Category Archives: turkey hunting clothes

In Defense of a Hard 40 Yards

It is the doldrums of winter here and in the midst of February I cannot recall the last time I saw sunshine.  Dreary grey days followed by gloomy nights followed by more dreary gray days have become the norm as we hit the mid-point of winter.

To pass the time and to give myself the illusion that spring is really coming I have taken to the internet in search of turkey hunting equipment.  I do not really require anything in this area, but it is nice to look and fantasize about guns, turkey calls, vests, and ammunition; in undertaking this exercise I can say with some certainty that there is an absolute glut of frivolous gear on the market.

But two items that have become ubiquitous in modern turkey hunting are the ‘turkey-specific” choke tube and specialized ‘turkey loads’.  I’m completely fine with these pieces of equipment because they ‘tick all the boxes’ I look for in effective pieces of gear.  A choke is generally easy to install, both pieces are simple to use in tandem, and they promote clean ethical kills when used in appropriate situations.

However it is that last caveat that, ironically, makes an ideal tool for some modern turkey hunters an absolute nightmare in the hands of others.

Are extra-full, aftermarket turkey chokes and super-charged shells mandatory equipment to kill gobblers? Of course they aren’t.  Many gobblers have fallen to hunters in the years before custom chokes were de rigueur, and countless hunters in the modern age shoot fixed-choke shotguns by necessity or personal choice.  The broad, bronze tailfans of many, many wily gobblers adorn my father’s garage walls alone, and he has only ever shot them with simple copper-plated lead from the improved cylinder choke in his glossy, 1960’s vintage Remington 1100.   For him it is at least, in part, a fundamental belief that he does not need to buy species-specific shotguns.  I’m sure he’s not alone in this.

Hunters on a budget or with a traditionalist aesthetic aside, new loads and chokes are effective, without a doubt. At extended ranges (a nebulous concept I’ll attempt to define below) they deliver more shot on a turkey’s head and neck, and thus by extension more opportunity for a quick, ethical kill with minimal suffering to the bird.

I’m all for that.

But what of the nonsense I’m now seeing about regular and consistent 70 yard kills?  I saw someone online actually admit to killing a turkey at 110 yards using a certain choke/ammo combination; a feat made all the more miraculous given that this person was fortunate enough to actually witness a gobbler having a massive stroke simultaneous to their shot, because that is the only way I can connect the two events which are so obviously unrelated.

Or this person is a stinking, filthy liar.  The hunting community has its share of those too.

But overall that seems to be the mantra now.  Longer is better.  Take the long shot.  If he hangs up, bust him. Extend your capabilities, yada, yada, yada.  At the risk of being more unpopular than I already am, this is a generally stupid and occasionally dangerous.  Of course the entities marketing this all have their own disclaimers either stated explicitly or through their sponsored mouthpieces in the industry.

“Know your gun’s capabilities and practice often.”

“Know your ranges accurately.”

“If you’re unsure, don’t take the shot.”

“Don’t take borderline or risky shots.”

And other palliative pabulums meant to absolve them from any liability for actually manufacturing a product that emboldens hunters everywhere to practice less, take longer shots, and rely less on accurate ranging of their birds.

Now, I’m far from perfect and I’m well aware that errors in judgment happen, we are all fallible beings after all.  I once underestimated my range on a hard-gobbling jake by more than ten yards and without a doubt having an extra full choke bought me the margin for error that made that bird flop.  But my self-imposed threshold was 35 yards, when I paced off 44 steps I quietly swore at myself for having made an error.  Likewise, I was thankful for the wiggle room afforded me by the shotgun’s extra-tight constriction and the swarm of lead #6 pellets that went downrange.

But super-full aftermarket chokes and ultra-long range loads are not being marketed as ‘insurance’ against misjudged distances.  They are being actively sold and touted as a way to kill gobblers once considered hung-up, henned up, or stubborn.  All this to the detriment, in my mind, of the concept of ethical distances and ethical kills.

There’s a grace to calling longbeards in close.  There are nuances in turkey hunting that can be learned from having birds near you.  I would argue for all my days that the thrill of having a bird at ten steps outweighs the thrill of using aerospace-grade material to smash his brains in from another (figurative) zip code.

So is it the many-headed hydra of consumerism driving this?  Is it simple laziness?  Is there an element of chest-thumping machismo at reaching out like Thor himself and hammering a gobbler dead from over half a football field away?  Is it merely a fashion trend?  In truth it is all of the above to a degree.  So what can you do, other than just piss and moan on the internet like I’m doing?

Have some integrity.  Be patient.  Watch the gobblers and call them in close.  Shooting, wounding, and possibly not recovering a bird at unheard of distances is a far worse alternative than letting him walk and hunting him another day.  Shooting, missing, and educating a bird is not much better and just makes them more prone to hanging up at extended ranges in the future, creating a vicious cycle of warier birds and the perceived requirement for even longer range ballistics.

Frustration can make a hunter prone to wishful thinking around distances, skills, and equipment capabilities.

There is nothing to lose at holding yourself to a hard 40 yard threshold.  It cannot be legislated and it cannot be mandated, but it can be idealized and celebrated.

And it should be.

Shotgun Memories

It is always in the home stretch before a hunting season that I get all nostalgic about hunts gone by, and this year is no exception.  Some time ago, my father wrote a piece for the CK Times website (the link is here) about the things he had been privileged to see throughout a lifetime spent in the wilderness.  His lifetime is far from over (I hope) and he’s still making memories every year as he heads into his early sixties.  I’ve got a significantly longer time to go to even up with the years Dad has been hunting, and given the different paths our lives and careers are tracking on (Dad grew up in a rural village and spent 30 years working for Ducks Unlimited, where his work responsibilities often took him into the wild spaces he loves…I grew up in a mid-sized city and my job often takes me to airports, office high-rises, and business-level suburban hotels) it is unlikely that I’ll ever accumulate the literal decades of time that Dad has been in the woods, fields, and marshes.  Since I won’t equal his time afield, I thought I’d at least steal his premise for a post and talk about some of my fondest memories experienced while I was lugging a firearm through the wilderness.

First off, it may just be easier to tell you the fondest memories I have that don’t involve a hunting experience: my wedding, the birth of my two sons, and winning a couple of Regional soccer championships as a teenager.  Aside from those, pretty much everything else I hold dear to my mind involves guns, mud, blood, friends, fur, feathers, and the outdoors.  But here are some specifics to get you primed for the opening of whatever hunting season is coming up near you.

The very first morning I ever hunted turkeys, the dawn broke exactly how I figured it wouldn’t.  My idealistic mind pictured an early morning sunrise, with the glossy feathers of a hefty tom shimmering into view, and the big gobbler stopping in front of me and getting a headful of lead #6s.  After all, that’s how every turkey hunting video I had ever seen had run.  My experience was significantly different.  A low grey sky gave way to misty drizzle, and inside of ten minutes I was soaked in all the places that a hunter hates to be soaked.  The seat of my pants was dampened, but my hopes were not.  Then I heard it for the first time in the wild, the gobbling of tom turkeys.  They were the width of two fields away, and I never got a visual on them but they hammered away in ‘row-row-row your boat’ fashion for fully forty minutes.  I was hooked for life after that, and if you haven’t heard a couple of gobblers sound off like that through the fog and the mist, well, you haven’t lived.  That morning I even managed to call a tom in, but he obviously hadn’t seen all the hunting videos that I had…he stayed in the woods behind me and never came anywhere near where I could see him, let alone shoot.  I had other encounters in the other years since, but that first drizzly, misty, foggy, damp morning sitting on a vest-cushion with wet underpants as I listened to the gobblers do their thing was all I needed to know that I was doing something good with my time.

I had never seen geese side-slipping until my second or third season of hunting them, but the first time I saw it I think I actually shouted some term of wonderment out loud.  We were hunting a field in the days before layout blinds, and we were all safely stationed in the fenceline crouched under low shrubs or sitting in tall fringe grasses.  A gaggle (to use the term precisely) of geese were winging towards us, but I sensed from instinct that their flight path was taking them beyond us.  They were high and they were moving fast.  The one-by-one in a pattern that seemed both planned and utterly chaotic the birds began flipping over onto their backs, dropping speed and altitude with every barrel-roll.  My young eyes had never seen anything like it and I was in awe of this controlled plummeting.  As fast as they dropped in the birds set their wings and the contrast between their rapid descent and the near hovering that they did as they committed to the decoys had me completely bewildered.  Someone shouted to take them, and I managed to drop a single goose from the middle of the flock.  This was coincidentally one of the last, if not the final, time that lead shot for waterfowl was legal in Ontario so that hunt has some historical significance for me too.

Staying with goose hunting, the first time I had ever heard really, truly proficient calling for any type of game was on a goose hunt.  We had set up in a deep ditch in the Ferndale Flats on the Bruce Peninsula (the ditch being the only decent cover) and had put out a dozen or so decoys.  After some time, a line of geese on the southern horizon became visible, and they were making for our setup, or at least that is what I thought.  At about 200 yards or so, there arose such a sound from the next field east of us that I was sure there was another flock coming.  The most true to life clucks, moans, and bawls I’d ever heard drew the attention of the flock from the south and they swung wide of us before setting their wings and dropping to the field on our east side.  Six shotgun reports and a few falling birds later it became immediately apparent that a very accomplished goose caller was working the ‘field next door’.  So it went for a couple flocks more, and though we managed to score a few birds as they fled the gunfire east of us, it wasn’t the hunt for us that it could have been.  But it didn’t matter, at least to me, because my eyes had been opened to a whole new dimension of goose hunting.  After the hunt we waited on the side road for the other group, and as it turned out we had been hunting next to a championship-calibre caller: Craig McDonald.  He was hunting in the area with his Dad (they had a cottage in the vicinity) and while I was expecting an arrogant ‘professional’ (don’t ask me why) he was exactly the opposite; he was nice and humble and offered a few tips, and he had the nicest truck I’d ever seen to that time.  The next week I went out and got my first short-reed goose call, an instructional CD, and started to practice in ways that drove my girlfriend (now my wife) insane.  I’ve done a contest or two myself, but I’m still not even close the level of calling that we were treated to that day.  Nonetheless, I can pinpoint that hunt as the start of my obsession with game calls.  Now my wife knows who she can blame for the soundtrack to her life.

I may have told this story before, but with the early goose season looming, it bears repeating again.  On an early goose hunt in 2006 we spent the better part of a very hot September morning rolling hay bales into a makeshift set of blinds on a field that geese had been loafing in during the early afternoons and returning to in the evenings.  As with all things in goose hunting, as soon as the bales were setup, we went to get some lunch.  Wouldn’t you know it?  As soon as we drove off, forty or fifty geese dropped into the field to hang out.  We devised a plan of attack and secretly began a broad circle that led to us stalking from hay bale to hay bale until we were within sixty yards of the birds.  On a prearranged signal our friend Tack began herding the birds our way.  When he was just under a hundred yards from the birds they got up and began to head out.  They came our way broadside and a mere twenty feet off the ground.  Inside of fifteen yards Rory, my cousin Dane, and I opened up the shotguns; we had to wait that long just for them to provide safe shooting options.  I crumpled a bird with my first shot and then missed in the most embarrassing of fashions on my second and third rounds.  Dane and Rory both emptied their guns, and Rory managed to re-load and pop two more rounds as the birds put altitude and distance between us and them.  Angry at myself such atrocious shooting, I trudged out to pick up my goose.  I was dumbfounded to find that I was the only one picking up a bird: my cousin-Dane has a well-deserved reputation for being lethal with a shotgun, and Rory is no slouch either.  Yet here we were: eleven rounds spent and one goose to show for it.  Dane muttered various curses, exclaiming that he could see the tongues and eyes of the birds, among other things.  Rory blamed the soreness in his cheeks from wisdom tooth extractions performed just days before.  For once (and probably the only time since) I was able to look smug and bask in some accolades.  And the laughs…man did we laugh about that.  A while later, just as we were about to call it a night, a big flock came rocking and swinging into our decoys and we all redeemed ourselves, scratching down another eight birds.  That day at the hay bales was certainly one for the memories.

One of my fondest deer hunting memories isn’t even of hunting deer.  After a long cold day in an early November downpour, we had a sumptuous steak dinner.  We ate whipped potatoes, Brussels sprouts slathered in butter, sautéed mushrooms, and perfectly seared T-bones that were big enough to force all the other fixings off your plate.  Long after many others had turned in my cousin Luke, my brother Donavon, myself and the camp’s oldest member Frank Sweet turned off the generator, lit up Frank’s old Coleman lantern, and sipped cold beer while we swapped stories.  We talked about women, and hunting, and government, and literature, and told entertaining jokes and stories from our lives (although Frank had a significantly larger well of jokes and stories to draw from) while the rain fell on the roof and tinkled against the chimney pipes.  I don’t even recall what time we all eventually turned into our bunks that night (and the rain persisted to keep us all in camp the next morning) but I do recall thinking that there was no greater relaxation than just sitting around with the guys telling benign lies to each other, remembering girls we’d loved, and figuring out all of the world’s problems in one go through.  I was secretly sorry for those who never had (or never would) experience moments like that, and it was bittersweet to know that it was one of those perfect moments that would pass, and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to re-create it.  Frank would be taken away by heart failure the next spring and that just reinforced the fleeting beauty of the times spent in the hunting tradition.  The loss of a friend like Frank, while sad, also galvanizes me every year to go out and make as many memories count as I can.  And in less than two weeks my friends, my family, and countless others will re-embark on that journey.

Enjoy your journeys as much as I’ll enjoy mine and maybe I’ll see you in the fields.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.