If you’ve never helped a beginning turkey hunter start climbing the learning curve, you’re missing one of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport. Archibald Rutledge wrote many years ago that “Some men are mere hunters; others are turkey hunters,” and he was right. There’s something about this bird, and the rituals woven into the hunting of him, that gets inside you and won’t leave.
However, if there’s a critter more frustrating to hunt than a wild turkey, I hope I never meet it. Turkey hunting is just plain tough. That’s part of the allure, of course, but the same degree of difficulty that makes turkey hunting so attractive also prevents many folks from staying with it long enough to catch the fever. Nobody enjoys having their noses repeatedly rubbed in it, and turkeys are particularly good at that.
That’s where a mentor can make a difference, and don’t think you have to be an expert hunter to be a good mentor. Nobody ever masters this stuff. There are too many unknown factors, too many ways to screw things up. But the beginning hunter doesn’t know that yet. He’s seen the hype, watched the TV shows and YouTube videos, and has decided to give it a try. He soon learns those three-minute video gobblers that come galloping to the call are nowhere to be found. In the real world, he quickly discovers, turkeys are difficult to kill. He makes mistakes he doesn’t even realize are mistakes, and then he doubles down on them.
This is where the mentor comes in. The job is twofold: to help the beginner recognize his mistakes and correct them, and to show him success, while often difficult, is attainable. In other words, to instill the seeds of confidence.
If you decide to mentor a beginner, there are some things to consider before and during the process, regardless of the age or gender of the beginner.
First, make certain your hunter has taken the required hunter education course. If not, get him or her enrolled at the earliest opportunity. Next, long before you actually go hunting, have a series of conversations with your beginner. The purpose of these chats is to familiarize your rookie with things experienced turkey hunters no longer even think about – walking quietly in the woods, not slamming the car door, not talking above a whisper during the hunt, the importance of sitting still and making slow, deliberate movements when necessary. These are ingrained in the veteran, but not the beginner.
If possible, watch turkey hunting videos with your rookie. The average video only shows a condensed version of what was probably a long hunt, but they’re still valuable teaching aids. Point out the posture and positioning of the hunters, the timing, quality and effectiveness of the calling, the body language of the turkeys, the timing of the shot and whether it was good timing or bad, and so forth. Explaining the screen action is valuable information to the beginner.
While you’re watching these videos, practice the usual sitting position for most turkey hunts. Plopping down against a tree with knees raised is second nature to a veteran turkey hunter, but it’s a foreign concept to the beginner. Practicing in the living room in front of the TV may seem silly, but it promotes familiarity and muscle memory, and that will be invaluable when the chips are down and a gobbler is closing.
If your rookie is an experienced gun handler, some of this isn’t crucial. But for someone who hasn’t done much hunting or shooting, it can make all the difference in the world.
First, make sure your hunter’s firearm fits. Nothing leads to poor shooting performance more surely than an ill-fitting gun. For a child or small-framed woman, this may mean you have to scale down, from 12 gauge to 20 gauge or even smaller. (With some of the heavy shot available today, this isn’t as much of a handicap as before, but that’s a different topic.) The gun should be light enough for your hunter and should also have a stock that fits. Things are going to be difficult enough in the field without your hunter having to wrestle with his or her gun.
When it comes to the actual shooting, three words are important: Practice, practice, practice. And do it from the same position your rookie will be using in the field: either sitting with knees up, or from a folding chair if you’re planning to hunt from a blind.
Use light field loads for practice shooting. It’s cheaper, for one thing. For another, there’s no sense subjecting your rookie to the heavy recoil of turkey loads. Pattern the gun with the turkey loads, sure, but you can do that instead of having your rookie do it. Your goal is to make the shooter familiar with and comfortable with the gun before the moment of truth.
It’s a good idea to put some sort of simple sight on the shotgun, such as a low-power scope or a glow-dot sight such as TruGlo or Red Dot. Many hunters, veterans and beginners alike, are prone to look over the gun barrel rather than along it, and thus shoot over the head of the turkey. It’s a natural tendency, but easily overcome by the addition of a look-through sight.
Make sure your hunter has comfortable clothing that fits. Hand-me-downs are okay for little brothers and sisters, but if you’re taking somebody turkey hunting, it’s important that they ought to have properly fitting clothes, vest and the like.
It’s also important to dress properly for the conditions at hand. A thin-mesh T-shirt isn’t going to cut it if it’s 45 degrees and windy. Think ahead, and plan your hunter’s wardrobe accordingly. Also, a comfortable seat cushion is a must for a new hunter. If they’re not sitting comfortably, they won’t be still. Enough said there.
During the Hunt
First of all: don’t do it all. Let your hunter participate as much as possible, within the limits of his or her capabilities. Calling is a prime example. Learning to run a box or pot-and-peg call is a simple exercise, and even the rankest rookie can probably get a handle on the basics with 15 minutes of practice. Learning to run these calls well and learning when to use them is another matter entirely, but your beginner can certainly help with the calling at least part of the time. So let them.
Also let your beginner participate in the hunt strategy, or at the very least explain why you’re doing a particular thing during the course of the hunt. Don’t leave him or her in the dark. Make them a partner.
Discuss ahead of time what you want the hunter to do when a gobbler shows up. Actors rehearse their scenes for a reason. Waiting until the bird is in sight before you tell your hunter what you want them to do is a sure recipe for disaster.
Consider the limitations of your hunter. This is especially important with youngsters, but it’s also worth considering with older hunters, too. If your beginner is 40 pounds overweight, don’t expect him to climb steep ridges at a gallop.
Use a blind if you’re worried about your hunter being too wiggly or impatient. A blind can cover a multitude of sins. It’s not my favorite way to hunt by a long shot, but I’ve used blinds several times to bring off a successful hunt with newbies.
Likewise, don’t stay too long if things aren’t happening, especially if your beginner is a young person. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun, and your newcomer doesn’t have the reservoir of experience you have to keep him going through the dull time. Along those lines, don’t get mad if your hunter wants to quit or does something that doesn’t suit you. Be patient. Explain why you’re doing things – or not doing them. Again, it’s supposed to be fun.
Finally, know when to let go. Getting somebody started in turkey hunting is one thing. Becoming that person’s crutch is something altogether different. This is most common when schooling a child or spouse in the ways of the turkey hunter, and no matter how much you love them and want them to succeed, there comes a time to cut the strings. The essence of turkey hunting is one hunter going up against one bird, the hunter using his superior brainpower to overcome the turkey’s superior natural senses and instinct for survival.
Mentoring may not be for everyone. Some hunters simply aren’t cut out for the role of advisor and/or teacher. But one of the most satisfying things you can do as a turkey hunter is watch the excitement of someone who’s just taken their first wild turkey gobbler.