Beard lengths matter to turkey hunters. You know how we hunters like to measure everything. One of the first things a turkey hunter does – after giving thanks and feeling all is well with the world – is to check the length of a gobbler's beard (or yes, in some cases, a hen). Here's why beard length matters and why maybe it doesn't.
Beards, Long and Short
© Bill Konway photo
I've killed longbeards with long beards (a foot-plus in the case of one Osceola), and mature gobblers with shorter ones than expected. I've tagged three-bearded gobblers a number of times, and young gobblers in the fall with sprouting beards the size of your pinky (or shorter). I've killed the odd autumn hen with a beard too, as have buddies.
In many states you must see a beard to take a bird. And in Mississippi, the gobbler's beard must be 6 inches or longer to be legal. Here's the exact rule, with a noted exception for youth hunters, as it appears on the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks website:
One (1) adult gobbler or 1 gobbler with a 6-inch or longer beard per day, 3 per Spring season. Hunters 15 years of age and younger may harvest 1 gobbler of choice (any age) per day, 3 per spring season.
Know your game laws. Know your rules for turkey beards. It matters.
Beard Size Varies
© Olstad Media photo
As biology tells us, the beard starts to grow when the young male turkey (or in some cases, female) is roughly five months old. That bird will add five inches annually on average.
And a legal fall gobbler roughly 1.5 years old will often have a 6- to 7-inch beard. The previous spring, this bird was a straight-up "jake." Others might call this autumn turkey a longbeard, which it is, but others might call it a "super jake," which is also true.
Remember what I said at the start about how we hunters like to measure everything? Same goes for stroking our own egos by calling the same fall bird a "longbeard" or a "super jake," depending on how we want to spin it.
© Olstad Media photo
This photo group of three nice gobblers with hanging beards is the symbol of turkey-hunting success in spring camps around the country each year.
But yes, some mature gobblers have dinky beards (Merriam's occasionally do), or lose their beards (winter ice). And yes, some female turkeys are bearded ladies.
Some hunters who haven't studied up on their turkey biology will tell you only gobblers have beards (not true; some hens do), or they'll shoot a hen with a beard – and buff-colored breast feathers with distinguishing head and neck features – but mistakenly say it's a gobbler. This latter bird is legal in "bearded-bird only" spring states of course – unless there's a length limit as Mississippi requires – or in "either-sex" fall turkey states.
Case in point. I once took a legal fall hen with a nice beard to a checking station, and the following conversation ensued:
Me: "I'm here to check in a turkey. It's a bearded hen."
Check-In Guy: "Hens don't have beards, do they?"
You get the idea. Truth: As the late, great turkey biologist Lovett E. Williams, Jr. once wrote: "A hen turkey with a beard is no freak – approximately 2 to 4 percent of all wild turkey hens have beards." (The Art and Science of Wild Turkey Hunting, 1989).
Teach new and even veteran hunters (and casual observers), with patience and understanding, even though social-media commentary on hunting forums at times is alarmingly innaccurate and volatile.
And, as Williams also said in the same classic book: " . . . a spring gobbler that has a 10-inch beard with an amber tip is only two years old while one with a 10-inch beard that does not have an amber tip is probably at least three years old. After three years, the beard is useless as an indicator of age."