April 04, 2023
My boots weighed all of 94 pounds apiece, caked in gooey cornfield mud. I struggled to wave foggy breath from the beam of my headlamp while placing a Dave Smith jake decoy where I hoped dreams would come true. Beats mosquitos, I guess. My then 6-year-old son anxiously awaited in the blind about 20 yards back against the tree line. To be honest, I really wasn’t sure where a gobbler might be roosted, but I knew the birds weren’t far. The objective? To deliver my boy his first successful hunt.
As fate would have it, a throaty longbeard broke the pre-sunrise darkness not 150 yards from our position, and I knew we were in the game. The Good Lord blessed us with a gullible one that morning. We watched the sky turn multiple shades of orange behind a fine gobbler marching across the field with feet just as muddy and heavy as my own. Just as the angry tom was about to hammer the decoy, my son folded him over like a 2-7 off-suit. I was elated to tears.
The following spring, his younger and highly competitive sister decided she was not to be outdone. She wanted to try turkey hunting, too. After some impressive bravery and a willing-to-learn attitude, she mastered the 20-gauge quickly and effectively. A week later, at 5 years old, she dumped her first gobbler less than a mile outside of the city limits. It was another dream come true for this once-young father.
To date, my kids have killed 13 and 12 birds respectively. Their success is a result of early tempered involvement, mild expectations, lots of snacks, boot leather and countless tanks of gas searching for the best spots and acquiring permission. It’s a family activity we all look forward to each year, and the rewards include a lifetime worth of memories that have created unbreakable bonds.
PAYING IT FOWARD
During the spring of my junior year in high school, a buddy invited me to go turkey hunting and it changed my life. That very first sit in the turkey woods is one I’ll never forget. To this day—26 years later—it was one of the finest gobbling mornings I’ve ever witnessed. Had I been even somewhat experienced, I may have knocked down my first gobbler. My novice ways, however, bumped an eager tom back into the woods.
A couple days later, that same buddy interrupted an afternoon hunt to help put me on a trio of longbeards that were chilling out in a creek bottom. We relocated, and after a mouthful of seductive calls, I managed to lure one of those birds to 25 yards and handed out my first dirt nap. I was hooked. If not for my friend’s invitation, I’d likely not be cobbling these words together today.
Since the day my children were born, I hoped we would enjoy the outdoors together. I thought spring turkey hunting would be a perfect way to introduce them to hunting for a lot of reasons, but I kept a realistic expectation that they may not enjoy it like I do. I also knew it was important for them to experience a certain level of success early on if they were to desire continued participation. Young hunters need to know why they put in all the work. A flopping turkey is the culmination of that preparation.
You need to take the same approach when getting kids involved in turkey hunting. Set them up for success, but temper your expectations. My goal here is to share the steps my family took together to help our children become lethal in the spring woods. It’s my wish that you, as a father, mother, grandparent or other relative, get to enjoy the fire in a kid’s eyes when he or she is successful. It’s truly one of the best experiences I’ve had as a father.
First, a word about telling the truth. I’ve been around a lot of parents that use tender terms when talking with their children about shooting a deer or turkey. That’s a mistake. Society is doing a great job of humanizing animals, which in turn easily demonizes hunting and our way of life. If you want to have an impact, it starts with honesty in your own home. You’re killing an animal for a primal experience that includes the consumption of healthy organic meat. Be straight about that.
In our house, we’ve made it crystal clear that the meat we eat daily was provided by a once-living-and-breathing animal. We found this an easy conversation to have, plus we added personal responsibility to the discussion. Each deer or turkey that occupies a spot in our freezer is labeled with the hunter’s name, so our kids know who provided food for the family. When it’s theirs, they beam with pride every time.
EMBRACE PRACTICE AND SCOUTING
This should go without saying, but practice as much as possible. The more time your kids spend around guns, safely and effectively shooting them, the more confidence and respect they will have—and that will lead to success. If you go through all the work to locate and call in a turkey, the last thing you want to see happen is your new hunter miss or wound an animal because he or she was ill-prepared. That’s on you.
It’s easy to make this part fun. We take out a stack of paper targets with a turkey head printed on them and a box of clay targets. Be sure to have quality eye and ear protection for you and your young shooters. The bang is the most likely thing to create target panic, so tempering that with percussion-reducing earmuffs will make shooting more comfortable.
Since my children were shooting 20-gauge shotguns, I stocked up on light 3/4-ounce field loads that produced minimal kick. These rounds were not to be used for turkey hunting, but they allowed our kids to understand where to aim at a gobbler and to take a number of shots without banging up their shoulder. I staged the clays at turkey-head levels in brush and on branches to give them visual targets to work with. When it was time to hunt, I slid a turkey round into the gun. During my kids’ first hunts I didn’t tell them, and they never knew; when the gun went off at a turkey, they didn’t notice the extra kick.
We continue our practice regimen annually, and now it’s no longer necessary for me to “hide” turkey loads from my kids when we’re hunting. My family relies on Boss Tom heavy tungsten loads from Boss Shotshells, which add knockdown power with robust patterns at extended ranges. With the advancement of these loads, smaller-gauge shotguns have become very effective for turkeys. I suggest considering a 28-gauge or even a .410-bore for your youth hunter.
Our kids began turkey hunting with a scope mounted on the shotgun. I also suggest getting a shooting support of some sort. Early on we used the Caldwell Deadshot FieldPod and more recently a Bog DeathGrip. Both devices make it easy to keep the gun in position while minimizing movement. It’s important to devote time to scouting so you can locate and pattern birds. Of course, take young hunters with you when it’s feasible. I glass strut zones and ag fields as often as possible, even before my workday starts. A couple hours on the road in the morning offers a fantastic view of the sunrise, coffee in hand. I generally make a few runs per week at least a month in advance of the season.
I’m a big proponent of quality glass—you get what you pay for. If you intend to scout often, a good binocular will pay off big-time by reducing eye fatigue and providing durability. I scout with the Leupold BX-5 Santiam HD 15x56, which provides a comfortable view at long distances. When in a hunting scenario, I downsize to the Santiam 10x50. (I’ve been through a lot of unreliable binoculars over the years, but Leupold’s models have proven tough as nails.)
Most of our hunts take place in Upper Midwest ag country, which allows for long-distance scouting. But our family lived and hunted in Alabama for several years where that type of scouting wasn’t an option. Trail cameras are as valuable to turkey hunters as they are to deer hunters. Use what you believe in; there are several quality brands that offer standard digital and cellular cameras. I’ve had years of great experience with Moultrie, and most recently the new Moultrie Edge cellular series cameras are outstanding. The information garnered with trail cameras is critical to timing and setting up a successful hunt for your kids.
SET UP RIGHT
There is a standing—and quite silly—debate among turkey hunters about the use of blinds. Many members of the old school dislike them and say the only way to shoot a turkey is while sitting with your back to a tree. I won’t get into the debate, but I’ve taught my kids to hunt both ways. For obvious reasons, we started out sitting in a blind with a small spread of decoys and still employ the tactic as often as a situation demands it. We have fun this way, plus it offers comfort for extended periods of time and blocks movement that young hunters may not be able to control.
We’ve also spent some time running and gunning, and both my kids have been successful this way. Your goal should be to teach them woodsmanship, and both methods can help instill that skill. One step at a time.
Set up a blind in a location where your scouting has revealed turkeys are frequenting. If possible, face the blind to the west in the mornings, as this position will eliminate sun in eyes and scopes. I speak from experience on this matter—long story.
Decoys are a necessary tool, but you’ll find they work differently from one property to the next and from state to state. During our time in Alabama, we experienced mostly negative results with aggressive jake postures. We adjusted accordingly, and success followed. In the Midwest, we’ve experienced great results with aggressive jakes and even full-strut dekes. Let the data you collect during your scouting missions help determine what kind of decoy to use. Don’t be afraid to experiment if something isn’t working; changing your decoy setup might make all the difference.
The important part is placing the decoys at 20 to 25 yards. We like to bring gobblers close, but you want to maximize the killing potential of turkey loads while allowing for some margin of error. At 20 or 30 yards, the pattern will be wide enough to accommodate a nervous shooter but still plenty dense to ensure a kill.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
When a gobbler commits, make sure your young hunter is in position and focused, relying on the confidence built during practice. It’s crucial that you hold it together and be the rock as the moment of truth arrives. Guide the youngster quietly and confidently into a slow and steady trigger pull when you’re sure the turkey is where it needs to be for a clean kill. When the gun goes off, prepare for a mixture of emotions, and don’t let your emotions overpower what the child is feeling. If it’s the kid’s first kill, tears of joy are likely. Cultivate that.
If the unfortunate occurs and the turkey runs off unscathed (expect it to happen at some point) don’t turn it negative. It is never the young hunter’s fault if the hunt falls apart. Congratulate or console, and be happy in both situations. It is supposed to be fun after all. If there is a bird flopping in the decoys, let the celebration commence.
Finally, preserve the memory. Save the fan, beard and spurs, take awesome pictures and find a place on the kid’s bedroom wall to remind him or her of the experience you shared together. When the time comes to prepare the meal your youngster has provided, highlight his or her contribution to the family’s health and wellness. A young hunter might love that part the most.
I started with a brief story about my kids’ first turkeys, and to close I want to illustrate their growing prowess. The spring season last year was one of my favorites. Like most adolescent boys, my 14-year-old son wanted some freedom and was insistent upon hunting by himself. After my wife and I talked it over, we decided to cut the cord and let him give it a try. He and I talked about where he wanted to hunt, his decoy setup, blind position and anticipations. He was in charge.
After I dropped him off, I stayed in the truck and scouted some other birds just in case we needed a Plan B. When my phone lit up with his incoming call, only an hour after daylight, I knew we’d be celebrating the flop over a piece of Casey’s breakfast pizza. He sat through sideways rain and cold wind to lure three aggressive longbeards into easy 12-gauge range and then made a perfect shot. Oh yes, he’s graduated to a 12-gauge.
My daughter killed her first turkey outside of a pop-up blind last spring. We found a lone gobbler in a hay field, parked the truck and moved in. After a productive sneak that included some belly-crawling, we got into position and made a few calls. The longbeard showed up within minutes—just the way it’s supposed to happen.
She made a perfect 25-yard shot. We also enjoyed some breakfast pizza while admiring her 12th turkey in the gorgeous and warming May morning sunlight.
I’m beyond proud of my two turkey killers. Everything I’ve discussed above is based on how we made it work in our family. There may be unique scenarios in your youth-hunter dynamic that require a different perspective or approach. In any case, though, I firmly believe that the work you put in before the season will be the foundation on which success is enjoyed.
Take these steps to maximize fun. Do:
- 1. Pack snacks. Keeping young hunters engaged starts through their stomach. If they are hungry, they’ll get crabby and want to leave too soon. I know they’re not super healthy, but Pop-Tarts and Goldfish saved a lot of hunts for my family through the years.
- 2. Leave your expectations at the truck. When your youngster decides the hunt is over, call it. The best way to kill desire is to force him or her to stay out there after the mojo is gone.
- 3. Let the kids call. Hunters are better callers than the birds themselves; it won’t scare a turkey away if a call doesn’t sound perfect. When a kid makes a turkey gobble with a call in his or her hands, the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. Let that happen.
- 4. Find easy-to-access locations. Young hunters are not hard-core yet and need the experience to be as easy as possible. This means you need to do your homework to set the stage for an encounter.
- 5. Watch the weather, and dress for success. You can’t really over-prepare here; an extra hoodie or even a blanket will help keep children comfortable longer. I’ve taken a small propane heater when the cold was unavoidable. If the weather looks really bad, pick another day.
Avoid these mistakes that ruin hunts. Don't:
- 1. Expect perfect results. I can assure you that the best-laid plans will fall apart. I know it sounds like a cliché, but make the hunt about your kid. If your scouting was effective, an encounter will eventually occur.
- 2. Rely on digital babysitters. One of the big reasons we introduce children to hunting is so they experience nature—and reduce their screentime. I know it’s easy to just throw an iPad at them to make the hunt last. Trust me, kids will find other ways to entertain themselves, especially if they are learning to run a call or practicing their aim at a decoy. Bring a coloring book or something. And don’t get glued to your phone, either.
- 3. Overstay your welcome. If you know the hunt is likely over for the day, don’t try to extend it. Head home, take a nap and return for the next hunt when it makes sense.
- 4. Force a bad shot. It’s a far better scenario to let a bird walk off if the angle is tough, or if one is hung up out of range, than to tell your kid to take a questionable shot. A wounded bird that escapes will hurt much worse than one you just let go. Perfect shot opportunities may not be common, but bad shots are easily avoidable.
- 5. Be negative. If the hunt goes wrong and your young hunter misses, or worse peppers the turkey and it escapes, do not get angry. It’s easy to be disappointed when things go wrong, but it takes maturity to redirect the inevitable gut ache by explaining the reality of the moment. It happens, but it offers a good lesson on why we must keep trying.
Two pieces of gear that make springs easier
I complicate our efforts some by filming most of the hunts with my kids. We all enjoy reliving those moments in the woods, but capturing them adds gear and weight. Several years ago, I bought a two-gun shooting cart from Rugged Gear and converted it into a turkey cart. It cradles the blind, two chairs, camera and tripod, shotguns and decoys—all on a platform that’s easy to push along field edges, down logging roads or across greenfields. It was an especially solid investment when my kids were small and incapable of carrying much of gear.
As we’ve started to hunt more without a blind, a low fold-up turkey chair has been an awesome accessory for my aging body. My back just can’t take the hard ground coupled with a harder tree for very long. One of these chairs adds hours of comfortable sitting. It also encourages good shooting form without having to deal with leg cramps of numb feet. We got our chairs from Cabela’s, but there are many good options on the market.