By Burt Carey
Courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation
Despite an era of slow change, when bureaucratic red tape seemingly takes forever for even minor modifications in how, when and by whom wild turkeys are hunted, a recent tide change has helped open the doors of hunting to youth as never before.
Mentored hunting and eliminating age barriers that prevent people from hunting are key components of the Families Afield program. A partnership of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance with assistance from the National Rifle Association, Families Afield uses data from the Youth Hunting Report to help remove youth hunting barriers across the nation.
To date, 27 states have passed some type of Families Afield legislation. Data from those states that have tracked youth license sales show that apprentice hunting programs have already introduced more than 131,000 people to hunting.
Among those 131,000 beneficiaries, are the following five youth hunters, all of whom were accompanied by their parents on successful spring turkey hunts in 2008.
Youth Turkey Hunter Jonathan Creed 11 Niles, Ohio
With a fruit drink, an oatmeal crème pie and a youth apprentice hunting license in his pocket, 11-year-old Jonathan Creed stepped into a cold, driving rain April 20 at his grandparent’s farm outside of Girard, Ohio, for the last day of Ohio’s 2008 youth turkey season. His dad, Chris, was at his side.
Jonathan, a fifth-grade honor role student, lugged an old NEF 20-gauge shotgun, a garage sale bargain his dad bought for just $40. His facemask was about three sizes too big, and his insulated camouflage coveralls were soaked by the time they arrived at their blind some 200 yards from the farmhouse. But Jonathan was too excited to care about the rain or ill-fitting gear.
Sitting in the darkened blind with a hen decoy just 30 yards in front of them, Chris, 36, waited patiently for the first hints of daylight while Jonathan slept. That all changed at 5:45 a.m. when the morning’s first gobble of a wild turkey tom startled the youngster from his slumber. The bird was just 100 yards away.
Jonathan smiled when a bird behind them answered that gobble, and yet another tom sound off to their right, about 150 yards away. Chris flapped an old turkey wing to simulate a bird flying down from its roost and scratched a few yelps on his friction call. All three gobblers answered.
For an hour and 15 minutes, the birds moved about, gobbling and strutting before finally going silent. Real hens had apparently intercepted the male turkeys for their annual mating ritual. Young Jonathan and his dad whispered about the sounds they could hear: woodpeckers, geese, crows and songbirds. And almost on queue, as the clouds began to lift and the sun came out, Jonathan exclaimed, “Turkey! It’s a gobbler!”
The big bird gobbled when he saw the decoy. He would walk toward the decoy a few steps and gobble; walk a few more steps and gobble again.
“Now, Dad?” Jonathan inquired when the bird was just 30 yards away and to their right.
“Not yet,” Chris replied.
With almost the bird’s every step, from 30 to 12 yards, Jonathan would say, “Now, Dad?” And Chris would tell him, “Not yet.”
When Chris gave him the green light, the shot from Jonathan’s single-shot 20-gauge flipped the turkey on his back and it was over.
“Jonathan’s adrenaline really kicked in at after the shot,” Chris recalled. “He could hardly talk! His legs and hands were shaking uncontrollably and he was breathing like he had just run a marathon. What an awesome father-and-son moment — the kind of moment that hooks a kid forever on hunting.”
Jonathan’s bird weighed a whopping 22 pounds. It had a 10-inch beard and its spurs measured 1 and 1 1/4 inches. Though it was his third turkey kill, it was by bar his biggest.
“Jonathan’s favorite things to do are to hunt and fish,” Chris said. “He enjoyed baseball and soccer until he found out that practices and games took away from his hunting and fishing time.”
The youngster is still excited about his hunt. “The hunt was awesome,” he exclaimed. “Before the hunt I was wet, cold and a little tired but still very excited. And during the hunt, the gobbles made me shake. I was so excited! It means everything to me that Dad takes the time to take me out and enjoy the great outdoors with him.”
Ohio’s apprentice program allows a licensed hunter age 21 or older to take any aged unlicensed individual hunting. The resident youth apprentice license costs $10 per year and may be purchased for three years before the individual is required to take a hunter education course.
“The mentoring program allows me to take my son hunting and include him on my hunts,” Chris added. “In our busy lives it is hard to find time to just go hunting, let alone take a hunter’s safety course. The mentoring program in Ohio has given me the opportunity to teach my son proper hunting safety as well as spend quality time in the woods passing on the great heritage of hunting. The result is a prepared youth hunter eager to take his hunter safety course and a youth with the desire to hunt and to eventually pass his knowledge onto another.”
Youth Turkey Hunter Susan Missal, 11 Palmerton, Pa.
When a mature Eastern wild turkey flew from its roost at daybreak, 11-year-old Susan Missal waited with shotgun in hand and her dad by her side. While John Missal stroked his Knight & Hale Yella Hammer ceramic slate call, the big bird strutted within gun range in front of their camouflage blind, looking for the hen it just knew was hiding in the woods nearby. The problem was, Susan couldn’t pull the trigger.
April 19 was a day set aside especially for youth turkey hunters in Pennsylvania, and the fifth-grade science whiz from Palmerton, Pa., was suffering through a bout of “turkey fever.” As badly as she wanted to shoot, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it, and 20 minutes later, the gobbler sauntered off looking for another willing mate.
Susan was crushed. “Daddy, I should’ve pulled the trigger. I should’ve pulled the trigger,” she told him. John Missal, a 43-year-old flooring company account executive, consoled his daughter and reassured her that this wouldn’t be her only opportunity to shoot a wild turkey.
And it wasn’t. Three weeks later, under a stream of rain in 50-degree weather, a hen decoy and a few well-timed yelps from John convinced four juvenile gobblers — called jakes — to approach their pop-up blind in the Pocono Mountains. This time Susan leveled her youth-model, 20-gauge Mossberg Bantam 500 at one of the birds and shot. The bird immediately crumpled to the ground.
“She was so excited, she tried to climb out of the window of the blind to get to her bird,” John said. “She was ecstatic and really didn’t know what to say. She was just jumping up and down.” The bird, which sported a 4-inch beard and weighed 14 pounds, was Susan’s first wild turkey. Her trophy is at a local taxidermist’s shop with orders to create a full-body mount.
“I think it’s just great to get the kids out,” John said. “Susan has been hunting with me since she was 4 years old. I can’t go hunting without taking her. She won’t let me. People can’t believe how enthralled she is with hunting. If I’m tracking a deer, she wants to get right in there with me. She just wants to go.”
Susan didn’t need a hunting license for the 2008 youth turkey season. Created in 2006, Pennsylvania’s Mentored Youth Hunting Program allows kids 12 years old and younger to hunt before taking the hunter education class as long as they are accompanied (within arm’s distance) by a licensed adult aged 21 or older. Mentored youth may hunt antlered deer, spring turkey, squirrels or groundhogs, and only one firearm may be carried. The mentor must carry the firearm while moving.
The opportunity allows kids to check out the sport before investing the hours of classroom work and study time required to pass the state-mandated hunter education program. Not surprisingly, however, Susan had passed her hunter education class just a week before turkey season began. She is now qualified to buy a hunting license for the upcoming deer season and for a lifetime of hunting game animals in the Pennsylvania woods.
Youth Turkey Hunter Audrey Sullivan, 7 Mulberry, Fla.
In most ways Audrey Sullivan of Mulberry, Fla., is your typical 7-year-old first-grader. She enjoys ballet dancing, competitive swimming, shopping for clothes, playing music and hugging on animals. And in the spring she loves to hunt wild turkeys with her dad, William Sullivan.
“I’ve had Audrey and her brother in the woods as much as I can since they were born,” Sullivan said. “She loves the woods and riding in the old hunting truck as much as possible.”
That would be the family’s 1980 International Scout II, which William Sullivan drove to the woods on a private ranch in Thonotosassa, Fla., this past March. It was be Audrey’s first chance to hunt a wild turkey with her H&R NWTF youth model .410 shotgun.
While Florida adopted a hunting mentorship program in 2006, it is rather limited. Newcomers to hunting can hunt for a single year with a licensed, adult mentor, and then must attend a hunter education course to qualify for a license. William Sullivan says Audrey plans to take the course this year.
William, the NWTF’s Florida State Chapter president, and Audrey found some turkeys almost immediately after their arrival and built a blind out of palmetto fronds in an oak hammock just 75 yards from the birds’ roost trees. They were ready for the following morning’s sunrise hunt.
“She went to bed at 9 p.m. and was already awake when I went in to wake her up at 4 a.m.,” recalls William. It didn’t take long for the young blonde to don Realtree Advantage Timber coveralls, a long-sleeved T-shirt, hunting boots and a camouflage hat. Of all things, Audrey even got to wear makeup that morning.
“I didn’t want her to use a facemask because sometimes on a child they can get in the way at a critical moment and ruin the hunt,” William said. “Instead, we used camo makeup by H.S. Strut.”
When the pair arrived at their hunting spot, it was a cool 65 degrees and calm. They made the short walk to the blind, set out decoys, lit a ThermaCell mosquito and bug repellant unit, and waited for daylight.
“After a little while I used a Palmer Hoot Tube to get the gobblers going,” William recalls. “The hens started tree yelping and the woods were alive with the sounds of turkeys. I did some light calling, imitating the hens around us, and before too long there were two longbeards on the ground 40 yards in front of us. Unfortunately, that was as close as they would come.” Forty yards isn’t close enough for a shot with a .410 shotgun. Audrey held off.
By 8:30 a.m. the daughter/father team drove the Scout to an area the landowner had suggested they try if a mid-morning hunt was needed. The wind had started to pick up and there wasn’t much cover for a good setup, so they used a pop-up blind near the intersection of three dirt roads. They put their decoys in front of them and to the east.
William stroked an Ol’ Mama Hen box call and got an immediate response from at least 100 yards away to the north.
“In no time flat we had three hens in our decoys, but no gobblers!” he said. “As I was watching the hens and doing some soft calling, Audrey just happened to look out the back window and whispered, ‘Gobblers!’ They had circled behind us and were looking at the blind.
Audrey and William carefully repositioned her shotgun on its shooting sticks. She took aim and cocked the hammer in anticipation of the shot.
“I made sure she was lined up on the bird she wanted and told her to shoot when she was ready,” added William. “She pulled the trigger and with a bang the dominant bird hit the ground. She squealed like she was at a Hannah Montana concert and ran to her bird.”
Audrey marveled at the bird’s colors in the sunlight. Her gobbler weighed 18 pounds, had 1 1/4-inch spurs and a 9 1/2-inch beard. Not bad for her first turkey.
“Some of my best memories as a child are of me hunting with my father and spending time in the woods with my family,” William said. “I’ve always wanted to pass my passion for outdoors to my children and feel I am blessed to be able to able to get them involved at an early age. Ironically, my best memories as an adult are the times I spent hunting with my kids and spending time in the woods with my family.”
Youth Turkey Hunter Jacob Wasser, 10
In the Nebraska plains, Merriam’s wild turkeys hold a special place among hunters. Among them is 10-year-old Jacob Wasser of Kintnersville, Pa., who’s learned at an early age that quality family time can be enhanced by hunting outside of one’s home state.
Jacob hunted with Countree Outfitters and Hunts near Culbertson, Neb., with his dad, Larry Wasser. The avid wrestler had no trouble toting a Mossberg 500 youth model shotgun in 20-gauge with Realtree pattern and an NWTF medallion on it. Both the shotgun and the outfitted hunt were purchased at a Hunting Heritage banquet hosted by the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Spruce Run Chapter in Phillipsburg, N.J.
The fourth-grade honor roll student greeted the 44-degree morning adorned in camouflage bought through the catalog retail giant Cabela’s, a camouflage NWTF hat, green gloves and a Hot Shot leafy facemask. The trio crawled to the edge of a cornfield as two mature gobblers, one jake and three hen turkeys walked to and fro in front of them for nearly an hour outside of shotgun range. Their calling finally convinced the birds to come closer.
Just as Jacob prepared to shoot one of the long-bearded gobblers, the jake stepped into his line of shot. Both birds fell at the impact of the pellets, leaving jake with two of his season’s three tags filled in one shot. The bigger bird sported a beard of 9 1/2 inches and spurs of 1 1/4 inches, while the jake had just a 1/2-inch beard and spurs to match. Together, both birds weighed 38 pounds.
“Jacob couldn’t wait to get back to camp to tell everyone,” his mother, Diana, said. “He knows how lucky he is to be able to hunt and to have someone take him at his age. He loves to be out in the woods in his free time, and he’s always daydreaming of a trophy hunt. He likes to watch the hunting channels on television and to read his dad’s hunting magazines. He wants to be a hunting guide when he grows up.
“It is very important to Larry and me to be able to take our boys with us,” she continued. They also have a 12-year-old son, Adam. “It is such an awesome experience to have your family in the woods with you. The things that you see and hear are amazing — something you will never understand unless you experience it yourself.”
Youth Turkey Hunter Hunter Batten, 11 Tampico, Ill.
Having a father who is a hunter education instructor sure put 11-year-old Hunter Batten on the fast track to becoming a successful turkey hunter. While he passed hunter safety education at the age of 9, Illinois has subsequently adopted rules that make it somewhat easier for youth to go hunting before having to invest the eight hours of classroom work it takes to acquire a hunting license.
In 2006 House Bill 1024 was passed, creating an apprentice hunting license that permits experienced hunters to take newcomers age 10 and higher hunting for one year before completion of a hunter education course.
“This is a very good way to get them started down the right path in life,” said Todd Batten, Hunter’s hunter education instructor father. “I’m so proud of him. This made every hour I’ve spent being a hunter safety instructor and chairman of our NWTF chapter (Big Bend Longbeards) well worth it.”
Batten’s livestock hauling business provided hunting access to a local farm that holds a good population of Eastern wild turkeys. Hunter, a fifth grade student with a passion for art, donned long johns and his favorite Mossy Oak Breakup camouflage to ward off the chilly morning air, then walked with his father to a hunting blind they had set up. With a Flambeau strutting tom and a bobble-head hen placed in front of them as decoys, the pair sat an hour before daylight to give the birds a chance to wake up.
Twenty minutes later, the first gobbles of the morning rang out. “There were three toms within 100 yards of us,” said Todd Batten. “I called softly with my slate call. They would gobble right back. Then I got a little more aggressive with my diaphragm call and I shook a gobble tube made by Primos. That really got them going. Every time I’d call they all gobbled.”
The birds gobbled a couple of times more and then it got quiet. “We wondered if a hen that we heard had taken them away from us,” Todd said. “Fifteen or 20 minutes went buy, and I wondered if it was going to be a long day. I yelped a little more, and Hunter said, ‘I heard something.’ I looked in the direction he said it come from I caught a glimpses of a turkey head. I told him, ‘Get ready. There’s one coming, and it’s a tom.’”
Cool and calm, Hunter steadied his Remington 870 youth model 20-gauge shotgun on the bird. He waited until it got within his well-practiced range of 20 yards. When Todd Batten purred on his diaphragm call, the bird gobbled and then lifted its head. Hunter shot, killing the bird instantly.
“That’s when the emotions struck,” Todd added. “We were both shaking. We high-fived each other and hugged, and I said, ‘Let’s go look at your bird. It’s a good one.’”
Hunter marveled at his gobbler’s 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs while his dad checked the time: It was 6:59 a.m. “It’s all about our children. I have a strong passion for this,” Todd said. “If we don’t get the kids involved, why even bother?”
For more information on hunting safety data and the Youth Hunting Report, log on to www.familiesafield.org, or call NWTF Headquarters at 800-THE-NWTF.
Taking A Kid Turkey Hunting By Naomi Shapiro