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 27, 2013

So, You're Not a Great Caller?

by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 27, 2013.)

That’s OK. You don’t need to be.

For a long time, waterfowl and predators were popular targets of the game caller’s skills. In those cases, game calling was about one of two things. It was saying “Hey, everybody, head over here – it’s partytime!” Or it was about making sounds that drew a Pavlovian response from a hungry fox or coyote.

Then along came the ’60s and ’70s. When spring turkey seasons were created in the north, hunters became entranced with communicating one-on-one with a game animal.

If you make a bad sound, 
that's not the end of the rodeo.

That’s what makes calling spring gobblers different. It’s a fascinating interaction with a wild animal. It’s sending a message in the vocabulary of the wild turkey. It’s a conversation – comments and responses.

Back in the days when turkey hunters were feeling our way along, so-called experts gave us advice that seemed to make sense. I remember reading that a turkey caller should give three yelps and shut up, that if you scared a gobbler one day he’d probably stay scared for the rest of the season, and that if you made a bad sound you might as well give up – your hunt was over.

Now we know none of that is true. Three yelps will work, but often one yelp works, or a dozen. And not just yelps. We’ve learned to make contented purrs, loud cackles, and several other calls. All of them have variations in tone, clarity and volume. And they have meaning.

If you scare a gobbler, he might be difficult to call in for the rest of that day, but he’ll still respond. You can shoot at him, even sting him with shotgun pellets, and he’ll come to the call as soon as the next day, if not sooner. So, scaring a gobbler does not mean game-over.

And if you make a bad sound, that’s not the end of the rodeo. In fact, bad sounds are characteristic of turkeys. Most seasoned turkey hunters have heard some unspeakable sounds come from turkeys, but do we really know if they are bad sounds? They might actually sound pretty good to other turkeys.

So, the lesson is this: practice your calling. It can make a big difference. It’s no accident that the best callers bring home the most gobblers. But it’s also true that relatively unskilled callers can do well too, if they do the other things right.

What are those “other things”? You learn them by going hunting as often as you can. What you learn one day may help you kill that gobbler another day. It’s called “woodsmanship,” and woodsmanship has killed turkeys when calling couldn’t.

Specific to calling, I offer only two bits of advice:
  1. Don’t be anxious. The voice is a billboard for anxiety. You know that because you’ve seen anxious speakers stand up before a crowd and you’ve heard the nervousness in their voices. If your calls sound anxious you’ll get less response from gobblers. Turkeys aren’t tense when they’re calling to other turkeys. You shouldn’t be either.
  2. Don’t worry about calling mistakes. For every turkey that makes the clean, clear yelps you strive for, four others will make a sound that would make you say “Uh-oh!” if you made it. When you make one of those “bad” sounds, come right back with something better. What you think sounds bad doesn’t necessarily sound bad to the turkey. Even a squeaky hinge on a pasture gate can call in a turkey.
Calling turkeys is a con game. Turkey callers are con artists. “Con” is short for “confidence.” You’re attempting to fool the gobbler, to scam him, to hustle him. Your counterfeit sweet talk creates confidence, but you also exploit his weaknesses – his vanity, his lust, his desire for companionship. You’re trying to make the turkey comfortable with the situation – so you get the opportunity to pull the trigger.

To do that, you don’t have to be an especially good caller. If a squeaky gate can give a gobbler what he wants to year, you can too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Richly Blessed

by Steve Sorensen(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 13, 2013.)

Ever wonder how some guys end up with a nice buck every season? Long ago, someone told me it’s because of the amount of time they spend in the woods. Investing time is part of the answer. The limited amount we learn from books, videos and magazines will speed up our learning curve and help us understand what we see with our own eyes, but nothing substitutes for time spent in the woods.

Another answer we hear often is “you can’t shoot ’em while you’re sitting on the couch!” True. Couches aren’t part of our hunting equipment – though someone somewhere has no doubt shot a buck while sitting on a couch in a comfortable hunting shanty overlooking a well-used trail. In our day we have a problem with inertia – a body at rest tends to stay at rest. So we spend more time on couches than any generation before.

It’s deer season right now – time to learn and study, 
whether in the woods or at home.

I like another answer I heard this week. I was interviewing a couple of hunters for a magazine article, and one quoted a Bible verse from Proverbs, chapter 28, verse 20 – “A faithful person will be richly blessed.” He went on to say, “Faithfulness is what builds character, and character is what pays off in the long run.” Does that apply to hunting? He thought it does, and I do, too.

By quoting the Bible, I’m not going to go all religious on you, because faithfulness is bigger than religious faith. It’s not easy to be faithful as a hunter, because faithfulness implies a long list of things to be faithful about.

We’ll start with game laws. Yes, obey them. When you stay within the law, you’re being faithful to those who made the laws, to others who obey them, and to your personal integrity. Faithfulness means disciplining ourselves to play within the rules – and that’s true in any sport.

Faithfulness includes the hard work of scouting, whether you’re hunting deer, turkeys, or something else. If all we did as hunters was go out into the woods on opening day and think, “This seems like a good place,” not many of us would be successful.

We need to know where the deer are bedding or the gobblers are roosting. We need to know where the food is. We need to know what time of day the trails are being used. We need to know the habits of the animals – what they do and why they do it. We don’t know these things unless we do our scouting.

We need to improve our skills. Hunters who are better at skills such as calling, still-hunting, evaluating the maturity of animals – these hunters are more successful because they practice.

That means opening day of hunting season is not really the first day of hunting season. It’s only the first day it’s legal to shoot the animal we’re after. Long before opening day the faithful hunter is preparing for that day.

Every sport is the same. Players aren’t ready to walk onto the baseball field on opening day if they haven’t been conditioning, learning, doing drills, and improving their skills. Months of practice precede opening day. That’s why, on the first day we take our kids to baseball practice, it’s baseball season even though the first game is weeks away. Likewise, it’s deer season right now – time to learn and study, whether in the woods or at home.

Faithfulness also means doing our best to hold up all the other ends of our lives. We work, we sleep, we spend time with loved ones. If you can’t participate in the activities of your kids because you’re too busy hunting, you’re what one writer calls “hyper-hobbied.”

The writer who coined that term is a hunting pastor in Nebraska named Zeke Pipher. He has noticed that men tend to be competitive, ambitious, driven for adventure, and sometimes out of control in a very over-controlled kind of way. Even if everything these “hyper-hobbied” men are doing are good things, they’re not always the right things or the best things.  He has written about it in a book called Man on the Run: Helping Hyper-Hobbied Men Recognize the Best Things in Life. I think Pipher would agree – “A faithful person will be richly blessed.”

That wouldn’t be a bad motto for a hunter. Take a minute to check out Zeke's book.

Turkeys Don't Care Who Kills Them

by Steve Sorensen(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 11, 2013.)

“I am going to be good at this!” Four gobblers had just answered the first call I ever squawked out on a diaphragm call. But that standard of success – just hearing a gobbler – was all I achieved for a long time as I learned that getting that first gobbler under your belt can be a real challenge.

That afternoon I had stopped at Smith’s Bait Shop on the east side of Warren, and walked out with a Penn’s Woods single-reed diaphragm call and an instructional recording. The record was the size of a 45 rpm single, but it spun at 33. I still have it.

When you’re 21 years old 
you don’t mind sitting in your dad’s lap 
if it means calling in a gobbler.

I went home and played the record, made a few ear-shattering sounds, and after supper rode my Honda motorcycle to Bauer Hill, just outside Warren off Cobham Park Road. At my first inexpert yelp, those head-snapping gobbles got hold of me. That was the moment I became a turkey hunter.

It was a long time until I graduated to being a turkey killer, but I graduated from high school the next year. I don’t remember how many times I went turkey hunting while in high school, but however many it was, I wasn’t successful. And when I went to college, I made a terrible decision. I could have gone to any one of dozens of Pennsylvania colleges within a few minutes of turkey woods, but instead I found a college in the Boston area. And each year when end-of-semester academic pressure mounted in May, I wondered if I could find time to go home to western Pennsylvania and hunt turkeys. 

Finally, in my junior year, I called home and asked for some help. “Dad, can you find me a turkey to hunt? I’m coming home the second weekend of May.” He obliged, and I drove eight hours through battering rain until I pulled into the driveway around 2:00 AM.

Parents don’t need to be awakened when their kid is on the road somewhere between Boston and Warren, so they were wide awake when I tapped on their bedroom door. “It’s raining, and it’s gonna keep raining,” Dad said. Are you sure you want to go?”

“That’s the only reason I came home. I’ll get some sleep and be ready at five,” I replied.

It’s great to have a father who is willing to do your turkey scouting, and go out with you when his odds of getting soaking wet are better than your odds of getting a shot.

It was still dark when we drove up the hill – Bauer Hill again – where dad had heard a gobbler several previous mornings. We eased to the edge of the slope and as light began to filter through the cloud cover, I let out one of my yelps on that old Penn’s Woods diaphragm. Down below, the gobbler responded.

We slipped down to the bench, found the root ball of a toppled cherry tree, and backed up against it – Dad behind me, and me almost in his lap. When you’re 21 years old you don’t mind sitting in your dad’s lap if it means calling in a gobbler.

That gobbler started coming. I called sparingly, worried about making a mistake that would make him forget about ever coming to a hen again. Finally, I could see him heading straight for us. Slowly. Each time he picked up a foot, he’d think long and hard before putting it down ahead of his other foot.

When he was about 40 yards away he began circling to my right. How good was my calling? That gobbler was proving it was good enough, but I wasn’t confident enough to make any more calls as he looked for the hen he thought he heard.

He kept circling to my right, and as slowly as I could I twisted at my waist. The angle of the shot became more and more difficult. When I couldn’t twist any more, I began to inch the butt stock of Dad’s old Ithaca double from my right shoulder across my chest to my left shoulder. It wasn’t easy – my right eye looking down the barrel at that tiny bead, and the stock on my left shoulder.

Finally, I decided he wasn’t coming any closer. I fired, he crumpled, and we celebrated.

I threw that gobbler over my shoulder and we hiked back to the top of the hill where we had parked the old red International Scout. On the way there, we encountered a Jeep, and inside were two of the best turkey hunters around our area in those days – a retired state trooper and the owner of Smith’s Bait Shop where I bought my call. But I was the one with the gobbler.

If you’re a rookie hunter still looking for your first gobbler, believe this: turkeys don’t care who kills them. And if you’re a seasoned hunter looking for your fifty-first, recognize that if a 12-year-old bests you, or even dumb college kid, the best thing you can do is to be happy about it.

That gobbler’s fan never looked better than when I displayed it in the back window deck of the copper-colored 1971 Plymouth Duster I drove back to Boston.

10 Top Pre-Season Scouting Tips for Spring Gobblers!

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, April 11, 2013.)

Scouting for spring gobblers definitely has lots of upsides. Hunters who locate two or three dozen gobblers before opening day often score early – and more than once. They enjoy witnessing the season breaking from winter to early spring. They see more, hear more, and experience what hunters who aren’t out there long before the season begins don’t.

But can hunters afford to be lazy, avoid scouting, and still expect to score?

If candles had three ends, spring is the season
when you'd be burning all three.

It’s probably not a question of being lazy, because the truth is springtime is a busy time and most of us have many commitments. It’s not always easy to get out there and do our proper pre-season scouting.

If candles had three ends, spring is the season when you’d be burning all three. If your son or daughter is involved in youth baseball or softball, practices and games make it all the harder to do any scouting. (Been there, done that.) Then, you can’t avoid the annual yard and garage clean up, and the honey-do list that’s been hanging fire all winter. Scouting for turkeys can be like one more part-time job, and it will wear you out long before the season opens and you can start toting your shotgun. If you could only send those flaps on the side of your head to listen in the turkey woods at 5:00 AM, so the rest of your body could take care of all your other responsibilities.

Finding time to scout is a challenge, so here are 10 tips that might help you make the most of your pre-season scouting, while increasing your odds once the season opens.

  1. One of the best ways to do your pre-season scouting is to lock up permission to access land early, in prime places. It’s not as exhausting as racing around looking for gobbling toms. It doesn’t burn a lot of gasoline or put a ton of miles on your hunting buggy. And you can gather information from landowners about the turkeys on the property, saving you lots of time. Plus, once you secure permission, there’s a chance landowners might turn others down.
  1. Opening day is very competitive in Pennsylvania – and that can’t be good for making turkeys feel at ease. So scout specifically for opening day. Find out where you can go to get away from the crowds. I learned this back in 1989 when I decided to hunt Cameron County on opening day. Why go so far? Because I had hunted there in deer season, and virtually no one else was there. I saw a nice gobbler that day, so I let him winter there and brought him (or one of his rivals) home in the spring.
  1. It’s a long season, and you don’t want to wear yourself out, so pace yourself. Don’t let sleep deprivation make you a zombie at work. Don’t let it make you as cranky as the head witch in a broom factory, so you become a monster to your spouse. It’s not worth it. Besides, there’s a law of diminishing returns to pre-season scouting once the season opens. Understand that what you learn in the pre-season begins losing value after opening day.
  1. Keep a list of places where you find turkeys year after year. Make a quick stop there just to be sure the turkeys are still there. It doesn’t matter whether you hear a gobbler or not, as long as you find scratchings, droppings, tracks or feathers – clues that turkeys are there. Even if you find only the sign of hens, if hens are there gobblers will be there, too. Once you’ve verified turkeys are in your trusted spots – then go scout new places.
  1. Many hunters consider spring gobbler hunting a sport for a solo hunter, but when you hook up with a buddy and compare scouting notes. That will let you know more about what places are getting heavy pressure, give you higher odds of success, multiply your options later in the season, give you both something to celebrate, and a great memory to share. Just make sure your trusted friend will be as discreet as you are about the gobblers you find.

  1. Don’t ignore posted land, even if you don’t have permission to hunt it. Just call them across a property boundary. They don’t know the boundary is there, so that’s no harder than calling them anywhere else. I’ve called gobblers off posted land more than once, without ever setting foot on posted property. Respect the poster signs. They tell you a boundary is there, but they don’t tell the gobblers anything.  
  1. Lots of hunters scout by driving the back roads, stopping at likely looking spots, and getting as many turkeys to shock-gobble as possible. Make your list, and keep it in your back pocket. With 40 or 50 gobblers located, you’ll always have a spot you can head for, and it won’t take long to get to one. But remember this – when you locate gobblers from the roads in heavily hunted areas, you’re hearing the same gobblers a dozen or more other hunters are hearing. You almost guarantee yourself competition.
  1. Don’t limit yourself to road scouting. Scouting on foot lets you go over the next hill and find gobblers that other hunters will never hear. On-foot scouting takes more time, so you won’t be able to cover as much ground. But the gobblers you find will be less educated by the crowds, and give you higher odds for success. Plus, you’ll notice many more clues about where turkeys are and what they’re doing.
  1. Don’t put all your eggs in the pre-season scouting basket. You can waste time with a run of bad luck when you’re unable to find any place that holds turkeys. And, turkeys will often move. When hens head for good nesting cover, gobblers will follow, so those places where you found all the gobbler sign can go cold as early as a week into the season.
  1. Maybe you want to be out there. Maybe you think you should be out there. But maybe you can’t be out there because all those other wants and shoulds and musts rank a little higher. Don’t feel badly. Don’t feel that other hunters are out there getting the jump on you. Even a small amount of scouting can pay big dividends, so if you don’t have much time for scouting, use these tips to scout smart, and enjoy the season.  
Obviously, you need to hunt where turkeys are if you’re going to be successful. That’s why some scouting is a must. So, do some productive scouting. Know at least a few places where turkeys are hanging out. But don’t over-do it. Too much scouting can turn your season into an intolerable marathon. Turkey hunting is supposed to be fun.