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FARMINGTON — While turkey has long been a staple at the Thanksgiving dinner table, many families rely on the convenience of buying farmed turkeys from grocery stores.

But residents of northern New Mexico need only to look beyond their backyards for a wild turkey to serve as the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving feast. Just don’t expect an identical version of the birds sold in stores

New Mexico has long been famous for its elk, mule deer and pronghorn hunting, but the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has also been working to creating better turkey hunting opportunities in the state, said spokesman Karl Moffatt.

"The department has worked hard in conjunction with partners, such as the turkey federation, to improve turkey habitat and populations across the state to provide better hunting opportunities," Moffatt said in an email. "New Mexico is considered by many turkey hunters to be a top destination in the Southwest for many reasons, including quality hunting, great scenery, nice weather and fantastic food and culture."

The department held five turkey hunts — not including four youth-only hunts — in the spring, but hunters can also buy over-the-counter hunting licenses during the fall hunting seasons. Archery hunts are open Sept. 1 to 30, and legal sporting arm hunts are open Nov. 1 to 30.

Many Bureau of Land Management and state land hunting areas are open to fall turkey hunting, including parts of units 2A and 2C in the northwest corner of the state.

Areas east of U.S. Highway 550 and south of N.M. Highway 173 or the Rattlesnake Canyon closure area in unit 2A and areas east of Largo Canyon in unit 2C are closed to turkey hunters.

Information for specific hunting areas and units is available on state’s game and website.

Unfortunately for those looking to get a wild bird on the table for dinner next week, officials say hunters should prepare for a turkey feast in advance. The spring season is primed for turkey hunting because it is also mating season.

"In the spring, the gobblers are looking for the girls," said Gale Smith, owner of MGS Enterprises, a Kirtland company that provides meat processing and taxidermy services. "You can hear them down by the river gobbling for the hens. The spring is also when they do their strutting and their fancy footwork."

Turkeys can be hunted using a variety of techniques, including calling, using a blind, using a decoy, scouting a watering hole or using spot-and-stalk techniques around popular roosting areas. In northwest New Mexico, hunters can expect to find Merriam turkeys, Rio Grande turkeys or a mixed breed of the two.

"We will try to get out early and give out a locating call, most of the time that sounds like a hoot owl. Hopefully, they will respond, especially in the spring time," Smith said. "If we can draw them in to about a quarter-mile or a couple hundred yards, then you can try to get a little closer on foot and hopefully they will fly down from their roosts or will be feeding in a place you can see them for a good shot."

MGS Enterprises includes MGS Custom Cutting, a wild game meat processing company, and High Dessert Taxidermy. Smith started the business in the early 1990s and has been hunting for most of his 70 years.

When a wild turkey is too good to eat, the company will often preserve it with taxidermy and keep on display. A wild turkey is scored on a combination of its weight, spurs and beard.

Heavier birds get higher scores. Turkeys with longer spurs — the sharp claws on their feet — are also rated higher. Spurs measure close to an inch or longer and are used as their weapons when fighting.

The beard is a group of feathers on a turkey’s chest, ranging from 6 to 10 inches long. The longer the feathers, the higher score the turkey receives.

If a turkey is killed in the wild for eating, it can be field dressed or butchered for the breast and leg meat.

Since a wild turkey relies on a diet of bugs, seeds, shoots and other sources found in the wild, it is a much leaner bird. Because of the lower fat content, keeping the entire bird intact provides a difficult task for chefs trying to provide moist meat for eating. Store-bought turkeys are fed high-growth food mixtures to prepare them for eating sooner and to allow for a higher fat content on the bird.

Smith suggests cutting the breast meat of a wild turkey into small pieces, breading and frying them to make turkey nuggets, while the state Department of Game and Fish website includes a recipe for turkey posole or hominy.

Renee Lucero is a freelancer writer for The Daily Times.

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