HOMER — Accomplished hunter Kevin Pugh has done something few others have for Thanksgiving: Served wild turkey. Pugh has served up the game bird to his family on several occasions over the years, which is no easy task to accomplish — especially when hunting with a bow.
A firefighter and paramedic who works for Delaware County EMS, Pugh has hunted wild turkey during the spring hunting season from mid April to mid May, and the fall season that this year runs from mid-October through Dec. 1.
To take a tom, or adult male turkey, one must remain absolutely still, he said. It is important that the large bird not see the bowstring being drawn, and one must be a deadly archer from 10 or so yards away.
“Their eyesight and their hearing is unmatched by any animal,” said Pugh, a self-professed “hillbilly” who has an assortment of taxidermied animals in the den of his home, such as black bear and wild boar. But one he is especially proud of is a 25-pound tom with a large beard and spurs behind its feet. “Their eyesight is better than an eagle’s, and their hearing is better than a deer. They can run 20 miles per hour and fly 50 miles per hour. They are elusive, cautious and smart.”
To be a top-tier turkey hunter, one must be good at several things — an excellent shot with a shotgun or marksman with a bow; know where to look for toms and how to call them by vocalizing a hen’s sound; and most of all to have patience and dedication. Pugh has all of these attributes, which is why fellow hunters who get in touch with America’s Freedom Lodge in Utica like having him be part of their turkey hunt. He has accompanied fellow hunters from as far away as North Pole, Alaska. The lodge serves disabled veterans by giving them recreational hunting opportunities with memories that last a lifetime. He instructs them as to how toms strut and gobble to attract the hens, and how not to go overboard when doing it when making calls.
“We do nothing but put veterans in the woods,” he said. “That’s our whole thing. And I will say this: If I was going to be able to hunt only one animal for the rest of my life, it would be turkey.”
The reason for that is the challenge involved, especially when bow hunting. But then there is also the payoff — some really good breast meat, free of pesticides. There are also no antibiotics or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) to worry about. Wild turkeys feed on berries, clover, grasses, leaves, wheat, wild nuts, bugs and other natural items. Acorns are important in the fall and winter, when they tend to congregate in flocks, seeking food together.
Pugh and his wife of 33 years, Jeanette, have served wild turkey to their son Kaleb, 20, and others over the years. He says the breast of wild turkey is divided in halves, and thawed for placement in a baking dish. He often freezes spring-hunted turkey in vacuum-sealed bags. It takes several hours to thaw, so an overnight thawing is a good idea. Three or four half-breasts can feed a good-sized family, he noted.
Pugh recommends cutting a “pocket” into the turkey breast, large enough to fit two cooked boxes’ worth of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice. He also prepares some cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup to place over the top of the turkey breast, before covering with aluminum foil and cooking at 350 degrees for up to two hours. One must check the turkey after one hour of cooking to make sure the breast meat does not become dry.
Contrary to what some may think, wild turkey breast does not have a “gamey” flavor some wild game is known for, Pugh said.
“I’ll tell you how good it is. My wife won’t eat wild game but she will eat wild turkey,” he said proudly.
Pugh likes to turkey hunt in Washington County, in southeastern Ohio. His mom, Dorothy, who is 84 years old, still hunts with him — both on and near the family farm in the Beverly/Waterford, Ohio area.
“She hasn’t gotten a turkey yet, but she keeps trying,” he said.
Pugh said he got the hunting urge from his dad, who oddly enough, did not hunt turkey or for that matter, deer. He was all about small game.
“Squirrel hunting was his favorite,” Pugh said. “We ate a lot of squirrel and it was very tasty. Like I say, I grew up a hillbilly and that was our food.”
Pugh was very proud when his son Kaleb took his first turkey about 11 years ago, when he was 9 years old. He and his wife adopted Kaleb from Russia. He is now a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, majoring in Russian and Communications. His wife has also learned as much of the language as she can, and Pugh said he has learned some words — here or there.
“The two of them speak Russian together and make fun of me,” he joked. “I speak only hillbilly and that’s about it.”
Whether he is hunting wild turkey, deer, boar or any animal, Pugh said he believes in the highest level of hunting ethics. That means, as one example, never luring a turkey with corn on the ground — called “baiting” the animal. That would be too easy and is not true hunting, he offered. It is also illegal to take a turkey while it is in a tree, or to use or possess an electronic calling device.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I prefer bow hunting and I know there’s some luck in it to take a wild turkey that way. It is, I’ll tell you, one of the toughest things to do — and just as rewarding.”
For those wondering about wild turkey numbers, Pugh said the news is good. They are among the most abundant wild animals in North America including Canada, and found in every state except Alaska. The wild turkey also has a respect and lore that goes back to America’s founding, where the first European Americans, the Pilgrims, may have enjoyed turkey with Native Americans.
“Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the wild turkey be our national (symbol),” he said. “It was due to its red, white, and blue patriotic head, and its highly protective nature for its young.”