The kids are alright: Welcome to the world of mentored turkey hunting

By Scott Bestul

I’m not sure I could see my reflection in the gobbler’s eye, but I could see tiny snowflakes land on his noggin, then fall to the ground when the turkey shook his head. So yeah, he was super close. 

I’m not sure I could see my reflection in the gobbler’s eye, but I could see tiny snowflakes land on his noggin, then fall to the ground when the turkey shook his head. So yeah, he was super close. 
Sitting comfortably in the blind next to me was Nate, an 11-year-old boy on his first turkey hunt. And on the other side of the youngster was my buddy Doug who, like me, had more than a few turkey seasons in the rearview. 
Doug and I had scouted a small flock of turkeys, erected a blind in one of their favorite morning feeding spots, and hustled Nate into the blind in the predawn. By the time the sun hit the eastern tree tops we were talking to the turkeys. They gossiped right back. Then, with a sudden flapping of wings and the racket of big birds hitting the ground, they were on their way. Doug winked at me as a big tom approached. Our deal was: as soon as Nate tagged his gobbler, we were heading to the diner for breakfast. 
But the spit-on-him close gobbler was anything but a done deal. Despite our whispers at Nate to “shoot him whenever you’re ready” his quiet reply was “I can’t see him.” After three such exchanges I finally followed Nate’s gaze out the blind and realized he was looking skyward, perhaps waiting for the gobbler to fly into the decoys like a goose, rather than plod in like a grazing Holstein and pose like a lawn ornament. 
When I finally directed Nate’s eyes downward they grew wide, then blinked, then opened even wider. Hyperventilation ensued and, despite our whispered urges to “take your time” Nate fired a hasty shot so far above the gobbler’s head I think the pellets remain in orbit to this day.    
Welcome to the world of the mentored turkey hunt, where a grizzled – or just moderately seasoned – veteran will decide it might be fun to introduce a youngster, or first-time hunter, to the sport they love so much. While it’s a wonderful thing to pass on that knowledge and is indeed fun, it’s wise to be fully armed with information before you go. Here are a few tips.

Stay Safe 
When you take a kid hunting, there is only one non-negotiable item in the contract you enter with said child’s parents: the safe return of the hunter at the close of the day. My most vivid reminder of this is another hunt with Doug, this time as we took another young boy with us on the opening weekend of Wisconsin’s youth hunt. 
After a quiet morning, we snuck to a hardwood ridge bordered by a swamp, a popular hangout for midday turkeys. We settled in, made a few seductive calls, and within minutes heard the distinct sound of shuffling leaves from the edge of the swamp, followed by the sight of a dark form ghosting through the underbrush. Since all male turkeys have an ebony sheen, things were looking downright exciting. Until we realized we were not staring at a 20-something pound gobbler, but a 300-plus pound black bear that had likely just emerged from hibernation with an empty tummy.  
It’s not often that running a turkey call turns you into a prey species, but there we were. Since the eyesight of bears is pretty lackluster, Doug and I sat for a few seconds, hoping the bruin would miss us and wander past. When it became obvious that was not happening, we stood in unison; I stepped between the kid and the bear, while Doug grabbed the 20-gauge shotgun from the boy, walked at the invader and said loudly and firmly, “Go away bear.” While we hoped the boar would panic and run, we got the next best reaction; a stop, a stare, and a grudging retreat. Finally, as the bear melted back into the swamp, we turned to see our charge, standing on one side of a tree, his feet poised to run. When I said, “we’re good…he’s gone,” I honestly expected him to deflate.
So yeah, remember all that stuff they taught you in hunter’s education about proper gun handling…but safety in the field goes far beyond that. It may not always involve eluding a big predator, but it certainly includes walking carefully, negotiating obstacles, dealing with weather, and crossing creeks without falling in.   

Keep it fun
Most hunting mentors start with a simple but common goal; they want their charges to kill a turkey. Admirable, and completely logical, but sometimes that aim misses a larger point. Bagging a gobbler is the icing. Enjoying the experience is the cake.
My buddy Dave proved this on a recent hunt with his teenage daughter Hannah and her friend. While Hannah had shown little interest in hunting since girlhood, one of her gal-pals had been talking about it and to further fuel things, her dad was really curious. Jumping on opportunity, Dave arranged a “hunt” that would involve everyone and actually be devoid of any killing. 
So, Dave set up a blind where a wad of turkeys regularly hung out, then led Hannah, her friend and dad to the setup (admittedly a little late, as Dave hadn’t worked both-girls-doing-makeup into the schedule) and handed Hannah and her friend each a glob of rubber bands. Then he issued a challenge: “I am going to try to call these turkeys into those decoys, and if you can hit even one of them with a rubber band, I will give you each $100.” Generally bored with anything (or so I’ve been told) not involving a) boys or b) fashion, Hannah and her friend were suddenly hypnotized by turkeys and obsessed with their response to Dave’s calling and the decoys. Spoiler alert: though the turkeys came close, no rubber bands made contact with feathers, but the girls (and accompanying dad) all reported having a great time.
This story illustrates perfectly that, while killing a turkey is heady stuff, just having fun in the woods might be all it takes to hook someone. So if the birds aren’t gobbling or otherwise insist on behaving badly, never forget that there are mushrooms and wildflowers out, and it doesn’t matter if it sounds like a squeaky barn door….let the kids play with your calls. 

Eat it up 
When my son was 10, he did the obligatory thing for most children of sportsmen and joined me on a turkey hunt. While we had several close encounters with gobblers who seemed eager to die, I somehow managed to screw up every one. As we drove toward home after our last morning, I asked Bailey if he enjoyed the hunt and if so, what did he like? I was pleased when he recounted some oh-so-close turkeys, the sighting of a couple cool songbirds, and even the few mushrooms we found. But when I asked what his absolute favorite thing was, he didn’t hesitate. “Going out for breakfast!”
I laughed and had to agree. Like all young boys, Bailey’s stomach was eternally growling, so I’d made sure to stuff my vest with plenty of snacks. If you’re one of the sad souls who hasn’t realized how much better a sandwich or candy bar or cookie tastes in the woods well, you have my condolences. But please, if you take a kid hunting, supply the (baked) goods, and if you really want to pump the fun factor, patronize a local diner by visiting in full camo. Not only will you support the local economy and hopefully portray hunters in a positive light, you’ll bond with your charge over bacon and eggs. 
In fact, Bailey’s answer so struck me that, over ten years later it remains front and center in my turkey hunter’s brain. I’ve been lucky enough to tag a healthy string of gobblers, and guide others to even more, in the years since. But trade any one of them for an omelette at Stumpy’s in Rushford with my camo-clad son? Not on a bet.  

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