Getting schooled in the turkey woods
Learn to Hunt program providing an outdoors education for 13 years
By Collin Lueck
It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting on the edge of a field somewhere in the town of Corning. The temperature is about 10 degrees and I’m chilled to the bone.
But I hardly notice the cold.
My attention is focused on the woods to my left, where a chorus of gobbles has just erupted. My 12-year-old son, Jacob, is seated in a low-slung chair in front of me, shotgun at the ready. He has been training for weeks in preparation for this, the opening morning of the youth turkey hunt.
“The boys are fired up,” whispers our mentor, Ryan Kufahl. The boys – at least four of them, Ryan says – are still roosting in the trees, but are already eagerly answering his calls. Turkey mating season has begun and the toms are responding enthusiastically as Ryan mimics a hen by scratching a wooden peg on a piece of slate.
A volunteer mentor with the Lincoln County Learn to Hunt Turkey program, Ryan has carefully scouted this spot; he knows where the birds roost at night and where they are most likely to be headed at dawn. So far, the gobblers are more or less cooperating with Ryan’s plan.
Education is the Key
Ryan had been coaching Jacob for the past few weeks, taking him to the range and on turkey recon missions. As a student in the Learn to Hunt Turkey program, Jacob meets the prerequisite of having absolutely zero experience hunting turkeys.
My son was among 19 first-time hunters who experienced the thrill of a spring turkey hunt this year through the Lincoln County Learn to Hunt Turkey Program. The hunters, mostly youth ages 11-13, along with a couple of adults, were selected to participate in the special weekend hunt under the guidance of experienced mentors. The Learn to Hunt event coincided with the statewide youth turkey hunt April 9-10. Permit and stamp requirements were waived for the event.
We had first met Ryan back on March 19, when Lincoln County Learn to Hunt Turkey held a mandatory training day for its students and the Lincoln Gun Club. That day involved classroom instruction on wild turkey biology, hunting tactics, safety and hunting laws. Following lunch, the hunters and their mentors participated in hunting scenarios, firearm handling drills and live fire target shooting.
Over the next few weeks, hunters and mentors were encouraged to get together on their own to introduce themselves to landowners and scout for turkeys.
On the Friday night before the hunt, the group slept over at the Corning Town Hall, giving the students a feel for a hunting camp atmosphere. The hunters ate some pizza, refreshed their turkey hunting and firearm safety skills, made their own slate calls and tried to fall asleep early. Hunters woke at 3 a.m. Saturday, feasted on a pancake breakfast served by volunteers, and then hit the woods with their mentors.
By 6 a.m., the sun is rising and the turkeys are on the ground. Ryan has coaxed them to the edge of the woods. Each time he calls, the response is a thunderous round of gobbles. Avid hunters refer to this bird as the “thunder chicken” – and now I understand.
For what seems like the longest 15 minutes in recorded history, the toms stay hidden in the woods. As the birds draw out the anticipation, Jacob stays still and silent, shotgun shouldered. At long last, one big gobbler appears and strides up to Ryan’s decoys about 20 yards away from where we sit.
As the bird stops to inspect the tom decoy, Ryan whispers to Jacob, “Take the shot.” Jake takes aim at the turkey’s neck as he had been instructed, pulls the trigger, and… “Click!” – the gun misfires. While the now-suspicious bird holds its ground 20 yards away, Jacob has to learn under pressure how to execute a followup shot with a pump action shotgun – up to this point, he had only handled the gun with one shell in it at a time.
“Pump the gun,” Ryan whispers. Jake obediently shucks the slide back and the misfired shell tumbles onto the ground. “Pump it again,” Ryan coaches, and Jake pushes the forearm forward.
The gun is now ready to fire again, but with all the commotion on our end, the nervous tom has decided he has better things to do. Jake still gets off a shot at the retreating turkey, but doesn’t connect with anything vital as the bird hops in the air and trots off into the trees.
We hang around for a while to see if any other turkeys present themselves, but the golden opportunity has been missed and we pack up and walk the half mile back to Ryan’s truck.
The rest of the morning, we have to improvise. We see a couple of toms strutting with their harems of hens, but there’s no way to get close enough to these eagle-eyed birds. Returning to the Corning Town Hall for lunch, we find that only one of the 19 student hunters had bagged their bird in the morning.
Making It All Happen
Saturday’s luncheon serves as a thank you to landowners and sponsors for their support of the program.
Most of the hunt takes place on private lands and for this year’s hunt, 211 area landowners had volunteered use of their property.
In addition, more than 100 local businesses and individuals contributed time, supplies, and money to the event. Organizers said that the landowners and sponsors have been the biggest key to success.
“Without them, we would not be able to have this program,” co-chair Todd Wensel said.
This was the 13th year of the Learn to Hunt Turkey program in Lincoln County. Wensel served as a mentor for nine years before taking on the co-chair role.
The idea behind the program, Wensel noted, is to offer an opportunity for people to have a hands-on hunting experience.
“Our goal is to get non-hunting families and students and expose them to this,” Wensel said. “On training day, a lot of times this is the first time that student has shot a gun. They get to go out with a mentor and learn the proper way to do it.”
The mentors and committee members volunteer a lot of their own time to make sure the program is successful and the students have fun while learning about hunting.
Ryan and his friend, Grant Collins, are among half a dozen of this year’s mentors who first came to the program as students. Now both 19, this was their second year of sharing their passion and knowledge of the sport as mentors.
“The program is regenerating itself, which is great to see,” Wensel said.
For Collins, the time put in is well rewarded.
“Their smile says it all,” he said. “The kids just glow.”
Both Ryan and Grant grew up in hunting families. They were working on their hunting skills before they could even carry a gun and they want to share that experience with youngsters who may not have had that opportunity.
“When that first bird comes in and gobbles in your face, it makes an impression,” Grant said.
The turkeys themselves teach the toughest lessons, Ryan adds. Success, he says, “all depends on what the bird is going to do.”
Turkeys are a relatively new game animal to Lincoln County. In 1998, the DNR released over 70 birds at six sites in the county. Those birds, mixed with a small number of turkeys that had already moved into the county from the south, provided the base for what has become a thriving population. Lincoln County was first added to the statewide turkey hunt in 2002.
Turkey hunting presents unique challenges, even for the seasoned sportsman. For one thing, wild turkeys have amazing eyesight so getting close enough to drop them with a shotgun requires a certain skillset. The spring mating season makes it possible to call in a male turkey, but you also need some knowledge to do that well, too.
With the backing of the DNR and the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Lincoln County Learn to Hunt program debuted in 2004. The National Wild Turkey Federation was involved until the local group disbanded in 2008 and was replaced by Pheasants Forever, which continues to be among the program’s main donors.
The DNR supports Learn to Hunt efforts statewide to get more people involved in the outdoors, said local DNR Warden Mike Rader. Rader attended the field training day and gave a presentation on Wisconsin’s hunting regulations.
“The DNR would like to get more people involved who don’t get have that opportunity,” Rader said.
The DNR provides a framework for Learn to Hunt programs in the state. While there are some requirements, such as background checks for mentors, the local organizers have some latitude on how their specific program is structured.
“I can be involved as much or as little as they want,” Rader said.
Kathy and Brian Hauser were the prime movers who got the program going in Lincoln County, along with Rich Wissink and Rick Peters, who both worked in the area for the DNR at that time.
Brian was hunting turkeys in Vernon County years before the birds were introduced in northcentral Wisconsin. A self-proclaimed turkey hunting addict, Brian was excited to see the birds come to his home area.
“When we started getting birds here, I did a lot of video before you could hunt them in this area,” he said.
Shortly after turkey hunting seasons were established locally, the Hausers saw a need to educate new hunters on the ways of this wary bird.
“Kathy and I decided we wanted to do something for the kids,” Brian said. “Learn to Hunt was a natural program for where we wanted to go.”
Brian and Rick Peters were both hunter education instructors and the first Learn to Hunt class was made up of that year’s hunter education students. From the beginning, the new program was based on teaching students not only how to hunt turkeys, but how to be responsible sportsmen.
“We’re teaching respect for the landowners, the land and the birds,” Brian said. “We never guarantee anybody is going to shoot a bird, but you will get enough information to harvest a bird.”
The Hausers headed the program for 12 years before deciding to take a step back after last year’s event.
“We turned it over to younger people this year,” Brian said.
With Todd and Sue Wensel and Jason and Jamie Malone at the helm the Lincoln County Learn to Hunt Turkey program became its own entity this year.
Jason Malone said that education continues to be at the center of the program.
“It’s all about learning and the experience,” Jason said, “and being out in the beauty of the turkey woods.”
In retrospect, Jacob’s Saturday morning misfire was probably a blessing in disguise; if he had shot that tom at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, his first hunting experience would have been over within half an hour. As it turned out, the fun was just beginning.
Determined to get a bird, Jake hit the woods with Ryan again Sunday morning. The youth hunt only lasts for the weekend, so it was crunch time. Ryan’s friend and fellow mentor, Grant Collins, joined them as they went into “run and gun” mode. I decided not to tag along on Sunday, giving Jake the full benefit of the mentored experience.
His mentors got him within shooting range again around noon, but a clean miss resulted in an unscathed turkey and an empty-handed hunter.
About 4:30 p.m., after a long day of hard hunting, I received a text from Ryan with a photo of Jake,
grinning from ear to ear and holding up the tail fan of the turkey he’d just shot. “Bird down!” the text read. After sharing the news with his mother, I jumped in the car and met them at the Lincoln Gun Club, where Jake was getting his picture taken and telling his hunting stories. He was exhausted and happy, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Ryan went the extra mile by following us home and dressing the bird for us. Five pounds of breast meat went to Geiss Meat Service to be smoked. The tail, wings and beard are at Head Hunter Taxidermy, who offered a free tail fan mount to any successful Learn to Hunt students.
Taxidermist Tom Hunter, who has been a Learn to Hunt Turkey mentor since the beginning, enjoyed hearing Jake’s hunting story. I wasn’t with him when he shot the bird, so that’s a story Jake gets to tell all by himself. My son of few words suddenly has a lot to say when he gets the chance to talk turkey.
A Family Affair
As the Youth Hunt weekend came to a close, six birds had been registered by Learn to Hunt participants. Four of those were taken on Sunday as mentors gave another day to their students.
“We had a lot of new mentors this year and they really stepped forward,” Jason Malone said.
Getting kids and families interested in hunting is the main purpose of the program, and it seems to have worked for us. My son can’t wait to get out hunting again. And, armed with the knowledge gained through the Learn to Hunt Turkey program, I’m ready to give it a shot as well. We’ll be joined by my father-in-law – who has hunted just about everything except turkeys – as we try it on our own in a couple of weeks.
“Learn to Hunt is for people who never had the means or the intention of going hunting,” Jason told me. “We’re trying to turn it into a full family activity. Converting non-hunters is the actual goal.”