Once upon a time, deer hunters passed through a progression of skills, learning the basics of stalking, shooting, safety, and ethics on squirrels, rabbits, and other small game. Today, many first-time hunters start at the top, chasing after trophy whitetail deer. Bagging a good buck as your first animal can be exhilarating, but inexperienced newcomers can wipe out like a novice skier starting on an expert slope.
Spring turkeys in the wide open spaces of the Midwest and West offer an exciting alternative, providing plenty of travel excitement, lots of activity, and an introduction to stalking, accurate shooting, glassing, and all the fun of a hunt-camp atmosphere. Whether six or 60, the Western turkey experience will have any newbie clamoring for more and is sure to leave one much better prepared for whitetail success.
Begin with the Big E
Ethical behavior is one of the most important lessons new sportsmen can learn. Unlike Interstate speed limits, shooting or hunting “a few miles over the limit” isn’t OK. Hunting is often enjoyed alone, out of sight, and establishing a sound ethical foundation should precede any hunting launch, whether youngster or adult.
Sheryl Gallup began her career in the outdoor industry with Federal Cartridge as a non-hunter. “My ex-husband used to take me pheasant hunting, yet I was basically the dog,” she says with a wry smile. “I walked along, helped flush game, and carried the dead birds.” (Probably not the best orientation model.)
An industry friend invited Gallup on a turkey hunt where she could actively participate for the first time, yet friends predicted that she would cry when she killed her first animal. “I shot a jake on that hunt and when it began flopping, I teared up, believing I had wounded it,” says Gallup, remembering the incident vividly. “Haven’t you ever been on farm?” quipped her buddy. “That turkey is dead; it’s just acting like a chicken.”
Today, Gallup heads an outdoor media business and returned to South Dakota where she was set to intercept a Merriam’s longbeard headed for a roost. Gallup was well concealed and the tom so clueless she could practically smell the stuffing and gravy. A curious steer came wondering along, and like some bovine guardian angel chased the gobbler away. “I made a circle and got close to the tom, but it flew into a tree quite early,” she says. “I could see its long bird and spurs silhouetted against the sunset through my binoculars.”
The gobbler was in range and it would have been impressive to bring home such a trophy animal, and no one would know she shot it from a tree. “It was tempting to shoot, but doing so would be just plain wrong,” she remembers. “I’d rather have my tag go unfilled than take a bird like that.”
Gallup has been a member of many hunting conservation groups, but it wasn’t until she actually started hunting that she truly appreciated wildlife. “When I began hunting I learned about game habitat and behavior patterns, and developed a real understanding of creatures. It is far more heartwarming to observe them using the knowledge I gained through hunting rather than the general approach I had just as an observer. Even if I don’t take an animal, the best part of the hunt is watching the woods come to life as the sun comes up. From the smallest of birds to the animals of the woods, I enjoy sharing the first of the morning sun with them.”
This was my son Seth’s first real turkey hunt,” says Bob Swanson, marketing director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I took him out in Montana once, but there weren’t many birds, so we saw little of what they do. We had planned this trip for quite some time and we each had great anticipation. Driving to the hunt, Seth had a million questions which I tried to answer from my limited experience.”
The first morning, Bob and his 13-year old arrived near a roost in Central South Dakota well before dawn. As light gradually increased, they witnessed the awaking of an entire flock perched in a cotton wood snag 150 yards away. As usual, the birds yelped, putted, gobbled, and then pitched away from the hunters who scrambled to intercept their movements, a strategy that failed twice in the next hour. Soon, the birds were a mile onto the prairie. Father, son, and good friend Ken Byers made a plan to circle well ahead of their movement, hoping to get close enough to call.
Sneaking, glassing, and stalking as if for elk or mule deer, the trio finally worked their way under a small bluff, where Byers popped a Thunder Chicken gobbler decoy onto the horizon. Several gobblers saw the bogus intruder and came directly toward it. When the lead tom closed to 30 yards, Seth pulled the trigger and bagged his first gobbler.
Celebration ruled! “It was one of those things that didn’t come easy, which I was glad about,” recalled Bob. “The turkeys won the first three encounters, and number four was the charm. I couldn’t be happier. Seth and I are extremely close, we do a lot of things together, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If we hadn’t gotten a bird, it still would have been terrific: the spot, the stalk, the camaraderie of the camp, and our time together.”
Turkey hunts are a great opportunity for generational partnerships, such as grandfathers and grandsons. On this particular adventure, high-school freshman Katie and her big sister Autumn headed for a known turkey roost not far from a ranch house. As dawn approached, Katie admitted to “kind of goofing around with her big sister because it was their first hunt together and things got kind of rowdy,” when a big gobbler sounded a couple hundred yards behind them.
With no cover to approach, they watched anxiously as a big tom and six hens fed over a rise, finally giving them a chance to close the distance. Typical of western turkeys, the birds were well into the field by the time the two gals climbed the ridge. With no way to approach, the duo climbed a large nearby haystack, where they could gauge the turkeys’ progression and spent the next 90 minutes catching up with an occasional eye on the flock.
Ironically, the turkeys began to retrace their steps and Autumn knew just what to do. When the turkeys approached to about 100 yards, big sister deployed a gobbler fan, moving it like a strutting tom and soon the flock began feeding their way. Katie hid behind her sister, who whispered the play-by-play as the birds approached. “Suddenly, a hen appeared about 15 yards away,” Katie remembers. The flock seemed to spook. “I stood up and shot just as the gobbler was running away, downing it on the spot.”
Ironically, Katie’s quick success allowed her to spend more time on her studies in the quiet of the camp when all the hunters were gone. As a home-schooled student, she had the full line of subjects, from algebra to English to Spanish.
The Perfect Hunting Environment
Our turkey camp consisted of a tiny bunkhouse, a camping trailer, and one bathroom — tight quarters for a dozen hunters. The arrival of young Lilyiana Rose made things fairly unusual, as four generations of the same family shared the hunt. Great-granddaddy Wyman proved that age was no barrier, taking a fantastic gobbler with his 20-gauge over-and-under. Hunters ranged from experienced to first-timers, the latter soaking up turkey lure like a sponge.
For youngsters (especially teenagers), getting out of bed, becoming organized, and being positive for the hunt is an important lesson on any hunt, and for life in general. Given the adrenalin-pumping excitement, almost any youngster can make the opening day alarm, yet as the days progress and fatigue sets in, the discipline to maintain an effective routine becomes challenging. Many deer and turkey hunts begin with a vehicle and staying properly geared up and transporting firearms safely are important lessons. Destinations are often reached in darkness, so learning the orientation process becomes an issue.
Setting up near a Western roost tree is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds as daylight arrives. It’s a great learning experience. Old hens vocally assert their dominance with mature gobbler thunder, while jakes practice their often comical vocalizations from the limb of a dead cottonwood. After the roost encounter and when you’re not engaged with turkeys, explain the significance of finding a shed antler (a great souvenir), turkey nest, coyote tracks, badger den, and other signs of nature.
Finally, when birds fly down in their typically unexpected direction, try to intercept them, deploying silhouette avoidance, the use of binoculars, stalking strategies, game identification, and a host of other hunting skills. It all makes for an active, exciting, and engaging day out. With so much for a new hunter to learn, it should not be surprising if he or she doesn’t bag a gobbler on the first go-round. In fact, enjoying all the ramifications of hunting without the necessity of a harvest may be the best lesson of all.
Gearing Up for the First-Time Hunter
- Camo That Fits: Wearing dad’s or granddad’s camo may seem cool, but if you’re heading into a real hunting situation, you’ll want to take the extra time and modest expense to buy clothes that fit. Companies like Prois sell camouflage tailored to a woman’s figure, so she can hunt like one of the boys without looking like one of them.
- Waterproof Boots: Spring mornings are almost always wet, and a good pair of waterproof boots keeps feet warm and dry. My Irish Setter ExoFlex rubber boots fit well and are perfect for muddy bottoms and fording streams.
- An Optic Sight: A turkey head is easy to miss at close range and there’s no better way to teach good shooting technique than with an Aimpoint Hunter sight. Rather than squinting down a barrel, a new hunter can keep his or her head up and put a red dot on the target. Batteries last up to five years, so it’s no biggie if it’s left on overnight.
- Pattern for Practice: Regardless of the load you choose, having the newbie pattern their shotgun is good practice and helps you gauge their readiness. Match recoil to the age of the shooter; less-felt kick is a good way to start. We used standard Hornady rifle targets and their new turkey loads, which worked very well.
- Prepare Game Well: First timers should help in the preparation and preservation of game. Forget the Thanksgiving dinner; cut turkey into strips, then batter and fry it like chicken. Youngsters will love the finger food and the culinary delight seems to increase with the quantity of outdoor air. Oliso makes a compact way to vacuum-seal turkey in order to share the bounty back home.
- See the Big Picture: Optics help sportsmen bring game and non-game animals up close. My Nikon Pro-Staff 10×42 binoculars were light and bright, while the rangefinder helped establish proper distance.