Reestablishing wild turkeys in Louisiana was one of the department’s success stories unfolding during my career. Being there to see turkeys return and being able to contribute to the effort were job benefits from my prospective.
For me, restoration and protection of wild species were core reasons for choosing conservation law enforcement as a career.
By the end of the 19th century, eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were near extinction in much of their original range. Over-hunting and loss of habitat were to blame, and turkeys remained scarce in Louisiana well into the 1950s and ’60s. But in the ’70s the department’s wildlife division was aggressively restocking turkeys to their former range throughout Louisiana.
The wild birds used in the early restocking efforts came from other states. Later, as populations became established here, trapping and relocating operations were utilized.
Cannon nets are the most-effective and productive method for trapping turkeys, and some of us were trained in their use. Even though enforcement agents were not required to participate in re-stocking efforts, I volunteered my free time to assists friends in the wildlife division.
Part of the capture process was luring birds to the trapping site by the use of bait. Learning how wheat, corn and other grains were effectively used to lure turkeys to the net turned out to be valuable lessons, put to good use later on in apprehending violators of the baiting laws.
Given half a chance, turkey populations rapidly increased in favorable habitat and where some level of protection could be provided. By the 1980s much of Central and North Louisiana was open to spring gobbler hunting, with a season lasting roughly one month and a limit of one per day and three per season limit on gobblers.
Protecting wild turkeys and enforcing turkey regulations is not easy, particularly due to some of their peculiarities.
One of the things that always confounded me about turkeys is their complete lack of fear of a vehicle. Why is it that a bird with the ability to spot the slightest twitch at 50 yards and instantly explode into flight will stand on the side of the road and stare at a vehicle rolling to a stop at 20 yards?
Where public roads border open pastures or rights of way used by turkeys for congregating, feeding and displaying, they are targets for illegal road hunters. A spent shotgun shell on the road and a scattering of feathers nearby frequently tell the story.
During the fall, turkeys gather in large flocks in search of mast crops such as acorns. But they will also frequent deer feeders and food plots.
Without fail agents catch squirrel and deer hunters with illegally killed turkeys. We jokingly blame the first Thanksgiving story for some of those violations; it is surprising how many times the reason given for killing a fall turkey was “to have a wild turkey for Thanksgiving just like the pilgrims did.”
But by far the most-common turkey violation is baiting, and it is certainly not anything new.
I knew an old fellow who lived well into his 90s who was raised in Alabama and told me stories from his boyhood about baiting and killing turkeys. It was all about meat for the table, and the idea was to get as many turkeys as possible in one shot. There weren’t many shotgun shells to spare. Nor did one waste much corn.
So he took a little corn, went to the woods and looked for turkey sign. When he found it, he would trickle a trail of corn to a good shooting spot where a few handfuls of corn was placed in a straight line.
Moving 25 or 30 yards away, he would brush up a small blind that allowed him to shoot down the line of corn. When the turkeys were on the bait, he would wait until several had their heads down pecking at the corn before firing a shot. The result was usually several plump turkeys for the family.
The motivation might be different today, but the method is still pretty much the same. The abundance of deer feeders and food plots found on hunting properties make it difficult to enforce baiting prohibitions.
Wildlife agents must find active feeders or areas where grain or feed is being distributed. Once those are located they must determine whether the purpose is to bait turkeys or simply to supplemental feed deer.
Once bait is located, the agent must apprehend the poacher hunting on or over the bait, and has the burden of proving the violation. At the same time we must avoid falsely accusing the innocent.
A person must be within 200 yards of the bait in order to be cited for the violation, but the agent has to avoid citing someone who happened to walk into the baited area without knowing it was there. Good judgment is a must.
My guidance to younger officers was to keep the suspect under surveillance as long as possible, and not to rush out and arrest a hunter for simply walking by the bait site. If the hunter strolled by and kept going, let him go. If he plans on hunting on the bait, he’ll be back later in the morning.
The violator with every intention of killing a turkey on bait will in some cases already have a blind constructed or will take up a concealed position within shotgun range of the bait, settling in to wait for a turkey. That’s hunting over bait and sufficient proof for ink on paper.
Illegal baiting isn’t the only violation agents must investigate during turkey season. Taking over the daily or season limit violations are also frequently reported.
Prior to the departments implementation of the turkey tags requirement for all turkey hunters, the season limit of two gobblers was all but impossible to enforce. While tagging and harvest reporting are certainly not foolproof, they do help with enforcement.
Wildlife enforcement agents rely heavily on honest hunters for assistance in protecting wild turkeys. Do your part by reporting violations directly to an agent or by calling 800-442-2511.
Louisiana Operation Game Thief, Inc. and the Louisiana Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation offer cash rewards in matching amounts for information leading to the arrest of violators.