Starting With Basics
By Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Program Coordinator
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden 1854
While looking to provide the series of lessons for our Turkey School series, I read and reread a number of books and watched a few videos to see where many authors start when trying to relay beginner knowledge about hunting spring turkeys. In most cases, the books and videos begin with tips on scouting or beginning calling skills. I think I will leave much of those concepts on the shelf for a few lessons and begin our discussion with basic woodsmanship skills as they relate to hunting spring turkeys.
Our world has changed at an unbelievable pace in the past few decades. A more rural society has become much more urban and suburban. Our new world drives a need for constant communication, fed by cell phones, smart phones, web based information streaming news, sports reports, Facebook posts and Tweets. We get into our cars, drive the commute with closed windows in our vehicles and attempt to close off the outside world. We tend to attempt to eliminate noise as white noise or background noise. If you do not fit into the group I have mentioned, you are both lucky and in a growing minority. Our modern environment tends to take us away from the basics of understanding nature, the woods and how to “understand” this game. Our pace of life tends to make us lose patience quickly, seek immediate feedback or reward and forget that any sport requires practice and patience to acquire a level of proficiency to make us successful on a routine basis.
Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to introduce a number of novices to hunting in Colorado, through our Hunter Outreach Program. A consistent theme with most novice hunters is a lack of experience with some basic skills of woodsmanship. While the student reading this lesson may not find that fact a surprise, you should find it fundamental in the learning progression to becoming a successful hunter. Learning to walk quietly in the woods, see tracks and understand what critter made them, listen to the sounds of the forest and determine those which are announcing your presence or the presence of another. Learning the skill of patience (yes, I am convinced patience is a learned skill), sitting motionless for more than 30 seconds at a time, understanding the art of camouflage and perhaps the most critical skill – learning to decelerate.
Every day we seem to practice at the fast pace of everyday life. We are getting pretty good at it as we get a great deal of practice at it. But how do we practice slowing down and absorbing the natural world around us when we head to the woods to hunt? How do we practice moving at the same natural pace of a feeding turkey or cautious doe as she eases through the woods? There is no easy answer to those questions, each of us have our own way to slow down in the woods but if you are to become a successful turkey hunter, you must develop a way to slow it down. A few suggestions may help as you look for your own answers.
Head to a park, a strip of woods by your house or even a quiet place on your back porch. Practice listening to the sounds around you. Try to block out the noise of the background and concentrate on the specific sounds you hear. This is just practice to relearn to hear again.
Sitting still is a learned skill. A good turkey hunter learns to perfect that skill. It is all a part of deceleration. Practice just sitting in one position and not moving much but your eyes. It is said a turkey can see you blink, but I can guarantee you they can see you move your head or arm/leg. Try to see with your peripheral vision and then slowly move your head to see the object more clearly.
Perhaps the best part of deceleration, for me, is letting the outdoors come to me instead of me going to it. I guess it is a kind of meditation. Now I am not much of an expert on meditation but I can tell you that the idea of blocking out the distractions and focusing on the task is a powerful tool both in turkey hunting and many other aspects of life.
Take a walk in the woods. Learn to identify tracks you see. You will need to learn to discern turkey tracks and then the gender of the bird. Hen tracks generally have a middle toe of less than two inches long; a male bird (tom or Jake) will have a middle toe of over 2 inches long.
Learn to move slow and look. See critters before they see you. Walk slowly for a few yards then stop and look, really look! See movement and then see the entire animal, regardless of what it is: birds, mammals or reptiles. Learn to look for the shape, not the entire animal. Learn to see a part: head, tail, different color from the surroundings.
Using a map and GPS. It is key to be able to look at terrain and determine where the birds might roost, travel to food or water or loaf in the bright sun in the spring midday heat. Looking for roost sites on a map then verifying what you find by scouting will save you hours and miles of walking or driving. Once you find turkey sign in an area, begin marking them on your map or GPS to begin to pattern the bird’s movements from the roost to feeding areas, strut zones or dusting areas. The more homework you learn to do before the season, you improve of odds on finding the birds once the season begins.
Finally, practice your stalking skills. Learn to use terrain to mask your movements. Learn to move when the critter is not looking. Sounds like a bit of a childish game but you will be surprised at how it will improve your skills when the season comes.
I know this lesson seems very basic, but I think it is important for the novice hunter to understand there is really no shortcut to building a solid foundation of hunting skills first, rather than worrying about learning to call using a cut, double cut, tree yelp, etc before you understand how to be proficient as a woodsman and hunter.