Mentoring young turkey hunters can raise hunter recruitment rates

Friday, March 24, 2017
The author’s son, Wilson Langston, tells his golden retriever, Abby, all about his first turkey hunt. In the 11 years since this hunt took place on the opening day of Tennessee’s turkey season, Wilson has shared his hunting knowledge with several friends who have now become hunters, too.
Jay Langston

The future of hunting as we know it today is in jeopardy.

The previous statement shouldn’t come as a surprise. Any hunter who has been listening has been bombarded with issues and messages that hunting, as well as gun ownership, is threatened. To say that the issues involved are complex is an understatement itself. Mix the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation together with a society built on free enterprise, throw in an exploding human population and the issues that influence hunting grow as complex as America’s economy itself.

To adequately address every issue that threatens hunting would fill every page of this newspaper for the next year, so we’ll just focus on one: mentoring. In brief, it’s teaching a new person to turkey hunt.

Here’s why I’ve picked mentoring as a topic worthy of discussion. In many states the “hunter replacement” rate is falling. It’s a given that hunter participation is in constant flux. People start. People quit. In between, we study the charts and graphs that tell us that quitters are outpacing starters in many states. For example, in Tennessee, hunter replacement averages about .82, while the national average is .69. It takes a hunter replacement rate of 1 to stay stable. Anything above a 1 indicates growth, while any fraction below 1 indicates decline.

The trend in turkey hunting participation has followed the same growth curve of wild turkey restoration over the past three decades. Today, the “average” turkey hunter is a deer hunter, too, who noticed a flock of wild turkeys on the land he or she hunts and decided to give it a try the following spring. Although gentleman scholar Tom Kelly paints a vivid picture of the purist wild turkey hunter morally above those who chase deer, statistics prove that most spring turkey hunters spend a modest amount of time sharpening broadheads or checking the zero of their favorite slug gun or centerfire rifle when the leaves start changing colors.

If every turkey hunter adopts an attitude that passing along this tradition is just as important as learning to call and shoot straight, it can make up for the declines we’re seeing in such pursuits as quail and grouse hunting. What makes mentoring spring turkey hunters my favorite is that it’s much more comfortable and active than a cold-weather deer hunt. For some newcomers, be they young or old, male or female, the subtle differences between a stroll in the spring woods versus a long wait in the cold might make the difference in adopting hunting as a life-time pursuit.

Youth guns

Like a beagles chasing bunnies, I’ll come full circle and share some guns and loads that will help you become a successful turkey hunter mentor.

The first thing that you should consider in a gun is its handling characteristics for young or slightly-built hunters. Most shotguns build for adults have a 14 ¼-inch length of pull (L.O.P.), which is the distance between the end of the recoil pad and the trigger. Smaller shotgunners need a L.O.P. between 12 and 13 inches for a proper fit.

The total weight of any turkey gun is a consideration for someone who will be carrying the gun more than shooting it. In that case, a lighter weight gun is always better. When a gobbler is closing the gap, a light-weight gun is a plus for a keeping the sights lined up for a sometimes lengthy wait. On the other hand, super-light models, such as the New England Firearms youth single shots in 20 gauge, can produce a sharp recoil with heavy turkey loads.

Single-shot shotguns are my favorite for beginning hunters. Two choices dominate the 20 gauge turkey hunting scene: The NEF previously mentioned on the economy side, and the Thompson/Center Encore fitted with a turkey barrel. Although more expensive, the Encore platform lends itself to growing with a young hunter, as well as a wide selection of rifle barrels and stocks for other pursuits. Another advantage the T/C Encore has is a better feeling trigger. No matter what the pursuit, a crisp trigger with an adjustable let-off and over-travel will make a better shooter out of anyone.

Remington’s 870 Express Jr. in 20 gauge is another ideal starter gun. It has the obvious advantage of multiple shots, and is still light enough to not put undue stress on a small-framed hunter. The extra weight will also reduce the felt recoil with heavier turkey loads. Accessory chokes and interchangeable barrels and stocks make the 870 a versatile shotgun that can be quick-changed to a slug gun for deer or an upland bird hunter’s life-long partner. The 870 Express Jr. has a 12-inch length of pull, while the 870 Express Youth model has a 13-inch L.O.P. for slightly longer arms.

Mossberg’s Super Bantam Turkey fits the company’s profile of providing functional performance at an economy price. The Super Bantam tips the scales at 5 ½ pounds. The best feature on this model is the provided stock spacer that takes the gun from a 12-inch L.O.P. to 13 in minutes. The gun also incorporates an EZ-Reach forearm that is positioned further to the rear for easier cycling. The butt stock’s grip is also contoured with smaller dimensions to fit small hands. A ported extra-full Accu-Choke produces tight patterns with most turkey loads tested.

The Benelli Nova Youth pump merits consideration, too. Its dimensions and weight tend to suggest that it might fit more mature youth, with its weight coming in at 6.4 pounds and overall length of 44 inches. The gun’s space-age polymers and chrome-lined barrel require less maintenance and are more impervious to wet conditions.

Turkey loads for 20 gauge are limited, but several choices are available in standard lead loads. To get the most range from these bantam-sized guns, the tungsten matrix loads are the best. Hevi-Shot is the only current manufacturer of tungsten turkey loads.