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A DAY FOR THE BIRDS : Even California’s State Champion Wild Turkey Caller Draws a Blank Once in a While, but He’s Got a Cold One at Home in the Fridge

Times Staff Writer

As Rich Leighty’s pickup completes its 4-wheel crawl up the hill through the oak trees, a reception committee comes out to see who has arrived.

The two blacktail deer approach to within 20 yards and turn to walk laterally, never removing their eyes from the intruders.

Slowly, Leighty places a latex diaphragm in the roof of his mouth and makes a couple of clucks that stop the deer cold in their tracks, puzzling at how such a sound could emanate from the strange upright figure. They are more curious than cautious, but they may sense that deer isn’t the quarry today. The week’s menu calls for turkey, and as the day wears on it becomes apparent that the turkeys know it, too.

Near this spot by Oroville Lake 4 days earlier, in a driving rain, Leighty lured one near enough his 12-gauge shotgun to assure his family a Thanksgiving dinner that is already on a platter in his refrigerator.

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Now, in a clear, chill dawn, he sets out hoping to show a reporter and a photographer how it’s done. He emphasizes that even for the California state champion wild turkey caller, there are no guarantees.

“It’s a lot cheaper and easier to go to Safeway and buy one,” he says. “That’s what I give my employees every year.”

Leighty, 44, is a housing contractor with a crew of 11. He lives on a small ranch in Nord, just north of Chico near California 99. It is prime wild turkey country, although Leighty, a lifelong hunter, didn’t discover that until 8 years ago.

“A friend and I had heard stories, so I bought a turkey call, and the first time out, after a couple hours, one gobbled back at me,” he says.

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Since then, Leighty has always managed to put a turkey on the Thanksgiving table without stopping by the supermarket, a considerable achievement.

Harold Harper of Sacramento, who is president of the California chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, claims the birds are among the most elusive of prey in the fall.

“In the fall, if you get 10%--go out 10 times and get 1 turkey--you’re doing good,” Harper said. “I’ve hiked out there for 4 and 5 days at a time and never found ‘em.”

Leighty figures the average is closer to 2%, although he does much better.

Like most states, California also has a turkey hunt in the spring, during mating season. Then, they’re a lot easier to find but less in demand as table fare--a quirk of the calendar for which turkeys can be thankful.

“The toms don’t gobble in the fall,” Leighty said.

But in the spring, Harper said, “You can go north from the foothills south of Sacramento almost to the Oregon border and hear a gobble every mile.”

The toms are easier to spot because of the coloring of their heads and necks: bright red, white and blue.

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Leighty said: “The more love struck they are, the more red they get in the head.”

And, the more reckless in the woods. The hunter success rate soars in the spring.

“If a guy knows what he’s doing, it’s about 100%,” Harper said. “In the spring, a gobbler is calling (so)you know he’s right there.

“The fall is a different hunt than the spring altogether. They’re all flocked up. I’ve seen as many as 100 gobblers in one flock, and the hens’ll be in one flock, too. But you have to find the flock, and that’s difficult. They’re down in some remote place.”

Leighty is dressed in camouflage pants, jacket and cap. Even his shotgun is camouflaged, and when he is working a bird, Leighty drops a camouflage see-through mesh mask over his head and sits motionless against a tree, trying to blend into the forest as he calls the bird.

A sobering thought: Turkey hunting may be one of the most dangerous of sports. Think about a semi-invisible hunter imitating live game while other, eager hunters are in the vicinity.

“Some people will just take a shot into the brush if they hear a noise,” Leighty said.

But Leighty has lured far more turkeys than hunters.

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“I don’t know if I’m really all that good,” he said. “But I do put in a lot of time. You’ve got to put in a lot of time to learn how to hunt the bird. Calling has something to do with it, and knowledge of the woods.

“Especially in the fall, you’ve got to do a lot of walking. One day they’ll be there and the next day they won’t. They’ll cover an area of 3 to 5 miles in a day.”

Two springs ago, Leighty was hunting with his son Harley, now 13, when he lured two turkeys with one call.

“We both got our birds,” he said.

Sometimes he has been surprised by what came when he called.

“You can call in a coyote with a turkey call,” he said. “They think it’s free lunch.”

Leighty’s usual method?

“I walk and see if I can get something to answer me. I’ll glass across a mountain (study it through field glasses or a telescope), and if I see some moving, I’ll try to get over there and head ‘em off.”

Leighty does all of the above on this particular day. With the reporter and photographer stumbling along, he hikes up, down and around the mountain in sure, loping strides, pausing periodically to call and listen, scope and hope.

Nothing.

Frequently, the group encounters deer--not as near as the first two, but among them three antlered bucks that Leighty notes “are as nice as you’d ever see.”

Deer are common in turkey habitat. Both thrive on acorns, and the turkeys also co-exist well with cattle, flipping over dried cow chips for the insects underneath as they forage.

Although turkey hunting is an older tradition in the southern and eastern states, California outranks most states in wild turkey population, thanks to a transplant program Harper organized in the late 1950s when he was director of upland game for the Department of Fish and Game.

California’s Rio Grande turkeys came from Texas in a transplant exchange for pheasant and a few chukkar and mountain quail.

About 80% of California’s wild turkey hunting is on private land.

“Because that’s the best habitat,” Harper said. "(Generally), the habitat on public land--Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or whatever--is very poor (for turkeys).”

The Rio Grande birds do better at elevations from about 4,000 feet down to where the oaks and the cover are, Harper said.

But the DFG is hoping to stock some imported Merriam’s turkeys in high country on the desert side of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Leighty and his companions have been hiking for nearly 3 hours, and he has tried all his tricks, talking turkey every way possible.

The mouth call is done with the latex diaphragm. For the box call, he scrapes the lid of an 8-inch-long wooden box, anchored by a pin, across one side. For the slate call, he rubs a stick across a piece of slate, like fingernails on a blackboard.

“I’ve got 16 notches on this one,” Leighty said, displaying a slate call.

Leighty buys his calls, but some dedicated turkey hunters make their own, just as fly fishermen tie their own flies. Since it’s illegal to use live recordings of real turkey calls, these time-proven devices imitate the varied putts, yelps, clucks and gobbles that make up turkey talk.

“The tom gobbles to draw the hen to him,” Leighty said. “We reverse nature’s way and call him to us.”

It often works, Leighty said, when the tom has run out of hens.

“I’ve had ‘em as close as 3 or 4 yards, but if anything isn’t right, they’ll walk away.”

Usually, 25 or 30 yards is close enough for a shot.

“The only way you can kill a turkey is to hit him in the head or neck,” Leighty said. “If you have to kill a bird by shooting him in the body, he won’t be fit to eat.”

What Leighty means is that dinner guests would spend the meal picking No. 6 copper-coated lead shot out of their teeth.

And shooting one is not as easy as it sounds because the turkey is not necessarily a stationary target. “They fly like a pheasant for a quarter-mile and can outrun a pheasant, about 15 m.p.h.,” Leighty said.

Wild turkeys also have eyesight 8 to 10 times as sharp as a human’s and can pick up sounds, including turkey calls, from as far as a mile away. That sometimes is their downfall.

Leighty got into turkey calling competition somewhat by accident when he and his son were at the Safari Club outdoor show in Sacramento 2 years ago. Harley had recently bagged his first bird.

There were no turkeys, only the judges, who included Harper.

“You get up in front of an audience, and there were a couple of TV crews,” Leighty said.

Since it seemed a prime time to make a fool of one’s self, making turkey noises in front of a live audience, Leighty said to his son, “If you’ll do it, I’ll do it.”

Leighty placed second in the senior division, Harley second in the junior, and this year Leighty topped 20 competitors for the title. He plans to go to the nationals at Nashville, Tenn., next February, but Harper is skeptical.

“To go back and win the nationals, you’ve got to dress the part, and Rich is not that type,” Harper said. “You’ve gotta have a feather in your hat, badges all over you. You try to intimidate the rest of the people.”

Wild turkey fanciers tend to take the game seriously, stressing that a bird in the bush is far more noble than two in the deli.

“Some people say it’s a dumb bird,” Harper said. “But they can survive out there in really bad weather. The ones that are domesticated, they took all the smarts out of ‘em.”

Also, Leighty said, “Once you see a wild turkey next to a domestic one, you can tell the difference right away. (The wild birds) carry their weight underneath their wings. They’re not bred for breasts, and their drumsticks aren’t as fancy.”

No wild turkeys were seen this day, although the reporter found a turkey feather--evidence that they do exist in the area. The one in Leighty’s fridge weighes 15 1/2 pounds.

“Twenty-five and a half would be a huge bird,” he said.

But it’s more than size that counts. “They’re a great bird,” Harper said, “probably the top game bird in the United States.”

Some believe that the wild turkey should be the national bird.

“Ben Franklin said we shouldn’t have the bald eagle because it’s a scavenger,” Harper said. “He said wild turkeys are much smarter and have done more for the country than the bald eagle ever will.

“It’s still the national dinner.”


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