Tennessee hunter Cameron Freshour must have had a lucky rabbit’s foot in his pocket recently when he tagged a phenomenal, 18.5-pound gobbler sporting seven separate beards. Freshour harvested the bird in Green County northeast of Knoxville, and the gobbler’s seven beards added up to a total length of 46 inches, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Its spurs were 1 1/16 inches long.
Wild turkeys with multiple beards are relatively rare. TWRA estimates that less than 10 percent of all gobblers have more than one beard. The agency also points out that many of the highest-scoring birds in the National Wild Turkey Federation’s record book had multiple beards, which makes sense because NWTF’s scoring system takes total beard length into account, regardless of how many beards go into that total. For example, the third-highest scoring gobbler in the NWTF book had 13 beards with a combined length of 78.9 inches.
What’s Considered a Long Beard?
Naturally, hunters who chase big, wild birds place a lot of value on a turkey’s beard. These are the dark brown or black feathers growing out of the bird’s chest, but they look and feel a lot like coarse hair, similar to a pig tail or a horse’s mane.
Jakes will start to grow their beards by the time they’re around five months old, and these short (one- to three-inch) beard feathers will continue to grow as they age. A typical mature tom will have a beard measuring eight to 10 inches long, and anything in the double digits is noteworthy. The longest individual beard ever recorded by the NWTF was 22.5 inches long. It belonged to a gobbler killed in East Texas.
What About Bearded Hens?
Beards are typically found on toms, but occasionally a hunter will come across a bearded hen. This presents more of an ethical dilemma than a legal one, as most states allow the harvest of all bearded birds regardless of sex.
“It is legal to take a bearded hen turkey,” the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department states. “But hunters are encouraged to pass on bearded hens in order to maximize turkey population growth.”
Hen beards are typically short and sparse, much like a jake’s. But since they still have the same head size and shape as other female turkeys, it’s easy enough for most hunters to identify them correctly. According to New Hampshire Fish and Game, one out of every ten hens might have a beard, but turkey hunters tend to see them less often.
“I have never shot a bearded hen, but not because I couldn’t. I just chose not to,” says longtime turkey hunter and champion caller Rick White. “I have seen lots of them over the years. One spring, Phillip Vanderpool and I were hunting in Oklahoma and there were seven bearded hens in one group.”
How Rare Are Multiple-Bearded Gobblers, Really?
White adds that during his 45 years chasing gobblers across his native state of Iowa and beyond, he’s also crossed paths with more multiple-bearded gobblers than he can count.
“I’ve shot many multi-bearded turkeys over the years,” he says. “In fact, the first turkey I ever shot had two paint brush beards [that were] 10.5 and 11 inches. I’ve also shot two [gobblers] with four beards. A few years back in South Georgia I shot a triple-bearded turkey on Easter Sunday, and the next day I went out and shot another triple-bearded bird.”
Another hunter, Greg Hildreth, tells Outdoor Life that he doesn’t consider multiple-bearded gobblers to be all that uncommon. A coastal fishing guide in Georgia, Hildreth is also a champion turkey caller with 53 years of experience under his belt.
“I will usually take [a bird with more than one beard] every few years,” Hildreth says. “I’m not really sure what my longest beard has been, but it was probably 11.5 inches or so.”
Alabama turkey hunter Jake Markris, meanwhile, hasn’t seen or tagged quite as many multiple-bearded gobblers as Hildreth.
“I’ve been turkey hunting for 38 years and multiple-bearded turkeys are pretty rare to me,” Markris says. “I think in all my years I have only killed five or six that had multiple beards. My best friend Steve Miller killed in one in Nebraska several years ago that had five beards, and that’s the most I’ve ever seen on a turkey.”