Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Growing mentor movement enriches novices and veterans alike

By Jim Low
Conservation Department

JEFFERSON CITY–The temperature hovered around 40 degrees before sunrise on the opening morning of Missouri’s youth turkey season. Ten-year-old Jack Boschert felt the wind’s bite on a mile-long trek to a blind on the edge of a field. The chill melted away, however, when two male turkeys began gobbling in the woods behind him.

“They were really quietly gobbling,” said Jack, who had never hunted turkeys before.

Jack, his dad, David, and their guide, Doug Schwartz, did an about-face. They had barely settled in when a third gobbler raised a ruckus across the field behind them, where they had been facing moments earlier. This lusty gobbler sounded closer, so the three hunters executed another about-face and prepared for action.

“I was really excited because it was the first turkey I ever heard really, really loud before,” said Jack.

The next 20 minutes seemed like two hours, as the gobbler answered their calls but came no closer. Then they heard another turkey, this time a hen. The gobbler quit answering their calls, though they continued to hear occasional gobbles as “their” tom followed the hen off into the distance. Heart-pounding excitement turned to the profound let-down that every seasoned turkey hunter has experienced.

Around 7:30 a.m. Schwartz decided it was time to go looking for gobblers that were not already “henned up.” Two lengthy hikes later, their calling drew a response from a gobbler. After hastily creating a makeshift blind of brush, they settled in to call. Again, the gobbler came in, but only so far.

“We heard it, and then we heard it again,” said Boschert, “and it had gotten closer. Jack’s eyes got big then, and he was like ‘Holy cow, he’s gonna come over that hill any minute.’”

Once again, the bird stopped just out of sight and would not come in. Then they again heard a real female turkey’s seductive calls and realized they had been out-henned. In the meantime, however, they had a natural encounter they never would have experienced if they had not been turkey hunting.

“A deer came out of the woods,” said Jack, “and it was attracted to our decoy, so it was coming in closer. Then another one came up from the woods and they were both walking around and then another one came up, so we saw three deer really up close.”

A few miles away, Jack’s 11-year-old brother, Charlie, was hunting with guide Steve Brenner. It was Charlie’s first time in the turkey woods, too. At dawn, they were sitting within 50 yards of a gobbler on its roost.

“I asked Charlie if he wanted to try to make that turkey gobble up in that tree,” said Brenner. “He almost got an alarmed look on his face like, ‘Oh, no-no-no!’ Real bashful, you know. But I showed him how to purr a slate call and how to make a yelp, and I talked him into it.

“He brought that striker across the slate and got a little purr, and that gobbler let loose – plumb crazy. Then I said, ‘Okay, give him a yelp,’ and it was the same thing, the turkey really responded well. That boy was grinning from ear to ear. He was eating it up.”

Brenner thought it was “a done deal,” that the gobbler would fly down and come directly to Charlie’s gun, but he also knew that gobblers have a knack for doing the unexpected.

“He flew out of that tree and made a bee line across the field,” said Brenner. “He gobbled at us, but he was on a mission and he knew where he was going. We heard him gobble on the next ridge.”

Like his younger brother, Charlie covered a lot of ground trying to find turkeys. By 11 a.m. his interest was flagging. Then Brenner spied three hens and two gobblers, and the hunters were able to sneak within 60 paces of them.

“Those birds put on a show for us,” said Brenner. “Charlie watched with binoculars for about 45 minutes while the toms strutted around and the hens did some pecking-order stuff. It’s hard to call gobblers away from hens, so we tried calling the hens to us. When that didn’t work we tried to flank them by running around the side of the hill to try to get ahead of them but they got spooked. The woods were really dry, and it would have been hard for even one person to do, much less two.”

The Boschert brothers ended the day tired and turkeyless, but they are excited about hunting on their grandfather’s farm during the regular turkey season April 20 through May 10. They were among 10 young hunters who took part in the first Governor’s Invitational Youth Turkey Hunt, sponsored by the Missouri Legislative Sportsman’s Caucus, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the Missouri Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and the Missouri Department of Conservation. Of the 10, only one managed to bag a turkey.

The Governor’s Hunt was among several similar events that took place during Missouri’s youth turkey season this year. Participants in other mentoring events brought home as many as eight gobblers, but turkey hunters measure success more in thrills and stories than in number of turkeys shot. By that standard, the young hunters had an ample harvest of thrills and stories.

The Conservation Commission established the youth season in 2001 to encourage mentorship. The weekend season in early April allows adult hunters to devote their full attention to young protégés. The youth season comes early enough to let turkeys mate unmolested and return to normal behavior patterns before the regular turkey season opens.

The Conservation Commission gave mentorship another boost last year by establishing an Apprentice Hunter Authorization. The $10 authorization is not a permit. Rather, it allows potential hunters 16 and older to buy hunting permits for two years without taking hunter education.

While the benefit of mentorship to novice hunters is obvious, mentors themselves say they get at least as much as they give.

“If a youngster asks me to take him turkey hunting I’ll do anything I can for him,” said Brenner. “It’s exciting to see a kid get all worked up. I love it, man. It’s great.”

Missouri also has youth hunting seasons for deer, waterfowl, quail and pheasants. Individuals as well as hunting and conservation groups increasingly are taking advantage of these mentorship opportunities. Following are reports on a few events organized around these opportunities.



THUNDERIN’ GOBBLERS JAKES TURKEY HUNT

The Ozark Greenways Thunderin’ Gobblers chapter of the NWTF in Greene County took advantage of the youth season for the first time last year and pulled off a near-impossible feat. All eight participants bagged gobblers in spite of wind, freezing rain, sleet and snow – weather that would have kept all but the most avid adult hunters indoors.

Building on that success, the Thunderin’ Gobblers expanded to 19 young hunters this year. Again faced with less-than-ideal weather, they still brought home a surprising eight gobblers. In five cases these were the first turkeys taken by the hunters.



MISSOURI HUNTING HERITAGE FEDERATION

The MHHF, whose motto is “Introducing Youth to Hunting,” held two spring youth turkey hunter education clinics this year, one at Lake Lotawana and another at Missouri City. The events introduced 13 youths ages 9 to 13 to turkey hunting through classroom and live-fire training followed by hunts. One of the participants bagged his first turkey.

The MHHF also is planning fall hunter education clinics for disabled deer and chuckar hunters and for trappers. It is working on a hunter education clinic for families of armed forces members in the St. Joseph Area.



MURPHY FARM LEGACY HUNT

Turkey hunting mentorship is not confined to the spring season, nor to youths. Last October, Dave Murphy invited two adult turkey hunting novices to the Clark County farm that his great-great-grandfather homesteaded more than 150 years ago. Murphy, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, says he can think of no better use for the 376 acres than introducing others to the thrill of turkey hunting.

On a golden October day last year, Murphy was joined by three first-time hunters and two guides. One was Robert Howland, a carpenter from Mexico. Murphy was his guide. The second novice was Francisco X. Aguilar, a professor of forestry at the University of Missouri – Columbia. His guide, Travis Scott, is a regional field supervisor for the NWTF. The third hunter was Louie Delk, president of the Conservation Employees’ Credit Union in Jefferson City. His guide was Conservation Department Resource Science Field Chief Mike Hubbard, who formerly worked as the agency’s top turkey biologist.

Aguilar and Scott had difficulty finding turkeys on the warm, muggy autumn day. When they finally did locate a flock, it was foraging in a cedar thicket. The two hunters had frequent sightings, but could never get close enough to the birds for a shot.

Delk and Hubbard knew each other through the credit union. “Louis said he would like to try turkey hunting, and that was all it took. I told him I would take him,” said Hubbard.

Their hunt – like most – involved a lot of walking. That was fine with Delk, who was glad for an excuse to be in the autumn woods. At one point Hubbard spied a pair of turkeys in an adjacent field, and Delk ended up shooting a jake – a juvenile male turkey. But for him, the best part of the hunt was spending time outdoors with an expert outdoorsman.

“Walking around with Mike was an absolute treat,” he said. “He could point out plants and animal behavior that I would have missed otherwise. I just found it fascinating.”

Delk, who had never hunted anything before last fall, says he is hooked. He completed hunter education and bought a shotgun so he can hunt on his own if necessary. For the time being, however, he says he still is “at the mercy of my hunting companions,” continuing to learn.

“I would never have bothered with hunter education if I had not had the opportunity to first go out as an apprentice with someone and experienced how much fun it was. At 38 years old, I wasn’t going to go out in the woods on my own looking for turkeys.”

Hubbard, who has been hunting since he was a teenager, says he now spends only three or four days out of the three-week spring turkey season hunting on his own or with other experienced hunters. The rest of the time he is with his two sons or with his wife, Kathy. He says his first responsibility each spring is to help her get a gobbler.

Hubbard offers three words of advice about mentoring novice hunters -- just do it.

“You’re going to get a lot more rewards and enjoyment out of it than those who you take out. It’s a way of experiencing that excitement of being a first-time turkey hunter again. There is nothing like seeing that passion for the sport kindled in another person.”

Mentorship is close to Murphy’s heart, too. Like most turkey hunters over 50, he had to teach himself to turkey hunt. Missouri’s first turkey hunting season did not take place until 1960 and was open for only three days in 14 counties. Consequently, there were few experienced hunters to pass on their knowledge to young baby-boomers.

“Teaching someone else to hunt is one of the best things you can do for your own hunting,” said Murphy. “Not only does it let you relive the excitement of your first turkey hunts, it helps ensure the future of hunting by bringing up the next generation of hunter-conservationists.

“Besides,” he said with a laugh, “I might need a younger person to push my wheelchair into the woods when I’m 90!”

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