Spring Turkey Part 2a: Special Hunt

Having never won a special hunt before, I didn’t know what to expect; but visions of wild turkeys flocked my thoughts as I imagined a veritable buffet of gobbler choices in my special hunting area. To prepare, I made sure my aim was true with my shotgun, had cameras charged and ready to go, packed my Field & Stream backpack with extra knives and food storage bags, and tucked away my son’s multicam raincoat just in case. I took my service dog to Paws Inn, the kennel/doggie resort in town on Thursday evening so I’d be unencumbered on the day of my hunt; and took Friday off of work in order to utilize the first special hunt day.

The weekend prior, my labbie-girl and I had driven out to the location in Clay County, an hour away, to make sure I’d know where it is; which I was thankful for given the dirt roads and such I’d have to traverse in the semi-darkness of pre-dawn. By 4:20 a.m. Friday morning I was out of bed and getting dressed for turkey war. I opted to eat a hearty breakfast first, as I was unsure of how long I’d be out in the field, and even made a ham sandwich on a bolillo roll that I packed with an ice pack in with my gear.

By 6:30 a.m. I was parked and making tracks onto the property I was hunting, heading past the tree line that I supposed provided turkey perches and across the first field I came to. A deer walked across the field ahead of me, seemingly not alerted to my presence. Once I reached the location I thought would be best, I set up; decoys out, game camera set up at turkey level, Turkey Fan in front of my tree stand cushion I was using for seating, Contour camera on tripod set up and aimed at me, bipod adjusted to height, and shotgun loaded and ready to go.

As the morning awakened before me, I called out using my Turkey Thug raspy old hen mouth call (from Quaker Boy) and my Illusion box call. I recorded myself on my Contour video camera, speaking normally in hopes of being heard on camera, as my previous recordings of my hunts have been at a whisper and inaudible (and I have since learned that even a conversational tone outside is not well captured by the Contour microphone). Sometime around 9:00 a.m. I decided to move locations as I had no reciprocal clucks or gobbles in that position. Packing everything back up (four decoys, my game camera on a metal ground stand, and the rest of my whole shebang) I traipsed through a thicket of woods, heavily riddled with deer tracks, across another field to a spent corn field alongside some woods and the winding creek on property. I set back up and, calling all the while, waited.

The location was beautiful and I imagined that turkeys would be spilling out of the woods into the corn field looking for bugs and responding to my calls. Instead, two coyotes came a ’calling; the first ran off quickly, but the second, a slightly smaller and mangier looking yote, stood about 30-40 yards in front of me listening and watching. He (could be she, I didn’t check) spied my decoys and took interest, but seemed to notice they didn’t smell like live turkeys and therefore weren’t actually prey. I called quickly, just to see what he would do, as I was fascinated by the encounter, and of course recording the whole thing. At one point, the yote began to approach closer, but a noise in the woods (likely a deer) startled him and then caused him to look at me. In response I stared back, bared my teeth and growled, which prompted him to hightail it out of there.

It was an exciting diversion, and the only wildlife encounter I had all day. The wood line looked beautiful, and part of it was fenced belonging to the neighboring property, so I took a small hike along the edge of the woods and corn field until I reached the creek. Deer tracks were abundant, and had I been hunting during deer season I’d have been plenty hopeful. Yet I didn’t see a single turkey track, turkey scat, or feather. Looking over the creek, however, I saw another part of the property edged by the neighboring land and a lush green field. Perhaps if I were young and spry (although I don’t ever really recall being spry) I would have tackled crossing the banks of the creek; but at almost 55 years young I decided to drag all my stuff back to the truck, drive the block to the other side of the creek, and hike back in. It was about 11:00 a.m., and I’d already eaten half my sandwich. The wind had been blowing like Kansas (I was going to say “like crazy” but anyone who knows Kansas knows the wind blows here far more than crazy), with rain drizzling the whole time I was in that second location. So I was cold, damp, and ready to sit in my truck for a spell.

It was no easy feat, but I made it back to my truck. My backpack had loosened and was falling off my shoulders, pulling on my neck and back, and I was carrying a burlap bag stuffed full like Santa packed it, with my four decoys. Once I reached my truck, I drove down the road to the other side of the creek and rested for about 15 minutes as I endeavored to get my strength back; then I grabbed it all again and hiked to the far side of the property, up against the neighboring green field, through a low lying spent corn field covered in muddy water and accented with violet wild flowers. And enough deer tracks to make a deer hunter climax. I found an area slightly raised above the water, where some green grass was growing and set up, with my two Primos decoys and two random decoys in a dry area of the corn field. And there I called, and called, and ate the other half of my sandwich, and called some more; but I neither saw nor heard any turkeys. At 1:00 p.m. I decided I’d stay until 1:30, and at 1:30 I packed it all back up and walked back to the truck.

By the time I got home from my special hunt I was in pain, tired, and feeling somewhat dejected. I decided for certain that Saturday I would just return to my friend’s property to hunt, where I knew turkeys lived (and sometimes died….).

As with any hunt though, it’s not just about the harvest – it’s about the journey. This was the first time I had ever hunted unfamiliar land. It was my first ever special hunt, and I felt blessed to be a lottery winner out of almost 1,300 applications (169 special hunts were awarded). My special hunt marked a significant increase in my confidence as a hunter, a willingness to get out of my comfort zone, and an opportunity to hike around an area in search of my prey. The hunt brought me outside for a better inside, as my friend Phil says (and I hashtag often #outsideforabetterinside), and thrilled me with a coyote encounter.

Let me sum up my special hunt with the following three very apropos quotes:

“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted… If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it; the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting.

“If the thrill of hunting were in the hunt, or even in the marksmanship, a camera would do just as well.” – Jonathan Safran Foer.

“If you consider an unsuccessful hunt to be a waste of time, then the true meaning of the chase eludes you all together.” – Fred Bear.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Spring Turkey Hunting Part 2 (which would be categorized 2b, I guess….)

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Spring Turkey Part 1

It wasn’t that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, that I was still a wanna-be hunter; reading hunting magazines, sporting hunting t-shirts, and dreaming about the day I’d finally get to hunt. Now, as I approach 55 years young, with almost three years of hunting experience, I think of little else but the next hunt.

And so it’s been; waiting for spring turkey season to reach Kansas… watching the calendar and ticking off the days until I could get out hunting. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism has an informative and interactive website that works in conjunction with the iSportsman website, offering short online classes for permits to hunt on the Fort Riley military installation, and which allows electronic check-in of harvested game. During a recent perusal of both websites I came upon a notice in my account stating I hadn’t yet applied for my special turkey hunt. I didn’t know what a special turkey hunt was, but I knew I didn’t want to be remiss in applying if so prompted; so I completed the application, chose a nearby county, and completed whatever mission had initially brought me online.

Lo and behold; a month or so later I received an email that I’d been awarded a special hunt! As I’ve learned since, the special hunts are part of the KDWPT’s “Recruitment & Retention” program; conducted on department lands, walk-in hunting areas, and county properties. The special hunts limit the number of participants hunting to ensure a quality hunting experience as well as to achieve specific management goals such as herd reduction. My special hunt is in North-West Clay County, on 238 acres belonging to a private owner. I have three days, Friday through Sunday to hunt, and as both people I invited are unable to make it, I have all 238 acres to myself!

In Kansas, we are able to get two turkey tags, and as excited as I’ve been about my special hunt, I wanted to hunt my friend’s property as well. I’d seen quite a few long-beards on my game camera, and I wanted the opportunity to hunt with my Parker crossbow, because I’ve already determined that my special hunt will be with my Mossberg 20 gauge shotgun.  So this past Saturday morning, before the crack of dawn had even awakened, I got myself dressed, slammed down a cup of Black Rifle coffee and a nutrition bar, and headed out.

My goal was to leave my place at 6:00 a.m. to be situated on my friend John’s property by 6:30. I tend to run a bit behind with the morning care of my labbie-girl, so I ended up on property just before 6:30 a.m. and then spent 30 minutes setting up my decoys, game camera, and determining where to place my ground chair and Turkey Fan (which I sat behind). I had my mobile phone mounted to my crossbow scope to videograph the action, and my Contour video camera mounted on my Challenger crossbow aimed at me, for yet another attempt at filming a hunt.

Sometime after 8:00 a.m. I heard gobblers responding to my calls. This season I used mouth calls, after much practice at home, and apparently the gobblers were forgiving of the mistakes I made. I had been practicing with the youth sized mouth call I purchased at the Monster Buck Classic, but then happened to buy a package of Turkey Thugs mouth calls from Quaker Boy. The package had come with a tutorial CD, which I found helpful and fun to practice to at 10:00 p.m. a few nights (likely to the chagrin of my apartment neighbors). The use of the mouth call freed up my hands, but also gave me the opportunity to use my box call periodically in conjunction with the mouth call so that it sounded like a couple of hens. I had four decoys set up; one Jake and three hens and it looked rather like a party.

For about an hour, the long-beards responded vocally, but remained out of sight across the pond. Then, just as I was getting ready to do some more calling, I saw movement in my peripheral vision and I froze in place. From behind me and to my left, a Tom came walking in. He headed straight to my Jake decoy, puffed up and strutted around the decoy, pecking at it for good measure. I watched the turkey dance until I had no more patience, aimed my crossbow, and squeezed the trigger. My arrow hit the mark, just below the wing joint on the turkey’s left side, downing the Tom in his tracks. Fearful of another harvest trial like last spring, where the Tom ran off into the woods and evaded capture for an hour, I switched to a turkey broadhead; the Spitfire Gobbler Getter by New Archery Products (NAP), and added a lighted crossbow capture nock from Red Hot (powered by Lumenok) to my Parker arrow.

The gobbler was about 25 pounds, with a 9 inch beard, and a pretty fan. I harvested about 10 pounds of meat; as I take all salvageable meat, not just the breasts (which were huge), for use in the crockpot. It is, in part, my homage to the turkey for blessing me with his harvest. I endeavor to waste very little. One night this week I grilled his heart, along with a breast steak for a thoroughly enjoyable dinner.

As soon as I compile all the footage, I’ll be uploading the hunt to my YouTube channel; Gal HunterMidlife. Stay tuned for that, and please subscribe.

In all honesty, up to this point, I’ve hunted turkey because I can; because it’s a viable hunt and provides wild harvested, free-range food. But I came to truly appreciate turkey hunting this go-around and believe I am now truly a fan! There is something so thrilling, above and beyond the challenge, about successfully calling turkeys in, hearing them respond, and then watching as they strut their stuff, and investigate decoys. And I find something very satisfying about a skilled harvest with my crossbow. I have yet to have a chance at harvesting a turkey with my shotgun, which is why I’m utilizing it for the special hunt this coming weekend.

The more I hunt, the more it becomes an integral part of who I am; not just something I do, but who I am at my core. The longer I hunt, the more experience I gain and the more confident I feel to try new things and hunt outside of my comfort zone. Now, thanks to this season’s awesome turkey hunting experience, I can add turkey season to my list of favorite hunting seasons… and turkey as one of my favorite game animals.

Stay tuned for Spring Turkey Part 2 – the special hunt….

First-ever Squirrel Hunt

Today was the last day to hunt deer during extended rifle season for my unit here in Kansas. I gave it the old college try; morning and afternoon on January 1st, morning hunting on the 2nd, and morning hunting today. I returned to the upper area blind this morning, having seen deer in the area mid-morning on my game camera. Alas, none showed up for me today; but I was prepared, on the off-chance no deer showed up (hint of facetiousness in that off-chance comment), I brought my Mossberg .22 rifle with me for squirrel hunting.

Yesterday afternoon I laid down some corn near the feeder, primarily in hopes it would lure a doe, but also knowing that the squirrels in the upper area have gotten fat from eating the deer corn I’ve placed in the feeder since late Spring. True to their hungry little natures, they found their way to the deer corn this morning, along with blue jays and an assortment of other fine feathered critters.

My Mossberg does not have a scope on it. When I’ve shot it at the range I’ve always done well using just the front and rear sights, so surmised I’d be just as accurate targeting squirrels. After 2.5 hours of idle sitting in the blind waiting for a deer opportunity, I decided it was time to rest the Browning and set the Mossberg upon my bipod. Carefully I took aim and squeezed the trigger. The squirrel in my sights remained sitting as if still eating corn while the other squirrels and all the birds took off for cover. So I took a second shot.

The squirrel turned and began to run away, but clearly in a manner that indicated she’d been hit. I endeavored to follow after her, but she lost me, and my initial efforts to find her were unsuccessful as there was no blood trail. My heart sank and I felt really sad, and guilty, thinking that I’d injured a creature. In my mind I imagined that I’d perhaps just shot her foot. The squirrel’s ability to run and hide left me sure I’d only wounded her.

I packed up my belongings and walked to my most recent hunting spot along the berm, hoping that maybe a doe would engage in late morning movement. My plan was to remain no longer than 45 minutes, as I’d already been out for three hours and wanted to get back home to take my dog outside. The area remained calm, so at 1230 I left, making every effort to make peace with the knowledge I would have no more deer hunting for nine months. After unloading my Browning rifle in my truck, I decided to return to the upper hunting area and do another search for the squirrel. Ethical hunting is something I strongly believe in, and I did not want to be someone who shot a squirrel and then walked away.

On my second search, I went a bit farther into the woods and took a slightly different path. Low and behold I found a small blood trail at the base of a tree. It was hard for me to believe that the squirrel somehow managed to climb up the tree, but I didn’t see any blood trail leading away from it. Something caught my eye to my right; a dinner plate-sized piece of wood with some red on it. When I moved over closer to investigate, I saw the squirrel under a fallen tree. My shot had been fatal, which I thought was a good thing, in lieu of my earlier opinion that I’d only wounded the squirrel.

Back at my truck, I field dressed and processed the squirrel, managing to keep the hide intact (which I now have drying for preservation). Tonight’s dinner consisted of baked squirrel, which I placed partially covered with unsalted chicken broth, and accompanied with sweet onion, pear, parsley and bok choy. The recipe I’d found online called for celery but the store was out. Bok choy has a similar consistency to celery but added a much stronger flavor that I probably wouldn’t add again. I also seasoned the squirrel with fresh ground garlic, ground pepper, and some sage. Salt is not an option as I’m making the switch to a Paleo lifestyle. I’ve been told that squirrel meat is tough and needs to be slow cooked, or deep fried. I found it fairly moist and acceptably chewy being baked for 45 minutes with the broth to keep it basted.

Although somewhat gamy tasting, the cooked squirrel made my apartment smell wonderful, and I enjoyed ingesting the fruits of my labor. Only hunters and fishermen can claim to harvest a critter during the day, prepare it, cook it, and eat it that evening.

Unable to harvest a second deer and fulfill that goal, I did manage to fulfill my goal of harvesting and preparing a squirrel. And I was able to maintain my code of ethical hunting, while also providing myself a protein source considered lean, healthy, and appropriate for the Paleo Diet.

Deer hunting may be over, but there are plenty of other critters appropriate for a healthy, home-cooked meal.

Preparing for Spring Turkey Season

As I write this, I am so sleepy. But it’s that good kind of tired that comes from staying up late preparing for the next day’s “hunt,” and then arising at 0500 to be in the blind by 0600. I suppose you could say that it’s the kind of tired depicted in modern art of a relaxed hunter asleep under a tree.

This is my first Spring turkey season. I bought a tag during Autumn but didn’t have the first clue how to hunt for turkey, so I’d bring my Illusions box call out with me sometimes while hunting deer, and when no deer showed up, I’d fiddle with the box call a couple of times. Hence, my Thanksgiving turkey was store bought.

I set out to do turkey hunting correctly this season; so I bought a video on turkey hunting from Walmart –Primos Truth 25 Spring Turkey Hunting. First I bought a hen decoy, a Primos Gobbstopper Hen, and then after watching an hour or so of the video, I bought the Gobbstopper Jake as well. Added to my arsenal was a Primos Crow Call. Much to the chagrin of my neighbors, I’m sure, I practiced with my box call and crow call at night while watching the hunting video.

As I’ve never called turkey before, I wanted to experience a dry run, to build confidence. I was on the road to my friend’s property by 0545, bringing my Nikon CoolPix L110 camera to shoot turkey in a non-lethal way. This was also my first use of the Ameristep blind I purchased. My goal was to situate myself in the blind, learn what my mobility and visibility would be, and make sure that I could duplicate the results I watched on the Primos hunting video.

Sunrise isn’t official until almost 0800, but I noted that the Primos hunting team were calling turkey as early as 0700. I also had hopes of spying some deer coming out to feed first thing, as they seem to cross my Moultrie trail cam between 0600 and 0630. It was still quite dark in the woods this morning as I walked to the blind. I had my flashlight on so I wouldn’t trip over any fallen branches, and I’d never been to this part of the woods in the dark. Ironically, even though I took the path I always take, I still got momentarily lost. The woods can be disorienting, and I kept looking ahead for the blind, using that as my focal point. Alas, the blind had collapsed in recent Kansas winds, so I had difficulty locating it. Once I did, I set my gear down to reposition the blind until standing, at which time my camo phone case fell off my BDU pants and onto the blind. That was frustrating in the dark, as the camo cover got “lost” on the camo collapsed blind, laying on the leaves and twigs.

Once inside the blind I set up my tripod and camera, and retrieved my box call and crow call from my bag. Apparently I made just enough noise, or shone just enough light, that the deer vetoed breakfast. I could hear short bleats from both sides of the woods, and foot fall in the brush, but the deer never showed.

At about 0650 I started calling for turkey. At 0720 a heard a response and saw a hen walking toward my decoys. I was thrilled to capture her curiosity for five minutes as a MP4 movie on my camera. If that would have been the end of the pre-hunting trip, I would have been happy. But I had the opportunity to play with the wild turkey for another two hours almost!

Once the hen left, I continued calling for about 30 minutes, to no avail, so I grabbed my Mossberg Plinkster and decided to set my sights on squirrel. I had seen some in the trees while I’d been in the blind working my box call, but once I had rifle in hand there wasn’t a squirrel to be seen. Then I heard hens… so I popped back into the blind and picked up calling again. At one point, there was a flock of hens with a couple of jakes in the woods and brush to my right. I’d call, they’d respond. I was on the edge of my seat – literally – just waiting for them to emerge from the woods into the clearing. My camera was poised for action. Instead they taunted me for at least five minutes, giving me only a glance of brownish body feathers passing by in the bushes. Without so much as a goodbye, they were gone.

After a bit more calling, and waiting, I decided I’d exit the blind and tie one side off to a tree as an anchor; to decrease any chance of another collapse. Just as I stepped one foot outside the blind, I heard turkeys in the woods near my location. Back in the blind I went, bringing my camera and tripod to the back of the blind, where the turkeys were, and naturally facing that way. I waited, with my camera ready to capture the moment, but they didn’t show up. Instead, the two jakes walked to the side of the blind entering at the front, near my decoys. I twisted my body to see them, causing me to fall partially off my camo seat, while at the same time grabbing my mobile phone and turning the video function on. I repositioned myself to the front of the blind, holding my mobile phone as a camera with one hand and holding up my actual camera with the other, trying not to surrender to the severe lean of my cloth stool. By the time I managed to get my Nikon and tripod to the front of the blind, and operational, the jakes had walked off. Thankfully I captured them with my phone!

It’s a wonder they stayed by the decoys at all, what with my leaning, and falling, and twisting (and I’m sure there had to be a grunt or two). It was at that point I decided it truly was time to call it a day and pack up my toys. My mission was accomplished, albeit with some damaged grace; I called turkeys and they came! I saw a hen and two jakes, videographed them, and learned some turkey communication skills.

I also had the opportunity to feel the temperature change subtly in the woods as the morning drew longer, to hear the myriad bird songs that greeted this new day, and to watch as the woods change in appearance and hue with the shifting light. As I sat in my little blind, in my little (borrowed) corner of the Flint Hills, I sat relaxed and at ease; without the noise of politics, civilians, or home-grown terrorists (http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/04/10/kansas-man-accused-plotting-to-detonate-bomb-at-fort-riley-military-base/). It was just me, a gazillion singing birds, a few flying insects, wild turkey, and G-d.

Only five more days before I do it again; but with my Mossberg shotgun instead of my camera. My senses tingle in anticipation… or that could be my body’s way of telling me to take a nap….????????????????????????????????