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John Myers column: I didn’t shoot during turkey hunt

Sometimes hunters don’t shoot when they can, for many reasons, and that’s OK.

John Myers.
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NODINE, Minn. — The gun was up at the ready, resting on my left knee on a bent leg. I was positioned perfectly when the four jake wild turkeys — young males — came out of a pine plantation behind me, walking straight toward my inanimate decoys.

They had given their approach away with a few clucks, not a gobble. And it would have been a fairly simple shot to take one, even for me, at less than 20 yards.

But it was only 9 a.m. on the first of four days of my southeastern Minnesota turkey hunt. If I shot a bird, that would be it. I’d be done. It would be sightseeing and naps for the next three days. Besides, I already had turkey meat in the freezer from a Nebraska turkey hunt. I was looking for a bigger bird, more of a trophy, more of a challenge, a tom that would give me a better show of gobbling and strutting.

So I didn’t shoot.

Instead I watched the four birds interact with each other and my decoys. They were a bit timid, keeping a few feet away from the foam and plastic birds. They seemed to occasionally look over — I was sitting against a tree in full camouflage — and give me a side-eye look. But they apparently never suspected danger. They pecked around on the ground, wandered around for about 10 minutes and then walked slowly away, over a hill, the same bird in the lead as when they first arrived. Clearly he was the leader of this group of teenage turkey thugs.


jake wild turkeys
Two jake wild turkeys, young males. Notice the very short beards, or chest hairs. Jakes also have an asymmetrical tail fan, with feathers in the middle taller than those on the sides.
Contributed / Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks

You learn things from watching wild animals, like the fact that, even though turkeys have incredibly keen eyesight, they are more wary of movement and color than shapes. I was perfectly still, and they never knew I was there.

But as soon as they left I was regretting my decision. What if those were the only legal turkeys I saw? (They were.) What if I didn’t get another chance to take a bird on this trip? (I didn’t.) What if I went home empty handed? (I did.)

It’s a struggle hunters face all the time. To shoot or not shoot. To take a life or not. Some hunters never think much about it. If it’s brown it’s down for deer. If it’s red (the red head on a male turkey) it’s dead. But many of us sometimes do not shoot, for myriad reasons. Maybe the shot wouldn’t be clean, potentially wounding the animal. Maybe the situation wasn’t right. Maybe I just wanted the hunt to last longer.

wild tom turkey
An older tom turkey. Notice the fully symmetrical tail feather fan and very long beard, or chest hairs.
Contributed / Michigan Wildlife Council

I am not becoming soft, as some have joked when I tell this story. I have not reached the stage of outdoors advancement that many older hunters and anglers claim they reach as they get older, when just being in a duck blind or a deer stand or in a boat is enough for them, enjoying the sunrise and the songbirds calling and nature unfolding another day. Those are of course the big reasons we all go outdoors.

But, for me, there is still nothing better than succeeding at the goal, to draw in ducks or call in a turkey or catch my limit of walleyes. There is joy in figuring out when and where fish or game will be, how they will respond, and outmatching their wariness. I want to finish the deal. I still want to accept as many ducks and pheasants from my dog’s mouth as I can get. I still want as much wild game on the table as is reasonable. I want the primal satisfaction of shooting and watching my target fall.

But I’ve also learned a lot from not shooting.

Once, many years ago, while deer hunting up in Cook County, my wife shot a nice buck on opening day. Our family was just the two of us then and we only needed to take one deer home for meat. So we agreed to only shoot a second deer if it was a really nice buck. The very next morning, a herd of deer came rushing into the area where my deer stand was located. It was the height of the rut, mating season, and two bucks had chased a doe to within a few feet of my elevated platform of poplar saplings.

The first buck buck was a smallish eight-pointer with a bleached-white rack. I haven't seen one like it since. The second buck had a slightly smaller rack but seemed to be the aggressor. Neither was a trophy, so I didn’t shoot.


Suddenly the two bucks started battling, not in the way we see on videos, racks perfectly entwined, but more batting their heads together and missing each other's antlers half the time. They even rose up on their back legs at times, making all manner of noises I’d never heard deer make before. Eventually one of the bucks moved a few steps away. And that was all space the white-antlered buck needed. He turned, jumped on the doe (which had been watching the battle) and proceeded to propagate his species.

I had never seen deer fighting or mating in the wild before. And here it was happening, in "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” close-up color, unfolding right before my eyes, 50 feet away. Had I shot one of the bucks when I first had the chance, as I had always done before, I would have missed one of the most spectacular outdoors stories I’ve witnessed.

wild turkey hen
A wild turkey hen, smaller, usually lighter-colored then males with no beard, a gray head and no spurs on her legs.
Contributed / National Wild Turkey Federation

Back on this latest turkey trip, on the last morning, I called-in a hen and then watched her feed, preen and chat with my decoys for an hour, amazed at how close she would get to me — just 15 feet or so at times — and not be alarmed. She was teaching me how to be a better caller and how to remain motionless. I would have never had this experience if I had shot one of the jakes on the first day.

So my turkey hunting buddy and I drove home empty handed last Sunday, two hunters who had driven four hours with the express intent of shooting wild turkeys. At first I was a little down that I hadn’t bagged a bird. Eventually, though, I came to terms with my decision. And when I’m re-telling the scenario, as turkey hunters always do, I pause after telling how the four jakes walked up, less than 20 yards away.

“Well, what happened?" the listeners invariably ask.

I didn’t shoot.


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