The bird came in slowly and reluctantly, not with the reckless abandon more characteristic of a youngster.

He hung up at 75 yards and would gobble and strut each time I called, but that distance seemed to be his line in the sand and for a long time he would come no closer. In the tall grass of late season I could only make out his upper half, just enough to see he sported a beard of some length, and the full, uninterrupted fan of an adult male.

The standoff lasted several long minutes until it seemed the bird might be losing interest. Another bout of yelps produced only a gobble and a quick flash of his fan before the bird turned as if to start away. As a last desperate attempt, I set my pot call down and began scratching in the leaves with my hand, simulating the sound of feeding turkeys. That did it. He broke and finally came my way. When he closed within 25 yards, I pulled the trigger.

It was not until I walked up on the fallen bird that I recognized the reason for his reluctance. This was an old, experienced bird who had lived through several seasons. On the back of each leg was a long spur that curved upward, coming to a needle-sharp point at the end – truly a trophy tom.

When it comes to hunting, trophy is a subjective term but it’s only human nature to try to ascribe more objective criteria to rank that which we procure. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) developed a system by which you can derive a numerical score for your turkey, and maintains records submitted by its members. This system is also used by the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club. The formula is: weight + 2x beard length + 10x length of each spur. A 20-pound turkey with a 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs would score 20+ 20 (2×10) +20 (10+10) = 60.

Field-judging a trophy is much easier for deer hunters who can see antler and body size before pulling the trigger. Few, if any, turkey hunters target trophy toms. It’s more often a matter of serendipity and the physical status of the bird can’t be realized until it is reduced to possession.

Hunters can use any one of the three measurements to rate the relative status of their bird. Just as with deer, the first question often asked of a hunter who has bagged a bird is, “How much did it weigh?” The average weight for an adult tom in Maine is probably around 18-20 pounds. Anything much over that earns bragging rights here. In midwestern states like Iowa and Missouri, toms weighing 24 and 25 pounds are not unusual.

While some hunters believe bigger is better, weight is not a good indicator of age. In fact, older birds are often more dominant and like a dominant mature buck, will lose more weight over the breeding season as they spend more energy and effort trying to seduce hens. They may be worn down to a mere 15 or 16 pounds by the time hunting season rolls around, which is near the high end for a big jake. According to NWTF, the heaviest bird on record was Rio Grande from Oregon that tipped the scales at 37.125 pounds.

Beard length is another measure that brings bragging rights. Most 2-year-old birds will sport a beard of 8-10 inches in length. Even as birds grow older, few beards grow much longer and there are many theories as to why. Some say it’s because beyond that length, they drag on the ground wearing the tips off. In Maine, it’s rumored that the long beards collect ice and break off. Both are possible, but it’s more likely that around 10 inches is when turkey beard growth slows down considerably. The record for the longest beard comes from an Osceola turkey in Lafayette, Florida, that sported a 19.125-inch rope.

The best indicator of trophy status, and the most difficult to field-judge, is spur length. A turkey’s spurs grow continuously and as the bird ages its spurs grow longer and sharper, often becoming curved upward. Older birds are sometimes referred to as limbhangers because you can literally hang them on a tree branch by their spurs.

While there are exceptions to every rule – and it’s a rather inexact evaluation – spur length does provide a reasonable measure of age. The spurs of a 2-year-old tom will typically be between 3/4 and 7/8 of an inch long. One-inch spurs probably indicate a 3-year-old. Spurs of 1-1/8  to 1-1/4 inches likely indicate a 4-year-old. Beyond that it’s anyone’s guess, but with the heavy hunting pressure turkeys experience few birds achieve those longer lengths.

Again, bagging a bragging-sized bird is more often a matter of chance than any deliberate effort. Perhaps that’s part of the allure: you never know what you’re going to get until you get it. Besides, in the end it’s not what you got but how you got it that truly defines a trophy.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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