Sunday morning, I watched the sun rise and listened to the woods wake up, sitting in a clump of willow and grapevines, wearing an itchy mesh camouflage face mask and waiting for a turkey. I’m not normally the type of person who gets up hours before dawn to wait for unsuspecting wildlife, but this weekend, I participated in a Learn to Hunt program sponsored by the Wisconsin DNR and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The WDNR runs a variety of learn to hunt programs, but this weekend’s was aimed at introducing Madison’s sustainable food enthusiasts to a new way of locally sourcing their meat. Each novice is paired with an experienced mentor. My roommate Meg and I decided it sounded like fun, and signed up. We all met for a pre-hunt class on firearm safety and turkey season regulations. At a glance, it looked like an unlikely party- mentors in camo looking totally at home at the gun range where we met and mentees in hand knit hats who looked like they belonged at the downtown farmer’s market. But that was just the stereotypes- soon everyone was chatting.
I quickly learned that there was a lot to learn. To be a successful turkey hunter, you have to learn to identify good turkey habitat and understand the nuances of turkey behavior. You have to learn how to flirt with the male turkeys by making sexy lady turkey calls to get them to come over to visit your strategically placed decoys.
Until recently, I never thought that I’d want to learn to hunt. I didn’t grow up around it and guns always seems a little scary until I had to learn to shoot a shotgun as safety requirement for working in the Denali National Park backcountry. And that was hard! I’m not naturally a patient person either, so a hobby that involves sitting still and quiet for hours didn’t immediately appeal. But here in Wisconsin, hunters are passionate people, and in their stories, I recognized how well they know wildlife and their habitats. I love being outside and the feeling of understanding my surroundings, usually from the perspective of the vegetation communities. I realized that good hunters can see landscape from a wildlife perspective, reading the signs that were invisible to me about good habitat, tracks, calls, and more. I wanted to try on this new lens for looking at landscape, so I decided to try on hunting.
My mentor, Dan, is a Madison musician turned software developer who’s been hunting since childhood. Our first day out, I quickly realized how much I didn’t know. Wearing his camo and carrying his gun, I followed him through a narrow strip of public land in the dark, just trying to hike quietly while he scouted for tree silhouettes that might be roosting sites for the turkeys he’d seen hanging around the area the day before. I stood around helplessly as he tested several strategies for placing a decoy in a visible place and finding a good natural blind to hide us. As we settled in, listening for turkeys in a early morning cacophony of geese, cranes, and songbirds, he heard calls I totally missed. When we gave up on our spot and trekked out in search of the birds, he always spotted them first.
Although I’m still not sure I’ll ever love sitting and waiting, I really enjoyed trying to listen, observe, and understand the woods around me in a much more intimate way then when I’m just hiking on through. Staying still on high alert, focused on listening, actually felt kind of mediative, since you couldn’t let your mind wander too far off. Sure, I could do that without the goal of hunting, but having that purpose gave me an extra motivation to pay attention and not fall asleep. Also, it turns out that trying to crawl through the woods quietly while carrying a shotgun is really hard.
Our second day, Dan’s plan worked perfected. We hid in the brush, calling and waiting, until two big gobblers decided to come check out our decoy. They came over a rise and were suddenly very close to me, very quickly. Wow! it worked, two big beautiful birds are right here. Oh wait, I’m supposed to shoot them! I tried to pick up the gun to get in position slowly, but the barrel made some noise against the branches and they heard it, and looked straight at me. Caught! I think if I was comfortable with the gun, with the whole idea of shooting at them, I probably could have got the shot off fast enough. Instead, as I tried to think through taking off the safety and aiming, they had begun to walk away. I shot, and missed because they were already on the move. As the shot rang out, they flew off, disappearing behind us into the marsh and the only sound left was Dan cursing- I’d like to believe with me, not at me.
Everything worked perfectly, except me. The turkeys won. I’ve been replying it over and over in my mind, trying to learn from Dan’s advice on my key mistakes. He said I should have waited longer to pick up my gun- pick up, aim, shoot, as quick as possible so they don’t have as much time to react to any tiny noises. I’m sure it’d help too if I could just shoot on instinct too, instead of having so many thoughts. It’s just hard to be ready for something you haven’t done before.
In fact, I’ve probably learned more from my mistakes then I would have from lucky success. But from the whole experience introduced me to new way to look at my natural surroundings. It’ll take me a long time to get good at it, but I think I might like to. It totally makes sense why so many hunters are strong advocates for conservation- we need to protect wild places and keep them healthy if we want to hunt healthy wildlife. The folks who lead this program had an obvious love for turkeys and a simultaneous desire to kill them. That might seem contradictory when I say it, but it really didn’t feel that way- they respect the birds and their habitat, I think. For me, I learned a new way to see the woods around me in Wisconsin. Now, I can’t help looking for turkeys as I drive along country roads.