Pardoning turkeys may not be traditional, but it is inevitable

Every year prior to Thanksgiving, the White House pardons a domestically-raised turkey, a light-hearted moment that redirects a bird from the presidential dinner table to an imagined, picturesque barnyard somewhere, probably in New Hampshire or Vermont. The tradition is typically traced to President Harry Truman, though anecdotal instances of the practice have turned up as far back as Abraham Lincoln’s day and before. I’ve rarely spared any legally-edible critters on purpose, but I have pardoned a few through sheer nervous mismanagement. 

I’ve pardoned two turkeys, one elk, several deer and far too many doves to mention. I pardoned a lucky pronghorn one time when a dust devil blew sand into my eye just as I was pressing the lever to seal his fate.

“Pardoned” is a much more satisfying word than “missed.” So much so, in fact, I’ve decided to apply a bit of revisionist history to my own time as a hunter. 

Turkey and deer management was a long way away during my formative years, primarily because we did not have any turkeys or deer to manage. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in northeast Mississippi, if you saw a deer track on your land, you made sure not to tell anyone about it, and turkeys were nonexistent. Today, estimates put Mississippi’s population of turkeys at 240,000, but the turkey population where I grew up hunting was approximately 0.0 birds per everywhere.

What we did have in some abundance was rabbits. There were enough overgrown fence rows, cotton fields and briar thickets to keep a regular rabbit hunting operation busy, and shooting rabbits on the run is a challenge ripe with opportunity for pardoning. I would hate to put a number on what percentage of rabbits my hunting buddy and I pardoned, but I did observe the pardonings seemed to run in streaks. We would have several consecutive hunts where all the proceedings would go to plan. Then, for no clear reason, we’d pardon two or three in a row. We often argued about which of us was the more likely pardoner, and who was apt to pardon one next.

There’s nothing quite as humbling as the look on a beagle’s face when he arrives at the spot where the trail of the rabbit he’s been running for most of an hour is crossed by a spread of shot that didn’t cut a hair on a hare. Some beagles always stopped at these intersections with a look of, “Where next boss?” Others would always streak on through on the same line, looking to pick up the rabbit’s trail on the other side. It was always easy to see which beagles expected a pardoning and which did not.

Many decades have come and gone since those days, and I’ve had scores of opportunities to study other pardonings closely. Some were my own. Most were issued by others. As I am prone to classify my successes as simply what was expected while magnifying my failures for further perpetual study, I can say each pardoning has its roots in simply not being ready to do what needed to be done.

Pardoning is a key part of hunting, though. Anyone who claims never to have pardoned a critter falls into one of two categories. He is either 1) very inexperienced or 2) a liar. Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s certainly possible to be both at the same time.

This Thanksgiving week, and throughout the seasons to come, be thankful for the pardons you have issued, and for those you’re surely about to. Frustrating as they can be, the fact they take place means you’re enjoying the opportunity to hunt in a place where game can be found, and in a country where you have the freedom to do so. When you have a moment, take a look around our website at We’re making sure there’ll be plenty of turkeys for future generations to pardon in their turn.

Photo ©Tes Randle Jolly –– to see more of her work, follow her on Instagram at @jovtes

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