Turkey Hunting Safety: 10 rules of engagement
By M.D. Johnson
Here’s a statistic that might surprise you: The shooter in most “mistaken for game” accidents — as in, one person shooting another because they thought that person was a turkey — is someone with 10 or more years of turkey hunting experience at the time of the accident. That’s according to a number of state fish and wildlife agencies across the country.
Here’s another one. Hunting turkeys is four times safer than playing ping-pong, and 50 times safer than playing a round of golf (so says the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF)). Of course, the latter stat is understandable, as most would agree that combining heavy, weighted metal sticks and beer is simply asking for trouble.
My point? Turkey hunting isn’t inherently dangerous; human beings, on the other hand, don’t always … pay attention to what they’re doing, exercise caution, think twice about doing something … the list goes on and on.
It’s incredibly exciting, this turkey hunting thing. Even veterans — see paragraph one — get all twitterpated from time to time during spring. But where good, safe turkey hunters and those (unfortunately) involved in hunting-related accidents differ, is that the safe individuals take the time to think. They remain calm. They don’t let adrenaline and the so-called “heat of the moment” dictate a poor decision on their part. They know there will always be another day. Another time. Another gobbler. And that a trigger, once pulled, cannot be, well … unpulled.
They also adhere to the following 10 points of order as they relate to turkey hunting safety. The rules of engagement, so to speak.
The 10 rules of turkey hunting safety
- Always set up against a tree that’s at least as wide as your shoulders. No, it’s not always possible, but a wide tree provides you not only protection from the rear, just in case someone decides your decoys look awfully real, but can also help hide you from those wary gobblers that opt for the “circle wide and come in from behind” tactic.
- Should you see another hunter, don’t wave. And don’t use a turkey call in the hopes of attracting their attention. Rather, in a loud, very clear, very human voice, say something immediately recognizable like “OVER HERE” or “HUNTER HERE.” Chances are good they’ll get red-faced, give a half-wave and back out the way they came.
- When using turkey decoys, place them in a relatively open location. Position them so that you can see some distance beyond and to the sides of the decoys. Set them so that in the event someone does shoot at them, you’re not directly in line with their shot. And, when moving, always carry your decoys so they’re completely hidden from view.
- Eliminate the colors red, white, blue and black from your ensemble. Take a good look at any gobbler. His body’s black, and his head is a patriotic collection of reds and whites and blues. Why, then, would you want to include such colors on your person? Eliminate it.
- When possible, set up in an open area. From a safety standpoint, an open-area setup gives you the opportunity to see an approaching hunter while he’s still at a safe, non-threatening distance from your location. The bigger your visual arc — 150 degrees is better than 80 degrees — the better off you’re going to be.
- Use caution when making gobble calls. This is a case-by-case scenario, but my opinion is that it’s always — ALWAYS — a bad idea to use a gobble call on public land.
- Assume every sound you hear is another hunter. A turkey walking through fallen leaves and a man slipping along a ridgeline can sound very much alike. Some callers sound amazingly realistic. Here, experience can and does help a hunter distinguish avian from human. However, in the meantime, it’s not a bad thing to assume that all those sounds you can’t immediately identify as something wild might not be.
- Never stalk a gobbler. Truth is, given the wild turkey’s incredible eyesight, your chances of sneaking up on a gobbler aren’t very good. The chances of you being involved in a shooting-related accident, however, are greatly increased. Do you really want to dress from head to toe in camouflage and then crawl around in the turkey woods? I don’t.
- Make sure your camouflage is complete. Throw a Styrofoam cup in a coal bin. Can you see it? Sure you can, and quite easily too. Well, the same thing happens with any part of your body that’s not been attended to sufficiently in terms of camouflage. In other words, anything that you neglect or overlook is going to stand out just like that Styrofoam cup in that coal bin.
- Be 100% sure of your target and beyond. Here’s how I personally handle target identification: As soon as I see the bird I’m working, I say to myself, “There’s a turkey.” Once I see the bird’s beard, I say, “There’s the beard.” Now I’ve identified the object not only as a turkey, but as a bearded — and therefore legal — bird. Then, if everything works as planned and the bird comes within range, I again say to myself, “There’s the beard.” Sound silly? Perhaps. But with each gobbler, this little self-help sequence not only verifies without question what it is I’m looking at, but gives me the time I need to calm myself down, double-check my self-discipline and prepare my head for the final step in the process. Why all this? Well, I still get very excited.
That’s 10. However number 11 is probably the most important rule to remember: Always think — and hunt — defensively.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
Read more about turkey hunting from M.D. on Slayer’s Blog: