By Kelly Riordan/WDFW
It is certainly time to start counting down the days to Washington’s spring turkey season. In this installment of the Turkey Takeover of myWDFW.com, we will focus on new turkey hunters. Young, middle-aged, and even senior folks can be new hunters, and this sometimes intimidating new endeavor can be confusing.
Not to worry though because the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and a partner, First Hunt Foundation, have been working together to help new hunters get a safe and mentored start.
First Hunt Foundation is a national organization dedicated to keeping our hunting heritage alive, and it gives new hunters an educated start with a “hunt mentor.” New hunters can contact the foundation and get lined up to give hunting a try in a controlled environment.
This week, we have a first-hand story from a WDFW staff member who decided to give hunting a try. Here is her story, in her own words, from the turkey woods. This was a joint venture between WDFW, the First Hunt Foundation, and brand-new hunters.
By Alex Biswas/First Hunt Foundation
The reason I’d decided to try hunting was because the thought of taking accountability for eating meat was very appealing to me. The idea of shooting an animal made me a little uncomfortable since I wasn’t sure how I would feel afterward. I decided that was a small price to pay though for me to feel like a responsible consumer of meat. I was fortunate to know people who were experienced hunters and First Hunt Foundation mentors. Several of my coworkers were also interested in going turkey hunting and this made me feel more comfortable taking that first step. Without support, I would have never been able to go on a hunt safely and confidently.
I didn’t know anything about turkey hunting other than how it had been described to me, which was mostly putting up decoys, sitting in a blind, calling them in, and getting to experience — from what I understood — these rambunctious, entertaining birds that made the whole experience fun by just catching a glimpse of them.
Dress for Success
Preparing for the trip was a little difficult for me. I was confused how to dress. I was told that if we were spending most of our time in the blind, it would be best to wear black to blend into the background of the blind, but if we leave the blind we would need to be wearing camouflage. I wasn’t sure how this would work out with layers since it was going to be cold. What combination of layering would work best? Do I bring multiple outfits? Luckily, my mentor brought extra layers for each occasion which came in handy. I’m a perpetual over-packer because I’m always worried that I’ll pack the wrong thing or I’ll encounter a situation that I’m unprepared for and not have what I need. Having a mentor help walk me through what I really needed was truly a godsend.
“Going on this trip with three other ladies who had never harvested a turkey before was comforting.”
I was also nervous about identifying the turkey correctly if he didn’t have his feathers up. I felt like I knew the difference between males and females in photos, but I’d never had to do it in this setting. Knowing that my mentor would be there was reassuring.
Going on this trip with three other ladies who had never harvested a turkey before was comforting. I was relieved that I would have others to talk to and experience everything with. This also meant that we had additional mentors. Honestly, having a group of people to do this with made the whole experience less stressful and way more enjoyable. Having a support group took a lot of the pressure off myself.
Day one I wasn’t sure what really to expect as far as how the day would go. The only feeling I experienced for the first couple hours before we sat down in the blind was intense drowsiness. After we heard our first “gobble” of the day though, I was wide awake and excited to be experiencing something new.
I didn’t anticipate that we would end up hiking as much as we did. Unfortunately, the turkeys we had heard decided to take a cruise in the opposite direction of our blind and didn’t seem to be too interested in our turkey calls or decoys. So, we packed up and started walking. Luckily my mentor carried our snacks and all I had to carry was the shotgun, which I appreciated as I’m 4’ 11”. If that hadn’t been the case though, it would have been helpful to know to be prepared to have things to travel light in case we had to do lots of hiking. And we did lots of hiking.
“I’ll never forget how it felt to really feel like I was part of nature, like I really was IN it, not just observing it. … This feeling alone, I’d thought to myself, would make me want to go hunting again.”
I’m an experienced hiker and have held jobs where I’d spend all day in the woods collecting data. I know what to expect when it comes to bushwhacking it through the wilderness, but I’d never had to sit in one spot, silent, for hours at a time, just listening and hoping for one specific sound. What I didn’t expect from this experience was how relaxing that would be. You never see that in the photos and the videos. I’ll never forget how it felt to really feel like I was part of nature, like I really was IN it, not just observing it. I remember hearing this lonely grouse drum for what seemed like hours. At first, it was funny listening to his silly noises. After a while, it was comforting knowing he was there. This feeling alone, I’d thought to myself, would make me want to go hunting again.
I had imagined that my experience shooting a turkey would look like what you see in sniper movies. I thought I’d be cool, calm, and collected. He wouldn’t even know I was there. I thought I’d have time to sit down, get a good look at him, take a breath, and pull the trigger when I was good and ready, and it would all be over quick. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were a couple moments when we had gotten pretty close to some toms but I didn’t have a good shot. Those moments only solidified the idea in my head of the turkey sniper image.
I’ll be scarred forever by the memory of mosquitoes ruthlessly landing and crawling on my face and eyelashes as I sat motionless while turkeys, who I was told had excellent vision, strutted past us. I’m a mosquito magnet and unfortunately also get horrible reactions from mosquito bites. No repellant, not even DEET, can protect me. In this moment I was proud of myself for my excellent self-control but very irate that the turkeys never came close enough for a clear shot and I forced myself to go through that experience without a harvest.
On the final day we started out early close to some roost trees that we had seen a couple toms fly into the evening before. I was excited because I knew that this was my last chance and it seemed like the odds were in our favor. But as it were, the toms decided they were too good for us and started strutting in the opposite direction. The next plan was to sneakily make it to the edge of the woodland they appeared to be headed for and be ready and waiting. So, with oversized camo pants, Remington 870, and clunky hiking boots that were not designed for speed, we took off across the field. I don’t know what it feels like to other people to have both intense adrenaline pumping through their veins and be wildly out of breath at the same time from chasing down turkeys, but my little heart was working some serious overtime.
We got to the edge of the field and discovered that our toms had been on the way to meet up with some lady friends. We hoped they’d continue toward the woodlands. To our dismay, these toms were the noncommittal type and again decided to change direction, this time back toward the field we had been in originally. I got told to get ready, because we were going make a move down the field to get closer where I would then attempt to get in range. However, there was no cover except for a single tree we had hidden under that morning. As I’m typing this, it sounds like this would have been enough time for me to prepare physically and mentally for the experience.
“If there was ever a moment in my life when I was most at risk for a heart attack, it was that moment. … I couldn’t believe after all that it had actually happened.“
What actually happened was I got out into the field after the two toms who were walking away and looked like they were having a great conversation, got yelled at for crouching down to prepare myself for the shot (you never see snipers standing), stood up, aimed, fired, realized I’d hit him but not sure where as he was still moving, went to reload but ran into a stuck zipper pocket, and then watched as the whole group of turkeys, including my wounded tom, took off toward the trees. Then, of course, I took off toward the trees.
As soon as I started walking toward where I’d last seen him, I heard what I thought were wings flapping, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the sound had come from. For an hour, we searched. We zigged. We zagged. I became increasingly disappointed in myself. Had I sent a wounded animal to suffer in the woods? My mentor was confident the tom wouldn’t have made it far with the placement of the 25-yard shot I’d delivered, but maybe this was some kind of super turkey? Do I just lack the ability to recognize a dead turkey and I’ve passed him several times? Eventually I was called down by my mentor who was staring up into a tree. I thought for sure he was looking at my turkey and I was filled with dread. I had no idea what I would do. To make matters worse, the shotgun suddenly came apart in my hands. Somewhere along the way I had lost the endcap to my shotgun. I now had no usable weapon. I was beside myself with disbelief in how the morning was going.
I was then told to look to the side. My mentor stepped away, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a turkey lying right there. He told me, “he’s down.” If there was ever a moment in my life when I was most at risk for a heart attack, it was that moment. I was mentally and physically spent. I couldn’t believe after all that it had actually happened. A wave of relief came over me knowing that this tom wasn’t out there suffering because of me, and then I just felt so grateful and happy that I had succeeded in doing what I’d set out to accomplish. I had actually harvested my very own food. What?! I was in disbelief for hours.
Taking the leap
We decided to clean the turkey back at the truck and at this point I again relied on my mentor to walk me through the experience. They did most of the work for me as I found it difficult to apply the strength necessary to make most of the cuts. I decided to keep the tail and wings to mount later.
I was so proud of myself for taking the leap and going hunting. I felt like I could be proud of myself as a meat eater by harvesting meat humanely, responsibly, and in a way that instills honest gratitude in yourself and the animal for what you have. I feel more independent. I feel proud of the strength I proved to myself. I feel thankful that I had the opportunity to be successful through the incredible support I was fortunate enough to receive. This experience drove the idea home for me that I could see myself identifying as a hunter one day. I can do this and I’m better for it.
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