By Jill J Easton
The owl and hen calls were loud, often badly done, and everywhere. As best we could figure, there were two groups of hunters behind us closer to the state highway, two more hunters who’d come in by boat on the river and at least two groups of hunters across Coon Creek. As the sun brightened the eastern sky, another boat came roaring in, did a donut on the creek, and pulled in directly below us, less than 100 yards away.
Jim went down to the creek and owled in the boater’s faces, and they at least had the courtesy to get out on the other bank. That was practically the last bit of polite hunting behavior we saw all morning.
We were first in, and for a brief while we’d been alone. It should be turkeys, us and blooming dogwoods on a perfect morning in the Ozarks. The 500-acre public area was surrounded by two cattle ranches, split more or less down the river by Coon Creek, and boundaried on the west by a larger river. Until 2020, only a few seasoned hunters knew about this semi-secret location that still had gobbling birds. This April morning there were at least a dozen.
We called. Gobbles rang out all along the ridge. Hens real and human cutt, yelped, and did fly-down cackles on every side. The flock – and Jim and I – were hemmed in on three sides. The only way to go was up. Near the property boundary, we hunkered down and called. The gobblers were now in full voice, half-a-dozen answered, but so did an echo from the many other human hens on both sides of the creek.
There were hunters to the north of us, hunters to the south, and another group about 200 yards below where we’d climbed the ridge. We were as surrounded as two Cheerios in a bowl of milk.
The gobblers continued to hammer. After a few minutes, the hunter(s) to our north decided we were either hens or not going to move, so they started to ease up on our position.
“Back off. Back off!!,” Jim hollered. The other hunter finally did. At this point, it was not about hunting. It was about survival. We hunkered down by the fence, didn’t call, and tried to become small targets.
Little by little the cutts, yelps, owls, and one fool with a gobble call silenced. The turkey flock moved across the road to a chunk of private land where they could conduct turkey business.
A nice guy and his buddy, also from Arkansas, came up the hill and we talked about the morning. He actually had seen two gobblers, but couldn’t shoot and be sure of a kill.
Not a shot was fired in our hunt area that morning. Amazingly, there were no fights, at least none we were aware of. I was very glad I wasn’t hunting on my own; I’m not sure what some of the hunters would have said or done if they’d come across a lone woman, especially if I had killed a turkey. Little chance of that, though, hunting in a crowd the way we were.
It’s a war zone out there
For the remainder of this turkey season, all turkey hunters and any hunters on public land should exercise extreme caution. Because of the Coronavirus-related lay-offs and unemployment, there are many more hunters, or at least people with guns, in almost every state. Many are inexperienced hunters who are dangerously undertrained. It is especially bad in turkey-rich states where nonresident hunters are still allowed to purchase licenses.
In Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, there were two to five Arkansas or Tennessee trucks at every pull-off or trail when we hunted there in March. Every gobble we heard after first light was followed by a shot. We estimated more than 200 out-of-state hunters in our segment of forest the week we were there. We went south to Homochitto National Forest, also in Mississippi, and there Louisiana hunters were almost as numerous. For many years these have been great hunting locations, but this year they were overrun.
It doesn’t matter if you are turkey, predator, hog, rabbit, or squirrel hunting. When beating boots on public land you are at risk. Many of the people with hunting licenses don’t understand etiquette or even the common rules of carrying a gun.
Hunting is one of the last places where folks with extreme cases of Covid lockdown fever can get outside and go. Unfortunately, many of these new-to-hunting folks didn’t learn the safety messages from their Hunter Safety courses. Be careful and always at attention.
A few simple rules
1. Stay wary. Just because there isn’t a vehicle parked on your favorite hunting spot doesn’t mean that other people with guns aren’t present. Look for fresh boot and tire tracks, listen for calling that doesn’t sound right, and avoid hunting places with several out-of-state vehicles.
2. Don’t assume the calling you are hearing comes from a genuine hen. Take time to check it out, and if you’re still not sure, err on the side of caution. Back off.
3. Before taking a shot, be sure there isn’t someone in camo where you are aiming, have a good backdrop, and make sure you aren’t shooting someone else’s decoy.
4. Finally, remember the Golden Rule. Even if a fellow hunter is dangerous or a jerk, treat him like you want to be treated.