Hunter Tags 'Extremely Rare' Gobbler After 3-Year Chase

Records & Rarities
Hunter Tags 'Extremely Rare' Gobbler After 3-Year Chase

A North Carolina turkey hunter is celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime achievement after he bagged a rare all-white gobbler on his family land in the mountains of Burke County.

Thirty-year-old Troy Cornett of Granite Falls, North Carolina, had been chasing the bird for years before he finally harvested it on April 9, 2022, the opening day of North Carolina’s statewide spring turkey season.

The white tom made its first appearance on Cornett’s family hunting grounds in 2019 in an area he hunts every fall for whitetail deer.

“I was deer hunting in 2019 and I saw a flock of probably 18 to 20 birds, and I was like, ‘What am I looking at?’” Cornett told MeatEater. “I was glassing him, and he was just kind of bobbing in and out of the flock. I couldn't really get good eyes on him and finally, right before they flew up to roost, I was able to focus in, and I thought, ‘That’s a fully albino turkey.’”

The tom that Cornett glassed was exhibiting a genetic defect known as leucism. It’s a form of partial albinism that can manifest in either a full set of white feathers, like those sported by the bird Cornett eventually killed, or a mixed black and white color phase commonly referred to as “smoke gray.”

A fully white leucistic Eastern wild turkey is a rare bird indeed, with some turkey experts estimating its occurrence at just one in tens of thousands. It may be even more rare than all-black melanistic turkeys or "red" erythristic birds.

white turkey (1)

“Only a few of these birds are killed each spring, or at least you only see pictures of a couple,” wildlife researcher and wild turkey expert Mike Chamberlain told MeatEater. “It’s impossible to put a number on it, but it’s extremely rare.”

Chamberlain said that birds like Cornett's are commonly mistaken for domestics or cross breeds, as their fully white color phase is reminiscent of some breeds of domesticated turkeys.

“A domestic bird would have an obviously larger head and bigger waddles,” he said. “It would also be much bigger in the body and would not have the rough scales on the legs.”

white turkey (2)

As evidenced by photos that Cornett later posted to Instagram, the bird was stark white without a black or brown feather in sight. Its spurs were light in color—almost pink—and juxtaposed against its white breast plumage was a sizable black beard.

Oddly enough, another tom turkey with a case of “extensive leucism” was killed earlier this year in Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

That one was taken by a hunter from Greenville, South Carolina, named Cliff Timmons. Timmons killed that bird during a two-day limited entry hunt that’s unique to Land Between the Lakes.

white turkey (3)

“It was completely unexpected,” Timmons told MeatEater. “He came in with another bird and they were just gobbling like crazy. When I took it to the game check station, the forestry guy was freaking out because he had never seen one.”

After spotting his leucistic turkey for the first time in the spring of 2019, Troy Cornett decided to pursue the white bird in earnest. He set up trail cameras near the field edge where he’d first seen him, and in the spring of 2020 he was shocked to discover that the tom had somehow made it through the winter.

“Our 10 acres is full of game, but it’s also full of predators,” Cornett said. “A bird like that sticks out like a sore thumb every day of its life. It had to be a tough task for it just to survive year in and year out.”

Cornett hunted the gobbler hard during the spring seasons of 2020 and 2021. He had close encounters but it never quite happened.

“I almost pieced it together in 2021, but he busted me,” Cornett said. “That was heart wrenching because I thought for sure that a predator would pick him off after that season, that or he’d just get poached because of his rarity.”

Then came the winter of 2021. Cornett was checking the trail cameras he runs year round for deer on his property when the resident white tom made another unlikely encore.

“I took a couple months off from hunting to run my trail cameras without really thinking much at all about turkeys, and there he was,” he said. “I was like, ‘What are the chances of being able to go after him three years in a row? I have got to kill him.’”

The opportunity Cornett had been waiting for finally arrived on April 9, 2022, but the scenario didn’t play out quite like he’d envisioned it.

“I got in early and heard a bird off the roost, so I got as close to it as I could,” he said. “I did a fly-down cackle and beat my hat on the ground, trying to sound like a bird coming off the roost, and I immediately heard something behind me.”

When Cornett looked over his shoulder at the approaching noises, he saw a young female coyote coming in on a string.

“I shot her with two shots,” he said. “So, I only had one shell for the rest of my hunt that day.”

With the coyote down nearby, only one shell remaining in his possession, and the morning’s stillness shattered by twin blasts from his 12-gauge turkey gun, Cornett began to feel a lingering sense of doubt creeping in.

“I shot the coyote at 6:59 a.m.,” he said. “After that I started to wonder, ‘Do I leave? Do I go get some more shells? Do I keep hunting? Have I ruined my hunt?’ All these things are running through my mind.”

He opted to stay in the field and continue the pursuit for several more hours, but the white tom never showed—until he got up and decided to head back to the truck.

“I hunted for hours and didn’t hear or see a bird,” Cornett said. “So I just decided to get up and walk back to my vehicle. Then I stood up and took a couple steps, and I see him strutting in the field, walking right towards me, and he was with like nine other birds.”

Astounded by the stroke of luck, Cornett immediately went into stealth mode. He dropped to the ground, shed his pack, and began belly crawling in the direction of the genetic anomaly he’d been pursuing off and on for three years.

“I watched him through my binos for just a few minutes, and over the next 30 to 40 minutes, I belly crawled like 30 yards trying to get into position,” he said. “I had to head him off because I was running out of property to hunt. He was headed in the direction of a neighboring property line.”

Eventually, Cornett crept to within 45 yards of the oblivious bird and squeezed off his only shell.

“I had one shot and I just sent it down range and said a little prayer,” he said. “He flopped once, and I was like, ‘Yes!’”

But the long-running saga of Cornett’s once-in-a-lifetime leucistic wasn’t over quite yet. After he flopped, the bird jumped high into the air—about 6 feet according to Cornett—then sailed back down to earth just in time for his strutting brethren to turn on him.

“All those other toms who were with him all went after him,” Cornett said. “They were chasing him around in the field for just a couple of seconds, but it felt like an eternity.”

As Cornett watched from his concealed position, flat on his stomach on the other side of a nearby woodline, the white tom took off at a dead sprint in his direction. At the end of its flight from the fellow strutters, the white bird ended up bedded down within 10 yards of Cornett’s hide.

“He just runs and beds down and starts coughing and shaking his head. He’s in some real briary stuff, and there’s one log between me and him about the size of your forearm,” Cornett said. “With no gun and no pack, I had the ability to be agile, so I just jumped up and hopped that log as fast as I could and took off and started running. He might have gotten two steps in before I was able to get right up beside him and snag him by the neck.”

Conrett said he then quickly dispatched the wounded bird by looping it around in a cartwheel fashion.

“Not to be vulgar, but I could feel the crunch, and I knew it was over,” he said. “I knew the story had finally come to an end.”

The bird weighed approximately 15 pounds, sported an 11.5-inch beard, and had 1¼-inch spurs.

Once he had the trophy in hand, Cornett made a virtual beeline for the local taxidermy shop.

“I pretty much drove straight there,” he said. “When I handed it to the taxidermist he said, ‘Man I don’t know if you know what you killed, but I do, and, buddy, this is a special specimen.’”

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