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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lonely Turkeys and Loner Gobblers

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Oct. 27, 2007.)
Adult gobblers are never afraid to be alone.
When the time comes to hunt fall turkeys, sometimes we hunt lonely birds and sometimes we hunt loner birds. There’s a big difference.

It’s almost as though the wild turkey is two species. Genetically they are identical. They both occupy the same habitat, but they have little to do with each other. Father gobbler played his essential role in the spring, but once the courtship ritual is finished Dad goes off with his buddies. Mother hen incubates the eggs, protects the brood, and teaches her poults how to survive.

And they survive very well because nature’s plan for prey species depends on abundance. Although coyotes, foxes, bobcats, crows, hawks and owls have had no pity, more than enough still remain for us human predators. And when we’re finished, plenty will be left to survive the challenge of winter and begin the cycle again next spring.

Most of the turkeys harvested in their first year will come from family flocks. Some will fall to the teeth and claws of full time predators, others to the hands of hunters. From a human perspective, it’s sad that birds barely six months old are the first to die. We wouldn’t tolerate that in our species. But from the perspective of nature, the population dynamic of prey species is designed so that lots of individuals die young.

These juvenile birds have lived their short lives in a family unit. They’ve done all the bickering that is normal and universal among brothers and sisters, but despite sibling rivalry they love being together.

That’s what makes fall turkey hunting easy. The hard part is finding a family flock, but once the hunter has found a flock he can put the odds in his favor by scattering it to the four points of the compass.

That method is counterintuitive. You’d think that we would not want to scare our prey. We don’t do that with deer, bears, predators or small game. But we do it with young turkeys because they will overcome being desperately scared by their even more desperate urgency to get back together.

The main reason that the young of the year are most vulnerable is that they follow the adage that “birds of a feather flock together.” They know there is safety in numbers. What they don’t know is that in the process of assembling those numbers there is no safety.

Very quickly after being separated, young turkeys will get lonesome. Calling them back is usually easy early in the season. The more thoroughly they disperse, the easier they are to call. Imitating the frantic “kee-kee” sound of a young turkey will get a ready response. It may take only minutes to convince them that you’re one of their kind.

Loner gobblers, on the other hand, are not lonesome. They are a whole different story. Maybe when they were young they were the slowest to regroup with their flocks. Maybe they were the strongest, flew the farthest from danger, and took the longest to return. Maybe by nature they were the most suspicious and least trusting. Maybe by personality they were hermits.

Whatever the reason, adult gobblers are never afraid to be alone. They’re notoriously challenging to call to the shotgun in the fall. By the time they’re two and a half years old they have earned a master’s degree from Survival University – with highest honors.

I’m sure the biggest adult gobbler I ever called in during the fall season had a Ph.D. He refused to be easily convinced that he heard another turkey. I watched him stand statue-still, determined not to commit himself. I would have been a minor challenge for him, giving up after 15 minutes, if I had I not been able to see his red head sticking up from behind a stump. At the half-hour mark I was wondering how many unseen fall gobblers have easily outlasted me over the years. During the standoff I could have made many mistakes. Finally, after forty-five minutes, he took that fatal step.

Lonely fall turkeys offer lots of fun. Loner fall gobblers present an extraordinary challenge. Whichever you hunt, make sure that getting a shot at a fall turkey takes a back seat to safety. Make sure you positively identify your target. Make sure you know what is beyond your target. If you don’t, you may make the one mistake that will change hunting for you, and for someone else, forever.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Give Muzzleloading a Try

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Oct. 13, 2007.)
Deer are shifting from the salad bar to the meat buffet,
so don’t expect them to be where you saw them a few weeks ago.
351 days – I counted them. As a 12-year old it was a long, long time for me to wait from the end of my first deer season to the beginning of my second.

We don’t have to wait so long any more. We might still count the days, but with all the deer hunting opportunities we have, we don’t have to wait 351 days.

Already, archery season has been open for two weeks. And today marks the opening of a special week-long season we didn’t have those many years ago. Hunters using muzzleloaders can fill antlerless tags starting now.

So, if the regular firearms season is too cold or too crowded for you, now is a nice time to get out in the woods. Unlike the late post-Christmas muzzleloader season when the rules dictate flintlock only, any muzzleloading rifle – flintlock, percussion or in-line – is legal in Pennsylvania for this early season.

To take advantage of the early season, I bought a modern “in-line” muzzleloader, which means the ignition system is aligned with the bore – not off to the side as in a flintlock or percussion gun. The basic difference between in-line muzzleloaders and cartridge firearms is that the in-line doesn’t use a brass cartridge case.

You actually become a handloader when you use a muzzleloader. You dump a measured powder charge down the muzzle end of the barrel and push a bullet in after it. For an in-line gun, you insert a 209 primer (a primer normally used in shotgun shells) into the breech end.

From there, the gun fires like a centerfire rifle. Pulling the trigger drops a firing pin on the primer, which ignites a powder charge, and the expanding gases shove the bullet out the barrel. Then you start all over again because a muzzleloader is a single shot affair.

Last October was the first time I hunted this early muzzleloader season. Relentless rain proved that I made a good choice in purchasing a stainless steel rifle, and the Mueller red dot scope turned out to be truly waterproof as advertised.

Unfortunately, despite a bumper crop of apples and an abundance of deer sign, I saw only a few deer – none I was confident of shooting under the monsoon conditions.

Torrential rain is not the only thing that can make the October muzzleloader season challenging. Deer are shifting from the salad bar to the meat buffet, so don’t expect them to be where you saw them a few weeks ago. They’re depending less on clover and apples, and more on acorns in preparation for the rut and the long winter.

Also, their behavior is less predictable. The bucks are getting restless even though the does aren’t yet ready to be bred, and archers have been in the woods for two weeks now. Those two facts mean deer are continually looking over their shoulders.

Thanks to Pennsylvania’s October season and similar opportunities in other states, in-line muzzleloaders are popular and their evolution has been rapid. Plenty of manufacturers are producing quality rifles at affordable prices.

The in-lines often get a person started in muzzleloading, but many hunters go on to gain an extra measure of satisfaction by learning how to do it the traditional way – molding bullets and even building primitive replica rifles that bear witness to another era.

Hunting opportunities have increased significantly in recent years. So if you’re a gun hunter itching to get into the woods, why wait for the traditional rifle season? Try muzzleloading. For more information and a comprehensive review of all aspects of the sport, get your hands on Muzzleloading For Deer And Turkey, by Dave Ehrig, Pennsylvania’s leading authority on the subject.