This weekend marked my first ever hunting trip.
It was absolutely incredible.
I’ve wanted to learn to hunt since I moved to the Midwest but, like many people interested in the pastime, I had no idea where to start. The whole concept seemed foreign and intimidating.
First, there are the guns. I know nothing about guns and I have a lot of strong political views around gun control, so that was a whole scary thing. Second, there was the part where you actually have to kill an animal. Weird, to say the least. And then there was the head-to-toe-camo lifestyle that seems to define American hunting culture. What’s the deal with that?
I’ve been trying to find acquaintances or programs that would help me get my foot in the door, with basically no luck until I went to Winter BOW in Wisconsin. That experience threw open the flood gates for more outdoor activities, including hunting. I reached out to the coordinator of BOW Wisconsin, Peggy Farrell (who is organized, detail-oriented, sweet, and all-around amazing), and she invited me to join the Learn To Hunt Turkey program she was running at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Last Sunday, I drove up to UWSP for 3 hours of hands-on lessons that included safe gun carry while in the field, dressing a freshly harvested turkey, and time on the shooting range with paper turkey targets. That experience, though informative, felt pretty removed from hunting.
One of the hunting mentors, Kelly, generously invited me to stay at her home for the hunt weekend. I drove up Friday morning and met up with her and her husband to learn how to scout for turkey signs. We spent the afternoon poking through the woods in Waukesha County looking for tracks, droppings, and scratched out areas of dirt and leaves where a turkey recently searched for acorns. It was interesting – Kelly taught me a lot about the local edible wildlife – but it still didn’t feel like I was going hunting.
That night, everyone in the Learn to Hunt class, students and mentors, met up at Kelly’s house for a pre-hunt wild game dinner. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had. The students all agreed that it felt like Thanksgiving, sharing a comforting meal with good people. We had wild turkey stroganoff, pheasant pot pie, pulled turkey sandwiches with homemade tomato jam, smoked and shaved venison, deep fried elk steaks, parmesan-coated wild turkey nuggets, and more. It was pretty awesome. This was starting to feel real.
The following morning at 4:30am, pairs of hunters and mentors departed for their pre-determined hunting locations. Kelly and her husband had already scouted our spot, right on the corner of two fields and a stand of pine trees, and put up our blind, a camouflage tent with small windows. We walked in before sunrise, before the turkeys leave their roosts for the morning, and settled down to wait. Turkey hunting, I was told repeatedly, is all about patience. Sit, listen, occasionally make a turkey call with a specially designed device, continue to sit and listen.
The first thing I noticed was the diversity of noises in the woods around us. Geese, swans, sand hill cranes, robins, chickadees, maybe a coyote in the early hours, and many more. I could barely hear any gobbles or clucks from the turkeys we were trying to lure out. As the morning wore on, I settled into a comfortable belief that we weren’t going to see any birds, and I’d just get to sit in this nice little tent in the woods for a few relaxing hours.
Boy, was I wrong.
First, there was a lone hen that wandered by, raising then dashing our hopes. (You can’t shoot hens. You can only shoot male turkeys during mating season because males mate widely and few are needed to maintain the population.) Then there was the flock of hens that wandered into our field, seeking a gobbling Tom in the woods behind us.
Last, but certainly not least, was a flock of 7 or 8 jakes – juvenile males – that came out of the woods to our right. While Kelly called to them with a screechy little box, I followed their movement towards our hen decoy. Then, a deer walked out of the woods between our blind and the flock of jakes, looking right at us. As the deer approached, it caught our scent, stamped, and bounded back into the woods.
To my surprise, the turkeys were uninterested in the deer’s sudden departure. They had their hearts set on our lady-bird decoy. As they approached, I put up my gun and put it through the leftmost window in the blind, tracking the straggler in the group. Unsure if they were close enough, I tracked them through 3 different windows, muttering, “I’m scared. I’m not sure I can do this.” Finally, one bird turned and faced the blind, clearly presenting its neck.
I fired my shotgun. And fell backwards off my chair.
When I got up (and put the safety back on my gun), I saw that two birds were down, the one I aimed for and another guy that was flopping around a little ways off. The rest of the jakes were just milling around. This surprised me. We weren’t supposed to make a single noise while waiting, lest we spook these notoriously paranoid birds. Yet I just killed one of them, right in the middle of a field, and they hardly moved.
Just goes to show you. Horny teens, regardless of species, are a special kind of stupid.
They only dispersed when Kelly got out of the blind and stepped on the second bird’s neck. He was flopping around and need to be put down quickly and cleanly to minimize suffering. He kept it up long enough that Kelly asked me to go back in the blind and get the gun in case we needed to shoot him again, which freaked me out because I didn’t think I could fire again at close range.
The bird stopped moving after a few more minutes. I unloaded the gun and put the remaining shells in my pocket. That’s when the stressful part began.
Long story short: You’re only supposed to shoot one bird at a time.
If you “accidentally” shoot a second bird, a warden might assume you were trying to cheat the system and cull an extra animal. This is bad news bears and undermines faith in the hunting community.
In my case, I hit the first bird squarely at the base of the neck, without hitting the breast meat, and we could clearly see multiple BBs in its throat. We couldn’t even find a BB in the second bird, though it was clearly bleeding from the head. We think one stray pellet, a 2-sigma outlier in the spray pattern of the shell, entered through its ear and hit its brain.
Still, the warden in our county investigated the incident like foul play. She questioned me and Kelly separately to compare our stories. She called the coordinator of our program to check what Kelly had told her. She lectured Kelly about responsible mentoring. She wrote up the incident in grave detail. Still, she did everything with kindness, respect, and a sincere hope that I would continue hunting, which I really appreciated during my I-ruined-everything-and-now-everyone-is-in-trouble crying jag.
When all the paperwork was done – complicated by a missing hunting tag, my inability to look up my DNR ID number because my phone died, and Kelly losing her license in the woods – the warden took the second bird. It was given to a hungry family in the area, which made me really happy. We headed back to the house to meet up with the rest of the group and swap hunting stories.
Lunch, simple sandwiches and leftovers from the night before, was (yet again) one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in recent memory. It reminded me a lot of summer picnics when I was little, just hanging out in the backyard, nowhere to go and nothing important to do. I haven’t felt that sense of home since my aunt passed away.
After lunch, I dressed my turkey and removed the breasts to eat. The process is both simple and efficient, yet sort of brutal and gory. First, you make a small cut into the skin above the breast bone, then slide your knife up under the skin to open up the chest. Then, with a still-warm bird, you can just rip open the skin along the seam you’ve made, from neck to pelvis. Then you work the knife down along the breast bone, removing the meat while gently pulling off the silver skin and membranous material. In the end, the breast just kind of falls into your hand in one big piece.
This was my first time dressing a whole animal and I loved it.
After the meat was packed in bags and set on ice, it was time for me to drive home. Kelly was kind enough to send me off with a selection of wild game from their freezer: ground elk, summer sausage, brats, venison bacon, and more. I also have one 2.5lb turkey breast from my bird in the freezer. The other breast I cooked into a wild turkey pot pie and a pot of sweet potato chili.
Can’t wait until registration opens for the fall Learn to Hunt programs!
Recipe for Wild Turkey Pot Pie
- 1lb turkey breast
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 1/2 cup diced carrots
- 1/4 cup celery
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 2/3 cup broth
- 1 cup milk, less 2 tbs
- 1 cup new potatoes, chopped into small cubes
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- 1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
- 2-9in pie crusts
- Egg wash: 1 egg + 1 tbs water
- Cook the chicken and cut into cubes. I recommend sous vide at 152F for 2 hours with a little salt and olive oil. You can also poach or bake.
- Preheat oven to 425F.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, carrots, celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add flour and stir to coat vegetables. Slowly pour in broth then milk, stirring constantly to prevent clumping. Increase heat and bring to a simmer. Sauce should quickly thicken. Cook until the raw flour smell is gone and sauce is well incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Mix the potatoes, turkey, peas, and corn into the sauce.
- Butter a pie plate then dust with flour. Press the bottom crust into the plate and brush with egg wash. Pour in filling. Top with second crust, crimp edges shut, cut vents into the top crust, and brush with egg wash.
- Bake for 45 minutes over a baking tray in case the filling bubbles and spills.
- Let cool before cutting to allow sauce to thicken.