There are many reason why spring turkey hunting is so popular. One is that it’s the main spring hunting season in most states. Another is the chance to interact with Meleagris gallopavo in all his strutting, spitting, fanning, drumming, gobbling glory.
But, what keeps me and more than a few others in the spring woods, however, is something entirely different. Spring turkey may be the main hunting season going on, but there are plenty of other seasons going on.
Early turkey hunting periods coincide with perch, northern, and walleye spawning in many large river systems. And by time the first Saturday in May rolls around—which usually happens during Period C—a whole host of gamefish seasons are underway, with the panfish spawn close at their heels. A hunter, say, in the heart of Zone 1 can be cast into a headlong frenzy, between dawn in the turkey blind, late morning on a trout stream, and evenings on the Mississippi River, to say nothing of snapping tender asparagus shoots and prowling around dead elms for mushrooms (make sure you have landowner permission before entering private lands).
This isn’t to say I don’t love to turkey hunting, or get jacked up hearing gobbles on the next ridge. I do. It’s just that there’s so much going on in the natural world and it’s bee dead for so long, that I'm in usually in the grips of serious spring fever. Turkey hunting becomes, for me, a kid-in-a-candy-store, embarrassment-of-riches proposition. More rational outdoorspeople might assign a day for each: one for turkeys, one for mushrooms, one for fish. But I to want to do all things at all times.
Getting well into my fifth decade, I’ve learned that I’m not going to change this, so I might as well embrace it. I’m going to emerge from the end of my turkey week cut up by briars, infested with tickets, and plain old worn out. But I’m going to be toting a treasure trove of wild foods. A mess of fat, red-fleshed trout on ice, a few pounds of backwater crappie fillets, a ziplock of spicy watercress, a few rubber-banded bundles of wild asparagus, a burlap Basmati rice bag full of morel mushrroms, and maybe a handful of wild leeks. Like as not, there will also be a tender jake or big tom turkey riding home with me.
Do I savor secret these away in the chest freezer for another day? Hell, no. There’s something about spring’s first fruits that makes me want to eat them all at once. To gorge caveman style. Fish goes first, panfried with asparagus on the side. Next are morels cooked plain and simple in butter. Finally, there’s the coup d’grace—wild turkey with morels and ramps (sometimes called wild leeks). Seasoned hunters and anglers truly appreciate a meal of fresh wild protein they’ve harvested. When other prime wild edibles are added, it’s just that much better.
I portion my wild turkey —to give each meat types its best treatment. I cube and flour the breast and cook it quickly to a rich caramel brown. Then, brown the mushrooms and leeks in the drippings, deglaze the pan, and put the works in a Dutch oven. Flour locks in moisture and flavor and also helps build a rich gravy that absorbs the earthy juices of the ramps and mushrooms.
The thighs, trimmed away from the drumsticks, are even more flavorful. These can go in with the mushrooms, but I like to pound them thin, dredge them in panko, and serve them as schnitzel with pan gravy.
Drumsticks have first-rate flavor, but they are tough. Think low and slow. A long simmer in beef broth with onions—6 hours or more—will allow you to strip the meat from the tendons. This can then be turned into whatever shredded meat you like. Add sauce and make them into barbeque, accompanied by bread-and-butter pickles and buns. Add Mexican seasonings, grab some fresh salsa and guacamole, and heat up corn tortillas for a meal of first-rate tacos. Or thicken the simmering broth into a gravy and serve it over the shredded meat, as you would pot roast, with a side of mashed potatoes.
Driftless Wild Turkey
Wild turkey, morel mushrooms, and wild leeks (sometimes called ramps) are all springtime wildfoods available in Wisconsin. This dish also honors the Driftless area, where wild turkeys were successfully reintroduced in the 1970s and 1980. The mix of woods, mast trees, oak savannah, farm fields, and prairie make for ideal habitat for wild turkeys, which were originally found in Wisconsin south of a line extending from La Crosse to Green Bay and down to the Illinois border.
Breast fillets of one wild turkey—cut into 1-inch cubes (or to desired size) seasoned with salt, black pepper, and thyme
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup melted butter or cooking oil
1 quart chicken broth (or broth made with giblets, neck, and back of a wild turkey)
½ cup sour cream
3 ounces all-purpose flour for thickening
½ pound or more morel mushrooms, soaked in salt water and sliced (note if the supposed morel mushroom is not hollow, discard it immediately as it is likely a false morel which is edible)
4 wild leeks (ramps), washed and chopped (substitute shallots if ramps are not available)
- Heat a Dutch oven on the stovetop until hot enough to fry in. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
- Dredge turkey pieces in flour; cook until brown. It may be necessary to cook in batches.
- Sauté mushrooms and ramps in remaining oil or butter. Add more if necessary.
- Pour stock into Dutch oven and heat until boiling, scraping the pan bottom with a spatula to loosen browned bits. Replace browned turkey breast
- Cook, covered, for 1.5 hours or until tender.
- Remove one cup of liquid; allow to cool. Thicken with flour and sour cream.
- Turn off heat and correct seasoning.
- Serve over egg noodles or spaetzli.