JOHN HOLYOKE

On turkey hunts you may not be alone

Posted May 13, 2011, at 4:01 p.m.

The morning had been a busy one, and it had barely begun when a friend and I began smiling, thankful that we’d hauled ourselves out of bed at 3:15 a.m., packed up our gear and headed to the same spot I had bagged a wild turkey a year earlier.

Not far from us — was it 100 yards? Was it 200? — we heard three different turkeys gobbling back and forth at each other from subtly different points on the compass. All were behind us, and off to the left. It was, we thought, the beginning of a turkey hunter’s dream. And the sun wasn’t going to rise for another 45 minutes.

We were still in “pregame” mode, sitting in our chosen spot, backs hard against rugged evergreen trees, decoys deployed in front of us, packs stowed but still within reach. Our shotguns rested on our thighs, still unloaded, and we furtively checked the time on our cell phones (both set to “mute”) every five minutes or so, waiting for the time, 30 minutes before sunup, when we’d be legally allowed to hunt.

It didn’t take long before we heard the scratchy yelp of a female turkey, well in front of us, and off to the right. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the males we had already been listening to.

The calls of the female continued. We added in a few yelps of our own. And as we sat there, we began to wonder: Are we actually hearing turkeys? Or are we hearing hunters, trying to sound like turkeys?

That distinction is critical, of course. You can yelp yourself silly, spending all morning scratching on a box call, or pressing buttons on a digital model, or manipulating a mouth call, and if the target of your imitation affections turns out to be another camo-wearing dude who’s hunkered down against a tree 200 yards away, you’ve accomplished little (save making quite a ruckus).

And that distinction is harder to make than you might think. Earlier this week I talked to Brad Allen, a biologist who serves as the bird group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He recounted a recent hunt in which he was fairly certain  the turkey vocalizations he was hearing — several birds, talking back and forth — were being made by a hunter, not birds.

Before leaving, he checked the field where the yelps and gobbles were originating. Standing there were several wild turkeys, including some hens, a tom, and several immature jakes.

The message: If Brad Allen can’t tell the real deal from a store-bought call, you probably can’t tell, either. Trust me on this one.

And that’s an important consideration. The DIF&W spends considerable time and money spreading its safety message, and the wild turkey season is potentially very dangerous. Hunters try to blend into the woods. They try to remain invisible. Then they try to sound just like a turkey — and for good measure, they often put fake turkeys — decoys — in front of them to lure in real, live, lovestruck birds.

Of course, you’re safe. You do everything right. And there’s no way you’d make a mistake that could lead to disaster. I understand that.

With that attitude, you’re not alone. There’s no statistic on this, but I’d guess that most of the hunters who have been involved in turkey hunting mishaps have thought the same thing: It can’t happen to me. I’m the safe one.

The fact is, it just doesn’t matter how safe you are. What matters, in the end, is how safe everyone else in the woods is. And you can’t control that.

On our recent trip afield, the first birds that we heard never showed their faces. Neither did the hen that we had assumed was a hunter. But a couple hours into our hunt, we did see some movement off to our right.

“Something coming,” I whispered to my friend. We’d decided that this year’s first bird would be his, and it was particularly important that he see what I was seeing.

He did — and then some.

“It’s — a hunter,” he said after a 10-second pause.

It was. Another hunter, apparently encouraged by the sound of yelping turkeys — in this case, our turkey calls — had skulked up over a ridge and decided to set up his decoy about 60 yards from our position.

My hunting friend had done everything right: He hadn’t touched his shotgun, and had identified the hunter by using binoculars. He had assumed that the motion in the trees was something — anything — other than a turkey.

I poked around in my pack and grabbed a hunter orange hat and began waving it back and forth, hoping to gain the other hunter’s attention. It didn’t work. He had planted himself on the other side of a thicket, and couldn’t see us. Faced with a dilemma, it took us little time to reach a decision.

We had to leave.

Others may have confronted the man. That’s their prerogative. But it’s not my style, nor one I feel comfortable with. Besides, for all we knew, the hunter was sitting on his own land — the property line wasn’t far from our position — and he felt that we were the intruders on his hunt.

Even though we’d been sitting on the cold ground for four hours, and the newcomer hadn’t. Even though we were hunting with permission from the landowner.

The “even thoughs” may have made us right. We knew that. But they wouldn’t have made us safe.

I stood up, put the orange hat on my head, and walked, careful to step on plenty of twigs and make my presence known, toward our decoys. After retrieving them and tucking them out of sight, so that the other hunter wouldn’t be able to see my fake turkeys, I walked back to our position.

By then, the other hunter had recognized the situation; the terrain is nearly wide open, and I knew he’d see me and my hunter orange hat trudging up the hill. The hunter had come to the same conclusion I had: This wasn’t a safe scenario.

He also apparently recognized that he had walked in someone else’s hunt, and decided that he was the one who should move on. He silently retrieved his decoy, packed his gear, and moved back down the hill, out of sight.

My friend and I talked it over, and decided to stay put. We never did bag a bird that day, but we left having relearned several valuable lessons.

Don’t stalk turkeys (they might not be birds after all). Carry hunter orange in your pack, and don’t be afraid to use it. Assume everything you hear is something other than what you think it is. And be safe.

Even if it means being willing to give up a spot that you think you’ve earned.

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