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Turkey hunters never too old for safety education

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- Missouri turkey hunters old enough to be exempt from mandatory hunter education could benefit from training their younger counterparts receive. As a rule, people develop better judgment as they mature. Education can speed up this process. In fact, 2009 turkey hunting incident statistics provide strong evidence that education has helped young hunters surpass their elders’ judgment.

The low point for turkey hunting safety in Missouri was 1986, two years before hunter education became mandatory. That year, 31 people suffered gunshot wounds in spring turkey hunting incidents. Two of them died.

From 1985 through 1988, Missouri averaged 23 spring turkey-hunting incidents per year. Since then, however, the number of firearms related spring turkey hunting incidents has decreased dramatically. In the past five years, the average has been 4.8 incidents per season. Missouri’s safest spring turkey hunting season was 2007, when only two incidents, neither fatal, marred the spring hunt. The shooter in one of those incidents was 39 years old. The other was 61.

“It isn’t merely coincidence that we have seen a steady decrease in hunting injuries and deaths since the advent of mandatory hunter education,” said Tony Legg, hunter education coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “The decline in number of injuries reflect the increasing number of hunters who have been through formal safety training. You can also see the difference in the number of incidents involving people who have not received hunter education.”

In 2009, the Conservation Department recorded four spring turkey-hunting incidents. Three of those incidents involved hunters who were born before Jan. 1, 1967, making them exempt from Missouri’s hunter education requirement.  None of the three had taken hunter education training.

In one of last year’s incidents, a 53-year-old hunter fired when he saw what he mistakenly thought was a turkey 21 to 30 yards away. In fact, the movement was a friend turning to take a shot at a turkey.

Last year a 70-year old hunter shot his son, who was using a shaker-type gobble call to attract a turkey for his own son. The shooter mistook the motion of the call for a turkey beard blowing in the wind. The incident report said the shooter knew the other two were in the area and was trying to show them up by shooting the turkey out from under them.

“If you need proof that age is no guarantee of good judgment, this is it,” said Legg. “If this grandfather could commit such a potentially disastrous judgment error, anyone can. Everyone might have been spared a lot of emotional and physical pain if the grandpa had been through hunter education.”

The final 2009 spring turkey-hunting incident, and the only fatality, occurred when a 56-year-old hunter tried to pull a loaded shotgun from the seat of his vehicle by the barrel. The trigger caught on something and the gun discharged, striking him in the chest.

“Incidents like that are preventable,” said Legg. “The proof is the last 20 years of hunting incident statistics. Most of them are being prevented. The best thing older hunters can do for themselves and their families is to attend a hunter-education course.”

Hunter education classes are available throughout the state between now and the opening of spring turkey season. To find a class, visit http://mdc.mo.gov/hunt/huntered/, or call the nearest Conservation Department office. Hunters can also gain the benefits of hunter education at www.mdc.mo.gov/17844, where they can review hunter-education course chapters and pre-tests.  

Last year’s spring turkey hunting incidents are typical. Most involved victims who were mistaken for game. Legg said confusing an adult human weighing 150 pounds or more with a 20-pound turkey is much easier than it seems. To begin with, turkey hunters go out of their way to look like anything but a human, wearing camouflage to blend in with their surroundings. Beyond that, he said, it helps to understand the turkey hunter’s mindset.

“You are looking for a very elusive, wary animal that can appear any place at any time,” he said. “Trying to see a turkey is like trying to put a puzzle together. Is that a beard or a leaf blowing in the breeze? Is that patch of blue a reflection of the sky or a gobbler’s head? When you see something that could be a piece of the puzzle, there is a natural tendency for your mind to fill in some of the other pieces that you expect to see. You have to keep that gun in your lap until you have seen and positively identified the whole bird,” said Legg. “Anything less is courting disaster.”

Legg said hunters can do several things to avoid becoming victims. The simplest is wearing hunter orange when moving between hunting spots.

“A hunter wearing blaze orange is much harder to mistake for game than one slipping through the woods in full camouflage,” he said. “You still need to be alert, but it decreases your chances of being mistaken for game by a factor of 10 or so.”

Legg said some hunters are shot in spite of not looking or sounding like a gobbler. One of the hunters injured last year saw the shooter and tried to move away but was shot when the other hunter saw his movement. Legg recommends shouting to another hunter the moment you realize you are not alone in an area. However, he admits that most hunters have difficulty forcing themselves to do this.

“No one wants to scare all the turkeys in the neighborhood or bust somebody else’s hunt by yelling,” he said. “The chances of being mistaken for game seem so small, and it is hard to believe it could happen to you. But it does happen every year. It could happen to you as well as anyone.”

Legg cautioned against waving, whispering or whistling to get other hunters’ attention. Only a clear human voice provides immediate, positive identification.

Hunters can protect themselves when sitting and calling by tying a hunter-orange vest to a tree trunk nearby to alert others to their presence. A Missouri company makes a banner designed especially for this purpose (see www.hunterbanner.com).

As a further safety measure, hunters should look for hunting spots that provide an unobstructed view in front and a physical barrier behind. A tree trunk wide enough to shield the hunter’s entire body is ideal. These and many other safety tips are covered in approved hunter-education classes. Legg says he wishes more older hunters would make use of the safety advantage they provide.

“One day, I would like to record zeros in the ‘injuries’ and ‘fatalities’ columns for the spring turkey season,” he said. “Getting older hunters into hunter education would go a long way toward accomplishing that.”

-- By Jim Low

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