Friendly Fire: Turkey Hunting Safety

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Turkeys are known for their acute sense of sight. Many a hunter swears the gobbler busted them because they blinked their eyes. Unfortunately, turkey hunters aren’t blessed with such vision. That may be one of the reasons that nationally, wild turkey hunting has the highest shooting accident rate per hunter.

In May 1995, Bill Baum, a materials manager at Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Welch, Minn., was living in Ohio when his older brother accidentally shot him while turkey hunting. "Friendly fire" is how Baum describes it. The brother mistook a red and blue pop can in Baum's hand for the head of a tom turkey 30 yards away. Baum, 48, survived the blast, but no longer hunts due to the incident. Some of the nearly 50 shotgun pellets that ripped through his upper body are clearly visible under the skin.

Baum turned down an offer to prosecute.

"But a judge said it was a clear case of neglect, so my brother was prosecuted for the shooting," Baum said.

The brother spent three days in jail, had his hunting privileges suspended for five years and had his gun confiscated.

Baum said his brother refused to take firearm safety training as a youth, which at that time was not mandatory in Ohio. Despite the shooting, the brother has never completed the course and still hunts.

"I tell him he needs to go through the basics, which he refuses to do, and it disappoints me that he would dismiss doing something so important," Baum said.

Encouraged by Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials, Baum visited area schools to preach the gospel of firearm safety training.

"Turkey hunting accidents can happen to anyone is my message," Baum said. "That's why I'm a strong proponent of hunter safety training, especially Minnesota DNR Turkey Clinics."

"DADDY, WHY DID YOU SHOOT ME?"

Mike Schmid of Spicer had hunted all his life, so when his son wanted to join him in May 2001 to hunt turkey, he agreed. But nine-year-old Sam grew cold and returned to his uncle's ranch house on the Houston County farm in southeastern Minnesota where they were hunting. Schmid stayed in the field not knowing that after warming himself, the boy told his uncle he wanted to go back to his father. Schmid, not expecting the boy's return, saw movement by some turkey decoys.

"I saw something red and blue near the decoys. Thinking it's a turkey, I shoot," Schmid said. A still deeply remorseful Schmid continued, "I stand up and to my horror I had shot Sam. He asked, "Daddy, why did you shoot me?"

Sam's clothing was similar in color to turkey plumage. Schmid threw down the gun, hoisted the boy on his back, and made his way across the field to the ranch house to call for help. Emergency personnel found a pellet had struck the boy's chest in the area of his heart. Schmid thinks about the incident every day.

"A DNR officer investigated and said it was my fault. It was my fault," Schmid said. "I take full responsibility for what I did; it was inexcusable. There's no room in hunting for what I did."

Sam fully recovered from his injuries, but Schmid said the incident changed things. He no longer hunts with a firearm. He and his son now enjoy bowhunting.

"I feel I've taken something away from Sam because of the incident," Schmid said. "Hunting all my life, there was a real emphasis and concern for safety in the field. Sam and I both completed firearms safety training, but a split second of misjudgment can have dire consequences. Attending a DNR turkey clinic might prevent someone from experiencing what I did."

MINNESOTA'S SAFETY RECORD

A review of investigation reports compiled by the Minnesota DNR shows that turkey hunting accidents are few and far between, with 13 incidents since 1981. There has never been a fatality in Minnesota.

Despite Minnesota's enviable safety record, safety is always a concern. Growing numbers of turkey hunters are taking to the woods each year; camouflaged from head to toe, there's an overwhelming desire to bag a bird. "Mistaken for game" is the leading reason for mishaps, said DNR Conservation Officer Dan Book of Rushford, an avid turkey hunter.

"There's a lot of pressure to bag a turkey," Book said. "That causes some hunters to shoot before identifying the bird, which can result in someone being seriously injured or worse."

Records show that age makes little difference in whether a person becomes a shooter or a victim in a turkey hunting accident. Young and old hunters both turn up in the 'victim' and 'shooter' category with about equal frequency.

Baum and Schmid's incidents show hunting with family or a friend is no guarantee of safety. Turkey hunting investigation reports include fathers, mothers, sons, uncles and brothers shooting when they lost track of one another's positions and pointed their shotguns at moving targets. Nor does hunting on posted private land ensure a safe hunt. Because they are not expected and often are unfamiliar with the area, trespassers are doubly at risk for shooting legitimate hunters and for being shot accidentally by hunters who think they have the area to themselves.

MISTAKEN FOR GAME

One incident is more than DNR officials would like, however. Capt. Jeff Thielen, DNR Enforcement Division Education Program coordinator, compiles the DNR's hunting accident statistics. He said the most common cause of turkey hunting accidents is "mistaken for game."

"Turkey hunting accidents happened because the shooter jumped to the wrong conclusion," said Thielen. "Since 1981, we've had 13 turkey hunting incidents, most the "mistaken for game" variety."

Thielen said the facts clearly show that people involved in turkey hunting accidents are not all inexperienced, careless hunters. "Taking a hunter education course and having good safety habits can help ward off accidents, but even a seasoned, careful hunter can make a mistake," Thielen said.

Conservation Officer Book agrees. "I waited a long time for a gobbler to come to me while hunting in Alabama," Book said. "He was too far away to shoot or to see much detail. I could see the dark body in front of a full semicircle fan. I was finally able to sneak the mini-binoculars out of my vest. The "turkey" turned out to be a rusted out 55-gallon drum, the lower half covered by leaf litter and dirt lying in the woods! The black "body" was simply the dark, empty barrel."

Book asked, "Would you like to guess how many "mistaken for game" shots are fired at other forms of wildlife, rocks, trees, etc., because the shape appeared to be that of the quarry that was being hunted?

"All of us who have hunted have seen a stick that at first looked like the head and neck of a gobbler, or a leafed-out branch that looks just like the head of a deer," Book noted. "I don't want the public to think that these incidents are only movement connected."

PREMATURE CLOSURE

The phenomenon that leads to most turkey hunting incidents is known among accident investigators as "premature closure." Simply put, this means the hunter is seeing what he or she expects to see. The moment when the hunter pulls the trigger is the final event in a long series of events that can mislead even experienced hunters. A turkey is heard gobbling from its roost. The hunter hears the tom fly down from its roost and gobble again and calls to the bird, and it answers.

Minutes tick past and the hunter builds up a mental image of a gobbler moving closer to the hunter's location. Then the hunter sees a movement through a screen of branches and a small patch of white. The hunter raises the gun. When the turkey's head emerges into a small open space, the hunter pulls the trigger and wounds another hunter who was about to blow his nose with a white handkerchief.

In this scenario, the hunter added two and two and got six. The hunter should have waited until the entire bird was visible and checked to be sure it was a legal bird with a beard. Instead, "premature closure" led the hunter to leap one step ahead of what was actually seen to what was expected to be seen.

DNR TALKS TURKEY

A record 22,770 turkey hunters took to the woods and fields of Minnesota last spring, taking a record 7,650 gobblers. DNR officials believe permit holders improved their chances of having a safe, successful hunt by attending a turkey hunting clinic. Although the clinics are not mandatory for hunters, the DNR recommends them, according to Thielen.

"The clinics are designed to provide an in-depth look at wild turkeys in Minnesota, a better understanding of wild turkey behavior and habitat needs, and an overview of the wildlife management programs that make hunting turkeys possible," Thielen said.

The clinics, taught by volunteer instructors, also provide an increased awareness of hunting safety precautions, hunting techniques, and the biological reasons for the regulations controlling turkey hunting.

Expert hunters have stated that wild turkey hunting requires special skills different from deer hunting. The clinics are organized by the DNR to provide a closer look at wild turkey hunting.

A "Turkey Hunters Handbook" will be available for paid clinic participants. This updated handbook has the latest information. It now includes a section on archery hunting of turkeys and fall hunting of turkeys in Minnesota. There is no age restriction for attending a clinic.

Hunters can check the DNR Web site at www.dnr.state.mn.us for current turkey clinic listings. There is a $5 fee (unless otherwise noted); some clinics might charge extra for refreshments and room cost. Make checks payable to: DNR-Advanced Hunter Education. Advanced Hunter Education certification can also be earned through a format of individual clinics.

"By completing a turkey clinic, participants are a step closer to earning Advanced Hunter Education certification," Thielen said. "Part of the certification involves attending five approved single topic clinics, one of which must include a shooting activity."

A take-home, open-book examination must also be completed. In addition to turkey clinics, hunters can choose from whitetail deer, waterfowl, bear, planning a hunt, survival in the outdoors, map and compass, gun safety in the home, and more. Seminars for Minnesota's Advanced Hunter Education Program and Minnesota Bowhunter Education Program are listed on the DNR Web site or by calling the DNR at 1-800-366-8917.

OFFENSIVE SAFEGUARDS

To avoid costly errors in judgement, the DNR recommends the following self-imposed rules:

- Wait to see the entire bird

- Assume anything that moves is another hunter until you can positively identify it

- Don't let excitement, nerves or competitiveness cloud your judgement;

- Guard against premature closure by reminding yourself that the chance of bagging a gobbler in uncertain circumstances isn't worth the risk of injuring or killing another hunter

- Don't point your gun or slip off the safety until you have positively identified your target.

DEFENSIVE SAFEGUARDS

To avoid becoming the victim of a turkey hunting accident, observe the following rules:

- Cover your entire head and body with Camouflage; an exposed hand or face can be mistaken for part of a turkey

- Don't wear or carry anything colored red, white, blue, brown or black – colors that are associated with turkey gobblers wear a hunter-orange vest and hat when moving through the woods

- Wrap the vest around the tree where you plan to call turkeys, which will warn other hunters of your presence

- When you kill a turkey, immediately cover it with a camouflage bag or wrap it in a hunter-orange cloth before carrying it out of the woods

- Never hunt in areas that other hunters may be using; they could mistake you for game or unknowingly catch you in their line of fire

- If you see another hunter, shout to identify yourself but never wave because movement could draw fire from a careless shooter

- Exercise extreme caution in using turkey decoys because they may draw fire; place decoys so they are not visible to other hunters in the line of sight that would put you in someone else’s line of fire

- Select a spot where you can see any hunter who might approach

- When calling, sit with your back against a tree or other solid object that will protect your blind side from injury

- Don't try to stalk a turkey, because you could be stalking another hunter, who might shoot you by mistake.