Without mentors engaging youth turkey hunters and teaching them about conservation, no one will

If you’re like me, the spring turkey woods bring a welcome relief from a long winter. Each spring, I try to wring as much as possible out of my favorite season outdoors. Michigan has enjoyed an abundance of turkeys in recent years thanks to the conservation efforts of many, including MUCC.

While the NRC recently declined to increase bag limits from one to two birds, that doesn’t have to mean your season has to be limited. One benefit of turkey hunting is that it doesn’t come with the pressure that deer season seems to.

Any bird that willingly plays the game and will work to a call is a trophy, regardless of beard or spur length. If it doesn’t work out, it’s easy enough to go find another willing participant. The warmer conditions and lack of bugs also make it an ideal time of year to introduce youth and new hunters to the sport.

For turkey hunters addicted to the gobble, it’s the perfect way to extend your calling season while sharing our passion. Here are a few things that I’ve found helpful over the years.

The author poses with a youth turkey hunter who happens to be kin.

Gear for youth turkey hunters

Having good gear makes all the difference in new experiences. Fortunately, some inexpensive camo, a pair of gloves and a face mask are all you need for a new hunter. I keep a couple of extra sets of basic camo, face masks and gloves around for whoever needs them, and it’s proven a lifesaver.

Guns used to be much trickier, but thanks to modern ammo technology, the magnum-sized guns and loads of the past are all but distant memories. Adding an adjustable, pistol-grip Knoxx stock to my old Remington 870 youth 20 gauge gives me a single gun that can fit everyone from the smallest kids to adults with minimal recoil.

Pairing it with modern loads like TSS or Hevi-Shot and a quality turkey choke has proven deadly.

Another helpful addition was a peep-style fiber optic sight — once the front sight is on the turkey’s neck and centered in the rear halo sight, it’s perfectly aligned and all over. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, is a quality set of adjustable shooting sticks or bipod. Getting the shooter comfortably in place with the gun ready when the moment of truth comes is critical. We know how turkeys can hang up or leave us guessing and the ability to stay motionless is vital.

The author poses with youth turkey hunter Samuel Wilkowski.

Before you go

Before you even get out of the truck that morning, take the time to inspect and review any new hunters’ tags and ensure they have what is needed for the hunt that day. Many new hunters aren’t always clear on what tags may or may not be required, and the clerk at a local licensing agency may not have known either. Hunting mentors are responsible for ensuring everything is in order before the hunt begins and we hunt within all game laws. A quick verification can prevent a lot of frustration, embarrassment and heartache later.

I also use the time in the truck to talk through how the hunt could play out — what we’re going to do, how I’ll communicate when a bird is in range and my cue to take the shot. When we finally get out of the truck, we’ll review gun handling and safety before we hear that first gobble.

As a side note, I highly recommend sitting alongside your new hunter in the woods. This enables you both to communicate easily throughout the hunt and ensure safety remains the number one priority of the hunt. While I can’t control the birds or the result, most new hunters appreciate the expectation going into the experience, so they aren’t left wondering what will happen.

Setting expectations

The older my kids get and the more opportunity I have to get them outdoors, the more I realize the importance of managing my expectations for how a hunt may unfold. “Success” looks much different for taking my 7-year-old daughters out compared to my 11-year-old son or a fishing buddy looking for his first bird. My biggest goal in getting young kids out is that they fall in love with the experience, not the hunt. Getting dressed up in hand-me-down camo from their brother and ensuring they have a comfortable pad to sit on and plenty of snacks all sets the foundation for their experience.

We aim to enjoy listening to the woods wake up together and learn to listen for birds. A gun doesn’t even come into the equation. They may giggle if I can get a barred owl to hoot back and occasionally, I may fire a bird up, but when they’re ready to go, we go. It might be 30 minutes or an hour, but the kids dictate the morning. Also, one insider hint is that a hunter’s breakfast at the local cafe can save a slow morning and ensure they return home with a smile and loved their hunting experience.

Expectations with older kids and new hunters are slightly different, and I pace the hunt accordingly. When someone starts losing patience waiting for a bird or a youth gets a severe case of wiggles, it’s the perfect time to go for a walk and do a little run-and-gun hunting.

Again, I’m looking to ensure they’re fired up and excited for the next time they get to go, so stopping to pick a few mushrooms and identifying the flora and fauna is all part of the experience. If the kids want to try calling, locating is an excellent opportunity to try a locator call or practice on their box call. I promise, the first time you see a new hunter light up when they get a shock gobble back to their calling, it will make your season.

What is success for a youth turkey hunter?

Finally, should your hunter be fortunate enough to harvest their first bird, take the time to soak in the whole experience. For most new hunters, particularly adult-onset hunters, there will be a new rush of emotions they’ve never experienced. Savor the moment and take plenty of photos — they’ll be appreciative later. Also, once the bird is in the truck, our work isn’t done — leaving a new hunter with a 20-pound dead bird is probably overwhelming for them.

Taking the extra time to teach them how to process and preserve their bird sets them up for future success as they bring their bird from the field to the table. Additionally, showing them how to clean and maintain the beard, fan and feathers will provide a talisman of memories over the next year. A little guidance here ensures the circle is completed and excites them for the next season.

Erick Johnson lives in his hometown of Midland with his wife, Kim, three kids, Orrin, Evelyn & Grace and a very active Pudelpointer. Erick spends his days at Scientific Anglers where he manages the Customer Service team. He enjoys chasing the seasons throughout Michigan’s woods and water while not providing fly-line advice. He is a proud member of MUCC, Trout Unlimited and the NWTF.