R3 — or recruitment, retention and reactivation — is a vital part of what being a 21st-century hunter, angler, trapper and conservationist means.
By Robert Kennedy, R3 and Me
Last spring was one of the most entertaining and exciting springs I was able to experience while pursuing turkeys in the mid-Michigan area. Spoiler — I didn’t bag any birds myself, but I was a part of the R3 movement and three new turkey hunters experiencing the rush of their first successful hunts.
I have had this itching endeavor to get more people into hunting the last few years. Maybe I’ve had the urge due to the ever-pressing narrative of recruiting, retaining and reactivating. Really, though, I think part of it is just wanting to share the lens that I look through when it comes to the enjoyment of hunting, wildlife and conservation.
The opening weekend of turkey season started off on our small family farm. My cousin Jesse expressed interest in joining me during turkey season for a couple of years prior. This year the timing was right for us to get together to try and tag his first Michigan turkey.
We both hate early mornings, but mornings are generally the most magical and active time for the beautiful birds. It was dusk when we finally made our way through the open field towards the anticipated area we suspected the birds had roosted, and by the time we got close to our first spot, we realized we could go no further. Thunderous gobbles came from the exact spot we wanted to sit, and we could hear the cackling of hens flying down from the roost before we could get close enough.
We desperately made a few yelps in the flock’s direction to no avail. The hens were active, and it’s nearly impossible to draw the attention of a tom away from the real thing when it’s right in front of them.
After roughly an hour, we proceeded to pull out of the area and try some different spots throughout the afternoon. Driving around the section, we were able to glass the flock that we encountered that morning. There was no way for us to pursue them in the midday lull more than half a mile away from their roost.
With the hunt taking place on the family farm, historical knowledge helped to solidify the strategy for that evening. We decided to head deep into the woods to hopefully catch a tom milling through the acorns and thirsty for love.
We positioned ourselves on the ground with our backs against some oak trees. We cleared out the leaves around us and put up some branches in front of us to break up
the silhouettes. Facing the direction we figured the turkeys would be coming from, we made everything as comfortable as possible in preparation for an assumed long wait.
I took my pot call out and gave a few yelps and purrs for a short call sequence and repeated the subtle calling every 15 to 20 minutes for a couple of hours. Finally, we heard a gobble a couple of hundred yards away during one of the calling scenarios. The faucets of adrenaline began to turn on, and I whispered to Jesse to prepare his gun.
I waited only a minute to call again towards the tom, and he responded without hesitation. This time his response alerted us to him closing the distance to our location to within 60 yards, but we were still unable to see him with treetops from logging that blocked our view. A moment later, we could hear him spitting and drumming behind a pile of brush where we were able to lay eyes on his radiant white head.
I could feel my heart in my throat. Knowing he only needed to walk out from behind that brush for Jesse to get a shot had me more anxious than I had ever felt in a hunting scenario. It felt like 20 minutes for him to finally strut into the opening, but he finally made his way toward the decoy for a clear shot. Jesse’s first day hunting for turkeys ended with a bang and a beautiful mature tom.
The weekend after, my friend Derrick and I contacted a young man online who had never hunted for turkey and was green to hunting in general. Brandon was eager to go, and we happily agreed to meet him at one of the properties we had permission to hunt.
The early morning found us in an open field with turkeys roosting within sight. The wind was howling steady, and we could watch the hens sway back and forth in the tops of the trees in the dusk. We attempted to sway a tom to come our way after he pitched down from the roost, but the winds were so prevalent it was evident we weren’t even heard.
We called an audible, packed up from the location, grabbed some fast food for breakfast, and drove to another property close by. This property was primarily down in river flats, and we anticipated that the turkeys would be there to keep out of the winds that dulled one of their most powerful senses.
As soon as I stepped out of the truck after parking, I heard a gobble down below. Derrick and Brandon didn’t hear it and thought I was going crazy, but I knew I would be able to prove my hearing. We beat it down a path in the direction I heard the gobble and swiftly got ourselves situated on a little bit of high ground. As I placed the decoy, I kicked the leaves around mimicking a feeding hen and let out some yelps to entice the phantom gobbler our way.
A group of hens worked their way down an edge of a field toward us shortly after setting up. They came from the opposite direction of the phantom gobble, but we had activity. They milled their way within shooting range of myself and Brandon and allowed him to practice slow movements with a birds’ keen eye within close proximity.
It turns out, Brandon had plenty of time to practice slow movement as the hens stayed within 80 yards of our setup. After 15 minutes of watching the hens flip leaves to eat the bugs and worms underneath, the phantom tom appeared from behind some shrubbery near them. Not only did one tom appear, but three toms in total came into view to join the flock of hens.
An intense moment of “sit and wait” unfolded before us. Legs went numb as we watched birds shuffle about in the same area. We attempted clucks and purrs to try and draw the toms away from the hens, but they were to no avail.
Finally, after watching birds for nearly an hour, our subtle calling angered the hens enough to start working their way back in our direction. The toms, not wanting their ladies to leave, ensued swiftly behind them. As soon as the first tom hit a clear opening 20 yards from us, I started to yelp with my diaphragm call to stop him and pop his head up for Brandon to have a clean shot.
The bird folded after Brandon pulled the trigger. We all hooted and yipped in excitement as we headed towards the downed bird. With our legs still numb from sitting on the ground, hugs were shared, high-fives exchanged and memories made. We had successfully gotten Brandon his first turkey on the first hunt of his career.
After cleaning the bird on the tailgate of the truck and parting ways with an excited, budding hunter, I immediately started making plans to take another hunter out the following weekend.
Expectations were soaring the weekend of Elliott’s hunt. I was two for two on new hunters bagging their first birds on their first hunts, and I wanted to keep that streak alive. Elliott and I, along with my cousin Ryan, prepared the night before by explaining to him all the scenarios that could unfold the following morning.
We planned to return to the family farm on a field edge that I saw birds frequenting throughout the week. We knew the birds roosted close to the field edge, so our morning came well before daylight.
It didn’t take long after the songbirds started singing for the toms in the area to wake up the rest of the forest. Gobbles came from behind us in the woods, across the road on neighboring properties and down in the nearby river flats. It was destined to be an entertaining morning.
Ryan purred, clucked and putted briefly before we could hear birds fly down, and we found out quickly the tom we heard behind us was coming to the field. It continuously gobbled as it made its way to the field edge. He became silent when he came into the clearing.
He was 100 yards away from us, slowly fanning his way in our direction, when something struck fear into him and he ran away. We were immediately disheartened and confused at him vacating the field so quickly.
We conversed for a few minutes about what had happened and contemplated moving deeper into the woods when we heard another gobble from the field edge 300 yards away. Two toms had appeared without us noticing their entry, and they were swiftly making their way towards the decoy.
They gobbled feverishly as they approached our location, and I could hear Ryan coaching Elliott with each approaching step of the birds. As the morning sun glistened off their iridescent feathers, they finally came in range to where Elliott was able to take a shot. Dust flew and both birds started high stepping it in the direction from where they came.
Again, confusion consumed us. Did he miss? Did he hit the bird and wound it? We weren’t sure, so Ryan jumped up from where he was sitting and got an eye on the birds.
He watched them make their way across the field when he realized the targeted bird was indeed hit. We promptly grabbed the guns and started chasing it down. Catching back up to it after an exhausting 200-yard dash, the final shot was able to end its suffering.
Even though it wasn’t picture-perfect, it was another intense learning experience for a new hunter. In the final moments of the hunt, a mix of emotions was witnessed: Sorrow could be witnessed for the bird as well as glee from the experience of the hunt.
Thinking back on it now, the same exuberance can be felt now in memory. Three people who were completely new to turkey hunting all had different experiences, but all found hunting enjoyment. None of these feelings and achievements would’ve been possible if we didn’t offer to share our experiences and the lens we look through with others.