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by Chuck Echenique

Florida boy takes world-class gobbler

This spring, thousands of hunters took to the woods of Florida in search of the elusive wild turkey. From Pensacola to the Everglades, hunters suffered through mosquitoes, extreme temperature fluctuations, rain, wind and all manner of obstacles, just to bag one of these wily birds.

No matter what subspecies they sought or the terrain hunted, every turkey hunter looks for two things – sharp, curving spurs and long, thick beards. One such hunter was young Robin Shiver of Mayo, Fla. Robin is the son of Robin and Teresa Shiver, owners of Bass Assassin Fishing Lures in Lafayette County. He has spent the majority of his life in the woods and on the waters of North Central Florida, practicing the arts of camouflage and deception.

At age 11, Robin is already well on his way to becoming a legend in the outdoor industry. He has been on several hunting and fishing television shows, including Rusty Faulk Outdoors, where he shot a very nice, mature buck in front of the cameras. Robin also designed and marketed his very own fishing lure for his parent’s company, which is selling fairly well, according to his mother. He’s even achieved some notoriety for his ability to imitate the sounds of the wild turkey and has won several calling contests in the youth division. But Robin’s greatest claim to fame had not been achieved until this spring turkey season. On opening day of the Florida season (March 22, 2008), Robin made history by killing what is possibly the longest-bearded Eastern wild turkey ever taken in Florida and the second longest beard in the world.

I was first made aware of the bird’s existence via some pictures Mrs. Shiver sent in to Woods ‘n Water. Being an avid turkey hunter and guide, I was extremely interested to verify this bird. My first thought was that this had to be a hoax. That is, until I saw who sent it in. I was familiar with the Shiver family, and knew them to be honest people who would not perpetuate a lie of this magnitude. I had Teresa send me more pictures of the bird, along with measurements, so that my eyes could believe what my mind told me was impossible.

They say every picture tells a story, and this was no exception. The story they told me was – get my butt to Mayo and lay your hands on this beard. The photos sent to me were pretty clear, but not clear enough. I needed to see for myself in order to verify the enormous length. If what I suspected was true, this would be the second-longest beard ever collected in the country. A few days later I was able to meet with young Robin and his mom at their home to measure and photograph the beard myself. Of course, the beard had been removed from the bird, but was still intact and stored in a plastic bag, along with the bird’s spurs.

I was directed to a small cleaning shed in the back yard where the beard was removed from its baggy and placed on a cleaning table for my inspection. I nearly choked when I saw it in person! Robin and I stretched the beard out and placed it alongside a tape measure. I checked it four times before making the call on the measurement. The longest strand reached 19-1/8 inches! We verified the measurements several times and then documented it with more photos.

I was astonished, to say the least. The way the beard curled and twisted, it became necessary for both myself and Robin to hold the beard down along its length in order to make sure it was stretched on the tape measure properly. The strands were very brittle and follicles of beard were coming off the lengthy rope as we handled it. I managed several good pictures documenting the measurements before returning the beard to the safety of its bag. We next measured the spurs. Both right and left spurs measured exactly 1 inch from the leg to the tip. The spurs were well worn and dull on the ends, indicating a mature gobbler whose hooks had been worn down with age. An educated guess would put this bird in the 6- to 7-year-old range – ancient for this part of the country.

Most gobblers live to be about 6 or 7 years old. Some have been documented to live as old as 12 or 13 years. But in the wild, life can be harsh and often cut short. Those gobblers that make it past their fourth year are seldom seen or harvested by hunters because they just get too smart, too call-shy, or too dominant to leave the security of their bedrooms. The way most of these mature birds are harvested is by a combination of hours and hours of scouting and a ton of luck and patience.

Based on the NWTF’s scoring system, which follows the equation: weight + (beard length x 2) + (spur lengths x 10), this bird scored out as 21.0 + (19.125 x 2) + (2 x 10) for a total score of 79.25. A very nice score! By no means was it a world record on overall score, but it was a huge typical bird nonetheless. However, the individual beard length out-scores the longest single beard in Florida by over 2-1/2 inches!

Robin then told me about the hunt with his father on the afternoon of the opening day. “I went hunting with my dad on the opening Saturday of turkey season. We were hunting in the ‘Miss-A-Lot Hunt Club’ and set up in a hog clearing alongside a cypress head. It was early in the afternoon, and dad had seen some birds roosting in the cypress trees nearby during an earlier scouting trip,” young Robin said. “We got set up and went to yelping. After a little while we had two or three jakes show up, but they only came out where we could just barely see them. We did some more calling and heard some gobbling. We waited a little and called some more and heard another gobble. “It wasn’t long before a couple of hens appeared, one with a beard about 5 inches long. They began feeding, and that’s when we saw a big bird coming in behind them,” Robin told me. “He began strutting and drumming, and we watched him for about 15 to 20 minutes before he came into range. When he got closer, we saw he had a beard that was dragging the ground, and I got nervous! I aimed my 20 gauge and saw my dad had his gun aimed too, just in case I missed. Dad was as excited as I was! “I shot, and down he went. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized how big a bird he was and how long his beard really was,” Robin added.

Originally, Mr. Shiver had thought the beard measured about 15 or 16 inches long. When they got the bird home, he asked his wife to get the tape measure and the camera to shoot a few pictures. I told Robin’s dad that the beard was longer than he thought because the photos showed his fingers were at the 15-inch mark and there were still strands sticking out past his hands. Theresa explained that the beard was already beginning to lose strands and they didn’t want to pull on it too hard for fear of breaking them off. They took the bird inside the skinning room, removed the beard and legs and then cleaned the bird for eating. “I knew it was long, but we had no idea that it was any kind of record,” explained Robin.

When I explained how this was the second-longest beard ever harvested in the country, Robin’s eyes got about the size of garbage can lids. I must say however, he kept his cool and hid his excitement pretty well. For a young man of 11, Robin has skills some of the oldest hunters wish for. He put on a little calling demonstration for me that was no less than impressive. He cut, yelped and kee-kee called like a seasoned professional with his diaphragm calls. He even mustered a bit of a purr — the toughest of the sounds to reproduce accurately on a mouth call. One thing is for certain, he’s got turkey blood running through his veins.

After the measuring and the calling, we completed the applications for both the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). I presented Robin with a few calls I had made and returned home. Now I know what most of you must be thinking: There is no way a swamp bird from Florida could ever grow a beard that long without tearing it apart in the thick ti ti swamps, brambles and palmettos. Even if the terrain doesn’t destroy the beard length, the bird himself would keep stepping on it and wearing it down himself. That is exactly what I thought when I first saw the photos. But for whatever reason, this bird was able to maintain his beard without losing much in length over his lifespan. There are several reasons a beard can grow to immense proportions, the first of which is genetics. A turkey, depending on his genes, will usually grow about 5 to 7 inches of beard in his first year.

By age 2, his beard could be as long as 10 to 11 inches. After that, a turkey usually slows his growth down to about 3 to 5 inches annually. Depending on his growth patterns, genetically predisposed birds will grow longer beards than their lesser counterparts. Next, birds residing in the softer terrain and soils of the South tend to grow longer beards than those out west who live in rocky and more harsh environments. Southern birds also don’t have to contend with their beards freezing and breaking off in the winter like northern and western birds. Turkeys must also contend with beard rot. In order for a beard of this magnitude to be maintained, there needs to be a good concentration of minerals and nutrients in the bird’s diet which help maintain stronger, thicker beard follicles and sharper, sturdier spurs.

There are also critical enzymes in a turkey’s diet that can help combat beard rot. Florida is not known for good soil. But through the practices of farming for wildlife, supplemental feeding and inoculation, there is no doubt that critters are growing bigger every year. Perhaps Robin’s turkey was the recipient of such beneficial practices. We will never know for sure. Whatever the reasons behind this old gobbler’s massive chin whiskers, he sure did sport an impressive piece of rope.

Now that our season has ended, I have little time left to match this feat. With only a few days left to hunt in Georgia and Nebraska, I doubt I will be able to best Robin’s efforts this year . . . but I have hope. In the meantime, I will keep a watchful eye on this young man from a distance. I’m sure we have not seen the last of Robin Shiver. Mark my words, he has the promise of great things ahead for him. Some day, I’m sure I will be able to say, “I knew him when....” Congratulations, young man, on a job well done.