Welcome to the host site for outdoor writer Steve Sorensen’s “Everyday Hunter” columns. For a complete index of all columns, go to EverydayHunter.com.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Close Encounters of the Bruin Kind

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., May 28, 2005.)
Within spitting distance, he swung his square brown muzzle around, surveying the ground, then locked eyes with me.
I hadn't been that close to another living, breathing mammal since I rolled out of bed to go turkey hunting at 3:30 that morning. Unlike my sleeping wife, the bear was blowing steam out of his nostrils, just two steps away. You can't get that close to a bear in a zoo.

My first thought was to grab my camera, but he had appeared suddenly -- too suddenly for me to ease the camera out of the camo case that was slung over my shoulder. My second was the recent news of a woman who was mauled by a Pennsylvania black bear at a Poconos campsite. Third, I became very conscious of where the safety is on my turkey shotgun.

Three years ago, within 15 yards of where I now sat cross-legged on the ground calling a turkey, I had another monster boar a mere 12 feet from me. Both that one and this one were immense. Both had bellies sagging nearly to the ground. Both had big blocky heads with tiny eyes and tinier eyelashes. That first bear was huge, in the 500-pound range. This one might go a mere 350.

He looked suspicious as he slowed from a bouncing walk to a standstill. Within spitting distance, he swung his square brown muzzle around, surveying the ground, then locked eyes with me. He blinked. I probably did too. He blew steam from his nose. I held my breath. He finally turned and galloped away, thumping the ground and crashing through anything and everything in his way.

For me, that was a natural high. I don't know what it was for the bear. But for most of the rest of humankind, it would be scary. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy fear of black bears, but it doesn't take any particular courage to sit 6 feet from one in the right circumstances. It does, however, take respect for them.

Like all wild animals, bears are unpredictable. In addition, a black bear is also a powerful animal, capable of killing quickly. But usually, a bear has no incentive to attack a human. In Pennsylvania, hostile attacks on humans are rare, and always in the context of one of two specific circumstances. First, almost everyone knows that when a mother is with cubs, it's mandatory that you give all of them a wide berth. The maternal instinct is strong, and overrides her escape reflex. If mama perceives a threat to a cub, she will do her best to eliminate that threat. Think about it. Human parents do the same thing, but their instinct is mitigated by the mores of civilization.

Most of us realize we are neither fast enough nor strong enough to win a contest with a mother bear. But many foolishly think they can dance close to the edge of the second circumstance, and that involves food. Frequent encounters with bears feeding at restaurant dumpsters, campsites and roadside rests diminish some people's respect for bears to the point where bravado occasionally overtakes good sense and someone tries to hand feed a bear. Or, people are careless about the storage of food. Bears are not denied food in their own natural world, so they don't expect a human to deny them food.

We can't psychologize bears. We can't appeal to logic. And we can't assert our authority in the face of a powerful bear. There is only one thing we should do: obey the signs that read "don't feed the bears." For good reason, it's against the law in Pennsylvania to feed bears -- even from your bird feeder. Once bears become habituated to people, anything can happen. Someone will sooner or later get hurt, and a bear will have to be destroyed. So, don't feed bears, but if they raid your dumpster, garbage can, or campsite, back away and let them have what they want.

It's exciting to see a bear in the woods, especially up close. Next time I have a close encounter a bear, will I be afraid? Maybe. Every encounter is different. If it's a mama bear, I'll do my best to back away quickly and quietly. If it's food he wants, I'll let him have it. About bears, I'm not stupid.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The musician, the inventor and the turkey hunter

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., May 14, 2005.)
... gobblers are bowing to “The Ruler”
like subjects to a king.
Lots of evidence suggests that musicians have something special when it comes to intelligence. I’m not talking about book-smarts. I’m talking about aptitude, insight, intuition -- some of that right-brain magic that leads them to those “aha” moments. Musicians have gifts that lots of us don’t have. Nathan DeGroot of Cowlesville, New York is one of those musicians.

He has combined the art of music with the craft of turkey call design. These, next to his wife and family, are his two chief loves. To understand, you must realize that to Nathan, a rock musician, the wild turkey makes sweet music. This big songbird makes a variety of calls, and all are musical notes.

Nathan has patented a turkey call that has box call aficionados and collectors taking notice. He spent several years working on the design, but had trouble getting it right. After the whole project stewed in his head and heart, a breakthrough came to him in a dream. Yes, unlikely as it seems, he literally dreamed up the solutions to the problems he had engineering this unique box call.

Nathan’s box call is the most versatile I’ve ever seen. It’s large, over a foot long, which is one reason he calls it “The Ruler.” He says it also “rules” the turkey woods, and the paddle has markings in one-inch graduations so you can use it as a ruler to measure your gobbler’s beard.

It’s also the largest box call I’ve ever seen, which at first I viewed as a disadvantage. I like to travel lightly, so I like compact equipment. But until seeing “The Ruler,” I didn’t realize how limited a compact box call is. Almost every other box call has arched sides with one small sweet spot. In contrast, “The Ruler” has straight sides over 8 inches long. The sounds it makes are different all along that edge, and different depending on how you hold the paddle. That’s why it so versatile. He calls the sides “reeds” because they function as reeds in a musical instrument.

Another unique feature of this box call is that one end is open -- there’s no end -- which gives the call the ability to project its sound directionally. That’s presumably why he named his company “There’s No End Game Calls”.

DeGroot is a virtuoso on this call. He can run it like the musical instrument it is. It takes only a modest amount of practice, and a good ear. For many hunters it works like a snake charmer on a cobra.

I’m no expert caller myself, but I’m a believer in “The Ruler”. It costs a little more than most, but it will last a lifetime. While most calls are fragile because they’re a series of pieces assembled with glue, “The Ruler” is practically indestructible because the box is handcrafted from a single piece of specially chosen straight-grained red oak, hollowed by a dado blade. Another piece of oak makes the paddle.

When it comes to hunting gear, American ingenuity has brought forth some great products. DeGroot “rocks on” in that tradition, and gobblers are bowing to “The Ruler” like subjects to a king.

So, if you want to carry a unique box call into the woods that the turkeys you hunt probably haven’t heard, “The Ruler” might be for you. If you want a call that doesn’t just talk the turkey’s language but sings it, you’ll want to get your hands on “The Ruler”. If you’re a collector, get a signed and numbered limited edition. I should add that I have no financial stake in DeGroot’s call, but if you’re interested you can check it out online at www.TheresNoEnd.com.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The "Good Old Days" of Turkey Hunting

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 30, 2005.)
"The man who bags one of these grand game birds should count himself among the truly blessed for two reasons --"
Turkey hunting sure has changed, especially for anyone who began hunting in the 1960's or earlier. If you've recently read books or magazine articles written back then, you'll be surprised at how much even the "expert" hunters didn't know. I'll list just a few of the changes under the headings Theory, Practice, and Equipment.

Theory: Turkey hunters once seemed to believe that the bird classified as meleagris gallopavo matched the intelligence of a NASA physicist, the stealth of an undercover CIA agent, and the cageyness of a trench-fighting politician. We now know that it is none of those things. That's not to say this birdbrain isn't smart, because as birds go, the turkey has an edge on most. But this edge doesn't come from his intelligence. It comes from his wildness. In fact, it's the only animal with the word WILD officially in its name and that's the only adjective it needs. Gobblers are not stupid, but on their list of personality traits, wild is way higher than smart.

Practice: The practice of turkey hunting once seemed as mysterious as Ouija boards. Stonehenge might have been an easier puzzle to solve. I can remember believing that any sour note on a turkey call would send every gobbler within earshot into the next township, and I used to hear countless hunters who came home empty handed say "I hit a bad note." Now we know that's nowhere near true. Most hunters realize that if you follow a sour note with a sweet one, the turkey will never know you made what you thought was a mistake.

We once read such wise advice as "make two or three cautious yelps, then pause fifteen minutes before you try it again." Now we know that's not wisdom; it's nonsense. All that's likely to accomplish is death by boredom -- for both turkey and hunter. Although patience is in the turkey hunter's bag of tricks, boredom isn't. Also, hunters were commonly told to "keep your face behind some kind of covering such as leaves or grass." Today's practice of sitting in front of a tree, rather than behind one, would seem foolish to the old timers. Yes, much has changed in the way we go about turkey hunting.

Equipment: Here is where I marvel at the ingenuity of hunters. The proliferation of equipment for hunting the big songbird has no parallel. The Outdoor Channel provides plenty of evidence for this. Any the time of year it's easy to find a TV program about turkey hunting, and much of the incredible array of merchandise being promoted on those TV programs has application to turkey hunting.

The inclination of hunters to be inventors and marketers has resulted in a huge variety of available equipment. Yes, some of it is gimmickry (and any of us can name something that's pure gimmick), but much of it has a treasured place in someone's bag of tricks. From camouflage patterns to calls, shotguns to shoes, the market is loaded with products that promise to make you and me better turkey hunters.

In the late 1970's, before turkey decoys were popular, a few resourceful hunters were making their own. I knew of one hunter who created a paper maché decoy from a mold of a dead hen's body. Today decoys have become sophisticated and commonplace.

Inventors are often scoffed at, but I say more power to them. People who make their livings in the hunting sports have my admiration -- even if they're not offering products that I myself find useful (and I do sometimes find decoys to be useful.)

With countless changes, some things have remained. These words of Pennsylvanian Roger Latham in a book called Hunting Secrets of the Experts (1964), are still true after more than 40 years. "The man who bags one of these grand game birds should count himself among the truly blessed for two reasons -- he has proved his prowess as a hunter, and he has been the fortunate beneficiary of a remarkable game-restoration program which snatched this bird from the very edge of extinction." Largely because of restoration programs and habitat development, but also because of how-to videos, a vest-load of equipment, and lots of trial and error, we're living in the good old days of turkey hunting today. Good luck in the turkey woods.