Jason Tarrant and his prized wild turkey. - Photo by Jason Tarrant

It's Turkey Day on the wild side

EAGLE POINT — When three generations of the Tarrant family sit down to dinner this afternoon, the centerpiece of the meal will be served after its coddled preparation on a rotisserie over a backyard barbecue.

And that's rather fitting, since it already has been skewered.

The family turkey comes to the Tarrant table courtesy of bow hunter Jason Tarrant, whose perfect shot from 30 yards left only two dime-sized holes in the Thanksgiving tom.

"That was a neat deal," says Tarrant, a soft-spoken 37-year-old Eagle Point man. "The arrow went right through him below the wings.

"I've gotten a lot of animals with my bow, but never a turkey," he says. "It's pretty special, and right in time for Thanksgiving."

Tarrant didn't spoil nary two fork-fulls of meat while rounding out their version of the old-fashioned family Thanksgiving, where the fare truly comes from the family's fall harvest and not the frozen foods section.

Regardless of where their turkey comes from, everyone fawns over the big bird when cooking for their brood today. Yet few in Southern Oregon get to choose their turkey while standing along a rainy ridge line and peering over the sights of a bow instead of poking through the frozen culls in Aisle 3.

"It's a really satisfying feeling, seeing the bird you got sitting on the table," says Chris Tarrant, the family patriarch and killer of seven Thanksgiving turkeys over the past decade with his bow.

"It's that atavistic thing," says Chris Tarrant, a retired Eagle Point High School English teacher. "It's that look you get from your family when you bring something like that home. It's a big part about why we hunt."

Such opportunities are somewhat new in Southern Oregon, where wild turkeys are relative newcomers. Since their initial releases in 1975 near Roxy Ann Peak east of Medford, wild turkeys have flourished in the oak savannahs and mixed forest stands.

The first limited spring hunting began in 1980. As turkey numbers, hunter interest and damage complaints rose, the spring season expanded and the limited fall season began in 1997.

For seven years, the fall seasons ended Nov. 15, making hunter-killed birds a rare find on Thanksgiving. In 2002, the season was extended through November, making fresh wild birds a viable option.

Southern Oregon remains the hub of the fall turkey hunt, in which up to 3,000 tags are sold statewide on a first-come, first-served basis, primarily to shotgunners doing their best to avoid shooting the bird's tender breasts.

The season running Oct. 15 through Dec. 31 spans the two holidays most associated with feasts on fat fowl.

"A lot of people are passionate about their turkey hunting and use these birds for Thanksgiving and Christmas," says Mark Vargas, Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I've never shot one for Thanksgiving, but it must add to that whole thing about feasting on your bounty for the season.

"It's either that or they don't like their family members and they want to see them break a tooth biting into shot," Vargas says.

The Tarrants, clearly remaining in the former group, have been local turkey hunters since the get-go.

Jason Tarrant, a Bureau of Land Management forester, drew one of those rare tags in 1984 and has shot at least one turkey for the past 24 consecutive years.

"If Jason didn't get one in the spring, that would be a family disaster," Chris Tarrant says.

It's less serious in the fall, when the Tarrants typically stalk blacktail bucks in the archery season, yet take a turkey should one present itself.

That was exactly the circumstance Saturday, when the Tarrants were in the Lake Creek drainage where they have had success with deer in the past.

Walking a high ridge, Jason Tarrant stepped into a small cluster of hens and stopped.

"I knew there was one or two toms in there," he says.

During the fall, the turkeys are not mating, but simply milling about in flocks, focused mostly on foraging. As the hens pecked away, out stepped a tom.

"He spotted me, and I kind of froze," Jason Tarrant says. "He just forgot about me."

When the turkey stood broad-side, Jason Tarrant let loose a broadhead arrow that pierced the bird from 30 yards away.

"It was pretty much a perfect shot," he says. "It didn't ruin the breast meat. That's what you want."

With a dozen Tarrants at the table today, they'll pass that breast meat around while holding a store-bought turkey cooked and in reserve should anyone want more than what Jason Tarrant provided.

"That made all the difference in determining if we eat a traditional bird or a real bird," Chris Tarrant says.

"The real bird is the wild one."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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