Linda Bittle - West Plains, Missouri 65775

This is Not Where I Thought I Was Going

#25 – Am I Still A Hunter?

Spring time, generally March through May, is turkey hunting season throughout the lower 48 states. As spring time weather moves north across the country, turkey season follows. States set seasons to coincide with the spring breeding season, when male turkeys can be called in close enough to take with a shotgun or bow.

My Facebook and Instagram feeds were full of photos of successful turkey hunts this spring. I’ve been especially happy to see so many women hunting turkeys successfully! And I’ve been jealous of them, too.

Frankly, I’ve been wondering if I can still call myself a hunter.

In my youth I hunted with my husband. Hunting with him, I’ve successfully taken cottontail rabbit, squirrel, white-tail deer, bobwhite quail, and mourning dove.

Here’s the thing, though. He always tagged out. And he didn’t really like to hang around in the woods waiting for me to fill my tag. So, more often than not, I didn’t.

“‘The best thing about hunting and fishing,’ the Old Man said, ‘is that you don’t have to actually do it to enjoy it. You can go to bed every night thinking about how much fun you had 20 years ago, and it all comes back clear as moonlight.'”

~ Robert Ruark

I hunted wild turkey hard, but unsuccessfully, for 3 years with him.

Learning to sit still enough not to spook a bird with fantastic vision and hearing was the first hurdle. Because mosquitoes seem to be attracted to turkey hunters I had to buy a bug suite to get comfortable enough to sit for long periods in often damp Missouri woodland edges.

The next hurdle was in learning to move the shotgun in the right direction, at the right time, and without being noticed by the turkeys. That one was really hard. Sometimes I just couldn’t get a shot because I had twisted my body as far as I could, and it just wasn’t far enough. But that was OK with me. It’s part of the learning-to-hunt experience.

Sometimes, it came down to me just not taking a shot that I wasn’t certain I could make, even though I knew he would get mad because he, of course, could have made the shot.

Here’s the thing. No hunter should ever take a shot that he or she is not ready to take. No hunting mentor should ever insist that they do. Taking a life is always a sacred thing. Taking it badly will leave scars on your psyche forever.

Hunting With Other People

My first wild turkey, taken Sunday, April 27, 2003. He weighed 21 and 1/2 pounds and had a 9 and 3/4 inch beard and 1 inch spurs.
This is the only trophy photo I have. The photo hangs on my dining room wall, underneath the battered tail feathers. Photos by D. Reinke

Once my husband made plans that did not include me I feared that I’d never get to hunt or even shoot again. Even early on I knew that I would miss that more than I’d ever miss him. And that’s a sad statement on the end of a nearly 25 year marriage. But it’s the truth.

Fortunately the men at the gun club where we had shot weekly rounds of skeet made it clear that I was welcome and that it was safe for me to go there unaccompanied. (I write about that here: https://lindabittle.com/of-good-men-and-gunsmoke/ )

And then, one of my coworkers volunteered her husband and then 13-year old son to take me turkey hunting! They were willing, and had property to hunt on. And I had my shotgun and turkey loads and a decoy. Those good people provided transportation to the farm, an essentially guided hunt on unfamiliar property, and they called in 3 tom turkeys to my decoy!

It’s hard to breathe when you are waiting for the shot…the gang of 3 came strutting up the hill like a line of high-stepping show dancers. But you don’t shoot at a turkey when he’s strutting, chest puffed out and tail feathers raised to attract the attention of any hen in the area. You wait until he drops his feathers and sticks his head up to gobble.

As the birds approached my decoy they spread out enough to have a good shot at the first one to gobble. We all stopped breathing. My gun was ready. And I dropped my first wild turkey with one shot.

It’s hard to say who was more excited – me, or the 13 year old who had bagged a few turkeys of his own. There’s something primal about knowing that you can feed yourself. And a certain sweet revenge when you know that the person who betrayed you didn’t steal your determination to carry on.

In the following 2 springs, I hunted – unsuccessfully – Missouri turkey with a member of the NWTF chapter that we started, and one year with the president of a Kansas chapter. While those guys tried really hard to put me on birds, it just never worked out. But that’s how hunting works. Purchasing a license or a tag does not guarantee success. Real hunters wouldn’t have it any other way.

Moving On

Once I left Missouri in the fall of 2006 I didn’t hunt or fish, and barely had the opportunity to shoot. Not because I was no longer interested. I just never got the opportunity to do so with others, and was unprepared to drive myself to the mountains of western Washington to hunt alone.

Many of the friends I made there were trackers and naturalists, but did not necessarily hunt. Some of them were even actively anti-hunting. I became as serious wildlife tracker, and spent hours learning about the local mammals, birds, and other residents of the Snoqualmie Valley. I got to sample bear stew, duck, salmon, and a few other wild delicacies. But I didn’t hunt.

Even in Idaho, I never made the right connections to take up hunting again. That was partly because I’m picky about who I hunt with, and partly because people guard their hunting spots with a jealousy that precludes outright asking to tag along.

And there’s the fact that in my 60+ years I’ve done some damage to my right ankle, both knees, and my right wrist. I’ve lost most of the vision in my right eye, and with it, a degree of my balance and depth perception. I’m not as gung-ho as I once was.

I started to wonder if I could even be considered a hunter any longer. I’d sat out as many hunting seasons as I’d hunted. It started to feel dishonest to say that I was a hunter.

But here’s the thing…a hunter isn’t (or shouldn’t be) defined by the number of seasons he or she hunts, or by the amount of game one has put on the table.

Yes. Yes, I Am A Hunter

After long and thoughtful consideration, I realized that I still self-identify as a hunter.

Just to be clear, not everyone who claims to be a hunter actually is. Poachers are not hunters. It makes me mad to see the word “hunter” or even “illegal hunter” used when describing a poacher. Poachers are game thieves, plain and simple. They don’t abide by the game laws and are no more hunters than the person who sticks a T-bone in their pants at the grocery store is a shopper.

Shooters may or may not have a hunting license, but don’t care about identifying legal game, shoot at sounds rather than identifying a target, or shoot up road signs, cut fences, and generally behave badly, giving hunters a bad name.

They are not hunters. With good mentoring, some of those shooters may become hunters, but they are not there yet.

Hunters know and obey the laws, are properly licensed, and take care to represent hunting and hunters in a good light – as we traditionally have behaved and have been recognized.

Epilogue

Upon moving back to my home state of Missouri in June, I knew that my sister hunts with her partner, and that his family owns farmland that I am welcome to hunt. There’s also a lot of public land that I am able to access without too much effort. I am ready to hunt again!

I checked the regulations to find out how long I had to live here to purchase resident licenses and tags. And as soon as I was legal, I went on-line and got my 2020 fishing permit, a trout license, my small game license, and a migratory bird license in case I get to hunt dove this fall.

Shoot, I even optimistically got my fall turkey tags!

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