“Subtending” Exercise Leads to Aha! Moment for Missouri Turkey Hunters

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The staff at the Andy Dalton Shooting Range and Outdoor Education Center recently set out to teach turkey hunters how to estimate distance to their targets. In the process, they taught a much more important lesson.

Mike Brooks manages the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Outdoor Education Center at Bois D’Arc Conservation Area, near Springfield. He and his staff offered a training session to teach hunters about “subtending.” This technique enables hunters to accurately judge how far away a turkey is by the size of its head relative to the barrel of a shotgun.

Approximately 100 hunters, including many experienced outdoorsmen, took part in the training. As a practical exercise after the classroom portion of the session, Brooks and his staff set up simulated turkey targets at various distances in a wooded setting. Each participant had a chance to put his or her new knowledge about subtending into practice. After their first attempt at estimating distances, the teachers made some changes to the targets and let the hunters do a second round of subtending.

They learned some useful lessons about range estimation, but neither the participants nor the instructors expected the sobering lesson they learned about hunting safety.

To add to the value of the subtending exercise, Brooks and his staff had placed a silhouette of a camouflage-clad hunter in the line of sight beyond the turkey targets. When the exercise was finished, they asked if any of the hunters had noticed the hunter in the line of fire.

“Out of the nearly 100 students, both youths and adults, only one person saw the other hunter in the scenario,” says Brooks. “Many of these people were seasoned turkey hunters with years of experience and even they missed our guy until we took off the camouflage hat.”

Brooks says the lesson here is that hunters must constantly be alert for possible safety issues. A hunter cannot afford to focus so intently on his target that he fails to notice what is between him and the target and especially what is beyond it.

“You could say this exercise wasn’t fair, because we weren’t using loaded guns and we were concentrating on learning one thing unrelated to hunting safety,” says Brooks. “But the truth is that it’s just as easy to forget about safety in real hunting situations. There is a tendency to focus all your senses and attention on that turkey. This lesson gave everyone a dramatic reminder that if you don’t keep safety near the front of your mind every moment, you run the risk of making an awful mistake.”

With the help of thousands of citizen hunter-education volunteers, MDC has made dramatic improvements in turkey-hunting safety in the past 25 years. In 1986, MDC recorded 31 firearms-related incidents during the two-week spring turkey season. Last year, only five hunters were injured during a three-week season.

The difference, according to MDC Hunter Education Coordinator Tony Legg, is hunter education. Since training became mandatory in 1987, the number of safety-trained hunters has increased by approximately 30,000 annually.

Legg says that while improvements in hunting safety have been dramatic, hunter-education instructors still strive for a turkey season with no incidents. He says this is possible if hunters remember a few points.

“Most turkey-hunting incidents occur when one of two things happen,” says Legg. “One is when a hunter mistakes movement, sounds or small flashes of color for game instead of another hunter. The other is when a hunter fails to be sure he has a safe line of fire.”

According to Legg, both of these causes can be largely avoided by the use of bright fluorescent hunter-orange clothing. Decades of experience have demonstrated its effectiveness in protecting deer hunters. You don’t need to wear hunter orange all the time to reap safety benefits. Instead, Legg recommends wearing a hunter-orange vest and hat when moving between hunting spots, then hanging the garments on a tree when calling. This alerts other hunters to your presence.

Legg says hunters should always wrap turkeys in hunter orange when carrying them out of the woods.

“Walking through the woods in camouflage clothing while carrying a gobbler in plain sight is asking for trouble,” he says.

Other defensive hunting techniques include:

• Choose calling locations that offer a clear view to the front and sides so you know if other hunters approach.

• Sit with your back against a tree at least as wide as your shoulders for protection if a hunter behind you shoots at a turkey and catches you in the line of fire.

• Remain in the immediate company of hunting partners. Incidents often occur when hunting partners separate and lose track of one another’s locations.

• Never assume you are the only hunter in the area. Legg says most turkey hunting incidents occur on private property, where hunters don’t expect to meet other hunters.

• Use gobble calls with extreme caution, since these make you sound like a turkey gobbler and most require some movement to operate.

• Don’t wear red, white or blue clothes when turkey hunting. Likewise avoid handkerchiefs or other items of these colors, which mimic the colors on the head of a turkey gobbler.

For more information about hunter-education classes, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3477.

MDC also has programs to help aspiring hunters and encourage hunting mentorship. For more information, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/10054.