Turkey Hunting for Newbies

Turkey Hunting
Turkey Hunting

Putting meat on the table the old-fashioned way is a long standing tradition of the self-reliant. Ask any new homesteader what their most-desired skills are and you’ll likely find “hunting” in the top 5, at least for those who weren’t raised in a hunting family. And so it was that I, Br0therH@rold, the APB resident Green Thumb finally got blood on my hands. After years of enduring the hysteric chittering laughter of squirrels on Mr. Paranoid’s woodlot as they flitted about, daring me to take a shot, I was put in a position to bag one of the wiliest of any game animals. I went turkey hunting.

The Importance of a Mentor

I wasn’t raised in a hunting family. I’m about as green as they come. Many fruitless trips into the woods taught me the importance of having a mentor. Sure, one can learn it themselves the hard way, but spending 4 hours in the woods recently with a bonafide Huntsman gave me an opportunity to learn more than I ever could on my own. Hunting is a skill – a real skill. I come from a shooting background and I’m quite comfortable putting rounds on target at almost any distance with the right tool, but shooting is not hunting. In many ways, shooting is the easiest part of hunting. Before I even walked into the woods my mentor started feeding me the when/where/how of getting it done. What kind of equipment I needed, where the birds were and why, what time I needed to be there, and what to expect as I sat under a tree for hours, unmoving. Once I arrived we walked a few hundred yards into his property and he pointed out turkey scratches and potential roosting locations as we went. Once we got to our spot he explained the landscape in front of us and why the turkeys would approach us from a certain direction given the lay of the land (did you know male Turkey’s don’t like to walk uphill to mate?). As we sat there waiting, he operated the call, describing that gentle balance of calling too little and too much. It’s how nature selects between the weak birds and the sluts (remember, they won’t walk uphill…there are standards to maintain). And after we were successful in our pursuit, my mentor demonstrated how to make the bird look like it arrived from the grocery store, taking the mystery out of processing the harvest.

Through the entire process of hunting – the prep, the hunt, and the aftermath – my mentor was there to guide me.

The Prep (Gear Fail)

A while back I scored a used Mossberg 835 – a real turkey gun, camo’d, turkey choke, etc. At the time I had no aspirations to hunt turkey. All I knew was that it was a Mossberg shotgun for a sweet price. The day before the hunt Mr. Paranoid graciously allowed me to pattern my turkey loads up in his woodlot. There I discovered a limitation: the fiber-optic sight system on the Mossberg 835 is garbage. It only has 3 gross windage adjustments and at 30 yards one click in either direction centered the pattern on opposite sides of the bullseye. But I figured it was close enough, with many pellets in a fist-sized group around the bull. I eventually intend to put a red-dot sight of some kind on the gun, but that’s a future plan. We’ll see how she holds up in more hunts.

Hunt Comfort Fatboy
Hunt Comfort Fatboy (Oh….yeah….)

On the morning of my first hunt though, the shotgun was the only piece of a gear I had actually suitable for turkey hunting. But hey, we make do. Turkeys have telescopic eyesight and can pick up details/movement over 270 degrees around their head. Supposedly they can see a human eye blink at 100 yards. This is why in most states, Wild Turkey hunting is an isolated season and blaze orange is not required since head-to-toe camo is a necessity. I bought a cheap set of Mossy Oak rain gear. Good camo, but it wasn’t until I arrived in the field before I realized…it doesn’t have any pockets. I had to continuously reach down inside my rain pants to get to the pockets in my cargo pants. At least I had those on. The point when my cargo pockets were totally full with ammo, calls, gloves, hat, blow out kit, etc, I noticed my mentor wearing a nice backpack. He had everything in it, including a decoy. That’s the way to walk through the woods – not with bulging, clanking cargo pockets scraping the hell out of your knees. Before we walked in, my mentor asked if I had brought anything to sit on? Uhhh, I couldn’t find anything, so I grabbed this old chair cushion… He winced and wished me luck. 2 hours later if someone had offered me a good cushion, I would have happily surrendered a kidney for it. Of all the gear I was missing, a Hunt Comfort FatBoy was ordered online before I even tagged the bird.

Now we had to walk out. My shotgun didn’t have a sling, so I was trying to carry my gear, my cushion, my shotgun and my recently deceased game bird. This is a recipe for disaster, and it was a long walk out. A sling went on the gun the moment I got home.

Havalon Piranta Edge
Havalon Piranta Edge

When we finally got back with 2 birds in the hand, my mentor asked me if I had a hunting knife. Do I?! Bam! Cold Steel Roach Belly! Unfortunately, my mentor did one of those half-step backwards like I had just pulled out a stick of dynamite to dig a hole: way overkill for the job. He said wow, that would make a great, um, deer knife, sure, but this is just a turkey. It’ll work, but dressing a turkey requires a delicate blade, and he pulled out what amounted to a folding scalpel, complete with replaceable blades: the Havalon Piranta Edge. It was the second piece of gear I ordered after I saw how he worked that bird like a surgeon with it.

In hindsight, Turkey Hunting like anything else, requires the right tools for the job.

The Hunt

We arrived at our spot shortly before dawn. I opted for electronic hearing protection under my leafy face mask, which turned out to be a blessing, as I have “heavy metal ear”. As we settled in under our respective trees and the idle chit-chat wound down, the woods came alive. Bats flapped just above our heads and an owl silently skimmed the branches – and I mean silently; it’s one of the most spooky things you’ll ever experience. My mentor whispered “Owl. Good sign. They like to hang around the turkeys.” This is one of my favorite parts of hunting – sitting quietly in the woods at dawn, observing, listening. A sense of peace and rightness wraps around you like an old familiar blanket – one handed down through your DNA by some hunter/gatherer ancestor.

However, it was a mere 15 minutes in before I realized how hard the ground felt below my thin seat cushion. It was only 25 minutes in before I started to fidget. 10 minutes later I couldn’t feel my legs…not good. So I started shifting butt cheek to butt cheek trying to get the blood to flow down one leg at a time, which only lead to horrible “pins-and-needles”, but I kept telling myself I had to suck it up, be quiet and stop moving. If I didn’t, my mentor might not think it was worth his time to ever take me again. So I settled down and gritted my teeth.

Every 10 minutes or so my mentor used a box call to squawk out what is supposed to sound like a hen lookin’ for love. For the first hour we heard nothing, and my mentor whispered about how bummed he was. He had seen birds in the area the days prior, but for some reason they were missing in action right now. At this point the sun was totally up, and we considered the birds might have left to roost late because it was a misty, overcast morning…or maybe they just weren’t there. So we waited…and called…and waited some more. A little over two hours in and I was starting to gently rap my head against the tree to distract me from the pain in my back and throbbing legs. I was wondering how long my mentor was prepared to sit there, at the same time I was trying to come up with a tactful excuse that would end my misery. But I knew anything I said that wussed out would end my hunting career early. So I waited…and my mentor called…and I waited some more. At about the two and half hour mark I had about had it when my mentor called one last time…and a Tom responded. Way over the hill, at least 500 yards away, but it was clearly a gobble in response to our needy hen call. My mentor hissed “NICE!!!!” and I heard him click his safety off. My heart rate ticked up a little. A few minutes later my mentor called again, and the Tom responded, closer. Much closer. My mentor was calling them in. At the top of the hill in front of us a black splotch appeared and began to waddle down the hill slowly. Then another. And another…then 3 more. At least a half-dozen birds came hunting and pecking their way down the hill, right for us. My heart-rate went through the roof. My breathing became shallow and my vision narrowed on these birds making their way towards us. I hunkered down and brought my shotgun up onto my knees. My hands were shaking as I clicked off the safety. Ahh, so this is “buck fever”. At this point I started 4 count breathing. Rhythmically, “In 2-3-4, hold-2-3-4, out-2-3-4, hold-2-3-4”. I began to mentally repeat Arya’s water dancing mantra “Quiet as a shadow….Calm as still water…”. My heart rate slowed, and my hands stop shaking…and the birds grew ever closer.  When they were within 25 yards I could clearly see the short beards on a few Jakes that had separated from the Toms. They were looking to “get some” before the Toms beat them up. Like most birds, turkeys have a pecking order and the Jakes need to sneak one in before the Toms notice. This is natural selection at its finest: turkeys are much smarter than we give them credit, so the Tom’s were immediately wary and wouldn’t come near us. They could sense something was not quite right, but the Jakes, well, they were thinking with the “little head”, and that was their demise. I had a bead on a Jake and my mentor was hissing for me to shoot, but I didn’t have a clear shot. All I could see was a neck sticking out from a tree. My mentor was 10’ to the right of me and had a clear shot the whole time. To him it looked like I was hesitating to pull the trigger. In my mind I was freaking out quietly that I would miss my opportunity, and he would never take me hunting again…when the Jake I had lined up finally took one step to the right and looked at me…

The Aftermath

After the gun went off, the bird dropped and the first thing that went through my head was “Please don’t get up and run away” – I was terrified I had only wounded the poor thing. That is a fate way, way, WAY worse than missing for me.  A second later my mentor’s gun went off and I see another bird drop. He hit his on the move after my shot spooked the other birds. It was pretty impressive.

Years of shotgun training caused me to instinctively rack the action, which I didn’t notice until after it was all over and I cleared a live round out of the chamber.  I was proud to learn I had burned that into muscle memory, because otherwise, I was completely frozen with…fear? Anxiety? Awe? My mentor immediately jumped up and trotted out to the birds. I just sat there staring, unsure if I should move, and confused about why I couldn’t. Another skill burned into muscle memory: my body knew a friendly was downrange – I safed the gun and muzzle averted as I sat there transfixed. I finally stood up, carefully placed my shotgun against the tree, and walked out to the birds. They were dead, but thrashing in their final spasms. My mentor was calming breaking their necks to ensure it was over. I was partially horrified to see that, but realized it was the humane thing to do (and mentally prepared to do it myself next time).

When they stopped moving we evaluated the birds – both perfectly clean headshots, not a single pellet below the neck. They were likely dead before they hit the ground. I quietly sighed with relief and in my head I thanked the bird for its sacrifice. Emotionally, I was high as a kite but clearly sad for some reason. The “buck fever” adrenaline dump was wearing off and I was getting pensive. I just killed something. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at the moment.

Next we needed to dress the birds, the moment I’ve dreaded for years. That moment where you have to get intimate with your harvest. I’m fine holding a dead bird and I’m fine handling raw meat, but that transition process always scared me: where do I start? What will it look like? What will it smell like? Will there be a lot of blood? My mentor did most of the work and directed me expertly in the rest. It was easier than I thought it would be, but it will take a few more birds before I’m comfortable doing it by myself. There was surprisingly little blood and no offensive odors (we didn’t damage any internals, so that likely made a difference). As soon as we finishing plucking the birds, my mind made the mental switch between “animal” to “meat”, and I became somewhat disconnected from the dressing process. It wasn’t gross at all. It just “was”. The most fascinating point was when he filleted the gizzard – mind blowing. I will leave that science treat for first-timers to discover on their own.

Something I wasn’t prepared though for was how hard it was to get the blood off my hands. After it dried, it sort of melded with my skin and it took excessive amounts of hot water, soap, and scrubbing to dissolve it. This, I guess, the movies get right. What was worse was the smell stayed on my hands for the rest of day, a constant reminder of the morning. It was an earthy smell, not unpleasant, but evocative, and kept me in a reflective mood all day.

Turkey Hunting was a big step for me. The moment I placed that bird in the freezer a feeling came over me similar to when I crack the seal on the pressure cooker after a canning run. It felt as if I had not done anything more important in a long time. This was playing the role of Provider in its most primal sense. I had gone off into the woods, pit my wits against an intelligent animal, and emerged from said woods victorious, carrying a meal for my family. There is a full circle of life thing there that cannot be understood or fully appreciated (much less explained in type) until one has done it themselves. It’s like reaching back into history and paying homage to the skills of my ancestors. To some it is just a bird, but to me it is a symbol of me earning my rightful place in the legacy of my tribe.

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