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, April 16, 2011

It’s True – Deer Shed Their Antlers!

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 16, 2011.)

Apparently, the antler growing
and shedding cycle stops when
a buck sheds his whole head!
It was a Saturday afternoon in the mid 1970s and I was in New Hampshire with a group that had finished climbing Mount Monadnock. At 3165 feet, it was a suitably unstrenuous ascent for our young adult Sunday school class, which had gathered in a nearby lodge for a snack.

Hanging on the wall of the great room over the fireplace was a mount of a moose head with a wide antler rack. It was impressive, and one young woman (from Kansas City, if I remember correctly) asked, innocently enough, “I wonder how long it takes to grow horns that big.”

Fair question, I thought. And I, in the midst of a bunch of metropolitans, was the one to answer it. “They begin growing those antlers sometime in April, and finish in August. Then they harden. So, it takes 4 to 5 months. The moose carries them through the fall and winter. Then they fall off and he grows a new set the following year.”

I spoke with confidence, but she scoffed, “No way! That’s ridiculous! They could never grow them that fast. And if they fell off, people would find them in the woods!” I was surprised and outnumbered – everyone agreed with her.

I’m not one who knows when I’m beaten, especially when I have the facts. So, I continued on. “People do find them, but not many of them. They’re really just bones, so they’re loaded with calcium, and rodents eat them for the nutritional benefit. That’s why people don’t find more of them.”

Now that I had painted the picture of bones sticking out of an animal’s head and mice devouring them, everyone was absolutely sure I was pulling their collective leg. I couldn’t persuade them otherwise. I’ve often wondered if that Kansas City-slicker – and the other urbanites who sided with her – ever learned that I was telling the truth.

Since then, I’ve found shed moose and caribou antlers in Alaska. Here in Pennsylvania I’ve found whitetail antlers, but not many. (A few times I’ve found a matched pair still attached to the skull. Apparently the antler growing and shedding cycle stops when a buck sheds his whole head!)

The healthier a buck is, generally, the longer he keeps his antlers. When they’re ready to shed, a layer of cells at the boney connection to the buck’s head dissolves and the antler loosens. Sometimes a low hanging limb knocks antlers off. Sometimes they get jarred when the deer jumps a fence or a ditch. Sometimes as the deer feeds it exerts enough stress to cause loosened antlers to fall.

For those interested in finding shed antlers, the window of opportunity is open only briefly. Prime time is after the melting snow reveals them and before the spring green-up hides them from view.

During that time, other critters are also hunting for shed antlers. Porcupines will often drag them back to their dens where their vigorous chewing quickly transforms a deer antler into a calcium supplement. Coyotes and foxes will also occasionally retrieve them and carry them back to a den site where they become playtoys for young pups.

Where to find sheds? They could be anywhere deer live, which makes hunting for them challenging, but not impossible. The likeliest vicinity is where deer have a food source that’s close to their bedding area. Chances are, bucks will shed antlers at the feeding site, or in the bedding area, or along a trail between them.

The real trick is finding the time to look for shed antlers. Springtime hours are precious, with trout season underway and turkey scouting to be done. Plus yard work beckons, and youth baseball and other activities take up most people’s time in the spring. You may not beat the animals to the antlers, but at least the busyness of springtime reduces your human competition.

If you can find the time to go shed hunting and you’re lucky enough to discover a shed antler, you’ve found a great woodland souvenir. You’ll know the buck that shed it has likely made it through the winter, and you might find that buck in your sights next season. But don't bother to tell your city friends -- they'll just think you're pulling their legs.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Benefits of the Youth Turkey Hunt

by Steve Sorensen (Special to the Warren Times Observer, April 8, 2011.)
Ben Morrison with two mature Pennsylvania and New York gobblers he took on the youth day during the 2010 season. (Photo by Jason Morrison)

If you know a kid who might be
at risk of becoming an indoorsman,
put the youth day on your calendar.
Too many kids are at risk – at risk of becoming indoorsmen.

Video games and cable television can occupy way too much time, leaving no time for kids to rattle around in the woods and splash along the streams. The dangers of modern times – we all know what they are – can incline parents to keep kids connected to the apron strings for too long. And even two-parent households sometimes don’t provide the kind of footloose-in-the-outdoors-upbringing they themselves enjoyed.

We hear lots of warnings about one of the biggest threats kids face these days – involvement in the wrong things. But another threat is indolence – or involvement in nothing. The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s (PGC) Youth Day, which gives kids under 16 a head start in the spring turkey woods, is an answer for both.

The PGC has also created a mentored turkey hunting program for kids under 12. Spring turkey is the perfect hunt for mentoring kids in the art and science of hunting.

What is mentored turkey hunting?
In 2006, the PGC authorized kids younger than 12 to go spring gobbler hunting with a qualified adult, not just as an observer or a tag-along, but as the shooter. It’s an invaluable experience for all the benefits it provides.

I remember when I was younger than 12 – I ached to go hunting, but had to wait. It was one of the most frustrating things I experienced as a kid. Now, kids don’t have to wait – if they have an interested adult willing to take them.

I know what some are thinking. “Isn’t this dangerous?” No. In fact, by introducing kids properly, under a limited scenario where they accept it as a privilege, it may end up making turkey hunting safer in the coming years.

What’s the limitation? The hunting team of adult and child can have only one gun, and the adult must carry it until they set up to call the turkey. That’s when the kid takes over the shotgun under the direct supervision of the adult.

The adult is responsible for instructing the youngster. He can tell him every move to make and nearly every thought to think, so the kid can focus with single purpose. By having this privilege early, complete with moment-by-moment instruction regardless of whether he takes a shot, the kid is less likely to take the kinds of risks later that may result in an accident – and is more likely to fall in love with hunting.

The perfect youth hunt
The youth spring gobbler hunt has many other benefits, too. One is that spring turkey hunting takes place at a time when the weather is less likely to be nasty than it might be in the fall firearms deer season.

Another plus is that spring gobbler hunts can be brief excursions. You can be home by mid-morning if you want, or noonish – legal shooting hours end at noon. So, the child doesn’t have to sacrifice the entire day if he or his family has other plans.

The youth day comes before the general opener, so another benefit is lack of competition from adults. You’re less likely to be calling to a gobbler that someone else is calling, and you’re more likely to find an uneducated gobbler.

Make sure you have a plan before walking into the woods with a novice hunter. Do some scouting. Find a hunting location that’s easy to get to, and doesn’t involve an all-day hike. Go slowly and take it easy.

Ben Morrison takes two!
Thanks to mentored turkey hunting, Jason Morrison’s son Ben is already a veteran in the turkey woods. At age 10, he shot his first gobbler, a jake. Then at age 11 he took a longbeard. Last year on Pennsylvania’s youth day, the father-son team spooked the first gobbler of the morning, but found another, called it in, and 13-year-old Ben scored. The same day was also New York State’s youth day. It was still early, so they headed north and Ben successfully harvested a second gobbler. Not many experienced hunters have taken two mature gobblers in two states on the same day!

To top it all off, Jason is a taxidermist, and he’s almost finished mounting Ben’s gobblers. Will Ben ever forget that day? Not a chance. But better than that, it was a day of father-son bonding that will pay endless dividends.

A lot can happen
Ben’s experience that day brings up another great benefit of spring gobbler hunting – a lot can happen in a short time. If one gobbler beats you, it doesn’t mean the hunt is over. Keep hunting and you have a good chance of finding another to test your skills on.

Besides the hunt, fascinating things happen in the spring woods that will add to the enjoyment. You’ll see melodic songbirds, with thousands of miles under their wings, returning from their time-shares down south. You’ll see shaggy-coated deer trying to gain weight after a spartan winter diet. You might discover a coyote den, a black bear fresh from hibernation, spring flowers poking their heads through the leaf litter, lovelorn porcupines chasing and growling at one another, maybe even a shed deer antler. The spring woods offer much to see and investigate. It’s a great time to be out.

What to tell parents
What do you tell non-hunting parents of a prospective youth hunter? Tell them the truth – that the kid will be within arm’s reach of you at all times and he won’t even touch the gun until it’s time to set up for the shot. Tell them that he’ll get what most kids don’t – one-on-one, hands on experience and training in safety, ethics, responsibility and enjoyment. Tell them that turkey hunting is about much more than turkey hunting. And tell them you’ll bring him home safely, with an experience he’ll treasure for the rest of his life – even if he decides not to become a hunter.

Read up on the rules for mentored hunting – they’re on page 15 of the PA Hunting & Trapping Digest. He’ll need a permit. Beg or borrow some camouflage clothing for him. Take him to the shooting range. You don’t want his first time pulling the trigger to be at a live target, so give him shooting instructions with an appropriate shotgun, and use a paper target to assess his ability to shoot.

If you know a kid who might be at risk of becoming an indoorsman, put the youth day on your calendar – April 23 this year – and plan a spring gobbler hunt. And if his (or her) parents don’t hunt, watch the kid come home and excitedly begin pushing his non-hunting, neutral parents to the side of the good guys.

Turkey Hunting with the Locals

by Steve Sorensen
(Special to the Warren Times Observer, April 8, 2011.)

Tim Smith, with his big collection of turkey beards and spurs, and a shotgun that’s ready for the season. (Photo by Steve Sorensen)

Turkeys are so overloaded with anxiety
that they couldn’t be cured of their
neuroses even on Sigmund Freud’s couch.
I’ve heard turkey hunters complain that the how-to lessons they read in magazines are often hard to apply in our neck of the woods. Here, embattled gobblers behave like they’ve had the survival training and experience of an Army Ranger fresh from Fallujah. With that in mind, I asked a few of the better local turkey hunters how they got to the point where they can pretty reliably fill their gobbler tags. Their answers should be helpful as you hit the woods in a few weeks.

Jason Morrison:
When I asked Jason Morrison, taxidermist at Buckhaven Wildlife Art in Sugar Grove, what advice he’d give a new hunter, or any hunter who is going through a dry spell, he replied instantly. “One word – patience. Without it you will call in lots of turkeys that you never realize you’ve called in, but you won’t see them because you’ll be gone. I’ve killed several turkeys after I woke up from a nap, and there’s an important lesson in that. More than a few times I’ve shot gobblers 2 hours after making my last call.”

Jason continued, “Pressured turkeys are often slow to come in, or they come in silently. I believe 50% of the turkeys will come in without gobbling because their lives are constantly threatened. Maybe they’ve been beat up by a boss gobbler, spooked by a bobcat, or hassled by a hunter. They figure out quickly when hunters are after them.”

He’s right. Hunters need to realize that turkeys are so overloaded with anxiety that they couldn’t be cured of their neuroses even on Sigmund Freud’s couch.

I once called in a gobbler that hung up at 70 yards, froze like a statue and clammed up for almost an hour. He never moved a wattle. If I hadn’t been able to see him, I would have thought he was long gone. I seasoned him with patience, and he tasted especially good.

I’ll add one tip to Jason’s advice. When you finally do need to leave a calling position after not hearing the gobbler in a long while, offer a sharp cluck or two and wait another 10 minutes. You’ll be saying, “I’m right here. Where are you?” He just might show up.

Dr. Paul Bialas:
I don’t suppose doctors ordinarily appreciate it when you take extra time to talk turkey at your doctor’s exam, but I asked avid turkey hunter and Warren physician Dr. Paul Bialas what he’d suggest to a hunter who has limited time to hunt. Almost jokingly, Dr. Bialas said, “I’d recommend working hard at getting access to good property where other hunters don’t have permission and where you can get in and out fast.”

Most of us have limited time, so that’s not a joke. It’s common sense advice for any hunter. And I have to admit – it’s common sense I lacked many years ago. I hunted too many places just because they were convenient, even though many other hunters went there for the same reason. Lack of access to good hunting land puts you at a big disadvantage. Whether you hunt on private property, state game lands, or national forest, don’t wait until the week before the season to explore new places.

Finding new places to hunt is part of pre-season scouting. Time put in scouting will usually save time and reduce frustration during the season.

Tim Smith:
Tim Smith of Smith’s Custom Guns in Warren ought to know a thing or two about shooting turkeys – one of his specialties is building turkey guns. I pointed to Tim’s big rack of turkey beards and spurs and asked, “What should a hunter do to make sure his shotgun can produce a collection like that?”

He said, “Every turkey gun should not only be patterned, but the center of the pattern should be at the point of aim. Take your choke into consideration. Today’s chokes give very reliable results. Choose a choke between .660 and .680 – the tighter ones work best with smaller shot such as No. 6, the larger ones with No. 4 or 5.”

Smith also suggests testing some of the great new turkey loads on the market. “You’re looking for a tight pattern that leaves no gaps in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards or more. Hevi-Shot, a high density alloy of tungsten, nickel and iron, produces some of the best patterns and it retains energy for deep penetration. If recoil is a problem, we can do some things to reduce it.”

Bear in mind one caution to Tim’s point. You can lose more turkeys with a 60-yard shotgun than you can a 40-yard shotgun – IF it encourages risky shots at marginal distances. The last thing you want to do is hit a turkey and let him get away. When hunters misjudge distances, or shoot at marginal ranges, they often can’t be sure whether they have missed or wounded the gobbler.

Dick Zimmerman:
An article on turkey hunting wouldn’t be complete without some comments on calling, so I invited Dick Zimmerman of Russell to share some calling advice. Dick has hunted several states, and killed a gobbler in every Pennsylvania spring season since 1971 – until 2009 when his string was broken.

“Lots of people call too much, or call too loudly. A hunter should relax, and let the gobbler come. If the hunter is anxious, his calling can reflect that anxiety. If the gobbler is close, a loud call will sound unnatural. A soft call will encourage him. If he’s gobbling and coming closer, don’t answer every time he gobbles. Talk back only every third or fourth gobble. Resist the urge to call, call, call.”

Dick’s advice is right on target. If you listen to real hens, they seldom call loudly. And calling too often will make the gobbler think the hen wants to come to him. That’s what the gobbler’s instinct says should happen, but the hunter hopes to reverse that instinctive behavior.

I know way more exceptional turkey hunters than I can name – Wally Ciukaj, Rick Sharp, Jake Byler, Ron Farnham and many others – whose advice would cover everything from calling to woodsmanship. Turkey hunters can talk almost endlessly about virtually anything remotely related to turkey hunting: guns, loads, camouflage, decoys, scouting, blinds, calls, and more.

No doubt you know some good turkey hunters I don’t know, but every turkey hunter should tell you to make safety your first aim – it’s infinitely more important than getting a gobbler. And remember, be considerate to your fellow hunters – courtesy goes a long way toward insuring safety in the turkey woods.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

All-Day Spring Gobbler Hunting

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 2, 2011.)

The upside of afternoon hunting is
that legal hunting hours increase
by more than double.
Pennsylvania spring turkey hunters are getting ready for something new – all-day hunting during the last half of the April 30-May 31 season.

As in the past, for the first two weeks hunters may hunt only until noon. Then, from May 16 to May 31, legal hunting hours extend from a half-hour before sunrise all the way to a half-hour after sunset.

How will this affect hunters? Will it mean more hunters buy the second spring gobbler tag? How many more turkeys will we kill? Will it create enforcement issues?

The Board of Game Commissioners, Wildlife Conservation Officers, and hunters will be watching closely to learn the answers to these and other questions.

All-day hunting is common in many other states. And in those states, afternoon hours have posed little or no problem. So why not extend the hours in Pennsylvania?

Hunters from states with afternoon hunting will tell you that hunting turkeys later in the day is more challenging. Gobblers aren’t as vocal then, so they’re harder to locate. Most Pennsylvania hunters see it that way – it won’t be any easier to harvest a late season afternoon bird than a morning bird.

Others, expecting the worst, think afternoon hunting will ruin the spring gobbler season. They say hunters who don’t have calling skills will wait at a roost site and shoot a gobbler on his way home to bed. They say hunters will be willing to shoot gobblers off the roost after dark. They say when a gobbler is hunted in the evening, he’ll be much less responsive in the morning.

My take on it isn’t so pessimistic. Will gobblers be easier to kill in the evening as they make their way to the roost? Probably not. Turkeys often change their roosting spot from night to night, so evenings won’t be any easier to hunt than mornings, when gobblers announce to the world exactly where they are.

Will hunters be more inclined to shoot gobblers off an evening roost? I doubt it – only the ones who are willing to do it in the morning will consider doing it at night.

Look at it this way – in the morning if you shoot a turkey off the roost, at least you have daylight to find him. At night, he’ll be much harder to find. A gobbler might fall to the ground flopping and it won’t be easy to chase him down in the dark, or he might set his wings and glide. Either way, he won’t have to go far to make himself difficult to find.

Of course, on that point I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe someone who “hunts” that way will chime in and tell everyone how he does it.

The upside of afternoon hunting is that legal hunting hours increase by more than double. So, hunters won’t feel as pressured to get their hunting time in during the first two weeks. They won’t be as concerned about early season weather. Hunters who used to roost gobblers in the evening will now be taking hunting excursions – if they don’t succeed in the evening at least they’re more likely to know where to go for a sunrise hunt.

Hunters who don’t like early morning wakeups might sleep in more often, reducing competition for hunting areas during the traditional hours. Then they might hunt later into the season.

Beyond that, will hunting tactics change? Not much. In the afternoon turkeys spend most of their time feeding, resting and grooming, so hunters will need to find where these routines take place. Once you find those places, being less mobile and making soft, contented calls will be the norm for successful afternoon hunts. And I suspect that an afternoon gobbler will be no different than a late morning gobbler. If you get one to sound off he probably wants to be with a hen, so your odds of killing him go up.

It’s hard to say whether late season afternoon hunting will contribute significantly to higher success rates. By midseason, many hunters have already harvested their gobblers – or given up – so fewer hunters will be in the woods. But because turkeys are less vocal and less aggressive in the afternoon, I suspect most spring gobblers will continue to be taken in the mornings.