The challenge for a tom in May is as tough as it gets for hunters, but being safe will ensure good memories instead of tragic memories

May 1 should be declared a holiday across all of New York (north of New York City). It should be applauded, and even venerated, from Buffalo to Albany and Plattsburg to Liberty. 

After all, it is the most important day of the year for many sportsmen. It is the opening day of the month-long spring wild turkey season.

Every good hunter already knows the most basic rules. Hunting is permitted from one-half hour before sunrise to noon every day of the season. The limit is two bearded birds, but only one can be harvested per day. And as a side note, a tightly choked shotgun filled with shells containing the right sized shot (most hunters prefer No. 4 to No. 6 shot) is a good idea, too.

But the most important and most basic rule must never be forgotten. Spring turkey hunting can be an inherently dangerous type of hunting. Hunters dressed from head to toe in camouflage clothing are carefully hidden in various woodland or brush lot settings. To add to the element of danger, they are making sounds like a love-sick hen turkey as they attempt to attract a real tom turkey in close for the shot. But sometimes it is other hunters rather than a wild turkey that they attract.

It is unfortunate that many people will actually attempt to stalk turkeys. I’ve related my run-in with my own “turkey stalker” and how he shot my decoy, and I will not retell that story again. Suffice it to say he was trespassing. He also had stalked a hen turkey (decoy), being led on by the yelping sounds of a hen. He shot at a hen decoy, which meant he would shoot any turkey he happened to see, regardless of sex and notwithstanding that only tom (bearded) turkeys can be hunted during the spring season.  

But here was the bigger problem, at least as far as I could see. The chances were that, if I had not had a decoy out (to draw his attention) and I was unfortunate enough to make one slight movement that he noticed, I would probably have been the recipient of his shot charge. Since I was blissfully unaware of his presence until he shot my decoy, I would not have had any opportunity to duck or otherwise shield myself from his tiny but deadly lead missiles. 

Why some hunters continue to try and stalk turkeys is simply beyond my understanding. These birds have the keenest eyesight of any animal in our local woodlands. They also have one of the keenest senses of hearing to be found anywhere. They are eminently suited for survival under almost any conditions.

And any predator that tries to sneak up on one of these game birds, if it doesn’t have a pair of wings itself, will most often end up without any dinner. That includes coyotes, bobcats, foxes and humans alike.

There is absolutely no acceptable excuse for anyone mistaking a human being for a turkey. The first rule of hunting safety is to clearly and positively identify your target before shooting. And anyone who shoots another hunter has automatically violated this first rule of safety - period! To my way of thinking it is that clear and simple. (Anyone with another opinion can write to me in care of the Daily Messenger and share it.)

I have a personal rule when it comes to hunting turkeys, and if everybody followed it we would have no more turkey hunting accidents where one hunter shoots another. The rule is that I will only hunt wild turkeys when my butt (or knees) is firmly planted on the ground. I do not follow the sounds of calling turkeys, regardless of whether they are hen yelps or tom gobbles. If I hear a turkey of either sex calling, I immediately plant my butt in the nearest suitable location and attempt to call a tom into my shotgun range. 

To carry my rule one step farther, if I am walking from one calling spot to another and I flush a turkey, I will not shoot at it. My reasoning for this is simply an extension of my one basic rule. My butt is not in close and personal contact with the ground, therefore I will not shoot. But there is another, more personal reason that many folks might not understand.

Turkey hunting during the spring season has a very special meaning for me. It is an opportunity to pit my wits and skills against one of the smartest and wariest critters on this earth. The thrill of the hunt, at least for me, is found in fooling the bird and causing him to hunt me (the lovelorn hen). It is not simply in the killing of a tom turkey. 

Anyone can kill a turkey, but darn few hunters can fool a mature old tom and get him to strut his stuff right in front of their shotgun's muzzle.

Hunters should also keep gun safety in the forefront of their thoughts. Self-inflicted injuries are the second most common “accident” among the ranks of turkey hunters. It is easy in the excitement of hearing a nearby gobble from a bird that never appears to forget to re-engage the safety. A slight touch on the trigger could result in a painful or even deadly situation for the hunter or others.

What should a hunter do if he sees another hunter moving near him in the woods? My personal rule in such a situation is to always make sure the other hunter knows there is a human nearby. I do this by giving out a loud ‘Hello’ rather than waving while attempting to remain silent. I am always concerned that another hunter, upon seeing the movement of a waving hand, might snap off a shot at the movement rather than hesitating long enough to identify it.

And since his walking into my area has already spooked off any turkeys that might have been nearby, a hearty ‘Hello’ from me won’t hurt the hunt any more than his walking in did to begin with.

Spring turkey hunting is definitely exciting, but it is also possibly the most dangerous of all sport hunting disciplines. It doesn’t have to be. Using caution and a little common sense at all times makes good sense. 

Having a safe hunt, even if no turkeys are seen, still results in some great memories. What do hunt memories have if there is an accident involved? Not much that is good. 

Let’s be careful, and courteous, out there.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger's Outdoor Columnist. Contact him with questions or comments at lisenbee@frontiernet.net.