Many years ago my wife and I decided to move to a country home on a modest, 50-acre parcel of land in Macoupin County, Illinois. It didn’t take long to realize we had something special, but we had no idea just how special.
As an avid hunter, competitive shooter and Life Member of the NAHC, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was excited to sculpt our land for wildlife and quality hunting. I spent long hours clearing trails and planting food plots. Such management has paid off, allowing us to harvest a generous number of mature whitetails and wild turkeys. But I never thought I’d be given the opportunity to hunt something as rare as an all-white Eastern wild turkey.
The Haunting Begins
On Easter Sunday of 2007, my wife and I were returning from a family get-together. We were approaching the lane to our house when we saw something in the neighbor’s field to the north. I first thought it was a white plastic bag moving with the light wind. Taking a closer look, we saw that some turkeys were out there in the winter wheat. We kept watching and saw something white moving with the other birds—it was a white turkey! I happened to have a camera with me, so I parked the car and snuck through the timber to the birds. Much to my surprise, it was a decent jake with about a 4- to 5-inch beard. We had never seen this bird before.
After taking numerous photos, we returned to the house to view them. After looking at them, I called my son who lives in Decatur, Illinois, to tell him the news. He is also an avid hunter, and hunts with me when he can. Turkey season was only a week away, so I knew what bird we would pursue.
In Illinois you can purchase an archery turkey permit and the season goes along with the deer season. My son was bowhunting whitetails from a treestand, when suddenly he saw a group of turkeys approaching. The white one was with the group. He drew his bow and shot just under it. We didn’t see the white bird the rest of the season.
During the following turkey season, in 2008, we saw the white bird again. My son had already killed a nice gobbler, so he was done hunting. I have a property owner’s permit, which allows me to hunt all of the Illinois turkey seasons. This bird was a very cautious quarry.
I tried numerous times to sneak up on him and got busted every time. My grandson, Gavin, then 10 years old, was hunting with us and we tried to call the white bird into range, but a hen came in and busted us. I crawled on my hands and knees for 200 yards across an open field and tried to cut him off—busted again.
During the second Illinois firearm deer season in 2008, my son and grandson were positioned in a tower stand. The white bird came out of the timber with nine other “regular” toms. The other birds didn’t like the white bird with them; they were chasing him around and pecking and spurring him, trying to get him to leave.
One Last BOOOOm
The 2009 turkey season arrived and the white turkey still ran free. We decided to tear off the two-story deck on the back of our house and put in a new patio, so my hunting that year was limited. On May 9, a carpenter friend came out to give me some ideas and said he saw the white bird walking north in an open field to the west of my property. After about 45 minutes, my friend left and I heard him honking his horn and yelling out the window. I looked to see what was wrong—the white bird was heading back south.
I knew if he was going to come on my property he would try to cross the creek where I have a low water crossing. I went in the house, put my camo on, grabbed my Remington 870 and a call. As I was leaving, my wife pulled into the driveway and told me she’d seen the white bird in the field. I quickly headed south to my west property line.
I walked about 200 yards, which put me about 60 yards from the creek, and only about 10 yards from the neighbor’s property to the west. I yelped once and a gobbler responded. I didn’t call again (I have a habit of calling too much). I don’t like to sit very long and love to run-and-gun, but this time I decided to stay put.
After sitting for about 45 minutes, I saw a white spot at the property line. I was ready. It was him. Could the 3-year quest be ending? I froze. It was definitely him. My heart raced to the point where I thought I would shake the ammo out of my shotgun.
I let him take four steps onto my property and I shot. The grass was long … I couldn’t see white anymore. Did I miss? I thought. I got up and went over to where he was—he was finished! When I got there, the emotion that overcame me wasn’t what I expected. Well, it’s over, I thought. To me, the best part about hunting is sharing it with family and friends. I was all alone. There was no one with to share the moment.
I looked him up and down and headed back to my house. My wife asked, “Did you shoot? Did you get him?” I confirmed that the quest had finally come to an end. We shared an emotional hug and a few tears of joy, and then started calling all my family and friends … and the taxidermist.
“Cotton,” as I had nicknamed him, weighed 22.5 pounds, sported an 11.5-inch beard and just short of 1 1/4-inch spurs. From the tip of his beak to the top of his tail, he measures 48 inchces. He has a 56-inch wingspan.
I called the National Wild Turkey Federation to discuss the mysterious bird. They claimed that only about 2 percent of the national population of wild turkeys contain Cotton’s all-white characteristic. He really is a rare bird.
I took some ribbing from friends about shooting a domesticated bird, so I contacted a wildlife biologist from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He said that a domesticated turkey wouldn’t have survived in the wild. Cotton is the real deal.
It took just over a year to get him back from the taxidermist. It was well worth the wait. He found a prominent place in our living room.