Sunday, May 03, 2009

Facing An Ethical Turkey-Hunting Problem

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My claim to some unwritten form of personal turkey hunting ethics was sorely tested today. Here’s what happened.

My vision problems have been well documented on these pages in the past. The bottom line is that I can’t see anything except light and dark out of my left eye, and although the right eye is much better, I need some sunlight in the turkey woods to determine whether a bird has a beard. Those of us who hunt Michigan birds (and those in other states) must identify the turkey as a bearded bird.

I tip-toed with a heavy gait into the woods where I knew several gobblers were located early this morning. The decoys were positioned, and I cleared a spot to sit where I could see to shoot. Shooting time arrived but it was much too dark in the oak woods to identify a bird and his beard.

There I sat, scanning the partially visible tree-tops, when I found myself looking at a roosted gobbler 75 yards away. It was looking to my left, and when my gaze drifted that way, the profiles of three silhouetted birds came into view. They, in turn, were looking at other birds I couldn’t see.

Swell. Here I am, practically surrounded by gobblers and hens.

They began gobbling at 5:45 this morning, and there was no need for me to call. The seven gobblers were gobbling at each other. One bird would gobble, and a lusty older bird would double-gobble and that would energize all the others. They kept this up for 25 minutes before they shut up, and one by one, they pitched down from the roost to the ground and began moving toward a nearby open field.

My position was near the open field but just slightly inside the woods. The decoys were in the open, and the turkeys stood 60 yards away and gobbled at my hen decoy. Now it was time to go to work or lose them.

I sweet-talked those birds for one hour as they milled about but wouldn’t come into the woods. I wheedled and cajoled, and eventually two big birds broke away from the group and entered the still-dark woodlot. Both birds strutted to my calls, and that told me they were gobblers.

My problem, such as it was, was seeing the beards on those two birds. They’d go into a full strut about 10 yards from my decoys but it was still too dark to see a beard.

Could I have shot? Certainly, but the law states you can only shoot a bearded bird. That means you must identify the bird as having a beard. Pretty simple stuff.

I couldn’t shoot in the pre-dawn gloom of an oak woodlot. I have a scope on my shotgun, and even with the scope on the approaching birds, the beards were not visible. It’s a case of black on black, and only if they turned sideways would I be able to see the beard jutting out. They never turned sideways.

Were they gobblers? Of course they were because both birds were fanned out and strutting as they came. Could I see the identifying characteristic of a beard? Nope.

I didn’t shoot. It wouldn’t have been right. Legal time had come and gone, but it was overcast and dark in the woods. If an identifiable beard wasn’t visible I’d be saving one shotgun shell for next season.

Someone might raise the obvious question: The legal time to shoot had already arrived, the birds were strutting, so what’s the hang-up? You knew they were gobblers by the strutting activity. Why not shoot? Who would have known?

The quick answer is I would know that a law had been broken. I don’t break fish and wildlife laws but do turn in people who are observed breaking these laws. How can I do that if I break a law by not positively identifying a bird by its beard? The answer is that I would be no better than the person who breaks that or some other fish or wildlife law.

My status as a professional outdoor writer for 42 years places certain self-imposed rules on me. They are rules I live by, and I respect those rules. To do otherwise would put me in the same category as a poacher.

Either of those birds could have been killed, and I could be writing a success story about the gobbler I shot. Instead, I’m writing a success story about the gobbler I didn’t shoot.

My hunt was complete and today. After going six days and hearing only one distant gobble, today’s birds presented me with dozens of full-throated and lusty gobbles. The woods rang with turkey gobbles making spring music, and I was the guy wearing a camo face mask that covered a big wide grin that came from knowing that I did the right thing

Posted by Dave Richey on 05/03 at 07:16 PM
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