FIELD NOTES OF A ROOKIE SPORTSMAN: Evaluating the Harvest

Hunting blind and turkey decoys.

At an early meeting of the 2019 Rookie Sportsmen Program, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Frank McGee told us we should each have our own individual response to the question: Why do you hunt?

“Because I guarantee you,” McGee said, “at some point, you will be asked that question.”

After a couple turkey hunting trips with our Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) mentor, District Wildlife Manager Logan Wilkins, and with my daughter, Natalie, I feel like I’m a little bit closer to knowing my answer.

Natalie and I are participants in the Rookie Sportsman Program (RSP), a year-long mentorship program designed by CPW for people like us with little or no outdoor experience. The RSP teaches participants outdoor skills and, hopefully, inspires them to get outside and sample all the adventures available in Colorado’s great outdoors.

My daughter and I kicked off our third month in RSP with a visit to the shooting range. Our instructor, Paul Paradise, met our RSP group at the Pikes Peak Gun Club just east of Colorado Springs. Paradise is a law enforcement and military small arms instructor with 28 years of experience. Besides his knowledge of guns and shooting, he was full of wisdom.

Safety, First and Foremost

“Safety, first and foremost,” Paradise said, describing his teaching philosophy. “I’ve been teaching almost 40 years and the worst injury I’ve had is when someone sat on a cactus.”

We learned that ear protection with cups is better than just earplugs because the mastoid bone behind the ear picks up waves that it passes into the ears.

We learned the interesting etymology of the word “trigger.”

And we learned about the Golden Rule of Firearms: Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.

After lunch, we practiced basic shooting positions with stations set up for prone, sitting, kneeling, standing and sighting in our rifles from a bench. The following morning, we learned to shoot good groupings (series of at least three shots close together on a target) and how to use that information to sight-in a rifle.

We closed out the day with a fun game. We broke up into teams and each team was given an aluminum can. Our goal was to shoot the can and drive it backward, to a line at the back of the range drawn in the dirt, before the other teams. And we needed to do it all while maintaining safe-shooting practices. It was, by far, the best part of our two days at the range and a way to bring together all of the skills we had learned.

Up before the Sun

The following Tuesday, I got out of bed at 3 a.m. in Colorado Springs to drive to Limon on the eastern plains before sunrise to see if I could put some of my shooting skills to good use.I had my spring turkey license and was hoping I’d get to “void” it when I attached the carcass tag to my first turkey.

My mentor, Logan Wilkins, met me in Limon and we hiked down to a spot along the Big Sandy Creek. Logan brought along a 20-gauge shotgun and shells loaded for turkey. He also had a new camouflaged tent, called a hunting blind.

Camouflaged hunting blind.
Camouflaged hunting blind.

Cow Pies

When we set up the hunting blind, we realized we were dangerously close to fresh cow pies. This was bad for a couple reasons. One was obvious . . . you don’t want to step in or sit for hours next to manure.

The other reason was what the cow pies represented: cows grazing nearby. Logan had obtained permission from the landowner to bring RSP hunters on the land. But we weren’t expecting to find cows grazing this particular pasture. We would be particularly vigilant to avoid any livestock. But it seemed our day was off to a bad start.

Then the cows’ curiosity about our blind probably did not help our chances of luring a turkey. Still, we settled in and Logan handed me the shotgun, showing me the proper way to check the action to be sure it was empty. (I remembered the words of Paradise and his 3-point check: look and feel up, down, and against the bolt face).

Calling

Ready to hunt, Logan pulled out a slate turkey call. Every 15 to 20 minutes, he would call for a few minutes and listen for a response. 

He would mix up his calls between diaphragm and slate calls. Eventually he called in a hen. Logan spotted it a couple hundred yards out. (I only saw a dark shadow moving occasionally in the tall grass.)

CPW’s Logan Wilkins calls for turkey.

But it never made it to my dinner table. We couldn’t get it out of the grass and into range of our shotguns. Guess it didn’t like our decoys – a tom, a jake (young  male), and two hens.

When we called off the hunt in the afternoon, we drove around and found where two turkeys had come off roost trees. We had put our blind right between two roost trees, and the turkeys had  gone in opposite directions up a creek bed, away from our blind.

Time for Reflection

When I got home, I reflected on my day as I tried to shake a deep chill. I marveled at what a strange and unique thing I had done: Sitting quietly in nature, and in the cold, for a six-hour stretch. It’s not an experience I’ve ever had before.

After I thawed out, I began thinking about our next planned hunt and I felt hopeful about my chances. We were going out on a different piece of land that seemed more promising. And while I wanted to fill my own license, I really hoped my daughter would get a turkey when we returned a few weeks later.

Turkeys and Hunters

For the second hunt, I had to rise at 2 a.m. to get Natalie and myself out the door and into Limon by 4:45 a.m., before the turkeys could see where we were setting up our blind. We met Logan and followed him to another spot near the Big Sandy, this one cow-free.

Again it was unseasonably cold and foggy. What I remember most from that chilly morning, besides eagerly stuffing the hand warmers Logan brought into my socks – was the continual song of birds, especially meadowlarks and mourning doves.

Down a creekbed we saw turkeys. But again they were far out of range. Logan worked to call them in toward our decoys.

Logan calls for turkey.

It was several hours into our hunt and we were greeted by a family of turkey hunters – a mom, dad and youngster – all dressed in camouflage. They came hiking down the creek bed in front of us, right toward the turkeys we were watching.

Logan looked through his binoculars and saw a turkey pop its head up, then run the opposite direction as the family approached. It would be the end of our hunt. We packed up the blinds and decoys and headed back to our trucks.

Measures of Success

Natalie and I talked on the drive home. Even though we didn’t get a turkey this season, it felt good to have bought licenses and to have supported the conservation of wildlife in Colorado. We agreed is was an amazing experience to immerse ourselves in nature and be alone with our thoughts.

And we didn’t come home empty-handed. We were full of the sounds of the birds and Logan’s calls and the sights of the sunrise and turkeys in the grass and huge wind turbines we drove past, blinking at us in the dark.

Most of all, I came home from our chilly adventure with the warm memory of spending hours with Natalie out in nature in pursuit of a common goal. I hope someday she’ll cherish our time together as much as I do.

There’s always next turkey season to try again. In the meantime, it’s back to the shooting range for the RSP class members. We will be honing our skills for the upcoming Big Game season. You can read all about it in the next installment of “Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsman.”


“Field Notes of a Rookie Sportsman” is a new monthly feature from Colorado Parks and Wildlife written by Travis Duncan, a CPW statewide PIO. Travis has lived in Colorado 17 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at travis.duncan@state.co.us.

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