call and the woods grew quiet as we waited.
Spring or winter
There are some key differences between hunting wild turkey in the spring and fall. In the spring, the turkeys are out in the open, strutting and scratching and ready to mate. Virginia law allows hunters to kill any turkey with a long tassel of feathers on its chest — a “beard” — which are mostly the bold and randy gobblers, or males, at that time of year.
In fall, when breeding’s done, you also can hunt the beardless hens. You can bring your hunting dogs and send them to break up rafters of roosting turkeys, which makes them easier to shoot while they flee in every direction.
It used to be that wild turkey hunting season ended in early November to make way for deer season. Then in 1999, Game and Inland Fisheries added Thanksgiving Day as a special hunting holiday extension of the fall season, said Cale Godfrey, the department’s assistant director of wildlife.
“That was changed several years ago at the request of people who wanted to harvest a turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” Godfrey said.
Billy Hall, Western Virginia regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said, “Some people say it should be the day before, because if you harvest it the day of, there’s no way you can cook it for Thanksgiving dinner.”
To get a turkey from tree cover to your tabletop, you need to stalk the bird, shoot it, take it home, skin or boil it to remove the feathers, butcher it, remove the innards and drain the blood. Then, it still takes hours to cook before you serve it to your family.
Still, Hall said, “It provides more opportunities to people because more people are off that day and they have an opportunity to hunt.”
Godfrey agrees, saying that even on a single hunting day there’s a chance you’ll get lucky and bag a bird early on.
“Sometimes you go out and everything falls together pretty quick,” Godfrey said. “It just kind of depends on how the hunt would go.”
Packing it in
After almost two hours of sitting on the ground in near silence, Pitsenbarger sounds a last-ditch gobble on his turkey call and signals us that it’s time to pack it in. We’d heard several gunshots during the quiet stretch — likely from deer hunters nearby — and the sounds of numerous crows and woodpeckers, but we didn’t see a single turkey.
“I didn’t get my hopes up real high for that, but it’s fun to get out here,” Pitsenbarger said, explaining that the nearby deer hunters have likely spooked the turkeys into silence. “They might not call again until the first of the year, something like that.”
Pitsenbarger expects that when deer hunting season quiets down and late fall turkey hunting starts up in December, he might bag a turkey before spring.
He took us on a walk around his more than 100-acre property, over a hill to where he keeps two breeding hens in a pen. They raced back and forth in their cage tirelessly, as if planning and re-planning an escape. A short drive to Pitsenbarger’s cousin’s farm brought us to the space where he keeps his three gobblers. The huge male turkeys pecked feed from the ground, the loose, red skin on their crowns drooping over their blue-and-white heads.
Pitsenbarger said the largest gobbler could feed 30 people.
After returning to his house, we parted ways, bidding him to enjoy the meal — which included local ham he slaughtered himself — that his college-age daughter prepared for the first time.
Oh, and where did they get their Thanksgiving turkey?
“Wal-mart,” Pitsenbarger said. “I’m not going to lie.”