Missouri Urges Caution During Turkey Season

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People who have never been involved in a hunting accident sometimes have trouble understanding how one hunter can mistake another for a game animal. Lack of training or experience may seem likely contributing factors. However, reports of spring turkey hunting accidents tell another story. Consider the following excerpts from accident reports filed last year.

A 45-year-old hunter-education graduate shot and injured his 18-year-old hunting companion as they stalked the same turkey gobbler.

A 41-year-old hunter and his 36-year-old partner moved into a valley together to hunt a gobbling turkey. They moved a short distance apart but were still within sight of one another when one saw a movement and fired at it, striking the victim in the head, neck and back. At a distance of 11 to 20 yards, only luck prevented the wound from proving fatal. Again, the shooter was a hunter-education graduate.

Two middle-aged men each knew the other was hunting in an adjacent field. Both entered the same brushy draw pursuing a gobbler. When one stood up to leave, the other mistook him for a turkey and shot him, nonfatally.

Hunters, age 70 and 21, stalked the same turkey, unaware of one another's presence. The older man mistook the younger one for a turkey and fired, striking the victim in the right hand, arm, shoulder, side, back, abdomen and the lower left side of his back.

A 13-year-old boy - another hunter-education graduate - was hunting with his uncle. They split up to hunt a pair of gobblers. One of the birds flew away, and in the excitement, the boy shot and killed his uncle.

A 45-year-old hunter-education graduate was seated next to a tree when he saw what looked like a turkey's head bobbing up and down along the edge of a field 40 to 50 yards away. He fired, striking a 64-year-old hunter on the left side of his body.

These six incidents accounted for 75 percent of the firearms-related spring turkey hunting accidents reported to the Missouri Department of Conservation in 2006. The other two involved a shooter who wounded another hunter while shooting at a flying turkey and a man who shot off his thumb due to a defective firearm.

Year after year, the majority of turkey hunting accidents are mistaken-for-game incidents. Although it sounds improbable, the pattern is predictable because of the nature of spring turkey hunting.

Hunters camouflage themselves from head to toe, becoming invisible unless they move. When they do move, identifying them as humans rather than rustling vegetation amid the spring greenery can be difficult.

Furthermore, turkey hunters try to sound like turkey hens, creating the impression that turkeys are nearby. Some even make the sound of a turkey gobbler, hoping to inspire jealousy in a real turkey gobbler. It also makes them sound like hunters' quarry, increasing the chances of mistaken-for-game accidents.

"Turkey hunters - on both sides of the gun - need to be constantly aware of conditions that could get them in trouble," said Bryan Bethel, hunter education coordinator for the Conservation Department. "Since most spring turkey hunting accidents involve hunters mistaken for game, hunters need to focus on positive target ID and avoiding anything that might lead a careless hunter to fire at them."

One way for hunters to avoid misidentifying their targets is to wait to see the entire bird. "Even an experienced hunter can be fooled into thinking he sees a gobbler's head or its beard through brush, in dim light or at a distance," said Bethel. "You won't make that mistake if you wait for the entire bird to show itself."

Next to being mistaken for game, the most frequent cause of turkey hunting injuries is being caught in the line of fire when another hunter shoots at a turkey.

"Really, turkey hunting is not much different than deer hunting in this way," said Bethel. "The hunter is not just responsible for knowing what he is shooting at; he has to know what is between him and his game and what is beyond it. If you don't have a clear field of view so you can be sure the shot is safe, you have to hold your fire."

Bethel said hunters also have to take responsibility for their own safety. Hunting in areas where other hunters may be present requires special caution.

A fully camouflaged hunter moving through the woods is hard to see, opening the door for mistaken identification or line-of-fire injuries. One way to avoid this is to wear hunter orange clothing when moving between hunting locations. Another good idea is hanging an orange hat or vest in a tree over your hunting position to alert hunters in the area to your presence.

"Turkeys are not spooked by colors alone," said Bethel. "They don't know that orange means danger unless it is associated with other clues, like unusual movement or sounds. Marking your stand with a piece of orange clothing won't hurt your chances of success, but it can drastically cut your chances of getting hurt."

Another pattern is turkey hunting accidents involving friends or family members who lose track of each other.

"If you hunt with someone, hunt with them, not a short distance apart from them," said Bethel. "You wouldn't think it would be so easy to lose track of a friend, but it happens multiple times every year. If you absolutely have to separate, agree on where you will be and stick to the plan."

To increase your ability to see other hunters approaching, choose calling locations with clear fields of view. To protect your blind spot, sit with your back against a tree or other object at least as wide as your shoulders.

Never wave or make turkey calls to alert an approaching hunter to your presence. Instead, shout. Also avoid wearing or carrying anything with such as red, white or blue - colors associated with turkey gobblers.

Never trespass on private property. Many turkey hunting accidents involve shooters who have exclusive permission to hunt a particular area and assumed they were the only hunters present.

Do not stalk turkeys. Creeping around where turkeys are present increases your chances of being mistaken for one. Furthermore, turkeys' keen vision and hearing make success highly unlikely.

Be especially careful when using a turkey decoy or a gobble call. These give other hunters strong reason to believe there is a turkey near your location, increasing the chances of mistaken-for-game and line-of-fire accidents.

Assume any sound you hear is another person until you can visually rule out this possibility.

When carrying a dead turkey out of the woods, always conceal it, preferably in an orange vest. Walking with an exposed turkey over your shoulder gives the appearance of a turkey moving through the woods, making you a potential target. Whistle or talk when leaving the woods after a hunt to further reduce the chances of an accident.