The Fish Story

When Wild Turkeys Attack; Presenting Perfect Holiday Bass

By JAY MANN | Nov 12, 2019
Photo by: Surf City Bait and Tackle FIRST TIME CHARM: For Greg Mayer's first bass, he went big-time by besting a 34.88-lb cow striper. The fat fish went for a trolled mojo -- a highly popular brightly colored leadhead jig, usually hosting hair/bucktail and a plastic tail. This weigh-worthy fish was one of many mega-bass being caught by boat anglers, much to the jealous chagrin of surfcasters, who recently can't buy a bass bite.

Surf City — Up in the Berkeley section of Ocean County, Yankees then Mets ballplayer Todd Frazier is being attacked by wild turkeys. All right, maybe he isn’t being attacked as much as unholily harassed, but news reports make it sound mighty assaultive, as does Todd. He recently tweeted, to a viral end, “They (turkeys) are a big problem here. They have come close to harming my family and friends, ruined my cars, trashed my yard and much more...”

Here’s hoping he doesn’t resort to his batting talents to eliminate the big-bird overflow. I’m not serious, right Todd? Todd? Eeeks. To think he owns a .443 slugging percentage.

Overall, it’s a rather appropriate time of year to talk turkey, even semi-wild turkeys, possibly part of those stocked by the state for settled-in hunters. As to those going yard at Todd’s house, the often-gutsy birds are famed for occasionally making themselves right at home, even in residential areas.

Fowls going afoul often happens when the top turkey, the alpha tom, is of an exploringly outgoing nature, playing his dominant position by strutting forth onto any territory he happens upon, including highways. In fact, Google the keywords “Turkey stops traffic” to get a hilarious and amazing looking at a tom playing crossing guard for his raft. Yep, turkey flocks are called rafts, even away from the coast.

Obviously, large rafts of turkeys are a hit with Jersey hunters, not to mention non-gunning outdoors types. Homeowners and farmers? Not always so much.

The penchant of wild turkeys to audaciously interact with humans offers an insight into why turkeys, along with ducks, chickens and guinea fowl, became barnyard animals. They can quickly lose their fear of man, especially when fed.

I once did a story about an organic turkey farm. Having to inch my vehicle through free-roaming turkeys on the driveway, I realized the birds had pretty much taken over. I even had this grotesque fear I might get out to find the owners’ bones pecked clean – and the birds circling me hungrily. “Hey, wait, birds! I’m a vegan. I don’t even like Thanksgiving all that much!” I think too many Stephan King novels have saturated my thinking, though how many copies would a book called “Terror Turkey” sell? Come to think of it …

The owners were just fine – and mighty fine folks. They soon showed me turkeys are not bird-brained creatures but highly ingenious and sometimes downright affectionate. They have a curiosity that even a cat would envy.

At the behest of the farmers, I lay down on the grass and became an instant turkey attraction. A slew of them began checking/pecking my pockets and pant legs, very ostrich like. One bird, some odd name like Squeezy, was what they called a cuddler. It truly enjoyed being hugged/squeezed. Journalistically cynical, I wondered if Squeezy knew that becoming a cuddler kept it from becoming a paleo repast: “To be honest, mister, I can’t stand humans in general, but, hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. So, come here and gimme a hug … just don’t be feeling my breast meat … That’s a little bite of turkey humor there.”

On the less humanified side of things, there are rafts upon rafts of quite wild turkeys scratching about throughout Jersey, especially the southern and coastal sections. The latest census indicates 23,000 wild turkeys in NJ. I’ll bet the turkey farm there’s far more than that. I’d even venture that over 30,000 strut their stuff in the Garden State. While the state still adds a slew, I think the wild turkey pump has been primed enough for natural sustainability. Game-wise, it’s now all about pheasant stocking.

In the woods, it’s often easy to hear wild turkeys, as they rather violently scratch the ground, incessantly. They don’t gobble nearly as much as their domesticated counterparts. That makes sense, in a coyote-avoidance sense. And they’re definitely not up for human hugs, running like maniacs if approached. Talk about being speedy Gonzalezes. These turkeys are Jesse Owens-grade sprinters.

At a full 25-mph clip, wild turkeys can still nimbly snake through trees and vegetation. Also, they can fly – at over 50 mph. While that isn’t speedy in avian terms, it’s easily enough should flight be needed because some annoying human, possibly yours truly, is trying to run them down. I’ve gotten dang close. My run-down effort isn't helped by my constantly going, “Gonna get cha!” Hell, hearing that behind me in some dark woods could get me going airborne, too.

Wild turkeys routinely take flight a couple times of day, seeing they roost in trees at night. An entire 40-member raft can populate a single larger tree, a lot like their semi-namesake: turkey vultures. They bat their wings again to get back on the ground come sunrise.

As to wild turkeys getting aggressive, I’ve been among some large gatherings of gobblers frequenting homes in a heavily wooded area of Bass River. Nary a bird – and they were all in close proximity – got testy with me, especially when compared to swans and geese, which can attack like gangbusters.

TASTE TEST: Being vegan – in a fish-eating way – I can’t corroborate the famed “gamey” taste of wild turkeys invited to the dinner table in hunter households. However, having cooked them for others, they do afford a noticeably different cooking aroma than farm-raised birds. It’s more of a, voila, gamey smell. They also seem to have slightly oily meat when carved. Hardcore gamebird-eaters love the woodsy flavor aspects of wild turkey meat.

Despite their vast numbers, woodland turkeys can become mysteriously scant when hunting season begins. Many rafts seasonally head to the protectiveness of human developments, as do deer. Other wily wild turkeys scurry into wetlands, where hunters don’t set-up as often. By law, wild turkeys cannot be stalked or driven/herded by hunters.

One killer weakness during wild turkey hunting season is an alpha tom’s harem-guarding aggression. If the head honcho of a raft hears what he believes to be another interloping tom, he throws caution to the wind. He bolts toward the sound … pissed like only a tom turkey can get. Obviously, the call of an interloping tom often comes via poised-and-loaded hunters, employing one of a mind-boggling selection of turkey calls.

Being a non-hunter, I still target wild turkey … and as game, so to speak. When I hear them in nearby woods, I’ll climb a tree and loose my admittedly lame, unaided turkey call. As bad as it is, it can still get a big-ass alpha bird high stepping toward me, often brazenly running along a path or dirt road to get a full head of steam. He’s fit to be tied, with chest out and exuding ruffled-feather arrogance, ready for a war of the toms Then, for me, the game is on.

Once an irate tom blindly rushes past my tree, I jerk its chain by calling again, getting it to angrily swing around and backtrack, now pissed to the hilt. As bright as a turkey might be, I’ve kept a tom running back and forth until the cows come home. It finally tires before catching on that the aggravator is up above. I sometimes get pegged when my uncontrollable snickering flows forth.

PASS THE BASS, PLEASE: It’s time to think about bagging a holiday dinner striper, an LBI tradition at both Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.

Ideally, a feastly bass is caught right before the holiday, served flapping fresh. But, just in case our bassing doesn’t hold water until those holidays (especially Christmas), why not pack away eater-sized bass – now that the gettin’ is good for boat bassing. By the by, I’m talking about packing away the entire, gutted-only fish. A complete fish presents wonderfully at a feast.

It’s easy to freeze-away a complete striper, preferably one as close to 28 inches as possible – the best eating size.

Right after landing, slice a gill raker and let the fish bleed out. No need for more than an hour of bleeding. Gut it and rinse. Icy saltwater makes a fine rinse if you’re in the field (ocean).

To store/freeze, dry a bit and place the whole head-and-all fish in a suitably sized, non-rigid plastic bag, like a smaller trash bag. NEVER use scented or so-called odor-guard trash bags.

Once bagged, push the bag tightly around the fish, eliminating as much air from the bag as possible. You really don’t have to vacuum pack it but feel free if you have the equipment. Bind or seal the bag tightly at the top.

Next, it’s ASAP into the freezer. The faster you get it frozen, the better it’ll thaw out. Do not load other frozen items on top since this will essentially dent the fish.

When a holiday mealtime comes knocking, fish the fish from the freezer.

Now, importantly, don’t de-freezer the bass and then just plop it on a counter or some other flat surface to thaw. That mucks up an entire side. Instead, float the bagged fish in water. Tap water is fine. A cooler is the perfect thaw container. Allow to thaw, possibly overnight.

Once thawed – or close to it – remove the fish from the bag. It should be amazingly close to the look of the fish when you first pulled it out of the water. You can now fillet, as if just landed, noticing the excellent quality of the meat. That same meat would not be nearly as nice if you thawed frozen bass fillets, carved at the get-go.

Now to the fun option, reserved for epicureans, gastronomes and chef-ly dads. Try baking the entire fish, aka in the round. For taste excellence, this method takes the cake. It also offers the maximum amount of meat. Don’t forget the cheek meat. Again, I’m talking scales, head and all. You’ll be removing the skin and scales when the baking is done. A chef buddy fills whole fish cavities with a crab meat stuffing.

Cooking time is a tad tricky when baking. Think in terms of 45 minutes to an hour in a hot (450 degree) preheated oven. All fish should be cooked at very high heat. Turn once to nicely round out the presentation. This loosens the skin evenly on both sides. If uncertain of doneness, lift the skin near the front dorsal fin to fork-check. Don’t fret if scales curl or the skin browns a bit. It’s the gorgeous white meat steam cooking inside that matters.

Present the celebration bass by peeling off the skin at the table, and then fork the flesh from the bones. Take special care forking meat around the bony ribs, though bass have a very forgiving bone structure.

Now, if you happen to have a dinner guest who might be a tad sensitive to the head and eyes still being in play during carving, just lop off the head ahead of time. No, not the guest’s head!

I should mention that a bass presentation is routinely scarfed down, gone long before the turkey. It’s that good. Therefore, you might want to freeze/cook a couple, especially if the whole gang is gathering for the meal.

By the by, the eyes of baked fish are eaten by many an Asian. But even if you have Asian friends sharing the holiday meals with you, I doubt they’ll take to that old-country custom. Of course, for chuckles, you can sneakily dole out the rolling eyes to someone you know to have a mighty good sense of humor. I once did it to a gal who freaked so badly that she panic-pushed away from the table, jarring over just about everyone’s drink. I then got her eyes, glaringly.

This bass preparation might sound a bit work-intensive. But look at all the wicked work it can take to prep and cook a turkey.

It’s well worth it.

RUNDOWN: Surfcasting is, well, there in spirit but not in stripers. This means the LBI Surf Fishing Classic has tons of prizes ready for any entered fish. See; click on “Fall Classic.”

No fall bluefish.

I’ve been restricted to later day plugging, with small success – as in small to super-small bass. In desperation, I might soak some chunks this week. I need holiday bass badly. I’ve wanted to try some whole squid as bait, just for kicks. Hey, why not? The bait police are off this week.

The skate and “sand dogs,” aka dogfish of both a smooth and spiny nature, remain all too much in play for surfcasters.

I heard of a “big” black drumfish caught and released, the catcher not knowing what it was – or any regulations regarding it. Not sure what “big” means since, a goodly number of years back, we had one over 100 pounds caught in the surf. Now that’s big!

Speaking of sharks, a boat fishing for striped bass hooked into a huge thresher. Even though the angler at the reel didn’t have a prayer of landing it, he apparently fought it mightily. Now, that’s good fun!

Autumnal boat bassing has exploded, though on a this-day/that-day basis. A skunk day is being followed by days of lights-out stripering. Bass are running majorly big for boat folks. We of a surfcasting ilk are beyond jealous of their success. Some of us are looking into cannon casters, though imagine being in a nearby boat when we’re firing. “Holy crap! … Incoming!”

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