by Mark Watson
Thanksgiving is still three weeks away, but the TC Strutters like to talk turkey about any day of the week. The Strutters don't care much about discussing how to baste a Butterball found in the local frozen foods section of the supermarket; instead they like to talk about hunting wild turkeys in the western United States, Midwest and even Mexico.
The TC Strutters from Tooele County are one of 18 Utah chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) which is dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of the hunting tradition. Jon Leonard, president of the Utah NWTF said that the TC Strutters are one of the largest chapters in the state with more than 500 members.
For the past eight years the TC Strutters have been planting wild turkeys and consequently the sport of hunting the birds in the county and throughout Utah continues to grow, according to officials from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
"Turkeys can now be found pretty much in any of the canyons in Tooele County. We don't have fall hunting for turkeys. The three hunting seasons are in April and May when the Toms are out strutting," said Tom Becker, wildlife biologist with the DWR.
Becker said that the state is committed to improving turkey hunting opportunities for sportsmen, but the TC Strutters and the NWTF bring in most of the funding to help transplant turkeys and improve habitat for the birds and other animals.
"The TC Strutters have a huge banquet where they raise money to help improve turkey hunting in the county," Becker said. The banquet is scheduled for next February at the Deseret Peak Complex.
"Turkey hunting is growing in popularity. It's not something where you need a lot of equipment like big trailers. It's easy to haul a bird out if you can shoot one. It's a fun hunt and spring is an enjoyable time to hunt as the weather improves after a long cold winter," Becker said.
TC Strutters' hunters like Paul Kalletta, Ty Anderson, Bob Pannunzio, Merrill Clarke, Lou Dunyon and Chuck Saling have hunted in Utah, but they also like to travel outside the state in a quest to bag the six major species of wild turkeys. The only species of turkey in Utah is the Rio Grande.
"I've been to the Yucatan a time or two to hunt turkeys," said Louis Dunyon of Stockton.
Dunyon in fact is a "super slam" member of the NWTF after harvesting all six species.
"If you go to other states you can buy a permit and hunt; you don't have to put up with having to draw out for a permit like here in Utah," Dunyon said.
Species of turkeys include the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merrian, Osceola, Gould and Ocellated. When a hunter kills four of the species he belongs to the grand slam club. Five species harvested earns the hunter a royal slam and six species taken earns a super slam or world slam.
"The Rio Grande turkey is native to the Midwest and has been transplanted here in Utah," Becker said.
"You have to learn the habits and the talk of turkeys or the calls. You actually 'call' the birds into you instead of stalking them like you might with a deer. It's exciting. It's not like stalking an elk," he said.
Pannunzio has been hunting turkeys for about nine years. He has hunted in Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Nebraska as well as his home state in Utah.
"Louie Dunyon took me out hunting and I've been hooked ever since then," Pannuzio said.
"You use a shot gun 20-gauge and up with a special shell called a turkey load. The hunt in Utah is in the spring when the Toms run away with the five or six younger birds. It's a Toms-only hunt. Good Toms run anywhere from 18 to 23 pounds, " Pannuzio said. "You need to draw a permit in Utah and it costs around $45."
"It is difficult to hunt turkeys. Predators are constantly trying to get them; wild turkeys have keen eyesight and keen hearing but they don't have smell, if they could smell they would almost be impossible to kill," Pannuzio said.
"They're also amazing fliers and can take off fast and fly long distances. What they need is big trees. They prefer to roost in cottonwood trees, but they will also roost in oak brush. They eat a lot of acorns and of course they need water so you'll find them near a water source," Pannuzio said.
"One problem with increasing the bird population is Utah is the lack of water. Birds would spread out and populate if we had the water," he said.
Pannunzio added that turkey hunting is one of his favorite sports. "It's a thrill. I've called in elk, hunted coyotes, but I really love turkey hunting. It's just the size of the birds and they're smart."
Hunters estimate there are 600-700 turkeys now in Tooele County.
"It's very, very addictive. The first time you go out at 6 a.m. and have one gobble you'll be hooked," Kaletta said.
Becker agrees. He said hunting turkeys can be a challenge.
"They're not as dumb as some people think they are. Just when you think you've figured them out the birds fool you. You make one mistake and you're history. They're gone and they won't come back," he said.
Rush Valley's Merrill Clarke agrees that turkey hunting is an exciting experience. He has gotten a feel for where local birds roost and their normal habits. In the morning and evening he is now able to find large flocks. The birds' plumes are iridescent and beautiful in the sunlight. The male turkeys' heads and necks change from red, white or blue or a combination of all three depending on their mood.
The TC Strutters in the past have donated turkeys to the Utah Food Bank during Thanksgiving time, cleaned up at shooting ranges and replanted range areas for other wildlife besides turkeys.
Pannuzio said there has also been a big push to get more youth and women involved in hunting.
"Right now, hunting is becoming a thing of the past and the Turkey Federation is trying to keep the sport alive," he said.