Muchas de las lecciones aprendidas durante la caza no sólo nos enseñan sobre la naturaleza sino también sobre nosotros mismos y sobre los demás. Foto de Gretchen Steele.

August 1, 2023

Defining Hunting “Success:” Lessons learned by a first-time turkey hunter

Most hunters consider a successful hunt one where they harvest their intended game. For turkey hunting, this usually entails getting up very early and sitting for long periods of time in the woods while trying not to move or make noise. It can ultimately feel like a very intimate experience as one quietly sits and listens to surrounding birds, squirrels and other wildlife going about their morning routines. It is therefore no secret to most that hunting can be a way to reconnect with nature, and the way our ancestors used to live.

The connections one makes while hunting do not end with nature, however. For many hunters, a successful hunt isn’t just about harvesting a tom, jake, doe or buck. Having the chance to be out in the woods with a best friend from childhood, a parent, or a significant other and learning things together is often just as rewarding as snagging that elusive turkey or deer. This is a fact that became clearer to me as a first-time hunter, heading out on my first-ever spring turkey hunt with my friend and colleague.

A young girl sits in the field with the wild turkey she succesfully hunted. She is dressed in camoflage and a gray stocking cap. She has a long, braided hair and is holding her bow.
Spring youth turkey hunting is one of the programs offered through the Illinois Recreational Access Program. Photo by Terry Valenti.

Hunting tends to offer the opportunity both to teach and to learn lessons, as any parent who has taken their child hunting for the first time likely knows. There are many things to learn as a first-time hunter that can’t necessarily be taught from books or tutorials though. For instance, no one typically anticipates how numb their behind will become after sitting against a tree for only 20 minutes, or how cold their hands might get even after the temperature climbs to 45 degrees F. With time and experience, one learns how to better prepare for the elements in different situations. There are, of course, other little things that a youngster (or an adult) may initially have trouble learning, such as the importance of sitting still and refraining from talking or giggling.

This last lesson is one that I am still having trouble mastering, as I find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time without fidgeting or wanting to peer around trees to observe the plethora of birds and other wildlife going about their business. As a first-time hunter, one may also experience some anxiety about being able to execute the things they learned to prepare themselves for their hunt. This anxiety can be exacerbated by worries about other hunters being close by, and or messing things up for nearby hunters because of a lack of experience.

Luckily for me, I had a great mentor with me on my first turkey hunt. Not only did my friend do her research, figuring out the best place to set up to call in turkeys, and how and where to place our decoys, she was also very patient with me. Even better, we were able to hunt private land through the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP).

A female hunter dressed in camoflage clothing and hat looks out at a field from her hunting blind.
In addition to companionship, hunting with a mentor helps new hunters figure out the best place to set up and call in turkeys and how and where to place decoys. Photo by Alex Davis.

Hunting on public land can be more intimidating to a first-time hunter like me. Hunting on private land on the other hand, offers more privacy and reduces the pressure to perfectly execute newly learned skills. While it is natural to make mistakes in the beginning (and even among more seasoned hunters), no one necessarily wants to be heard making terrible turkey calls.

Unfortunately, finding land to hunt has become more difficult in recent years, especially in Illinois where nearly 97 percent of the state is privately owned. Many landowners these days are less willing to allow access due to concerns about liability. Thankfully in 2011, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) received a federal grant through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), which led to the creation of IRAP.

IRAP is unique in how it makes private land available for public access in exchange for a lease payment, a habitat management plan, assistance with habitat projects, and $2 million liability insurance. To date, IRAP has offered more than 27,000 acres in over 50 counties that are leased for activities ranging from youth turkey hunting, third and fourth spring turkey hunting seasons, pond and riverbank fishing, squirrel and rabbit hunting, youth shotgun and archery deer hunting, and upland game and waterfowl hunting.

Because of IRAP and the landowners who have enrolled in it, many first-time, veteran, youth and displaced adult hunters now have a place to hunt and experience the benefits of spending time together in nature. Experiencing things together, and mutually enjoying those experiences, is often how we bond with one another. The chance to create new bonds with new friends in this way is always a possibility. What is perhaps even more valuable, however, is the potential to strengthen existing bonds between friends, siblings, romantic partners, and parents and children no matter their age.

A barred owl sits in a tree. The owl has a round face with large, dark eyes and a yellow beak. Its back is to the camera with its head turned over its shoulder looking towards the photographer. A large owl witg brown and white feathers. The front feathers have vertical bars of brown feathers.
Barred owl. Photo by Sheila Newenham.

As my friend and I headed out to the spot we had picked out while scouting the night before, I noted the overhanging fog that added an almost magical quality to the stillness of the early morning. It was just after 5 a.m., and barred owls could be heard calling from various places in the timber with gobbling toms answering from where they roosted. By around 6:30, the owls had stopped calling but the gobbling continued. We sat there together in silence while this occurred, until my friend intermittently began using her slate call in the hopes of luring in a curious tom or hopeful jake.

It was interesting to sit there and note the succession of other birds beginning their day as we waited for turkeys to appear. With it being late April, the calls of eastern towhees could be heard first, followed by crows, northern cardinals, mourning doves, and woodpeckers drilling into trees. By about 9 a.m., we still hadn’t seen any turkeys, but we did see some deer come out into the clearing where we had set up our decoys. We watched them bobbing their heads up and down as they attempted to discern what they were, and likely what it was (us) that they smelled nearby.

By 11 a.m., we still hadn’t seen any turkeys, or even heard any since the early morning hours. We did see a coyote trot casually through the clearing and look briefly at our decoys, but we ultimately left that day without harvesting or even seeing a turkey. One might think this would cause the two of us to become disappointed and discouraged, but I considered our experience that morning a success. The lessons I learned from my morning hunting turkeys with my friend taught me more about myself, more about my friend, and what can be learned from nature. I also felt like the two of us enjoyed a rare opportunity to spend time together without other distractions. Together, these things outweigh the fact that we didn’t harvest anything.

A coyote stands in a mown grassy lane next to a corn field. The corn is still shorter  than the coyote and it looks out across the field with the right front paw up as if ready to take its next step.
Coyote. Photo by Dan Stephens, Illinois Learn to Hunt.

All too often as we get older and take on more responsibilities of adulthood, we make less time for the things we used to enjoy with friends and family while growing up. I can still recall the glee I felt as a child when, as my family and I hunted for morel mushrooms together, I spotted a big one to add to the pile we would later fry up and eat for dinner that evening. My parents’ encouragement and their indulgence of my enthusiasm is something that I will never forget, and I now truly cherish the memories I made with my father, mother and brother hiking through the woods on our property.

Attempting to pick up hunting as an adult or getting back into it with a more experienced friend or family member is a great way to rekindle or strengthen the bonds we share with them. Lessons taught when hunting together do not necessarily pertain only to how one can increase their chances of success. They also teach us more about nature, ourselves and each other. The opportunity to share the excitement of a buck walking up to your blind, or a coyote loping across the field to check out your decoys, is just one of the extra perks that comes with spending quality time together outdoors. It is those moments that truly make each hunting experience a success.

Alex Davis is the IRAP Marketing and Outreach Specialist. She has a degree in Anthropology (B.A.) from SIU Carbondale, and a degree in Environmental Studies (M.A.) from UIS Springfield. She was a graduate student intern with IDNR’s Natural Heritage Database in 2017, and then spent two years working as an ecological restoration technician for Nelson Land Management where she conducted invasive species management, timber stand improvement and prescribed burns. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, botany, mycology and nature photography.

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