By Johathan Harling
You’ve spent months practicing and learning how to use your various turkey calls, weeks scouting for wild turkey activity, and hours hunting: All for a few moments of nervous energy when a tom struts in front of you.
Finally, he’s in range. Within seconds you’re admiring his plumage, spurs and fan. You pick him up, throw him over your shoulder and notice he’s a bit heavier than you expected. As you walk back to your truck, it hits you—now what? You spent all this time preparing to shoot your first gobbler, but now you have no idea what to do with him.
There are a number of options you have once you shoot your wild turkey, including cleaning and preparing him for eating, making a turkey cape or getting him ready for the taxidermist.
“The instructions and tips we’ve collected will help you whether you’re preparing your turkey for the trophy room or the table,” said Rob Keck, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Preparing Your Wild Turkey for the Table
In hot weather hunting conditions, it’s a good idea to field dress your bird before bringing it home for cleaning and cooking preparation. Start by placing the turkey on its back. Find the bottom of the breastplate and insert your knife, making a cut to the anal vent. Remove the entrails from this opening and then reach into the cavity to sever the windpipe, heart and lungs. If possible, cool the cavity by placing ice inside the chest.
Considered the traditional style of cleaning a wild turkey, plucking is a perfect way to prepare your meat to roast, smoke or whole deep-fry. There are two main methods: wet or dry plucking. Regardless of which method you choose, keep the skin intact as this will help keep moisture in while cooking.
If hot water is available, wet plucking is the most effective. The first thing to do is dunk the bird headfirst into the water, submerging it to where the feathers end on the thighs. Swish the bird in the bath for 10 seconds and remove. Then hang the bird from its head and start plucking. Pliers may have to be used for the larger wing feathers.
If there is no water available, hang the bird head-up and sever the outer wing bones at the joint with a knife. Pull the larger feathers out with a pair of pliers and pluck the rest by hand. Next, remove the entrails and wash the body cavity with water.
The last step, with either dry or wet plucking, is to remove the small, hair-like feathers, or down. This is best done with a flame from either a small propane torch or a torch made from tightly rolled newspaper. Make certain the bird’s skin is dry before this process. Lightly run the flame over the bird, being careful not to burn the skin.
Plucking does take time and produces more of a mess than skinning; however, the taste of deep-fried or roasted turkey skin is worth the effort.
Many of today’s wild turkey hunters prefer skinning to plucking. Skinning a wild turkey is easy and, with practice, can take less than three minutes. This method of preparation also reduces the amount of fat and cholesterol that gather in the skin. Skinning a turkey allows you to cook the turkey by frying or grilling pieces of its meat.
The first step to skinning a wild turkey is to hang it from the head and cut off the wings at the first joint. Then, remove the beard by pulling gently and cutting the loose skin at the base. The next step is to remove the lower legs by cutting around the joint where the feathers meet the scaly part of the leg.
Remove the cape next by inserting a knife into the neck skin where the feathers start on the back of a gobbler’s neck. Continue the cut down the neck and back following the subtle division between the back and breast feathers. Continue the cuts down to the base of the tail feathers and sever the fan by cutting the base of the tail. The cape and fan can then be put aside for mounting until the job of butchering is completed.
The remainder of the turkey’s skin is removed by pulling and trimming with a knife where needed. The skin is removed from the legs by rolling it down as far as possible, that then it is severed with a circular cut of the knife.
Next, remove the upper wings and legs. Starting at the base of the neck, strip the skin from the carcass. The entrails can now be removed by cutting from the tail to the tip of the breastbone and cutting around the anus. Using your hand, reach in and pull out the viscera, trying not to tear them.
Filleting Your Wild Turkey
To remove the breast filets, pull or cut the skin back from the breast.
- Make cuts along each side of the breastbone as well as on the inside of both wings or the clavicle. To save the wings, peel the skin back and remove the wings from the cavity by cutting through the joint.
- Find the breastbone and make an incision down each side to loosen the breast filet from the bone. Work from the rear of the breast forward, filleting off the breast by pulling the filet and using the knife as needed.
- Repeat this for the other side of the breast. In some states, it’s illegal to only filet the breast out, leaving the rest of the carcass behind.
NOTE: Always check your state’s hunting regulations, and make sure your wild turkey is properly tagged for transportation.
To remove the thigh and leg, cut through the thigh muscle where it attaches to the back. Grab the thigh or leg and pull up until you can feel the joint pop loose. Keep cutting through the thigh until it comes free from the turkey’s body. Turkey legs and thighs have a reputation for being the toughest part of the bird, but with easy prep work and slow cooking (like a crock pot), turkey drumsticks can be turned into a nice meal.