Confessions of a Turkey Hunting Gearhead—Part One

So…it has come to this already.  This blog, still in its infancy, has received its first fan mail, and to boot it is from someone who does not know me personally and someone that is not (I think) being ironic.  Before I go any further, I will say “thank you” to this particular reader who emailed and asked me what gear I would recommend for a first time turkey hunter to pack in their vest.  I can’t say I’m not a little flattered that a newbie would ask me for advice.  It also still leaves me a bit stunned that people read this at all.
Since I’m not a self-professed expert, I’ll try not to screw this up.  If you want to purchase any of the items I wear/use, I will include some links for each item with this, and future, posts on the subject of equipment.  If you don’t want to purchase them, by all means don’t or you might end up like me with a vest full of goodies that you feel obligated to use regardless of how effective they are.
Let me begin by adding this good-natured disclaimer:  I carry a tonne of gear into the woods so in the interest of making this as readable as possible, I’ll break this down into parts.  Today I’ll talk about all the stuff I wear.
Vest/Outerwear
I do recommend a vest, although it is far from a mandatory item for any turkey hunter whether a beginner or expert.  My father has never worn a vest and he has killed many a gobbler with nothing more than a fanny pack, a box call, some effort, and a shotgun.  However, based on the question, I can assume the reader that contacted me already has one.  For my money, I’ve tried on many turkey vests and found that the Primos Gobbler Vest was the best for me.  Pros?  It has a pocket for everything, fits well across the back (a must in my opinion), and has the comfiest seat of all the vests I tested out (also vitally important).  Cons?   It is a bit pricey (although not the most expensive on the market) and I found at first that it had too many pockets; so many that I forgot where I had placed certain valuable items, such as my license, left glove, and knife.
Prior to owning my current vest I started out with an entry-level model from Redhead.  While it was more than sufficient; the only two knocks on it were that the seat was prone to getting soaked by dew and leaching into my pants (a quick blast of ScotchGuard took care of that problem) and the wide-mouthed pockets, while handy for digging around in, had a tendency to let certain items escape forever…such as my facemask and two (much needed) shotgun shells which all made a break for it when sun-dappled afternoon and were never subsequently recovered.  Call them archaeological artifacts for future generations to discover.
For the entire spring turkey season I always carry the waterproof shell from my Remington 4-in-1 hunting jacket in a Realtree AP pattern.  It is warm enough for any really unpleasant days, it keeps me dry (which is of paramount importance) and it has extra pockets, which are always helpful.
Clothing
Weather in the Ontario spring turkey season can run in extremes.  I’ve been on opening weekend (read-late April) hunts that were hovering delicately in the near-freezing area and I’ve likewise been out on late May hunts that threatened to melt me, and vice-versa.  2010 was great for examples this wacky weather.  In the first weekend of May 2010, I was lucky enough to experience five seasons (yes FIVE!) in one truly nightmarish Saturday of turkey hunting in the Barrie area.  That day began in a clammy drizzle, calmed down a to dull-gray but reasonably warm mid-day, became a sunny and balmy double digit early afternoon just before turning into a freezing windstorm accompanied by three kinds of snow.  With this in mind, I have gotten into the habit of wearing more than I need and then being able to strip down if necessary.
For most of the season I put on an Under Armour mid-weight base layer for hunts, and some polyester long underwear that breathes; this usually suits me fine for the morning hunts.  If in the mid-day and into the afternoon I find things are getting too warm, I strip down to just my shirt and pants.
My shirt is a long-sleeved, breathable synthetic t-shirt from Columbia in a basic, splotchy earth tones camouflage pattern.  My pants are Redhead Stalker Lite in a Mossy Oak Breakup Pattern.
Boots
My boots are just plain old Redhead Bone Dry rubber boots boots from Bass Pro Shops in Mossy Oak Breakup and they were the last pair they had in stock and therefore a bargain.  But best of all they’ve lasted twice as long as any other pair of more expensive rubber boots I’ve bought.  Some folks I’ve talked to have had durability or blister complaints about Redhead boots, but to date, I’ve had no problem.  I think the key, for blister control at least, is proper socks.  I wear a light wool sock that comes up to my knee.  They are snug enough not to slip, rub, and bunch up, warm enough for a cold morning and light enough so that I don’t sweat.  In fact, they are my all-season, all-species hunting socks.
Accessories
To round out the look I have a ‘ninja-style’ camouflage face mask and some mesh camouflage gloves.  I like the ninja-style facemask because I wear glasses and they stay in place more consistently than they did when I used to have a ¾ style, elasticized, pull up/pull down kind of mask.  I cut about half of the index finger off each glove so that I can better run my pot calls and pull the trigger, but other wise I don’t make any other modifications.  I also wear a baseball cap in Realtree AP camo that my cousin had custom made for our hunting group of friends.  It is also my lucky hat.
So that’s what I wear.  Next week, I’ll post what I carry in terms of calls and equipment so if you’re still interested, then stay tuned.

Jack Miner Calling Classic in Kingsville, ON–April 10, 2011

As the title of this post says, the Jack Miner Calling Classic is taking place this April in Kingsville, Ontario as the kick-off event for National Wildlife Week.

I am strongly considering going down (in the novice category so it is not like my presence would constitue any kind of special attraction) and seeing how I stack up against some far superior goose and duck callers.

Perhaps you’ve never been to a calling contest and are curious to know what the fuss is about; I can say with some certainty that I’ve never been to a duck and goose calling contest yet that was anything other than fun.  If you are a vendor thinking of trading your wares, the link above has vendor details as well.

There will also be some retriever demos and other assorted waterfowl-related fun going on.

Huntin’ Songs

I like music, and I think it is safe to say that most other people do as well.  You may like classic rock or new country, and you may not like what I like (in fact, because my musical tastes are absurdly diverse, I’m almost certain that you don’t) but that’s okay because allegiance to certain bands or genres of music is strictly personal.  I’m far from a music expert, and my analysis of an album may be skewed and entirely off-point, but I know what I like to hear.
Some people have a “desert island list” of songs or albums that they absolutely would need to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island; I have a “hunting camp list”, because there are some tunes that just put me in a hunting frame of mind.  Some of the songs may seem ridiculous to you my dear reader, but that is just the reality of the situation.  Likewise, some may be songs that you love as well and that equally remind you of a hunting camp, or your first deer, or other treasured hunting remembrance.  Almost all of them could be considered ‘camp songs’ in the sense that they are best played in a cabin, cottage, or some other out-of-the-way place where you could hypothetically sing, dance, and let loose.
So in the interest of letting you know a bit more about me, and maybe turning you on to a more diverse spectrum of bands and songs, here is a list of my five favourite musicians and their songs/albums (in no particular order) that remind me of, or make me feel like going, hunting.
The Lowest of the Low, Shakespeare My Butt!
This Toronto band, fronted by Ron Hawkins (not the 1960’s Ronnie Hawkins, a different one) released the album Shakespeare My Butt! in 1991 and I had a cassette copy of it for years (when cassettes were still accepted as a medium for music).  I picked up a CD copy about ten years ago and listening to this album while I make the 3 hour trek up to the Bruce Peninsula to hunt deer, waterfowl, or wild turkeys has become a ritual of mine; sometimes I listen to it three times in a single one way trip.  When I slide this album into the CD player in the car, it is a sure sign that I’m ‘gone hunting!’
It is a blend of folk, pop, and rock which at the time fell into that cavernous, early 1990’s abyss of music that was known as ‘alternative’.   I have a different name for the genre: campfire music.  Every song on this album just has a vibe that could be sung by a guy with an acoustic guitar while sitting around a bonfire or a camp stove.  For those who value music critic’s opinions, this album was named one of the Top Ten Greatest Canadian Albums ever released.  My favourite tracks include 4 O’Clock Stop and Subversives, although honestly this album is strong top to bottom without a bad cut to be found on it.
Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits
This is classic country, and it just does not get any more ‘down home’ than this.  Although I’m sure this is not the actual album that gets played three or four times a week at the deer hunting camp, many of the songs by the late, great Hank Williams that are vital to a week in our deer camp can be found here.  From classic ‘heartbreak’ ballads like I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Your Cheatin’ Heart, to raucous good-time songs like Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin’, and Honky Tonkin, for my money Hank Williams playing at the deer camp is just plain old right.
Again, you can’t really go wrong with any songs here, but my top Hank Williams song is a toss up between There’s a Tear in My Beer and Kaw-Liga.
I’m not certain if I equate Hank Williams songs with deer hunting because there is some rural, wilderness aesthetic inherent in Hank Williams music or because I’ve grown accustomed to hearing those songs at least every other day for a full week of deer hunting for the last 15 years or so.  Probably a bit of both.
Don Messer & His Islanders
This is another classic deer camp album for me.  Our deer camp patriarchs were all born in the early & mid-1950’s and all grew up in a world where for a period the CBC was primarily the only television station they could watch.  Don Messer was a folk musician on the CBC who played the fiddle (violin to all you aficionados out there) and for a while was the star of the most popular television show in Canada (even outdrawing Hockey Night in Canada!) so the men who passed the deer hunting tradition down to myself, my brother, and my cousins also passed along an appreciation for this little-known (at least outside of Canada and the Eastern US seaboard) musician.  Don Messer’s fiddle sings a lively brand of East Coast-style music; songs like Red Wing and Little Burnt Potato are alive with a spirit of good times.
I defy anyone who listens to this album (or any music by Don Messer period) to not be inclined to start skipping a little jig or to find themselves walking with a bit more of a spring in their step.  One of the sadly deceased members of our deer camp was known for playing the spoons along with the tracks on this album; he also had a small pair of sticks he referred to as ‘bones’ that, when played similarly, would tap out a sprightly rhythm that was downright infectious.
I find that the musical stylings of Don Messer and His Islanders are best enjoyed after the dinner hour, when a hunter has a full belly and an inclination to enjoy their favourite drink and partake in some good conversation.
The Animals, House of the Rising Sun
This song has a lengthy and muddy history, and it has been covered more times than I can count (or research on the Internet).  Bob Dylan’s version is excellent as he growls and throats his way through the story of a wayward young woman in his own inimitable fashion, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.  Older versions I have heard (where it is entitled The Rising Sun Blues) also have their appeal but for this hunter the unmistakeably grim, rolling notes of the classic guitar riff that kicks off the version performed by Eric Burdon and the Animals is the definitive essence of this tune.  So aside from being a great version of the song with a timeless riff and soaring, soulful vocals, what warrants the inclusion in this list of songs that remind me of hunting?
While slightly embarrassing to admit, I do occasionally get bored sitting in the ditch overlooking a few dozen goose decoys or while on stand during a lull in the action while deer or spring turkey hunting, and it is this song that I sing in my head during those (sometimes lengthy) periods.  Usually something else grabs my attention after a few moments and I’m then engaged doing something else such as calling for game, watching a blue jay chase a chickadee, paying attention to my surroundings for some sign of game approaching, or enjoying a small snack (I find that those mini Coffee Crisp bars are the best for that).  But at least two or three times a hunt, I find myself quietly listening to House of the Rising Sun and that iconic almost menacing lead guitar riff in my mind.  Perhaps if I did less of that and more of the ‘paying attention to my surroundings’ thing I’d be more successful, but then again maybe not.
Stompin’ Tom Connors, Gumboot Cloggeroo
I have a younger brother who kind of likes Stompin’ Tom…except during deer season when that Canadian legend’s album (Stompin’ Tom’s, not my brother’s….he hasn’t even released an album yet) is played almost ad nauseam inside the cabin.  That is when my brother quite quickly grows weary of Stompin’ Tom’s vibrant guitar playing and twangy but mellow singing tones.  I’m actually a big fan of Stompin’ Tom but I will admit that by mid-day on the Friday of deer camp, after three or four days of The Hockey Song and Sudbury Saturday Night playing on a non-stop loop, even my normally tolerant orchestral nerves are beginning to become a bit jangled.  But frankly, even when played constantly and at a volume bordering on the torturously loud, the Gumboot Cloggeroo never gets tiresome.
This song has a beat that makes want to do more than just tap your foot; it makes you want to hunker over, round down your shoulders, stomp your foot like Stompin’ Tom himself while simultaneously clapping your hands in time, shouting the lyrics, and generally rattling the cabin walls and windows with a raucous good time.  For some unexplained reason, it feels like this song embodies all the camaraderie, spirit, and unbridled relaxing silliness of a hunting trip.  Even my brother, jaded though he may be by the constant barrage of The Ketchup Song over the week of deer hunting, gets in on the act every time we “do a little gumboot cloggin’”
So there you have it, far from my complete list, which includes Charlie Pride, CCR, Bad Religion, The Mamas and The Papas, Rise Against, The Doors, George Thorogood, and Johnny Cash (see what I said earlier about diverse?), but definitely five songs or albums that make up part of my hunting tradition.
I’m sure you’ve got your own list too, but then again you might even add something from my list to yours…who knows?

Fun With Labels, or How to Categorize Everybody

Doug Larsen wrote a great little book (that I highly recommend to all hunters, not just the duck-chasing fraternity) called The Duck Gods Must Be Crazy, and at one point in the book he touches on a topic that is universally relevant: stereotyping.
I can agree with the spirit of Mr. Larsen’s story It Takes All Kinds, after all he is correct in asserting that at some point in our lives we will all ‘judge a book by its cover’ and I likewise agree that such a tendency to stereotype is as common in the world of hunting as it is anywhere else.  And of course, like any good piece of writing, Doug Larsen’s story got me thinking, primarily about how to apply his observations about stereotypical duck hunters to some of the turkey hunters I know and have met (for although I love duck hunting, turkey hunting has been and will likely continue to be the only thing that I’m thinking about between now and the end of May).
So here without further ado is my clumsy, tongue-in-cheek homage to Doug Larsen and his categorization of ‘types’ of hunters, with my own turkey-hunting twist.
A Big Easy
This type of turkey hunter seems to kill whatever their mandated limit of birds is every year, and invariably one of those birds is a monster tom, and all are usually within the first week.  They are not always the best callers or strategists, but sometimes they are.  They are usually covert-ops types of hunters and although you may know the general area in which they are hunting, you had no idea that there was such a huge gobbler living there.  Usually they make it look easy, but likewise they usually earn their birds by burning hundreds of dollars in fuel, preparing their guns and gear obsessively, and spending many, many hours scouting.  I know a Big Easy who, in his first year turkey hunting no less, spent a little less than an hour in the field over a two hunt period.  He shot two 20-pound-plus gobblers, with the second being an ancient, monster bird with a paint-brush beard and wicked 1-1/2 inch spurs that just happened to fly down and land next to his decoy after my friend was on set up for less than twenty minutes.  The next year was a blip where he got skunked, but every year since he’s shot at least one trophy boss tom.
Sometimes a Big Easy comes by it through dumb luck, or being in the right place at the right time for the right bird, but not often and not consistently.  It is hard to begrudge a Big Easy their success, but sometimes I still find a way to do so.
The Hemingway
A Hemingway is a turkey hunter that will, with their success or failure in a hunt being completely irrelevant, spin you a hunting story with such detail, description, and passion that you are instantly transported to the moment.  Jim Spencer, of the Bad Birds series of fame, is one such hunter that I would label a Hemingway, and one day I myself hope to have a Hemingway moment of my own.
The worst thing that could ever happen to a Hemingway is that they heard and saw nothing, for then what story could be told?  More often than not though, a Hemingway has an uncanny knack of not only getting close enough to birds (or getting birds close enough to them) to swear that they ‘saw that old gobbler blink’ or ‘could see that tom’s breath when he gobbled’, but they are also escape artists of the first degree when they explain how they managed to fail at killing the bird, even though ‘that hot gobbler must’ve come to my calling from over a mile away….too bad that he back-doored me at the last second and I couldn’t get a shot.”  When they succeed they come up with clever euphemisms for the final shot such as ‘sent a swarm of pellets at him’ or ‘tapped him on the noggin with some lead’.  I love turkey hunting Hemingways for the sheer entertainment value they possess and for their simple self-deprecating yet simultaneously self-aggrandizing style.
While you may question the inherent truth of the tales told by a turkey hunting Hemingway, you can never question their legitimate love of the game when they tell their stories, or their passion for simply telling turkey tales.
The Living Tableau Artist
These turkey hunters scare me.  This type of hunter is gifted with patience, nerves of steel, and a level of muscle control that is almost ultra-human.  I am not one of these, and only I know one person who qualifies.  These turkey hunters literally disappear into the background.  Most will not go into the field or forests without their vests, pants, shirts, and guns all matched in a camouflage pattern that is tailor-made for that geographic location, time of year, and surrounding foliage.  Others are old-school and just rely on a basic green camo pattern matched with a nice brushy sitting spot.  No matter what they wear though they get in quietly, sit down smoothly, and then they sit still…perfectly still.  They carry box calls and pot calls, but almost never use them.  They can run a mouth diaphragm with no movement whatsoever, and I’m convinced that while on stand they neither breathe nor blink.  In the eventuality that a Living Tableau Artist turkey hunter does need to move (say to light up a seldom-used box call, turn their head to look for birds, raise or lower their gun, scratch an itch, etc), that movement is done with a steady, purposeful fluidity that is designed to deceive the sharp eyes of their prey.
This type of turkey hunter is a tom’s worst nightmare; they flat out kill turkeys.
The Caller
I, for better or worse, fit most comfortably in this category.  Callers can run turkey calls, but more than just having a skill at calling they also own a lot of calls, from box-calls, to pots and pegs, to push button, to gobble-shakers, and every gimmick and locator call imaginable (including peacock calls).  More troubling is that they try to use every one of those calls on every hunt.  Sometimes they compete in contests, other times they just like talking to turkeys.  If you double up to go hunting with a Caller, you can count on hearing a lot of turkey noise and it is likely that some of it will be pretty realistic.  Odds are you’ll also hear at least one gobble on the hunt, but this type of hunter has never heard of the term ‘over-calling’ and will call as long as they get a gobble back, and usually will continue calling desperately for some time after they stop getting answers from the local tom.  Hot toms run to these guys, and they see and kill a lot of jakes and two-year old birds.  However, older, more wary gobblers usually lay bad beats on the Caller, primarily because the Caller does not know when to shut up.
Like I said this is me.  I am a Caller in almost every positive and tragic sense of this stereotype.
An important subspecies of the Caller genus is the Master Caller, and they combine all the positives of the Caller (proficiency, variety, and realism) with the notable ability to gauge a turkey’s response and clam up when the moment is needed.  Get in with one of these hunters and you are going to have some fun and most likely have your fair share of success.
Mappers
A Mapper can usually be found buried under rolls of topo maps and satellite photography.  Their GPS has become an extension of their body and they know every ridge, field, saddle, ditch, fence, gully, pond, and clearing in their hunting territory.  Mappers also go through an unsettling number of pairs of hunting boots, since they not only do the paperwork, but almost 100% of the time they also go out and walk the country (with topo map and/or GPS in hand) so as to memorize every rock hole, blow down, puddle, and stump that could trip them as they walk to their stand in the dim pre-dawn.  A Mapper almost never sets up with an obstacle between themselves and the turkey they are hunting, and they can tell how many ridges away a turkey is just by the sound of his gobble.  A Mapper’s view of the turkey hunting world is a bird’s-eye view, and I’ve never seen a Mapper get lost, trip over their feet in the dark, or crest a ridge and bump a turkey.
They are adept, however, at finding other ways to screw up hunts such as shooting badly, or mis-estimating distance.  My favourite Mapper quote (and this really happened) was this one from a friend of mine who is an admitted Mapper.
“Google Earth says it is 50 yards from ridge top to ridge top there and my top-map seemed to confirm it.  So I assumed if the bird was halfway down the one ridge and I was halfway down the other ridge than he was in range.  He wasn’t.”
Luckily the bird in question here was missed clean, but it was a good lesson for that particular Mapper about how to estimate yardage.
The Professor
Not to be confused with The Mentor, a Professor always has a better story than you do, has shot more and larger turkeys than you have, and always has a theory and a solution for your turkey hunting troubles, and will share these stories and tidbits of knowledge with you often without you even having to ask them to!  Becoming a Professor is a negative side effect from living for too long as a Big Easy.  A symptom of being a Professor is a sharp decline in respect for the game animal.  I can only roll my eyes when I hear a Professor-type refer to turkey hunting as ‘easy’ or ‘simple’.  I actually heard one person say that they had shot so many turkeys that they ‘didn’t even bother going out anymore’.  I’ve always wondered what happened to these people earlier in their life that their sole goal only seems to be to master something as quickly as possible so that their success can be lorded over the less worthy.
This is the only type of turkey hunter that I categorically dislike, primarily because their pedantic attitude and apparent lack of care for the object of their pursuit makes potential turkey hunters intimidated and other, less arrogant, turkey hunters look bad in public.  On the plus side, they usually only need to be dealt with in social circumstances and not in the field, since having a non-Professor tag along hunting with them is a cardinal sin that would only serve to cramp their style.  This same mindset also prevents a Professor from mentoring green, impressionable hunters, which is good.
Bowhunters
Bowhunters combine all the stealth of the Living Tableau Artist with the skills of the Master Caller, since their goal is to get a turkey as close as possible.  They are often seen with a makeup compact full of earth tones and every inch of their bodies are covered in realistic, die-cut camouflage.  They are masters of building blinds from twigs and small branches, which they obtain with the surgical use of their obligatory garden pruners.  Their weapon and arrows are likewise fully camouflaged and the fletching on their arrows is usually black or orange, since red, white, and blue are off limits in the turkey woods.
I may catch some flack here, but I just flat out don’t understand those who hunt turkeys with a bow, especially with longbows or compound bows.  Crossbow hunters, maybe, because that interface is primarily gun-like, but how someone can hold a compound bow, or crazier still a longbow, for the extended times that it can take a turkey to get into range is beyond me.  I only know one person who hunts turkeys with a compound bow regularly (so really, these observations serve as his biography), and he won’t hunt with me because I do not own a bow and have no future plans to buy a bow.  This particular individual was a Big Easy that was well on his way to evolving into a Professor.  He, like yours truly, finds the turkey hunting Professor distasteful, so he found a new challenge and is now firmly ensconced as a Bowhunter.  I can imagine this natural progression has headed off many a turkey hunter’s decline into Professor-ism.  I don’t know any Professor-types that are also Bowhunter-types, but I’m sure they exist and I’m sure they are intolerably perfect when compared to us, their shotgun-toting brethren.
A more recent sub-category of the Bowhunter is the tent-blind Bowhunter.  These people usually do not wear heavy camouflage.  Rather these hunters can be distinguished by their all-black clothing, worn so as to blend in with the shaded interiors of their blinds.
Bowhunters of all stripes also rely on decoys to get birds close.  And as far as decoys go, for the Bowhunter there is strength in numbers.  Three of four hen decoys in various positions and a strutting tom decoy usually make up a Bowhunter’s spread.  Realism or ultra-realism for that matter is also a common trait in Bowhunter decoys.  Ever wonder who drops hundreds of dollars on a very effective, very real-looking Hazel Creek decoy?  Bowhunters, that’s who.
The Mentor
Almost everybody has one to thank for getting them into turkey hunting.  Mine happens to be my Dad.
Mentors in turkey hunting, like mentors in any other kind of hunting, are focused on their apprentice’s success and do what they can to put the novice in a good spot.  When the new hunter has success the Mentor is proud and congratulatory.  When the beginner fails (it will happen, so be prepared for it), a good mentor encourages perseverance and subtly offers advice and tips in a way that is neither condescending nor proud.
However, the most important lesson we can all take from our mentors is how to be good mentors ourselves to a future generation of hunters.  Take a kid or someone hunting who has never gone before, show them the life and the beauty of the wilderness in the springtime, and just enjoy opening someone else’s mind to how great turkey hunting is. 
You might even rekindle some of your fire when you see the hunt through their eyes.

Hunting. Not Hype.