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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.


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