The scene was all too familiar. A beautiful piece of woods, a bright spring morning, the songbirds in full chorus.
But I knew when I stepped onto the little white oak flat in front of me, things would change in a hurry. Along with two other DNR officers, I had been called to the scene of a hunting-related fatality. I stood for a minute and stared at the fallen hunter and the blood-soaked camouflage. I thought about how the lives of everyone involved with this scene — the victim's family and friends, the hunter who had made this terrible mistake and all of his family — would be changed forever.
Several years ago, hunting accidents during the spring gobbler season in my area occurred far too often. To put a finer point on it, even one incident in a season is too many, but thank goodness we are nowhere near the number of turkey hunting incidents of 20 years ago. While there is probably more than one reason why, I would like to think the hunter education program has had an impact, but we also, unfortunately, have fewer hunters than in years past.
Hunting-related negligent shootings still happen every year in the turkey woods, though. Our goal as sportsmen should be that no such events happen. Period. It's really not that complicated, and following a few time-honored safety rules will keep us accident free. Most of you experienced turkey hunters will recognize these rules, and if you have ever taken a hunter education course, you should remember them. If you have forgotten them, shame on you, but here they are again.
I. Absolutely, positively identify your target before you touch the trigger.
Go back and read that again. Did you do it? OK. If all hunters in the turkey woods observed this one simple rule all of the time without fail, the number of hunting-related shootings would drop to almost nothing. We go through this time and time again: A hunter is shot, usually while sitting and calling for turkeys. Did the shooter positively identify his target? No, he shot at the sound of the hunter calling and saw some movement. The shooter let the excitement of the moment and his desire to bag a turkey take over. One careless second, and a lifetime to live with it is the result.
I will go one step further. Again, most turkey hunters are shot while sitting and calling. What call is the hunter making? Well, 9 1/2 times out of 10 he is calling like a hen. Are hen turkeys legal in the spring in your state? With rare exceptions, no. Get my point? The offending hunter shot at the call of a turkey that was illegal and probably not the desired game anyway. Stop. Think. Positively identify your target before you touch the trigger.
II. Never stalk a gobbler in the spring woods.
To the uninitiated this may seem strange, but anyone who has turkey hunted will get it. Gobblers often position themselves in one place and gobble and strut for long periods. When the turkey will not move toward your calling, many hunters are tempted to sneak up on or stalk the turkey. Don't do it. Getting close enough to a wild turkey in this situation is rarely successful. If another hunter is also crawling toward this gobbler or if another is sitting and calling to the turkey that is gobbling, what you have is a textbook scenario for a hunting accident to happen. Believe me, I know.
III. Don't wear red, white or blue while turkey hunting.
Why, you may ask? What are the colors on a gobbler's head in the spring season? You got it: red, white, and blue. So no blue or red bandanas, and for heaven's sake, no white handkerchiefs hanging out of the back pocket or white socks that appear when you sit down and the pant leg pulls up above your boots. I know it may sound crazy, but I've seen it.
IV. Sit with your back to a large tree or rock.
This is defensive turkey hunting 101. If you can find a tree in the area you decide to call from that is broader at the base than you are (this is hard for some of us), you are ahead of the game. Having your back covered gives you some protection from the guy who decides to sneak up behind you and hopefully will keep you from getting shot in the back.
V. Never alert another hunter with a hand wave or calling.
Too many times I have seen this written on a report of an accidental shooting. You are sitting and calling to a gobbler. Another hunter approaches, and you don't want to spook the turkey, so you wave a hand at the other hunter, or worse yet, call on the turkey call. You can guess what the result is sometimes. If another hunter intrudes on you, speak to him in a loud voice: "Hey! Over here! Be careful!" — whatever you have to say to make it plain you are another hunter. Don't worry about the turkey. If you scare him off, try him another day.
VI. Assume every sound you hear is another hunter.
Again, defensive hunting 101. I always figure any hen calling is another hunter until I actually see a turkey approach my position. If I hear repeated hen calling and I can tell by the quality of the calling it is definitely another hunter, I pack up and leave the area.
VII. Be careful with decoys.
Once upon a time, hardly any of us used decoys. Now it seems everyone does. Take care in how you position yourself around decoys. If another hunter approaches, what would be his direction of fire if he takes a crack at your decoy?
Are these all the rules for ensuring a safe spring hunt? Absolutely not. Fanning or reaping, the practice of using a gobbler fan or decoy to hide behind and lure a turkey to you, has become more and more popular. I would not use this method in most areas in the eastern United States in heavily wooded areas, and I would definitely not use it on any public ground; in the Midwest and the West in large open plains, maybe.
And remember some of the rules in the basic hunter education manual.
All guns are loaded, all of the time: Even if someone hands you a firearm and tells you it is unloaded, you check it visually and manually to make sure. Every time.
Always keep the muzzle of the firearm pointed in a safe direction: Accidental discharges with a firearm can happen to any of us. The difference in the incident being a big scare for you and a tragic accident is simply which way you had the weapon pointed. It is that simple. Never point a gun at something you don't wish to shoot.
Well, I hope you don't think I was too hard on you. Turkey hunting should be fun, but safety with firearms is serious business. I wish all of my readers a very safe and successful spring. Let me know about that big gobbler you called in! (And the one you didn't.)
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.