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It’s time to go out and get your Thanksgiving turkey! And who better to talk about hunting wild turkeys in the fall than my friend Tony Caggiano of World Slam Adventures.
Tony has done the world slam of turkeys, and has guided turkey hunters for many years, in New York, Florida and all over North America. He’s also a great game cook, and runs a podcast called Wild Game Based.
Every episode of Hunt Gather Talk digs deep into the life, habits, hunting, lore, myth and of course prepping and cooking of a particular animal. Expect episodes on pheasants, rabbits, every species of quail, every species of grouse, wild turkeys, rails, woodcock, pigeons and doves, and huns. Thanks go out to Filson and Hunt to Eat for sponsoring the show!
Tony is an expert on all things turkey, from the exotic ocellated turkey in Mexico, to Easterns to all the other subspecies.
For more information on these topics, here are some helpful links:
- A good overview about the biology of the wild turkey, from Cornell University.
- Hunting wild turkeys in fall, from Project Upland
- Tony Caggiano’s podcast, Wild Game Based.
- You can find all my wild turkey recipes here.
- This is that wild turkey wing recipe I mention in the podcast.
- Here’s that recipe for puttanesca I mentioned.
I am bringing back Hunt Gather Talk with the hopes that your generosity can help keep it going season after season. Think of this like public radio, only with hunting and fishing and wild food and stuff. No, this won’t be a “pay-to-play” podcast, so you don’t necessarily have to chip in. But I am asking you to consider it. Every little bit helps to pay for editing, servers, and, frankly to keep the lights on here. Thanks in advance for whatever you can contribute!
As a service to those with hearing issues, or for anyone who would rather read our conversation than hear it, here is the transcript of the show. Enjoy!
Hank Shaw: Tony Caggiano, welcome to the Hunt, Gather, Talk podcast, I am very happy to have you back in the show. It’s been two years maybe? I think it’s two or three actually?
Tony Caggiano: Yes, I was still a hunting guide in New York last time, or I think I just retired from guiding, but I was still up in New York last time we spoke.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, you’re right. You’re down in Florida, right?
Tony Caggiano: Yes, sir. Moved down here in 2018, and just working from home, like everyone else now, doesn’t sound… It was pretty special, it was like a treat before to be a dude that worked from home. But now I’m just like everybody else with the ‘rona going around.
Hank Shaw: Everybody Zoom meetings and all that kind of stuff. And it’s funny, I am one of the last people that does not have a camera on my computer, because I’m digging my heels into this one as much as I can.
Tony Caggiano: There you go. Pick your battles.
Hank Shaw: Right? There’s whole articles and pamphlets and things about how to look good in a Zoom meeting. I’d just rather be not on a Zoom meeting. Or at least not be visual on a Zoom meeting.
And it’s crazy, did you hear about this guy, it was like a fish and game commission in Indiana, it was a public Zoom meeting, and some guy pops in on this public Zoom meeting in Indiana and he’s jacking it, on camera in this public Zoom meeting. So everybody running the Zoom meeting was like, “Oh my God!”
Tony Caggiano: There you go, a good time was had by all. No, I didn’t hear about that. But, yeah, I guess that’s the risks you run when you’re just doing it. I’ve had Zoom meetings where I was talking to somebody and my son walks by behind me in a pair of underwear, just comes walking in, looking. Just got out of bed, hair’s a mess.
Hank Shaw: See, the crazy thing is what you’re not saying is that your son’s 21.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. Well, yeah, he’s 13 but, 21. Same deal. He kind of came wandering in and he was like, “Oh, sorry.” And I didn’t even notice it because I was in the middle of looking at the camera and then everybody was laughing about it. But yeah man, that’s life in 2020 I suppose.
Hank Shaw: For sure.
Why don’t you explain to everybody about your connection with turkeys. Because we’re going to talk turkey today, and specifically we’re going to focus on fall turkeys and all things fall turkey, not just the hunting of them but habit and biology and then we’ll get to cooking towards the end. But I wanted to talk with you not only because it was fun having you on the last go round, but you are a turkey specialist, if I can be so bold in saying that?
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. I like to think of myself like that a little bit, and certainly other people seem to. I started hunting turkeys in the early ’90s and it quickly became an obsession. I went from not knowing what I’m doing, to killing a turkey, to being able to fill my tags really quickly because I obsessed over it the next season.
And about two years later I started guiding, and I started guiding full-time in 1999. Worked at a private club in upstate New York, which is kind of a sleeper because people don’t realize how good the turkey hunting is, and was. It was even better at one point in New York. So I would guide 26 days out of the 31-day season, and every year, early on I would drive to every state I could within striking distance that I could get a tag.
And it morphed into, I own a company called World Slam Adventures, and it’s a sport and travel agency, but it focuses heavily… It specializes in wild turkey hunting. So I’ve been lucky enough to have taken six Grand Slams and I got my second World Slam completed this year.
Hank Shaw: [crosstalk 00:04:10] year, or did you-?
Tony Caggiano: No, so I didn’t get a single season Slam yet. This year, the thing that sucks is that this year was supposed to be the year I had the single season Slam. I had it all planned out. We started out in Mexico, I got my ocellated and we were supposed to come back home and start here in Florida in March and then travel across the country with a buddy of mine. And the virus crushed that. So we’re going to pick that up again next year and we’re going to do… We’re recording a single season World Slam, we’re sponsored by NWTF doing a video with them. So it should have been a lot of fun but now it’s postponed, like so many other things in this world.
Hank Shaw: I know. I’ve had virtually everything postponed this year. Everything from my own trips to Mexico, to all across the country, to Alaska and Canada and all this kind of stuff. And it’s just, oh well.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And you and I talked a lot about that, we were talking about some of the Mexico stuff and it was, as far as the turkeys go, I’m still obsessed. I’ve been lucky enough to hunt a lot of big game and water… I’m just about as obsessed with the waterfowl, trying to get other waterfowl species I can in North America and that sort of thing. But the turkeys will always be special to me. After being a guide for 20-something years, it feels like home to me when I’m turkey hunting. The other hunts can be an adventure, but the turkey hunting is, as corny as it sounds, kind of become… It’s just what I do. You know what I mean?
So I still have World Slam Adventures, in addition to that I manage sales. Outside of turkey hunting I manage sales for 21 lodges in Argentina, both bird hunting and big game as well as fishing lodges. And then, as you know and some people know, you and I became friends online through social media, before the podcasting thing and all this other stuff, just talking about good food. And while I’m not a trained chef, I have a podcast and a website called Wild Game Based and that’s just what it sounds like. It’s just talking about wild game as, you know, from hunting to fishing to procuring it, butchering and all that sort of stuff. It’s just what I love, and that’s how I’m raising my kids. We, 90% wild game at home, and just sharing that stuff with like minded people, and having a good time with my partner Jeremiah Doughty-
Hank Shaw: Yeah, he’s from SoCal, right?
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, he’s from Southern California, he’s down there outside Anaheim, and I just spoke to him about an hour ago. He was just out fishing, so I guess he was out looking for halibut. Those guys down there, they got it pretty good where he is, they go in a kayak and you can hook in a halibut and all sorts of other, I guess different rock fish. I’m not familiar with the California fish, you know it better than me.
Hank Shaw: So the main rock fish that we catch from Baja to Alaska, imagine, you know black sea bass, right?
Tony Caggiano: Sure, of course.
Hank Shaw: It’s basically like that, except there’s 41 species of effectively… It’s a little like the snappers. So there’s five or ten snappers, and then there’s a whole bunch of porgies and grunts and things like that, and then there’s black sea bass. So imagine all of those fish kind of rolled into one bucket, and that’s the rock fish.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. I got to figure all that stuff out. And I don’t have to worry about the Californian stuff when I’m down in Florida, and there’s a lot of fish that looks similar here. Kind of like me, you work in Jersey, right?
Hank Shaw: Yeah.
Tony Caggiano: And so when I caught something in the Long Island Sound, there’s a bunch of different fish out there, but none of them look the same. So if you knew exactly what you were getting into, a back fish didn’t look like a fluke, didn’t look like a striper, didn’t look like a weakfish. So down here, there are 15 different snappers and they’ve all got different slot limits. So we’re actually heading out to the cost tomorrow to do some surf fishing with my boys.
Hank Shaw: Nice. I might head out on Friday for some rock fish.
Tony Caggiano: Nice, man.
Hank Shaw: So I’ve got to ask you, where were you going to get your Gould’s? Because that seems to be the hard one.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, the Gould’s, I’ve hunted before around, with a good buddy of mine, Manuel Enriquez, he’s out of Chihuahua, so we fly into Chihuahua, it’s about and hour and a half to the ranch, and then we hunt in the Sierra Madre mountains. From the ranch to the mountains can be a long drive because where the turkeys are, there simply aren’t people, right? There’s no ranches, there’s no power, there’s no electricity up there. So you’ve got a little bit of a drive in the morning, but Gould’s turkey are gorgeous, they’re big. I think that they might be the most call-responsive turkey I’ve ever hunted, certainly.
And one really cool piece of trivia about them is, when you think of turkeys everyone just assumes, or at least I did, a lot of people I know around me I spoke to, assume that an eastern turkey is kind of the core turkey and everything else branched off that. But through some research I discovered that they say the Gould’s turkey is actually the oldest subspecies of turkey, that’s the wild turkey that all the other turkeys stemmed off of in the family tree. Which is pretty cool.
Hank Shaw: It makes a ton of sense, because if you think about it, it’s the Maya and the Aztecs who domesticated the turkey, and it wasn’t just the ocellated, because if you look at the domesticated turkeys down there, they look like Gould’s more or less. They don’t look like and ocellated, I’ll put it that way. And so, yeah, it makes perfect sense. I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, nobody does. I didn’t either until I was… Before I went out there, I want to, just because I’m such a turkey nerd I want to do more research [inaudible 00:10:24], and I found it in a couple of different places. And yeah, to me, that’s just one of those cool bits of trivia about them.
But they’re gorgeous birds. For whatever reason I guess because they have huge feet, they get big. I mean I’ve shot to Gould’s and both of them were over 25 pounds, one was 27 pounds.
Hank Shaw: That’s a big bird.
Tony Caggiano: And you hear guys every day say, “I shot a 28-pounder this and that.” Listen, a 28 pound turkey, people can call in and call BS on me, but a 28 pound turkeys are few and far between, and it was pretty cool to see birds that size.
Hank Shaw: Here’s a side note, what subspecies gets the largest?
Tony Caggiano: On average, they say the Gould’s get the largest, but the record is for eastern turkeys, which have been over 30 pounds. And I’m not the guy to bash anybody or this and that, but over 30 pound turkey seems like that turkey was getting into something, eating a lot of domestic grain or doing something to get that big. But yeah, eastern turkeys. I think it’s like a 33 pound bird or something like that is the record on-
Hank Shaw: Well, it’s like wild hogs. So wild hogs in California are rarely over 300 pounds, but you get them in the Deep South where they’re getting into the catfish food and such, and cue hogzilla. So I bet that turkey was getting into something.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. But the record goes to an eastern, last I heard. Unless it’s been broken. But I think the Gould’s are the biggest body birds. They have these massive feet on them. Spurs don’t get very big but that’s also kind of like Merriam’s [inaudible 00:11:59]. Where we were hunting it’s like lava rock, everything just wears on you. And if you’ve got to crawl or kneel down, it’s not like hunting in the northeast, where you can do it. Out there, if you have to crawl 20 yards, it’s painful, between the cactuses and all the sharp jagged-edged rocks and stuff.
Hank Shaw: I could almost pet a Gould’s turkey when I was squirrel hunting in Arizona. We were looking for the Chiricahua red squirrel, which is this… So you have your turkey Slam, I had the squirrel Slam.
Tony Caggiano: You’re not right, man. But whatever.
Hank Shaw: I have a thing for bushy-tailed rodents. What can I say? But we were in the Chiricahua Mountains and it’s one of the very few places where the Gould’s turkey will pop up in the United States. So we’re hunting around for this giant… It basically looks like a big red fox squirrel, and it’s just slightly more orangy that the typical fox squirrel you get in the east. And so we were hunting for this thing and I see this movement and I’m like, “That’s a turkey!” A huge turkey. It’s a huge turkey like ten feet away just wandering through the woods.
Tony Caggiano: I bet he never saw a person before. He didn’t know what the hell he was looking at.
Hank Shaw: It’s possible, it’s totally… Because it was not worried at all. And of course there was no hunting season down there. But I think you can get a tag for that zone, but it’s like a premium… It’s sort of like getting a Kaibab deer tag. You’re not going to just draw a tag to get a Gould’s in Arizona just willy-nilly, you have to put in a bunch of points to earn it.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. I’ve been applying for… I just wanted to get a Gould’s in the US. I’ve been applying in Arizona now for, I think this year was probably… Well, last year. You usually put in December for it, I guess, November, December, and that was my ninth year in a row when I didn’t get one. And it’s a very tough tag to pull. Plus, a lot of people, I think it could be even worse. I think one of the things that helps is that in Arizona you have to buy the license to apply for the tag. So it’s just applying for the Gould’s in Arizona winds up costing like $168 or $170, you know? That’s the downside.
Hank Shaw: Well, I’ve been in Arizona a lot. So I usually use [crosstalk 00:14:23]-
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, see, I don’t hunt in Arizona, so I get the license every year. And I’ve got to plan a trip to Arizona, I’ve got to get out there. I’m buying this damn license anyway trying to kill these silly turkeys. But I think I spend less money on applying for most of my sheep tags than I do for that silly turkey tag.
Hank Shaw: Can you get them in New Mexico, too?
Tony Caggiano: I don’t think there’s any huntable population in New Mexico, I think there are a few here and there. But aside from maybe the odd governor’s tag or something to raise money for conservation, I’ve never heard of anything in New Mexico. Just Arizona. As far as I know, Arizona’s the only place north of the border that you can hunt them.
Hank Shaw: Got you. It’s like Texas is the only place north of the border to hunt chachalacas.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. But then you go down to Argentina and they’re flying around your head all the time.
Right? And there’s nine species of chachalaca from, literally Argentina all the way to [Brownsville 00:15:17], Texas. Which is a tremendously huge range.
Yeah. And the guides down there, the Texans down there were freaking out. Like they’re everywhere and the guides down there are just like, whatever. Nobody even pays them any money in Argentina.
Hank Shaw: They are do delicious. They are incredibly delicious. Like incredibly. Like oh my God delicious. They’re really-
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, we had them in Mexico.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, you ate them in the Yucatan, right?
Tony Caggiano: Yucatan, yeah. Because when you’re down there… That’s one fun thing about hunting, you talk about the ocellated, hunting in the Yucatan is that it’s in the spring, turkey hunting in the spring. But there are so many other game species open at that time of year. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve taken a great curassow, I’ve shot some brocket deer down there. We’ve seen chachalacas. I got a coatimundi this year, which you and I talked about online. Easily one of the most delicious animals that no one in North America or the United States is going to consider eating, you know?
Hank Shaw: I know. I’m one of the few people who has ever cooked one north of the border, I think.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. Down there, when I got it, I said… A lot of guys hunt them for, you get them as a trophy animal or something, but I said, “We’re down there, and Jeremiah and I, we’re going to eat it whatever we’re shooting.” We were like, “Dude, anything, if oh I haven’t eaten that before throw it on the grill and see what it tastes like, kind of.” And we did one underground and they did it kind of in an old traditional Mayan or Oaxacan technique, wrapping it with the banana leaves and burying it underground for hours.
Hank Shaw: A pib, yeah, that makes sense.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And it’s so good. They burned all the skin off of it, all the hair off first, and scraped it. And that was the game meat that surprised me more than any other because when you look at an animal that looks like a raccoon and a monkey had a baby, in your mind you’re expecting it to have this kind of funky… Some kind of funkiness to the meat, but it was delicious. It was so good. Rich.
Hank Shaw: Weirdly fatty.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, very fatty. It had a great pork texture to it. And it’s funny, last night I had duck confit with my boys and we’re eating it and it reminded me of coati. How duck confit gets that oiliness through the meat, which is amazing and delicious, that fattiness to the meat. And that’s what it was like. It had this great fattiness to it. But we shredded it up, we were eating it in tacos. I just grabbed a wing and ate one of them. But the guides down there, they were lined up, they were super excited for it. When I see a bunch of local Mayan guides getting excited as this thing’s cooking, I knew we were in for something good.
Hank Shaw: Let’s talk fall turkeys. What is the number one biggest difference between hunting a fall turkey and hunting a spring turkey?
Tony Caggiano: I love hunting fall turkeys. To me it’s almost like pure turkey hunting. There is something I like about it more than I enjoy the spring. And don’t get me wrong, spring turkey hunting, it’s what most people, 90%, better than 90% of the hunters out there, that’s what they think of.
Then the spring what you’re doing is, you’re imitating the hen to get a gobbler interested to come in during breeding season, and you get a shot at them. And it could be hit or miss and sometimes guides, you’ve got to set up and wait them out. And that season, where those birds are really receptive is very short, that spring season. So these gobblers, for one month a year, they’re thinking about breeding. They’re thinking about getting laid and that’s your opportunity to hun them like that.
Fall turkey hunting, I think, it has nothing to do with the breeding season. The gobblers are separate from the hens generally. You have gobblers in one group, you have hens and poults in another group, or young birds. And those two flocks offer you two different hunts. Two hunting styles, two different approaches to it. A gobbler is looking to breed for one month a year, roughly, and that’s when you’re imitating a hen. But every single day gobbler… Turkers… Gobblers, excuse me, they want to fight. They’re super aggressive birds. So in the fall, I love hunting gobblers although I have hunted mixed flocks as well. Because in a lot of states you’re allowed to hunt male and female in the fall as well.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, California is one of them.
Tony Caggiano: Sure. So you can hunt hens. I have hunted hens in the past in areas where they had really good turkey numbers. But I love fall gobbler hunting, and those birds are always looking to fight, so I’m calling them in, I’m using gobbler calls. You’re imitating other gobblers to get them to come in. And to me, I think it’s a lot of fun. Because inevitably I always have guys tell me, they call BS because I tell them how the birds came strutting and gobbling, and until you get out there and do it, a lot of people don’t even realize it. That show that they put on in the spring, I think it’s even more spectacular when they’re doing it looking for a fight in the fall. They come in aggressive, they come in in groups.
I’ve had, with a buddy of mine, Ray Eye, he had a great video of 13 gobblers coming in together for a fight. And then they’re fighting each other on the way in. Yeah. They just lose their minds because turkeys, if you spend time with wild turkeys and watch them, they’re just super super aggressive birds. They’re not friendly to each other.
Hank Shaw: Oh, I know. everybody here who’s listening to this, who turkey hunts, and chances are if you’re listening to this you turkey hunt, has shot a bird and seen his buddy kick the crap out of him when he’s down. It’s like, “I never liked you!”
Tony Caggiano: They do, man. Yeah, because they see a sign of weakness, and here come three gobblers, there’s a different pecking order. When they come in, there’s a pecking order there. And as soon as one of them shows signs of weakness, like flopping half-dead on the floor, on the ground, all the other ones jump all over that.
And if you watch a group of turkeys together, they’re picking at each other and pulling on each other’s feathers, and it’s not a peaceful situation in the flock. There’s a lot of angst between those birds. So in that fall that’s what-
Hank Shaw: [crosstalk 00:21:54].
Tony Caggiano: What’s that?
Hank Shaw: Even the hens do that, don’t they?
Tony Caggiano: Oh yeah. The hens are doing it, too. There’s a very definite hierarchy in a group of hens. And you’ll see it with a group of hens coming in. So in the fall, you can hunt hens as well, and what I do there is, there’s a number of ways to hunt fall turkeys, the hens. It’s a little bit different, obviously, because you’re not doing the gobbler calls. Now, a group of gobblers in the fall, they tend to not care at all about hen calls. You’ll see a turkey in the distance, you’ll do hen calls and he won’t even pick his head up. And the same goes for the hens if you’re doing gobbler calls on them.
But if you get out there and you start doing hen calls, the aggressive hens will come in because they, it’s almost like they demand to know who the hell is in their area. Or another great technique we use is imitating young birds, young birds in distress with kee-kee runs and kee-kee calls, because the instinct of the hen is to protect the young, and they’ll come in looking for that. And that’s another way to get them in range.
Some states, you can’t do it here in Florida, but in New York and just a few states now, they have fall seasons where you’re allowed to use dogs. And I’ve done that.
Hank Shaw: I was just going to ask you about that, actually. Because I saw that, when I was doing research for this episode I’m like, well, I’ve never even heard of that. That’s kind of crazy. So have you ever done it?
Tony Caggiano: I was lucky enough to do it one time with a buddy of mine. He had a dog who was just starting out. It did a good job, we didn’t get a bird that day, but it was kind of cool to see the dog work. But a good friend of mine, Gerry Bethge, he was one of the editors for Outdoor Life magazine, he had a turkey dog, I know in the past. I never got to hunt with Jerry and his dog. But I know I’ve spoken to him about it a number of times and he was eaten up with it.
And you’d go out with the dog in the fall, and the dogs would range. The guys I know had setters. They have to call them Byrne turkey dogs, the Byrne family has been breeding turkey dogs for years. And so this dog ranges, it goes out into the woods, you can’t see it. It’s out of range of what you would consider bird dog range. Tracks a flock, and when it finds a flock, it flushes them. So the turkeys scatter, and the dog will sit there and bark til you get to them. And then once you get up there, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. The guy, we sat down against the tree, he opens up this camo bag the dog gets in it with just his head poking out, and goes to sleep behind us, right next to us on the tree. And that’s it, the dog’s job was done.
Now our job is to call this flock of scattered turkeys back together. Because they’re so social, once you bust up a flock, you give it 15 or 20 minutes and you’ll start to hear them peeping and calling. If it’s hen with young you hear those peep-peep calls. And you imitate them, sound like one of the hens, and call the birds back in, which is pretty cool.
Hank Shaw: That’s interesting.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, it’s a completely different dynamic in any other kind of turkey hunting. And really, any other kind of hunting. There’s not a lot… Where else do you go with a dog where you let the dog flush the bird and then the dog takes a nap and then you start your part of the hunt.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I mean that is unique. Although, in western quail hunting, it’s a pretty normal technique to flush a bunch of quail, maybe you get a couple of shot off, and then you can sit and wait and they will do the exact same thing. They will start trying to get coalesced as a covey again, but I’ve never heard of the dog taking a… You know, “All right, I’m done guys. Later!”
Tony Caggiano: The dog’s done, man. The dog just laid down and literally got into this bag, it was like a homemade bag made from that military, that old school military camo that we used to wear in the ’80s before camouflage became a kind of thing. And it looked like a large duffle bag that they just sewed a hole into so that the dog could poke his head out of. Literally crawls in the bag, super excited to lay down, curled up. And that dog knew it did its job, it was out there to flush out that flock and he was pretty tickled that he did.
We wound up calling back in a bunch of little jennies, little young hens, and we passed on them. But it was very cool, and I’ll go to do that again in a hot second. There were guys that were doing it in New York and certain states that are just… And the guys who do it are eaten up with it. It’s very much one of those addictive things. You don’t hear a lot of guys who go hunting with turkey dogs once in a while. The guys who are doing it are obsessed with it.
Hank Shaw: Got you. So there’s another thing about, and I’ve done this in California. Not largely because sometimes I’m a little impatient, and also because I’m not a tremendously good turkey caller. But you can walk them up and shoot them like pheasants.
Tony Caggiano: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve known guys who’ve done that. I’ve been out with my springers, I always have flushing dogs, so I would guide the upland birds with springers and Boykins, so I’ve been out in cornfields and even sorghum where the dog gets birdy and flushes a… Even a flock of turkeys. And I do know guys who hunt them like that.
For me, personally, the thing I love about turkey hunting is the calling. So for me, anytime I can call birds in, that’s what I love to do. And any game-
Hank Shaw: [crosstalk 00:27:15] ducks.
Tony Caggiano: Oh yeah, same thing with the ducks and the geese, I love that. So I have a buddy of mine, I drive him crazy, he was one of the guides, this guy Todd at the club. And on my days off from guiding I would go out for myself and with my buddies. And we’d be sitting there and I would be calling a bird, and this bird’s in the roost and it’s gobbling. And another bird just comes walking by, and I wouldn’t let Todd shoot that bird because I was there for the bird I was playing with. Because I have something wrong. There’s something wrong in my head. That if I didn’t call the bird in, I’m at the point where… And I’m going to hear guys talking about what an asshole I am for going that, but I don’t know. For me the fun, the fun, everything about the turkey hunting is the calling.
I’m good friends with a guy named Ray Eye, he’s been turkey hunting since the dawn of time and he’s done TV shows, and the calling contest and all this other stuff. And he always just used to say, “Calling is everything.” And that’s how I feel. Maybe it was part from always hanging out with him and learning a lot of my turkey skills from him. But to me, the beauty of the turkey hunt is the call. Is the calling.
Hank Shaw: Oh yeah. I mean, I think I’m in the minority in that I don’t necessarily care about it, but then I would not consider myself a real turkey hunter. I would consider myself a hunter who occasionally kills turkeys.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And it’s just… I tell guys all the time, it drives me crazy when I see guys online, and not just with turkey hunting but with rifle hunters bashing crossbow guys, crossbow guys, the archers are saying how if you hunt with a crossbow you’re a chicken. The BS, the bullshit with hunters attacking each other because if you’re not doing it like me is absurd. And to me, that’s something I talk about a lot on my social media, on my own podcast with my friends. For me, hunting, it’s about getting food, right? So 90% of the food we eat in my home is wild game. But the beauty of it is that I can do that and at the same time just have fun and love being out there, doing what I do, right?
You go to the public, the supermarket, to pick up a steak, nobody loves doing that. I get to love getting my groceries. Nobody loves getting their groceries more than you and I do, right?
Hank Shaw: Right. Exactly. And maybe gardeners, you know?
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, gardeners. Which I am a gardener, I love-
Hank Shaw: Me, too.
Tony Caggiano: … down here in Florida I don’t have a garden right now and it’s killing me. My wife, we joke about it because it’s a big void in our lives.
Hank Shaw: Do you have enough ground where you can actually plant something?
Tony Caggiano: No, not where we are here. We’re looking at getting… Literally I could watch the fireworks at Disney World from where we live. From my house to the Castle is one mile as the crow flies. We moved here, when we came down this is where a friend of the family moved here, but we’re looking at ground, to get a small few acres where I can raise some of my own meat maybe and forage again. Because I love everything about that. I’m learning more about around here because in the northeast I could forage a lot more. I knew mushrooms and I knew… After 30 years you knew where all of ramps were going to pop up every year, and where the morels were and all that sort of stuff.
And I’m starting at square one here in Florida, not knowing A, what the hell I’m looking at with a lot of this stuff, and B, I don’t know the ground.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, it’s a very different flora down there. And when you get ready for it, there’s a company, I think it’s called Sow Exotic, and they’re based in Florida and they grow all kinds of really cool stuff, from all over the world. And I would definitely… I bought a tomato tree from them, which is this crazy South American… It’s a tree, right? And it grows this fruit that when the fruit is ripe, it looks like a plum tomato coming off the tree. And it’s pretty trippy. And I’ve eaten them a couple of times, but why not grow one? And so your opportunities in Florida are going to be pretty amazing.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, I’m excited to get back to that. But I miss it. I miss… And some people, like you said, it’s not for everybody. Just like I’m saying with how I hunt turkeys, and how I do it is not how you’re supposed to do it, or how you should do it. Find a way to do it that you enjoy. I know guys who want to, they would love to… They love pass shooting ducks, I like to get them deep point in, that’s the fun of it. And I guess it depends on how hungry you are, you know what I mean?
Hank Shaw: It does.
Tony Caggiano: If you’re hungry, you’re going to take them whatever way you can. I’m talking about the perfect scenario of just enjoying myself. And I have a lot of opportunities, right? I was turkey hunting every day from the second week of April through June where we were. So to kind of hold out and do that is great. But that being said, you’re out there, you’ve got one day, I’m the type of guy, take the jake. I have no problem with that, I’m not this big trophy hunter. And I’ve talked about it with people all the time, I don’t… if somebody is super excited about a spike or a fork horn they have, then more power to them. I think that it’s about loving what you do and having a good time and man, it kills me that hunters aren’t more supportive of each other. I think we have enough shit stacked against us, where we could offer a little more support-
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I agree.
Tony Caggiano: … [crosstalk 00:33:06] team now.
Hank Shaw: My general theme for the spring in California, where you get three birds, is first legal bird that I see goes down. So that I’ve got one under my belt. And then I can hunt for a gobbler. But I’ll be damned if I don’t have turkey in the freezer, you know what I mean.
And then in the fall, I can pretty much describe to you my fall turkey hunting. It’s basically mushroom hunting with a shotgun, because there’s this spot, I know, right? There’s this spot in Sonoma County that I, a friend of mine he manages, he’s a forester, and right when the mushrooms are starting to come out in November, it’s the turkey season. So there’s this giant flock of turkeys. And it’s interesting, it’s a mixed flock, it’s not just gobblers and hens separated from each other, unless it’s a case of they’re just getting together for that moment. But they always seem to be together.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. Well, once it starts to get into… What time of year is that?
Hank Shaw: November.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, see, that might be starting to, in your area, might be getting into a more of a winter flock at that point. So when it’s cold here, you could see all the birds together in one big giant flock.
Hank Shaw: Oh, okay.
Tony Caggiano: [crosstalk 00:34:27] necessarily. But I mean in New York, I have photographs from the early 2000s of 150 birds together in a flock in New York. And there were gobblers and hens and poults. But it’s interesting, more often than not, if you sit and watch those flocks, the gobblers are kind of hanging back towards one side, and they’re all together because there’s safety in numbers. And I could be wrong, maybe you have some turkey specialist out there who’s seen them more than me. But I’ve spent a lot of time watching them and oftentimes it seems they’re kind of there for the numbers and then they don’t interact with one another. The gobblers still have their order and the hens have their pecking order, and they kind of deal with it like that.
Hank Shaw: That’s a little bit like specks and snows, specks and snows will often flock up together, but you don’t see it feathered in like that, so to speak. There’s usually like a glob of specks and a glob of snows, like that.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And I think it’s like that, but again, it’s sound theory. Get the first one in the freezer and then talk about it.
Hank Shaw: In the fall, it’s anything goes.
Tony Caggiano: Oh yeah.
Hank Shaw: Like, “Oh, look, a turkey, let’s get Thanksgiving.”
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And when I was guiding I’d tell guys that, too. I had some guys who-
Hank Shaw: Did you guide in the fall?
Tony Caggiano: I did guide in the fall. I would take six folks out. No dog hunting, but just calling and it was… It’s a different game. In the spring, we’d go out first thing in the morning and try to get those birds off the roost, and then if that didn’t happen, you’d set up in likely areas and call. And the fun part for the fall turkey hunting was I almost liked it better once the birds were down and doing their thing. And I liked it when it was colder out and the woods were more open.
So I would wind up doing my turkey hunts, guiding the turkey hunts in November, just before the deer season opened up. I thought that was a great time to hunt turkey in the northeast. The woods are open, you could hear, you could see. Yeah, we got in and it’s all-day affair which is nice. In New York you have to stop hunting at noon, in the northeast. Here in Florida you can go all day on private ground, and you have to stop at 1:00 on public. But in the fall, it’s an all-day affair, so if you did get into some birds and they scooted off and went and did their own thing, if you have enough ground you could move ahead, you could play with them and have some fun with it.
Hank Shaw: So I understand that in the fall and winter turkeys switch their diet up from bugs and stuff, obviously, because it’s colder, to mast to acorns and various nuts and things like that. And then they tend to go into deeper, thicker woods, from my understanding. They’re not going to hang out in a field as much. Is that your experience?
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. So just like you said, it all depends on the availability of food in the fall. Turkeys, and if anybody is a turkey hunter and I’m sure you could see it, during the spring when they’re breeding, it seems like every field has a gobbler in it, right? Everywhere you look, there’s a gobbler here, there’s a gobbler there, and they’re strutting, they’re putting on a show. Because they want to be seen at that time of year.
Then the summer comes along, a big black feathered bird, the sun’s a lot for them, so they’re going into the shade, they’re going into the thicker areas, edges of swamps to cool down. In the fall, they’re going to go where the food is. If you have a good mast here, they’re up in those woods and you’re not going to see them in the fields as much.
If you have corn that was just harvested or being harvested, they tend to come out there and hit field edges. Turkeys are one of those animals, I’ve had the best luck with them and they have the best success rates across the country, as far as where they establish themselves, when they have that transitional ground, right? You have to be looking for agriculture areas that also have hard woods, that have some swamps. The mix.
But they certainly change up their diet. Every animal I kill, I open up the crop on every bird. I open up the crop, I don’t necessarily open up stomachs, because I don’t eat the… It gets graphic and it smells. But I always open up the crop, and I open up gobblers that have had little acorns, they’ve had bug in them. I opened up one gobbler, he had 15 pinkie mice in his crop.
Hank Shaw: Wow.
Tony Caggiano: So he was scratching somewhere, came across a mouse nest and he ate all the pinkies. And I’ve hears stories of gobblers that had baby birds in them. They’re very opportunistic, opportunistic-
Hank Shaw: Yeah. My friend’s seen one with a baby rattlesnake in its crop. That was kind of scary.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. I haven’t seen a snake, but I’ve heard that, too. And I watched hen turkeys with a garter snake running around. There was a hen turkey had a garter snake in its mouth and 12 other turkeys or whatever it was, was chasing her through a field, as she’s running around trying to figure out how to eat this damn 12 inch long garter snake.
But yeah, in the spring and summer they’re on whatever is around. Lots of protein. And then in the winter, I think they’re going for that mast, they’re going for more of the acorns. If you have good acorns, you’ll have the turkeys. They need that fat in the winter. Again, they’re getting out of the weather, getting into the woods helps them out to avoid the wind and rain. Well, rain’s a little bit different, but to avoid the winter weather. Yeah.
Hank Shaw: That leads me to this next question about if you’re trying to get yourself a Thanksgiving turkey, are there… We talk about duck days, where I live, a north wind, a clear day and a strong north wind is an excellent, excellent day to go duck hunting. Whereas no wind and pounding rain is a terrible day to go duck hunting. And what are some of the weather variables to look for, or to just sit there and watch football when you’re fall turkey hunting?
Tony Caggiano: I’m one of the guys who, you can’t kill turkeys if your ass is on the couch. As a guide I always said that. I know some guys who swear that turkey hunting in the rain is a waste of time, it’s not good. But turkeys are being turkeys no matter what’s happening outside, they’re being turkeys. That being said, if you’re looking for the best turkey day, if you’re going to try and pick a vacation day based on the weather for next week, I like days that… I don’t like rain, and I don’t like wind for turkeys. So if you’ve got turkeys, especially in the fall when they’re in the woods, if there are still a lot of leaves around, rain and wind, everything in those woods move.
So turkeys don’t have a sense of smell, they’re operating on sound with largely 90% of their alarm system to keep them alive is their eyes. They see everything, they don’t miss a trick. Any movement. So if you get a rainy, windy day, sometimes, a lot of times you’ll see these birds go out in the middle of a field and just hang all day long. It’s not because they necessarily like what’s on that field, but it’s because they’re safe. Nothing can sneak up on them. In the woods, if every branch and leaf and tree is shaking, those birds, they have no idea where danger’s coming from.
So I tend to see rainy, windy days, I would be on the field somewhere. If that’s the day you have to hunt, and it’s going to be windy or rainy, get on a field, get on a field edge where those birds are going to want to be out in the open and feel safe. And if you have a day, I think less wind is always better, because you’re calling, right? So the more wind you have, the tougher it is for those calls to be heard. The tougher it is to call a bird that’s upwind in a hard wind. If it’s downwind you’re fine. If the wind is taking your calls to them, that helps. But on a windy day, it makes it harder. If it’s going to be a windy day and you’re hunting, go for it, just remember to crank up on your calls a little bit.
On a windy day I use, instead of just using regular slates, I’ll use glass. I love these old, you can still get some copper and aluminum calls. For a rainy day I have a MAD call, so from Mark Drury, the Drury Brothers, before there was Drury Outdoors, like 20-something years ago they made these titanium calls, and they’re bomb proof. They’re titanium and plastic. Not the prettiest turkey call I owned, but I’ll be damned if that’s not the best call I’ve ever had in my hand on a really windy day. Because you can crank up on it, get a high-pitched call that travels and cuts that wind, and that will increase your success rate.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, that’s interesting. So it’s very similar to squirrel hunting. And similarly in the fall, if it’s a super windy day, it’s just not a great day for squirrels, because A, they have the same issues that turkeys do, and they have to live in the woods. And B, you just can’t see them. Especially if there’s any leaves still on the trees, it’s just not a fantastic day. I actually have cleaned up on squirrels on calm rainy days, but not windy rainy days.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, on a calm rainy day, these factors, these weather factors, if you stack them up, if you take a lot of rain and a lot of wind, obviously your success rates are going down. But even with ducks, I guided ducks and waterfowl for years and when you had a really hard, rainy day folks would say, “Oh, it’s a great day for ducks.” And I disagree. You want wind with the waterfowl, and if you get light rain, or for me, the best thing in the world is light snow. All of a sudden you’re in the money. But too much of anything one thing, it doesn’t seem to help you with a lot the different kinds of hunting, I find.
Hank Shaw: I 100% agree. We have this in California, we’re not a very stormy place, but every winter there will be one or two holy crap days where it’s 35, 40 mile hour winds sustained, and they’re coming from the south, and the rain is going sideways. It’s kind of a crap shoot. I’ve had amazing days on those days, but I’ve also had it where like, this just sucks. Nothing is fine because it’s just too much.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. And it’s what the animals are used to, right? So in California, if you’re in an area that’s really dry, if you get all sorts of rain, generally those animals are going to be a little more shellshocked. It’s not normal for them, so that is going to inhibit their movement, it’s going to change their normal routine.
Down here in Florida, they look at the heat, right? Up in New York, if it was a 65 degree day, or 70 degrees during deer season, the deer are not going to move. I’ve gone out, the deer are laid up somewhere. Down here in Florida, that’s a cool day, so the deer are popping and they’re moving all over the place. The same thing with the ducks. If you get a warm day in the northeast, I don’t know how it is by you, but if you get a warm, calm day the birds tend to just seem to lay up and sit. And down here-
Hank Shaw: [crosstalk 00:46:00] an hour and that’s about it.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. Down here it’s 90 degrees, the mosquitoes are thick and the ducks are just doing their thing. Because they think it’s… To get down here, even if they migrated down, seems like maybe [inaudible 00:46:14] it seems like they get down here and it becomes the norm for them, so they just get on with life. Just like anyone else. It’s almost like the birds, they realize this is just the way it is and you have to get on and move around and do that sort of stuff.
So anytime you get out of that norm, out of that little comfort zone, whatever it is, it kind of changes up the animal’s patterns, in my opinion.
Hank Shaw: So speaking of patterns, it’s a good question. It’s my understanding that if you really want to be successful with fall turkeys, the best way to do it is to know your ground, of course, and just to watch the turkeys for quite a bit of time so that you can pattern them like whitetails can be patterned.
Tony Caggiano: Absolutely. 100%. And that doesn’t just go for fall turkeys, that goes for spring as well. You’ll get birds that are, something changes and it puts them off their schedule or draws them in or spooks them off. But I would always, before a season opens whether it’s spring or fall, I usually spend… With the turkeys, I usually start at two to three weeks beforehand waking up every single day in the morning trying to find these birds and I just sit and glass them. Just sit and watch. See what they’re doing. Once you find a roost, sneak into the woods. I mean, I would wear camo during my research. No calls or anything, get my camo on, go into the woods and sit and just listen. Find out where these birds are roosting.
Because they’re creatures of habit, a turkey roost in the northeast, and it’s even more so if you go to a place like Texas or down in Mexico where there’s limited trees, but the birds like to use the same haunts, right? They love to use a similar roost. There’s a lot of birds that will use the same roost every single day if they’re not spooked or put off of it. Or they may have one or two roosts that they bounce between. But if you put in that time patterning them, it’s always funny because guys say, “You could pattern them like a deer,” and I think you can pattern them better than a deer. I find in my deer hunting there are more things bumping deer and pushing them off their patterns than a flock of turkey even.
You could spook a flock of turkey, I tell guys all the time, “Oh, I spooked the birds, they won’t be back.” They’ll be back, they’re good at surviving, but they’re not going to go tomorrow and be like, “Oh, that’s where that jerk-off was in the woods over there. I’m not going to go there.” They’re not thinking like that. If that’s where they were living, then they’ll get back to it eventually.
But yeah, any time with turkeys, the more time you can put in watching and glassing, and getting to know them, it’s going to help you a lot. If you can go out in the evenings, I’m a huge proponent of roosting birds, both spring and fall-
Hank Shaw: Is that where they’re hanging out?
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. Find out where they’re going up for the night. So right around sunset, all turkey season, spring and fall, I have photos, and I just posted a picture the other day on social media. My kids grew up, my wife is a waitress so she would work evenings, and my kids, from the time they were six months old would be in a backpack and they would come out every single night before the season, right until the end of it, roosting birds. And we’d go out there, I would imitate an owl or use a crow call. Some guys say coyote calls, that’ll get a shock out of them, but I’m not a big fan of using it in the mornings to get birds to gobble, because-
Hank Shaw: I use a crow call.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, a crow call’s a great call. And in the fall, you may just get that one opportunity because it’s truly just a shock gobble, the gobbler’s aren’t putting on a big show in the fall. But if it lets you know where they’re roosted, you can come back, if it’s before season, come back in the morning and set up and kind of watch and see where they’re going from there, to figure out their travel patterns.
Or, if it’s during the season, it allows you to sneak in, in the dark, really close within a tight calling distance and be ready and waiting for a bird that you know the bird’s there, you’re stacking the odds in your favor.
Research, research, research, man. Scout those birds as much as you can. That’s what I did, I was obsessed with… I sincerely spent, if you put it on… If I had to clock in and out, I spent more time every season scouting than I did actual hunting. [inaudible 00:50:49].
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I agree. Having tried it the other way, which is to say just trying to walk them up like a pheasant, real low percentage. Real low. And we’ve done it, we’ve been successful, but you’re walking 11 miles and you get one… You get one good flush. If it’s the spring you’ve got to make sure it has a beard and it’s flying away from you. So that’s a dicey shot unless you’ve got a real good eye.
Tony Caggiano: Yep, yep.
Hank Shaw: The fall’s a little different. So the fall, if I got to flush, the turkeys can hit the ground because it doesn’t matter, because we’re allowed to hunt hens.
Tony Caggiano: Yes. Absolutely. When you’re trying to flush them up like that, if you know where they’re going to be, if you’re watching, if you spend some time, you don’t have to go… It’s not like you have to hike to the top of a mountain to scout out a markhor in Pakistan, these are turkeys, they’re coming down around houses, around your stomping ground. 90% of the time you can go on a road or a logging road somewhere and… If you’ve got a pickup truck, sit out in the woods somewhere and sit down, pull down your tailgate with a cup of coffee in the morning and just listen. Even if you don’t see the birds, they talk every morning. Turkeys are very vocal, very social. I can’t tell you how many times I couldn’t see birds, and I was literally sitting on the tailgate of my truck, with an egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee. And I’m scouting, I’m doing research. And it’s really valuable information when you come back and hunt.
And I think that there’s no two ways about it, it works.
Hank Shaw: So before we get into the butchering, cooking and food, I want to talk one last topic before we hit that.
And that is, everybody seems to say that the eastern is the smartest and the Rio is the dumbest. And I’ve hunted… I haven’t gotten all the species, I’ve gotten the Merriam’s, the… I’ve hunted easterns, but I’ve not yet gotten one. I’ve shot Merriam’s, I’ve shot Rios, and I told you about my encounter with Gould’s.
But I have generally found in my very limited experience that Rios tend to be the easiest to hunt, and easterns one of the hardest. But I’d like to hear your take on it.
Tony Caggiano: So yeah, I piss off a lot of guys with this, local guys, whenever I travel. Because I travel a lot for turkeys, and for me, turkeys are turkeys. I don’t believe that these turkeys don’t like calling and these birds don’t like this or that. I find that the birds that are difficult, the reason you might be seeing easterns, and I do see a lot of easterns that were more difficult to hunt than a lot of the Rios I’ve hunted. But if I dig a little deeper I see that it’s because there’s more hunters in the area. There’s more people in the area, so the birds are being bumped and spooked, and that’s the thing.
Where I hunt Rios, they are out in the brush country. There’s not a lot of people stomping around. There’s nobody jogging and walking their dog. They’re not seeing four or five hunters come around and call to them, and call from a car. Getting a box call from the roadside.
I tend to think that the birds that are having the most interactions with people, hunters and non-hunters, that’s going to make them the tougher bird to hunt. Because they’re getting off their patterns because they’re becoming… They’re harassed, so they’re a little spookier. So as far as-
Hank Shaw: So I’m going to sort of disagree with you on this one. Because in my experience with the Rios, and I’ve had the most experience with the Rios, is that when you encounter a flock of Rios that’s on, say a farm, where it’s huntable but the landowners don’t really hunt that much. Maybe two pigs… Two pigs. Maybe two turkeys are shot off that ground a year. They’re stupid easy to hunt. Crazy easy. And they’re interacting with people all the time.
So I think you’re on to something about, in terms of hunter effort, but I do not get a sense out here at least that turkeys that interact with human beings on a general sense are spookier than those that don’t. I almost think it’s the opposite. Because [crosstalk 00:55:13]-
Tony Caggiano: Yes. So I think maybe I misspoke a little bit. I don’t mean that a turkey that is walking in a field while the farmer is mowing. I’m talking about if there are people bumping those turkeys and putting some kind of pressure on the birds.
Hank Shaw: Got you.
Tony Caggiano: That’s what I mean. I know guys who, I mean if I wanted to kill a turkey in the northeast during turkey season or whenever, the easiest way to do it was to get on the tractor with the manure spreader behind it. And drive out there. I could go out with an empty manure spreader and when i turned it on I could just turn around and shoot the first bird, because they would come running up to it. To those turkeys, that’s not a person, that’s not a threat, it’s food coming in.
So I agree with you there. Maybe I misspoke, but I’m thinking more of pressure on the birds. Bumping them, moving them, being in their area. That sort of thing. And it’s been notorious, the things you hear is you come to Florida and a lot of guys tell you, “Osceolas don’t like calling. They don’t like a lot of calling.” And I haven’t found that. I find that they’re turkeys. My opinion on calling all game, turkeys, ducks, geese. Geese and turkeys and ducks, they call to each other all the time, right? They don’t spook each other away.
If you say a bird is call-shy, my belief is, and it pisses people off because they assumes that I’m attacking them. If a bird’s call-shy it’s because you don’t sound enough like that bird. End of subject. If turkeys are call-shy it’s because you’re not calling how turkeys call. You’re either cackling away, calling too much, it’s not a good sound. You have to imitate the bird, how the birds sound.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, I was just going to say that. Like with ducks, it’s not that you’re not necessarily sounding like a duck, you’re just saying something inappropriate at the time. You’re high balling when everyone else is chuckling.
Tony Caggiano: Absolutely. And if you go and listen and spend time with ducks, people love to do that Arkansas high ball, quack, quack quack. And if you sit and watch ducks, ducks, you watch them, I’ve watched flocks of ducks, hundred ducks, and that sound happens almost never. You want to sound like the birds, pay attention.
Geese, literally as flocks are going by they’re talking to each other, they’re calling very aggressively. And I learned, like Fred Zink would say, “If you watch geese everybody thinks, oh geese are calling to each other to bring them in.” The birds coming in are coming because there’s food there. The birds on the ground will, if you watch birds, they’ll try to chase the birds that land with them. They’re not looking for those other birds to come to that feed, they’re aggressive towards each other. But if you’re calling and birds are turning the other way, you either don’t sound like a goose or you’re not calling the right cadence, or you’re not sounding like natural geese.
And I feel the same way with turkeys. I’ve hunted in Missouri, birds were tough as hell. I’ve hunted in Texas. I hunt in Oklahoma where we had birds that were just tough as hell because there had been a bunch of hunters in one of the areas and people were coming on the side of the roads. And I’ve been on birds in New York where I make two putts and they come gobbling in and I shoot them in self-defense.
But I think the more pressure that’s put on birds, it gets tougher. Time of the season. No matter where you go there’s always going to be a couple of days of the season where you can do no wrong, it seems like. Which is a lot of fun. You want to hit on those, and when you get those, it’s pretty special.
Hank Shaw: Oh yes. [crosstalk 00:58:59] duck hunting.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. These birds, all of the birds, I love to hunt them all, but they have the brain the size of a pea. And I don’t overthink it. When someone says, “Why didn’t that bird come in?” I’m like, “It was turkeys being turkeys.” It sounds like a cop-out, but that’s really all there is to it. You’re never going to know. You’ll kick yourself in the ass, like “Why did this bird not come in?” But sometimes, who the hell knows? But if you couldn’t see the bird, it could have been anything. Maybe that bird saw a snake cross its path or a possum it didn’t like or it heard a hen you didn’t hear. Or the wind blew and the bushes shook. You’re never going to know. Don’t overthink it. Just keep plugging away. When you get something that works right, stick with that. Keep it as simple as possible.
That was kind of a long-ass answer to a short question.
Hank Shaw: No, no, it was good.
So let’s start the post-hunt section with to pluck or to not pluck. I actually have an exception. I tend to not pluck rope draggers. Everybody else gets plucked.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. See, now I usually pluck all my birds and I do different things with different birds, right? So there are preparations and there’s ways I cook birds. And I agree with you, I say pluck because if I pluck a bird and then I vacuum seal it and freeze it, all of my options are there, right? I can do whatever I want to do with that turkey. And that’s how I look at it.
A lot of times I will pluck a bird and then I’ll split it right in half and vacuum seal it. Because a whole turkey is an event. And I’m trying to feed my family regular meals. Every turkey that gets cooked in the Caggiano house is not Thanksgiving in an event. Sometimes it’s just dinner, it’s just food.
Hank Shaw: But for me, almost none are an event. Because if I’m going to do… For me it’s a Christmas goose, not a Christmas turkey.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. But I keep my options open. I plucked so many damn birds it doesn’t bother me to pluck them. It goes pretty quick. Once you get the hang of it, plucking a turkey, I could pluck a whole bird down in 10 minutes or so, 15, clean them out.
Hank Shaw: I find them very easy to pluck. Because their skin is tough enough to withstand you yanking on it. Where you need a bit more finesse the smaller… All of the chicken-like birds are the hardest birds to pluck, depending on which species they’re in. Ruffed grouse and quail are two of the hardest. But turkeys are so big, you can just pluck it as if you… How you think you should pluck it, and you’re almost never going to be any problem.
But my first tip, and I want to hear your tips on plucking after, my first tip is to pluck before you gut.
Tony Caggiano: I agree. So always pluck before I gut on any birds. There’s no bird that I’m thinking hard right now that I pluck before… That I gut before I pluck. Because thing you’re dealing with, skin that’s already cut in my opinion, and you’re yanking on it and all that other stuff. I tend to hang birds, if I’m going to pluck a goose or a turkey I like to hang them, I hang them from a rope so they’re right in front of me, by their head. And then it’s just very natural. Put a garbage pail or something under, and you pull the bird, the feathers come down. That’s the way they want to come out of the bird, right? Into the trash.
I had a… There’s an old guy that I met couple of years ago, he actually bred pheasants and he would do all that for the club I worked at, and he swore by 147 degree water and he would-
Hank Shaw: That’s about right.
Tony Caggiano: … 150, and if you could take that bird, take water, if you could get a big old pot like you do a turkey fire, get the water in there around 147 degrees, and I’m telling you, he was a hard-ass that that would be the exact right. And this is from, for him 50 years or practice and trying different temperatures. This old German guy, I mean, OCD to an incredible point. And put some Dawn dish liquid in there, and he would put the bird in and look at his watch, and literally you kept them in there for one minute and fifteen seconds. Don’t ask me where these numbers come from. One minute. Pull it out and hang it up and those feathers, there was no effort to pull them out.
Hank Shaw: If you do it quickly. If you let the bird cool you’re hosed.
Tony Caggiano: No, you’re not going to let it cool. But you’re literally hanging it up by its head and by the time that bird, by the time it’s cooled down, you have all the feathers off him. That being said, I’ve plucked a lot of turkeys without the water, on the road or traveling. But I also like that when I pluck a bird, if I’m on a trip or hunt, it’s almost like pluck it first before you gut it. Now that bird, that meat is effectively vacuum wrapped, right? That skin is keeping the moisture in, it’s stopping the skin… Especially on a turkey and a pheasant, that skin scabs up. It gets that funky, wrinkly, dry pudding skin on. You know that, when pudding has that thin skin over the top?
Hank Shaw: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tony Caggiano: When you do with ducks, when you pull the skin off, that outside skin starts to dry and unless you’re trying to age the bird like that, I find that the skin, it’s almost like the bird is just sealed. But if you’re traveling somewhere, and that bird isn’t going to get in the freezer anytime soon, that skin is keeping the air off the meat. So that’s why I like it.
We both probably love crispy turkey skin, I mean who doesn’t?
Yeah, of course. And if I pluck that bird, I have all sorts of options, because unless you’re killing the bird and you’re a chef and you’re like, “Oh, I want to work on this recipe,” and I’m sure you’ve done the same thing. Like, “Oh, crap, I’ve got to go out and get a couple of woodcock, I have this recipe I want to give a shot. I want to try or work on.” Now I have options, right? A bird that has the skin on, I can just rip that skin off and toss it. Or give it to my dog or whatever.
Hank Shaw: Or fry it crispy.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, fry it crispy. Chicharrón. Or whatever.
Hank Shaw: Exactly. What I tend to do is, I don’t split them. I break them down. I break them down like a chicken. So I will haven packets of wings, packets of legs. Or really, packets of wings, packets of thighs, packets of drumsticks, and then the breasts. And then the big bulky carcass I end up making stock or broth out of. And that, for me, works really well and I think a tip that, we probably both do this, is it is incredibly important to separate the drumstick from the thigh. Because the thigh is way, way, way more versatile in what you do with it. Because it only has the one bone in it. Whereas drumsticks have the infamous tendons that-
Tony Caggiano: [crosstalk 01:06:16].
Hank Shaw: Yeah. I mean the drumstick meat is still amazing, but that whole picture of Henry VIII where he’s chewing on the turkey drumstick is kind of a lie unless he decided to have tendon dental floss or something like that.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, I agree. And when I said amazing, I didn’t mean amazing like oh, the meat’s amazing. I mean it’s amazing what a pain in the ass it is to eat a turkey drumstick, is what I meant. So when I have a whole turkey and I have a drumstick, the drumstick didn’t get eaten at the table. The drumstick was for me, in front of the TV, when I wanted something to chew on and I had 30 minutes to eat a turkey drumstick. Because by the time you go through the tendons and you’re picking at it, it takes forever.
But yeah. I do the same thing. So I usually hunt, on average I hunt a dozen turkeys a year. So I tend to do different things. So I usually do save one turkey whole, usually a younger bird, if at all possible if I get a jake or very rarely a hen, I save that. And then I cut some in half, because I’ll smoke half a turkey, brine and smoke half a turkey. But yeah. Parting out the birds, it’s great. The thighs, I think the thighs are better than the breasts.
Hank Shaw: I do too.
Tony Caggiano: I think any game. For me, the single best-tasting game bird meat is a quail thigh. How many quail thighs is a person going to eat? I don’t know, but you know what I mean?
Hank Shaw: Well, the limit’s 15.
Tony Caggiano: To me that’s my favorite. Yeah. I eat a whole flock, as my wife says. She doesn’t like when I eat quail because she says it gets graphic.
Hank Shaw: Oh, I mean-
Tony Caggiano: [crosstalk 01:07:54] bird.
Hank Shaw: What about doves? Holly and I’ll eat a double limit of doves and it’s… It is absolutely a flock.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. But there’s a lot of cool stuff when you part that out, and then the drumsticks are great. Maybe I’m getting away from the butchering, but the drumsticks are all about low and slow for me.
Hank Shaw: For sure.
Tony Caggiano: The barbacoas and the pulling apart, and ossobucos and all that. We’ve done all that sort of stuff, all of those preparations with the drumsticks. There’s a lot of flavor there, it’s great flavor, but it’s-
Hank Shaw: It’s crock pot food.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, it’s crock pot food. It’s amazing. [crosstalk 01:08:31] thinking about what it looks like, looks like it exploded. There’s so many tendons in a turkey drumstick that…
Hank Shaw: It’s a meat whisk.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, absolutely. I’m sitting here with my hand, you can’t see me, and I’m holding my fingers up like trying to think what to compare it to. But yeah-
Hank Shaw: It’s a meat whisk.
Tony Caggiano: Absolutely, man.
Hank Shaw: My latest discovery of amazingness with a wild turkey is the wings. For years I would smoke them or just use them in the broth. I’d use them, but I didn’t really use them. And I finally decided that, you know what? The only difference between a turkey wing and a chicken wing is size and tenderness. So if you braise the flat and the drumette until they’re tender, and then you bathe it in whatever buffalo wing sauce or honey mustard, whatever, whatever. And then you either smoke it, or roast it, or grill it, after it has been braised tender and has been given the sauce, I’ll tell you man, it is the number one, the best, bar none, end of discussion, best part of that turkey. Because it’s white meat. The legs on wild turkeys, depending on the age of the turkey, can be very dark. And the breast meat’s fine, I like the breast meat, it’s good. But the wings? Oh my God.
You shoot a lot of turkeys, right? So you’re going to get four big turkey wing bits per bird, you need to collect some and do that, and it will be the most amazing feast.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, I’ve got to do that. That’s my favorite part of the [inaudible 01:10:22]. Aside from the thighs on the quail. I mean, domestic birds, I love chicken wings, I love buffalo wings. Like you said, I’ve taken them off and barbecued the turkey wings and slow, just with some sauce and chew on them, I think that’s great. So yeah, I’m definitely going to have to give that a try, slow cook them and heat them up fast with some sauce. You can’t go wrong with that.
Hank Shaw: They’re so good.
Tony Caggiano: How can you go wrong with what you just described? I can’t, for anything other than, yeah.
Hank Shaw: It was so amazing. So the other cool thing about turkeys, you know I grew up in the New York Metro area, cutlets. It’s one of the best cutlet birds that we have. I mean, because that breast is such a weird shape, it’s like a teardrop, where you’ve got the fat end of the tear is very thick, but there’s almost like it’s… You can almost see a line where it goes from being kind of like a football with the triangle tail on it. And then you slice that triangle tail off it, which is towards the back-end of the bird, it’s dramatically thinner than the front. So you can actually have two different cuts of meat from the breast on each side where you cut that, you watch that demarcation line, which is kind of halfway through the breast. And the front-end, once that’s cut off, it looks like a football. And you can do a whole bunch of things with that. And then you’ve got the triangle piece on the back-end, and that’s tailor-made for cutlets.
Tony Caggiano: Oh yeah. I grew up in the Bronx, Italian family. So chicken cutlets, veal cutlets, all that sort of stuff. A lot of turkeys in this house lined up as a cutlet of some sort. And it’s funny, francese, Milanese, all that stuff. And I remember when I moved upstate and I started guiding, someone actually asked me, “Where you grew up, did you eat a lot of Italian food?” And I’m like, “Well, yeah, but we just called it food.” It’s just that is, for me, to have cutlets, piccata, that’s every day food in our house.
Hank Shaw: Turkey parm.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah. All that stuff. And you’ve seen it, we’ve talked about it on social media, and people are like, “Oh wow, imagine cooking like that.” And I’m like this… I always have what I need to make a piccata in my house. I always have what I need to make a turkey parm pretty much. I can just grab some fresh [inaudible 01:12:50], and I have 20 gallons of sauce already… That I jar myself, ready to go. Because I’m a good guinea from the Bronx.
Hank Shaw: Exactly. Same here. I’m actually light on sauce right now, because it’s July and I don’t have the new tomatoes in yet. But I won’t be for another couple of weeks. And you always have little capers in the fridge.
Tony Caggiano: Oh yeah. And it’s funny, because I was talking to somebody about… I had this friend come over once and he opened up, and I imagine you’ve had some similar, they open up my spice cabinet in my pantry. And he actually said, “There’s no way you can use all this stuff.” And I said… And capers came up, because I actually had caper berries.
Hank Shaw: Oh yeah.
Tony Caggiano: And we always have capers in this house. That stuff, that’s like you always have it ready to use because you never know when you’re going to need a piccata. Who knows? I might need one now.
Hank Shaw: You could do piccata, and then the other thing that I do all the time is a puttanesca. You do the Harlot Sauce. And it’s capers, olives. For people who don’t know, it’s capers, olives, canned tomatoes, not really fresh tomatoes, typically whatever herb is growing in your windowsill, garlic and onions, and maybe a little splash of red wine and a little olive oil. And it’s a thing that’s, it’s an Italian original that is super versatile. I’ve done it with halibut, I’ve done it with turkey breast. I’ve done it with no meat, and it’s a thing that…
Hank Shaw: So the legend behind it is that the ladies of the evening, when they’re done with their shift, it’s about dawn and nothing’s really open yet. So they can make it as their dinner before they go to bed in the morning, with whatever happens to be in the kitchen. And I’ll put a link to puttanesca sauce in the show notes. And that with just chopped up turkey breast, or ground turkey. We should actually talk about ground turkey.
Tony Caggiano: There’s nothing you can’t put in that sauce. And that is one of the preparation, that’s a recipe where you can, a guy like you or me or my grandmother, when my Irish friends or WASP-y friends came over they would wow. Ooh. And meanwhile, it’s quite literally a recipe I learned when I was nine years old. It wasn’t even a recipe, right? You have a puttanesca recipe, but growing up, it’s just… It’s something you threw together. And like you said, it had a lot to do with what was… What herbs did you have in your hand. Those were the one that wind up in the sauce. And it’s always a little bit different, but it’s always awesome.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, exactly. Just like a regular red sauce.
Tony Caggiano: Just good food. And that’s something you’ll see, too, with all of the traveling. I travel a lot. I’m in Argentina, five, six times a year and I have to travel for business. And it’s wonderful, and it also sucks because at a certain point, and I know you can… I’ve followed your posts and I’ve seen what you’ve said, at a certain point you just want to be home. Everybody misses home, no matter how much fun or adventure you’re having.
And when I come home from a trip, it’s a bolognese or puttanesca or something to that effect. That’s what makes you feel like you’re home. You know what I mean? I’ve been in Argentina having an amazing meal at these incredible lodges that I manage for three weeks. When I come home I want simple pasta with a simple sauce, and done. Great stuff, man.
Hank Shaw: Well, that’s a pretty good way to end this, with a good bowl of sauce. But before we go, though, I want people to know how they can get in touch with you, and where they can find your podcast. So tell me about your social, your website, podcast, and all that good stuff.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah man, so you can find me on social media, Tony Caggiano Outdoors, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Facebook, and our podcast and website wildgamebased.com. You can check it out there. Wild Game Based on Instagram and all that good stuff. We talk about everything from the pursuit to the preparation and everything in between for wild game hunting, fishing and all that good stuff. And yeah. Wildgamebased.com. Pretty simple, find everything there, that’s kind of the home base for all of it.
Hank Shaw: Good deal. So I’m going to put links to that in the show notes, and thanks again for coming on the show, it’s pretty awesome to talk to another guy from the northeast, I don’t get to do that very often. We can kind of geek out on-
Tony Caggiano: [crosstalk 01:17:41].
Hank Shaw: … New Jersey and New York, Italian food and whatever.
Tony Caggiano: Yeah, man. And we kept it pretty clean for you and I. This didn’t have a lot of F-bombs. Usually when we see each other in person, it’s a lot more colorful.
Hank Shaw: You might say that, but I couldn’t possibly [crosstalk 01:17:56].
Tony Caggiano: No, always a pleasure, man. It was fun to be in again.
Hank Shaw: Yeah, absolutely.
Tony Caggiano: Let’s not make it so long before we do it again.