Monday, March 26, 2007

Audubon's Gobbler

I'm a lifelong hunter profoundly interested in the tradition.

As this goes, the journals of John James Audubon (1785-1851) contain some interesting reading for the sportsman, historian, and naturalist. His enthusiastic entries there hold plenty of hunting and shooting at all manner of wild game, including songbirds, which he later painted, and even dined on. This might come as a shock to some of us in the 21st century looking back in time. One need to look no further than Audubon's coverage of the wild turkey, and the many 19th century tactics readily employed to secure gobblers and hens.

At the time, taking a nesting female was not uncommon (at one point Audubon expresses concern for this in his writing), nor was roost shooting, baiting, or even chasing them on horseback. It's clear that wildlife was once perceived as abundant, widespread, and there for the taking. Things are different now. Time always stands still though in my mind, and we can neither assign blame for those hunting approaches, nor affirm them in today's modern world. It is what it is. Bear in mind, modern wildlife management had yet to emerge, and only in my lifetime (1958- ) are things coming together for the better.

Indeed, times have never been more positive as wild turkey management goes, and we turkey hunters now enjoy the benefits of conservation efforts and ongoing concern for the species. Sportsman dollars facilitate much of it, though it's rare that we garner credit in outside circles. Mostly we preach to the choir. This year forward, let's spread the word a little better, eh.

I do have one question though: Is Audubon's gobbler painting incomplete? Note the head. The feathering. I've always puzzled over this. Why does the image seem slightly off and sub-par? (Audubon's brood hen painting with poults, some of you likely know, sports a thin wispy beard--accurate for 8-10% of wild hens, biology tells us. I've seen enough in the field over the years to confirm this.)

--Steve Hickoff

Thursday, March 22, 2007

This Just In

My first spring turkey hunt of the season is still two weeks away (Texas), and the days can't pass fast enough here in northern New England where snowpack still covers the ground. In the meantime, hunting buds and industry contacts are checking in from southern hunt camps to help us chairbound types cope. Just this morning, Realtree's Dodd Clifton (pictured right) sent this awesome shot of him and our buddy Doug Howlett of Outdoor Life with a fine Osceola. Seems D. and the boys--Bassmaster editor James Hall is also in camp--anchored six gobblers, two per man. For the full story, check out Doug's "Strut Zone" blog in the near future (you'll find it on my sidebar link list).

--Steve Hickoff

Monday, March 19, 2007

High-Rise Gobblers

A gobbler barks from a lofty ridge . . . you, unfortunately, have located that bird at the bottom of that mountain or steep hill. Don't give up though. There are still ways to get inside that male turkey's comfort zone, and call it into range.

(1) You could try to drive up there using a muddy two-track, though this gonzo approach risks spooking the bird. Still, breed-driven toms you run off may come back. Quaker Boy's Ernie Calandrelli and I once pulled the pickup truck into a field at mid-morning, only to see a Missouri strutter and hen leg it into the woods. Did we try another spot? Heck no. We set up at the last place we saw the pair. After things settled down, Big Ern called that longbeard into range from one direction, while the hen came from another. I dropped the strutter at 18 steps.

(2) Assuming you have plenty of time to hunt that day, you could make a slow climb up that hill, using terrain to hide your movements, and occasional locator calls to track that wild turkey's position--assuming it doesn't sound off on its own. I did that once in New York State, making the long, slow climb up a power line cut, and using another access trail, put myself above a lone ridgetop gobbler. It took me over an hour to reach the rise to be just above the hillside bird, and roughly fifteen minutes to call it into range. The longbeard weighed 21 pounds and change, and its spurs suggested the tom had been around awhile.

(3) Energy providing, you could rise well before your usual early time, and hike up there in the dark to be in position to work that bird when it wakes up on the roost--assuming it stays there; assuming maybe you roosted it the evening before; assuming you have the next day to hunt; assuming . . . Chance and circumstance in good turkey habitat often play a role, and sometimes we're in the right place at the right time to do that.

--Steve Hickoff

(NWTF photo)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On the Docket

Magazine and newspaper deadlines, classes, intensive seminars, appearances, and panel discussions are on the agenda in the coming months, that is when I'm not on the road turkey hunting four states, or trying to work in a quickie gobbler hunt in two others, both in southern Maine, or just over the border in New Hampshire. Nine tags. It's always more than just filling them though . . . the hunt is in the trying.

My turkey book (Stackpole) will be issued this August, and blog readers can contact me via email for more information. Much of the magazine work I completed last fall is now appearing (or has in the past few months), namely two bonus turkey articles in Outdoor Life, a calling piece in Turkey & Turkey Hunting, a Merriam's hunt in the 2007 Realtree Outdoors Turkey Special annual, a turkey vocalization article in the NWTF's Get in the Game magazine (plus photo support), two features, a sidebar short on beating setup bugs, plus a bunch of photos for the 2007 Turkey Hunting Stategies book (a Harris publication), the Ruffed Grouse Society Magazine mood piece on the one that got away, and the feature I did on cottontail hunting, the only one that doesn't involve wild turkeys.

For that diverse generalist hunting, fishing, and nature-oriented copy, check out my newspaper beat in Foster's Sunday Citizen (I just wrote on picking gun dog pups). This is my tenth year providing content there, and it remains a pleasure writing for the paper, which has a central and southern NH/southern Maine circulation. The connection with the readership, many of whom write me on a regular basis, is enjoyable.

--Steve Hickoff

(Steve Hickoff photo)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Monday Morning Bracket Action

What do you expect from a guy who named one of his bird dogs Midge March Madness.

And speaking with alliteration some more, I've these teams in the Elite Eight: Florida vs. Wisconsin, Kansas vs. UCLA, Texas vs. Georgetown, and Ohio St. vs. Memphis. From where I sit in this office pool of one, the Final Four survivors will be: Florida vs. UCLA, and Georgetown vs. Ohio St. To my North Carolina buds, and all others, including my B.C. backing friends (I include myself there), apologies.

The Championship game in Atlanta on April 2? Florida vs. Georgetown, with the Gators winning it all. Hey, they run the floor like the Boston Celtics used to, they share the ball like it's come right off the stovetop, and how can any hardcore NCAA hoops fan not enjoy their style of play? (I'm sure some of you Badgers backers might protest, but anyway . . .)

--Steve Hickoff

(Steve Hickoff photo)

Pennsylvania Turkey Dogging Update

Here's what the state had to say in their recent "Management Plan for Wild Turkeys in Pennsylvania 2006-2015," and I quote:

"Currently in Pennsylvania turkey hunters are prohibited from using dogs to aid their hunt, during either season. The 2001 Pennsylvania Turkey Hunter Survey (Diefenbach 2002) revealed that 75% of the respondents did not approve of legalizing dogs for fall turkey hunting (15% approved of legalizing and 9% were undecided). There seems to be a small, but growing, interest in using specially trained ‘turkey dogs’ during the fall turkey season. During the public review process for this management plan there were 113 public comments, 18 of which requested permitting the use of turkey dogs for the fall turkey season. Because this is a new issue for Pennsylvania, a survey was conducted (Eriksen 2006) to determine which states and provinces allow turkey dogs, and if there are any concerns regarding the impact of dog hunting on turkey populations.

"According to Eriksen’s (2006) survey of all states and provinces, six jurisdictions have no fall turkey season (Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, Ontario and South Carolina), two states (Maine and New Hampshire) have archery only fall seasons [blogger's note: NH introduced a five-day limited shotgun turkey season in the fall of 2006], and the remaining 42 jurisdictions have firearm fall or winter hunting seasons for wild turkeys . . . Among the 42 states with firearm fall turkey hunting seasons, 20 prohibit the use of dogs for turkey hunting. Twenty-two states allow the use of dogs by fall turkey hunters [blogger's note: 23 states and a Canadian province now permit it]. Fall hunter success rates among the responding states ranged from 6 to 50 percent and the average fall hunter success rate was 29 percent . . . It should be noted, however, that extremely high fall hunter success rates in some western and mid-western states affected the average significantly. No state in which fall turkey hunters use dogs was able to report success rates for fall turkey hunters using dogs verses (sic) success rates for those who hunt without dogs. No state had precise figures on the number of fall hunters using dogs. However, most of the responding states reported that the number of turkey hunters using dogs for fall hunting was “very small” or “very low." When queried for a percentage figure, several biologists estimated that less than 10 percent of fall hunters employ dogs for turkey hunting. At least 4 states reported estimating that less than 5 percent of fall turkey hunters use dogs. Only one biologist estimated that more than 10 percent of fall turkey hunters used dogs.

"None of the biologists reported concerns about the impact of dog hunting on turkey populations. One biologist expressed concern not about fall hunting with dogs, but about the potential impact of dog training on wintering turkey flocks. Another indicated agency concern about pheasant hunters (Eriksen 2006)."

(Steve Hickoff photo/2006 New York State fall turkey)

Friday, March 9, 2007

March Woodcock

Some say it's the robin. I choose the woodcock.

Each March--even a little before it seems right for them to return--they're suddenly here, ushering in springtime, albeit a little early. Batlike, these early males dance at twilight. In the false dawn before daybreak, they twitter above our three acres of southern Maine. They like the birdy cover out there, which holds both worms and protection from above (we have our watchful hawks and owls). Down below, the feral cats and raccoons do their prowling too, for sure. A shattered low-lying robin's nest in a springtime lilac one year said as much, as did the scattered remains of a March woodcock found another time: first by a predator, and then by my daughter ("Daddy, what's this?"). But every late winter the woodcock appear . . . suddenly, surely. And, let the record show, that we see robins all winter--often in the deep woods near swamps--despite other more popular assumptions . . .

Ironically though, we rarely if ever spot woodcock on our property during the fall flight, even as I hunt them elsewhere across four states. It's as if they prefer this little stop over on their journey north. That works fine for us . . .

Steve Hickoff photo

Thursday, March 8, 2007

In Your Face

I love the feeling of calling spring gobblers into range, then watching that bird strut in front of my setup, looking for the hen I'm imitating.

I savor those few moments, and even let the strutter mince steps in even closer on occasion. That's what it's all about—for me. I like to hear their footsteps in the leaves. I like to hear that strut and rumble. I'm not sure that can be done at half a football field. Twenty to 35 yards is where I like turkeys to be when I pull the trigger. I want that knockdown punch to be the last thing a gobbler feels. Boom--down. I've taken them at longer ranges, but not often. Then again, I'm an old-school, pumpgun sort of guy, so that's what I choose to do. Make my loads 5s or 6s in the modern industry options, with an appropriate choke at the business end, and I'm good to go.

On the other hand, I've hunting buds who studiously utilize all that modern shotshells, chokes and firearms have to offer. They know they can kill a turkey at 45 steps, so they do it.

In the end, you choose.

--Steve Hickoff

(Steve Hickoff photo)

Doing Laundry

Some guys have anchored a longbeard by now in places like Florida's south zone. Way to go. Me, I'm doing laundry.

But wait, laundry? . . . Yep, laundry. I'm talking about trying on and washing all the camouflage stuff I'll wear turkey hunting in Texas . . . after the next brutal four weeks of waiting pass. Been there? Though one of my magazine editors told me it's 75 F. where they sit today, outside the northern New England wind is ripping, and the weatherheads are calling for one below zero tonight. Inside our woodstove burns bright orange, and my setter Radar is curled up in front of it as if out of one of those classic bird dog paintings that adorned the pages of The Saturday Evening Post in the 40s. That is when he's not checking me out as I don another camouflaged item. Hunting? He repeatedly thinks so, and waits for the sign . . .

Anyhow, the clothes. In Texas, warm-weather hunting apparel is mostly a must. In my case this year we're talking Bass Pro's 100% soft nylon, micro-lite, fast-drying, zip-off pants (that also morph into shorts for downtime at camp), and micro-lite shirts (with mesh panels for circulation), plus two big front pockets for mouth calls, a pack of gum, and a penlight. There are a couple of longsleeve air-mesh shirts in there too, along with some other items. Much of it is in the new Realtree "apg" pattern. I won't wash the full-shouldered Redhead turkey vest with its lounger feature for mid-morning naps (I've counted 15 pockets on this thing, but I may have missed some as it's been tried on). Along with the other gear, let's not forget my Gore-Tex, PacLite outerwear. I flat-out love this stuff, whether I'm quickly pulling it on over blue jeans to go run the dogs for an hour in colder weather, or hunting places like Texas where pre-dawn mornings can temper the spring heat some. Don't own any? Get some. It's good stuff, durable, and again, easy to throw on.

Beauty of it is, as air travel goes, most of this apparel rolls up tight as a relay racer's baton (ok, ok, I'm a former track-and-field guy). Anyhow, the vest won't get much smaller with its internal back support, but hey, and my size twelve, 18-inch snakeboots will fill the travel bag just a little. Like most of you I'll struggle to keep it under fifty pounds, lest I pay more at the post-hunt, airline check-in. If your airline allows, check two bags. I'm rarely that smart.

Twenty-eight days and counting . . .

--Steve Hickoff

(NWTF photo)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Update from March

Nope. We didn't see the lunar eclipse this weekend with cloud cover above us as I ran Radar on a 400-acre chunk of local state land. Then again, the light did go weird with black and gray tones around then . . . then again that could have just been night falling. Is a shadow falling across the moon a big deal? Discuss--

At any rate, some of my magazine contributor's copies have started to arrive at the other end of our icy driveway. Still haven't seen my Outdoor Life mouth calling piece in print (though some of you have). My dad's sending a copy from Pennsylvania (the special March OL issue with my bonus article--300,000 copies or so total--went to subscribers in the "Top 10 turkey states," . . . and my editor and buddy Doug jokingly reminds me that Maine is not one of them (though we have plenty of turkeys, an estimated 40-60,000 in fact . . . nine local flocks by my scouting). At any rate, I'm waiting for a look-see at the current OL piece.

Just saw my "Body Language" (formerly dubbed, "Reading Turkeys Like a Book," now a subtitle) in Turkey Call (I'm a longtime NWTF member and supporter), and I am waiting to check out my turkey vocalizations pc. in the recent Get in the Game issue (another NWTF pub). I've another bonus turkey feature appearing in in OL next month (focus: on when it may be necessary and appropriate to take a gobbler on the wing, though arguably a standing bird is much preferred to the Plan B option . . . and if you have never been in such a situation, you aren't hunting turkeys enough, my friends).

In the future, a dogging piece will appear the fall issue of Turkey & Turkey Hunting (check out their super online turkey forum at to get you through the rest of winter), plus another autumn turkey-hunting piece in Turkey Call (NWTF members get it), and others (my usual subjects: turkeys/waterfowl/upland birds and dogs/small game/gear reviews) . . . my Stackpole turkey book is slated for August release. Stay tuned. Trying to close the deal on another book project, and have some queries for mag work coming through as I post this blog.

Then there's always my regular weekly Sunday column and photos in Foster's Sunday Citizen for you NH/southern Maine folks . . .

As a "writer who teaches," I've got some adjunct work coming up (a Granite State College nature writing intensive, for instance), plus a panel on hunting and fishing, and an appearance with some high-schoolers interested in writing . . . my advice, as always: (1) love the craft, (2) develop a thick skin, and (3) never get too high with successes nor too low with missed opportunities, etc. (rejection and acceptance comes routinely each day for the working writer). I repeat: love your craft.

Anyhow . . .

Six states slated for spring turkey right now, with Texas and Wyoming front and center. I'll hunt New Hampshire and Maine when home (I'm a "B Season" even birth year hunter this season in Maine, so I'll miss a good chunk of the first week . . . it all ends June 2 though). Two Vermont tags sit in my wallet and a pair of NY options hang on my vest from last fall.

An Osceola hunt just came onto the March '08 schedule, so it looks like a lock on spring '07 right now . . . and then there's late spring and summer fishing after all this fun.

--Steve Hickoff

(Photo Steve Hickoff)

Friday, March 2, 2007

In Like a Lion

Snow, sleet, wind and a confused basement sump pump here in northern New England, as turkey seasons open in several states around the country. Texas is five weeks away for me, while other hunting buddies are getting into the game sooner than that.

This Jame H. Killen painting of turkeys in winter ("Fresh Snow," it's called) depicts just about how things look locally. It's from a 1981 wild turkey calendar my parents sent along for my collection.

Vested Interests: A Short List

Vests carry what you need to setups, and what you might need. Here’s what’s in mine:


* Waterproof, no-chalk box call.
* Several mouth diaphragms.
* A slate-style call or two, various strikers, with friction call dressing materials.
* Crow call, and owl hooter.
* Toilet paper in a small plastic bag.
* 12-gauge turkey loads (No. 5 or No. 6 shot)
* Penlight.
* Knife.
* Water bottle, and snacks.
* Bug repellent.
* Hunting regulations/licenses/permits for the state I’m in at the time.
* Maps of the hunting region.
* Pen. Notebook.
* Wire ties for leg-fastened turkey tags.

Might Need:

* Pruning shears.
* Extra pair of gloves and facemask.
* Binoculars.
* Digital camera.
* Decoys.
* Roll-up raingear.
* Waterproof matches or lighter.
* GPS. Compass. Cell phone.
* Extra seat cushion.

For Luck:

As the season progresses and I hunt other states, I leave the empty shell hulls of turkey loads I’ve used to tag gobblers that year in my game vest.

--Steve Hickoff

(Steve Hickoff photo)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Turkey Seasons Open

For some, the long wait is over. Two states open turkey seasons this week.

While it's still definitely late winter here in the Northeast, Hawaii's spring turkey season began this morning, and runs for the month of March. Florida's "south zone" turkey hunts commence Saturday. Others open later this month.

Aloha State all-day hunts are for two gobblers, and hunter education certificates are required. Some units are archery only in a state that holds an estimated 30,000 Rio Grande gobblers.

Sunshine State hunts offer Grand Slammers a chance at Osceolas, though northern Florida panhandle turkeys are Easterns. Bag limits are one per day, and two per season, while Holmes County offers just one bird. You'll need a hunter ed. card if born after 6/1/1975 (no worries here), and young hunters under 16 are ok with adult supervision. WMA hunts start 1/2 hr. before sunrise and run until 1 p.m., while elsewhere it's the same start time until sunset. Some 150,000 turkeys roam Florida . . .

(NWTF photo)