“There’s nothing that compares to turkeys,” Emily Albright, the regional director for the New York State branch of the National Wild Turkey Federation, explained over the phone. “You’re calling these birds in, watching them from hundreds of yards. You can feel the vibrations from their gobbles.
“It’s important to get out there as soon as you can ‘cause they’re smart, they learn what’s real and what’s not, and can recognize when people are calling them.”
Until three weeks ago, I’d never held a gun, and the only time I’d worn camouflage was at a Cypress Hill concert in 1998. But a while back, my friend Jess described hunting deer in rural Pennsylvania with her father as a kid, and how they’d use every part of the animal. From her stories, hunting seemed to embody principles of sustainability and local consumption Brooklynites only organize conferences about—like working at a community garden, only with a shotgun. My interest was piqued, but there was one problem: Shotguns make me anxious.
This spring, I’d finally gotten up the nerve to try my hand at hunting, but I needed some guidance. Because wild turkey was the only season left before summer, I contacted the National Wild Turkey Federation—a non-profit organization that, according to its website, “has worked for the conservation of the wild turkey and preservation of the hunting tradition”—and spoke with Brian Dowler, the N.W.T.F.’s public relations manager, who explained that in order to hunt I’d first need to pass a hunter’s education course offered by the New York State Department of Environmental Protection. He then asked how I felt about hunting. I stammered through a recap of my reasons for wanting to go and a condemnation of slaughterhouses before admitting I wasn’t sure. “Conflicted,” I said finally. “I’m conflicted about hunting. I think it might feel bad to kill something.”
“Well, that makes sense.” Brian’s voice was almost soothing. “I think a lot of people are conflicted about hunting before they go.”
After I’d signed up for hunter’s ed, Brian put me in touch with N.W.T.F. Regional Director Emily Albright, who invited me to hunt with her in early May. Then I told my mother about the plan.
“You’re going to shoot something with a gun…and kill it? Are you kidding?”
It was just the motivation I needed.
Step One: Hunter Education
On a warm Friday night in April, I crept, panting, to an empty seat in the cheerless room above Frank’s Sport Shop in the Bronx. I was an hour late for the beginning of class and a girl wearing a hoodie with cartoon skulls on it—one of four women in a group of roughly 70—gave me a grim nod and handed me a manual and some Xeroxes. Our instructor Jay, a beefy, good-natured hunter with a farm in central New York State and a gap-toothed smile, was describing the benefits of bow hunting. For one thing, people will be more inclined to let you hunt on their land with a bow than a gun. This led us to the topic of “hunter’s image.” Many hunters are diligently engaged in a public relations campaign to overthrow the stereotype of hunters as drunk, gun-toting hicks, and replace it with an image of the sensible, law-abiding conservationist. As the N.W.T.F.’s website proudly informs, conservation efforts since the N.W.T.F. was founded in 1973 have increased the number of birds in North America from 1.3 to 7 million.
“Anti-hunters didn’t do anything to bring this animal back,” Jay told the class.
Established rules for gun safety, hunter’s conduct, and treatment of wildlife all play a part in this campaign for a better—hunters might say “more accurate”—public perception of hunting. The hunter’s image, Jay explained, also requires you “be a sportsman, not a killer,” which earned enthusiastic nods around the room.
“Open your books to page seven. Now let me ask you: What is the worst enemy to the deer?” Jay let scattered shouts of “global warming,” “humans,” “nature” and “guns” hang in the air before explaining that, due to overpopulation, which leads to starvation and disease, “the worst enemy to the deer is other deer.”
Jay concluded the first day of class with an educational film titled Survival, which detailed how the unprepared and stupid die outdoors. Reasons include: primal fear, male ego, ignorance, and the tragic underestimation of “our friend, fire.”
Saturday’s full day of class began on the particularly relevant (to me) subject of turkey hunting. The turkey, an instructional video explained, is a “majestic animal,” and to ensure a humane kill get close and aim for the head and neck.
Hunters sometimes shoot people because of what’s called “premature closure”—in this case, firing at movement, and then discovering they’ve bagged themselves another hunter.
“The feathers of a turkey are like a bulletproof vest,” Jay explained. “I saw a guy shoot a turkey once in the body—turkey fell over and then got back up. Shot him again—turkey fell over, got back up, gave him the finger, and ran away.”
Jay was adamant that hunters call the bird to them. “You’ve got SOBs that will come and stalk a turkey caller, thinking you’re a turkey. Stalking a turkey is illegal in New York because that’s how people get shot.”
Because turkeys have excellent eyesight, turkey hunters wear very little blaze orange. (My friend Jess is “really scared of shooting someone or getting shot.” She won’t go into the woods without wearing head-to-toe orange and, for this reason, doesn’t hunt turkeys.) Jay also told us hunters sometimes shoot people because of what’s called “premature closure”—in this case, firing at movement, and then discovering they’ve bagged themselves another hunter.
With this terrifying revelation, we’d arrived at the gun safety portion of the course. For the rest of the day, Jay reminded us repeatedly to “treat every gun as if it were loaded” and on the somewhat related note, “point the muzzle in a safe direction” and not shoot until “the target is fully visible.” Simple enough. However, among aspiring hunters in the class, conversation about guns had a tendency to devolve into discussion of what can be killed with super-powered rifles (bears!), AK-47s (people?), the merits of a gun called the Judge (“Sick!”) versus those of a Super Eagle or Desert Eagle (“Brutal!”) and whether a Magnum in New York City is 10- or 15-gauge.
After dozing for the past hour, the guy next to me perked up during a heated discussion of handgun permit laws in New York City, wiped some drool on his sleeve, and muttered, “Lotta restrictions, huh?”
Though I’d initially seen them as comrades—regular folks looking to spend time outdoors, bring home some wild game, and impress less-adventurous loved ones—over the past day and a half I’d become terrified of the thought of some of my classmates wielding loaded weapons.
Step Two: Passing the Certification Test
“Everyone will pass my test,” Jay promised.
After two days of Department of Environmental Conservation and hunting protocol relentlessly hammered into my head, I knew that “the main reason for the decline of wildlife population” is not “D. More hunters, modern sport hunting, or improved firearms and ammunition.”
I got a 96 on the exam, only misidentifying parts of shotguns on two questions.
I was now certified to pay $19 for a small and big game license, $5 for a turkey-hunting permit, disguise myself as a tree, and shoot one of these majestic creatures in the head or neck.
Step Three: Target Practice
Emily Albright’s assurance that we’d be on family-owned land and I’d have someone with me the whole time were my only comforts on the way to her home outside Utica, N.Y.
I was already hours late as I pulled into the driveway of the comfortable and isolated ranch home Emily shares with her mom. If Emily was annoyed as I shook her French-manicured hand, she masked it convincingly with a smile.
In the house, we chatted with her mother who—though she shoots skeet and clay pigeons—“doesn’t love” her daughter’s passion for hunting but “accepts it.” Emily told me I’d be shooting with Old Faithful, her 12-gauge camouflage shotgun, which, from the raised eyebrows, chuckles, and pregnant “hmms” Emily’s mother and her mother’s boyfriend gave us when they heard, I gathered was probably going to kick my ass.
There wasn’t much time before sunset, so we hurried to the local rod and gun club to get in some target practice. While Emily drove her red pickup alongside postcard views of fields and cow pastures, she explained the choice of firearm: “I could have given you a 20-gauge—it’s a bit easier to shoot, better for beginners—but, and no offense to you, I really want you to be using a 12-gauge. It’s going to give the shot extra power and make it more likely you’ll get a good kill.”
The bigger the gun the gentler the kill—right, naturally.
“The last thing I’d want to happen is for you to hit the bird but not give it a humane death. A 20 is often called a ‘woman’s gun’ and I have no patience for those labels.”
Her professionalism—and her failure to embody stereotypes—could not have been more comforting: no special treatment because I was a girl and no condescension either. I felt a surge of respect for my poised, no-nonsense hunting guide. That first evening, when we weren’t talking about turkeys, we chatted like new roommates at freshman orientation. She told me about working as an exhibition “lumber-jill” in Alaska, but when I jokingly referred to her as the “Turkey Lady,” Emily bristled. She’d heard that one before.
At the club, we carried two targets (cardboard boxes with paper turkey heads taped to them), shells, earmuffs, safety glasses, and Old Faithful to a square bench at the end of the field. She took the shotgun from its case, and showed me how to load the cartridge into the chamber and crank the pump toward the butt of the gun while initiating a small “trigger” (not the one that kills), which pushes the cartridge into the chamber. After pushing the pump back into place, the cartridge is now properly loaded, and the gun is ready to fire. With every hitch of the pump my lunch crept higher in my throat. I consoled myself with deep breaths and the fact that, at least for now, I was still able to take them.
I straddled the bench—never mind what you’ve seen on TV, it’s much easier to fire a shotgun sitting down.
“The reason the kick hurts people,” Emily explained, “is because they don’t hold the gun tight enough. I’m not gonna lie: It’s gonna hurt, but if you keep it tight to your shoulder it’ll be a lot better.”
With my left hand, I held the gun near the pump, and propped my elbow on the table in front of me.
“Now put your face right against the gun and sight down the barrel.”
There were two tiny green dots on the barrel that, when the shot is lined up, will cushion a red dot that must be pointing at your target.
“When you’re ready to shoot, take the safety off—it’s the little button above the trigger, when you push it, you’ll see red on the other side. Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.”
I was shaking. Jay’s anecdotes of hunters killing people with errant shots or because of careless aim had done their job too well. In a pitiful attempt to stall, I asked Emily to fire a shot first, just so I’d know what to expect.
With an air of calm authority, Emily put on the safety glasses, sat down on the bench, raised the weapon to her shoulder, aimed and—
The shot that echoed across the filed was loud and disruptive. As smoke drifted up from the barrel of the gun, I wished for a bus back to the city.
Emily was smiling sympathetically as she handed me the gun. “Did you see flames come out of the barrel?” I told her I’d seen smoke—flames, no.
I sat down, put the gun to my shoulder, and tried to breathe deeply.
Everything went black. A shotgun firing sounds a lot like an explosion because, well, it is an explosion. But firing is less frightening than standing behind someone when they shoot. If you’re the one holding the gun, odds are you’re not on the other side of the barrel.
“I’m OK!” I shouted. The gun was quivering in my hands, my legs were quivering, and Emily looked doubtful.
I hadn’t even hit the target, but after my second shot, little pellet holes scattered across the target’s head and neck, indicating certain death.
At 30 yards, I barely grazed the target, but it didn’t matter. I’d fired the gun and absorbed the recoil like a gentle electrocution. My left ear was ringing from the blast, but the fear that I could have killed someone was eclipsed by relief that I didn’t.
Step Four: Scouting Turkeys
The sun was disappearing behind the patchwork hills, and we started the drive back to the house. On the way, we circled nearby fields to figure out where the birds would be sleeping.
“See those guys?” Emily pointed to a group of black specks pecking and shuffling in the grass about a half-mile from the road. “They’re heading to the woods over there for the night. I don’t want to make you walk a mile up that hill in the dark for them—I don’t want to walk that far myself, even.
“Tomorrow, if you shoot at a bird, you won’t notice the kick or hear the gun fire, your adrenaline will be going so strong. I’ve taken nine birds and I don’t remember any of the shots.”
“Just as long as I have a clear shot,” I told her. “I don’t want to fire unless I can be certain there’s no one around. I don’t want to fire at movement.”
I’d spent so much time worrying about firing a gun; I hadn’t considered whether I’d be willing to kill a turkey with it.
“You don’t even have to shoot if you don’t want to. No matter what. If you get out there and don’t feel comfortable, or want me to take the shot, it’s fine.”
Whatever happened tomorrow, I was relieved I wouldn’t be expected to shoot. I’d spent so much time worrying about firing a gun; I hadn’t considered whether I’d be willing to kill a turkey with it.
We had dinner that night with Emily’s boyfriend, Tim, who assured, “If you see a bird, and you want us to let him walk away, we’ll let him walk away.”
The couple both used to work for the Department of Environmental Preservation studying chronic wasting syndrome in white tail deer. “We tell people we met driving around and picking up roadkill,” Emily said with a wink. They hunt together before work almost every morning in May. Emily had already shot one of the two birds allowed hunters during the spring season, but Tim hadn’t bagged one yet.
He’d be calling for us tomorrow, and didn’t seem particularly anxious to get one himself. “I’m just excited to take first-timers out and really show them what it’s about.”
Step Five: Setting Up the Blind
That night I slept in Emily’s office, lovingly nicknamed “the room of death” by her mom. Mounted tail feathers, beards—the long black rope of hair that all shootable males and some females have—and stuffed birds, trophies from past hunts, lined the walls alongside photos of Emily and Tim with turkeys they’d killed. The room was a shrine to the turkey’s life—and, yes, death.
At four the next morning, outfitted in camo jacket, pants, and hat, with gloves and a mesh mask crammed into my pockets, I yawned and climbed into Tim’s truck. In New York State, you’re permitted to hunt spring turkey from sunrise to noon, and so we had to leave early to set up our blind near the woods where Tim had scouted birds the night before.
A cube-shaped camouflage tent with no bottom, a blind allows hunters to move a little without detection. After walking through the woods to a spot on the edge of a field, Emily and I opened some chairs inside the blind, while Tim sat under a nearby tree. As the sky lightened and soggy mist drifted around our feet, he began calling the birds.
Step Six: Calling Turkeys
Emily had placed a decoy about 10 yards from the blind. The decoy was supposed to look like a hen and would, if the birds responded to Tim’s calls, lure toms toward us. It’s surprising that turkeys, with their superb eyesight and relative intelligence, fall for decoys—but I guess we’ve all been guilty of mistaken attraction. Though beer goggles never got me shot.
I would learn at least seven different turkey calls that day. During my hunt, I’d see Tim use a diaphragm call, a box call, a glass call, and a gobble tube. Toms gobble, while a hen call is higher pitched. Hens sound kind of like a door creaking shut followed by someone shouting “ouch, ouch, ouch.” Since only toms are fair game in spring, Tim mostly used hen calls.
Calling birds is what many turkey hunters love about the sport. Turkeys, though they do fly, are shot on the ground and hunters need to lure them into the 30- or 40-yard range before taking a shot. Box and glass calls use friction—a striker against the glass or slate of the call, or the paddle against the top of the box—to make the clucks and yelps of wild hens. The diaphragm call is a crescent-shaped disc Tim held in his mouth and yelped through.
“The birds are still in the trees,” Emily whispered. “Tim’s gonna try and call them down. You’ll hear them talking to each other as they’re waking up.”
Emily loves these mornings in the woods. Sitting in the blind, you almost forget about the firearm in your lap and believe that pretending you’re not there actually makes you invisible. As I was busy blending in with the scenery, a gobble rang out in reply to Tim’s clucking and there was a scattered response from nearby hens.
“Listen to Tim copy that hen’s voice. Hopefully she’ll get pissed off and come see what this other girl is doing in her area.”
After about five minutes of measured call and response, four birds burst from the woods and onto the field about 150 yards in front of us. My heart started pounding.
Emily had a rangefinder that calculated distance. “OK, it looks like two of those guys are definitely toms. I can see beards, and as long as they have beards they’re good to shoot. If they come closer, I’m gonna have you raise the gun.”
Tim kept calling the birds but wasn’t getting much attention from the toms ahead of us.
“They’ve already got girls with ‘em, so they’re really not interested in Tim.” Emily said.
Another pair of toms jumped out of the woods. This time much closer to our blind. Turkeys have a surprisingly elegant gait: They walk as though they’re gliding across the field. Emily’s mother had described them as gentlemen in coattails. Steps are very measured and fluid, especially considering how bulbous their bodies look. Even from this distance I could see the toms ahead of us were big birds.
“OK, get your gun up. If these guys come closer, I’ll tell you when to take a shot.”
Tim was sounding off, and getting a decent response. I could hear a few rumbling shudders of the toms across the field. One of the newly arrived toms slowly wound his way toward us.
Step Seven: Taking Aim
“If you have to move, try to wait until his head is down,” Emily whispered. “It looks like this guy’s at about 70 yards. Still too far, but if he keeps coming, you can shoot him.”
Tim chatted away. Thanks to the mist, the scene looked like execution-day in a South American film.
I had the oblivious turkey in my blurry sights. The woods were starting to wake up and a chorus of birds squawked and chirped around us. I steadied my gun on a shooting stick.
Emily was beaming silently next to me. “Take off your safety now, if you wait ‘til he’s closer, he’ll hear you.”
I was concentrating on taking long, slow breaths when the birds abruptly rushed into the woods. Seconds later, a pickup rolled across the field. The birds were long gone. I’d finally made it into the rollercoaster cart, but the ride was broken.
Emily and Tim did their best to overcome irritation, but the truck had ruined the best hunt of the season so far.
Disheartened, we packed up our blind and trudged up a nearby hill. Tim called into the woods, but got no answer. We scouted for the rest of the morning, sometimes hearing far-off gobbles or yelps. On a few occasions, my guides caught me dozing, gun across my lap, guard down, and head bobbing, but we didn’t see a bird again that day. We did, however, cross paths with the guy who ruined our first hunt.
Tim replied cautiously, not mentioning this hunter had driven away a whole gang of birds less than an hour earlier. I kept watch on the gun slung across the hunter’s back.
He was squatting uphill from us as we approached. With a nicotine-stained mustache and weathered face, he looked older than he probably was. The fact that there was another hunter so close made me nervous. I had hoped we wouldn’t run into anyone else that day—fewer hunters meant less chance for an accidental shooting.
After accusing us of trespassing on private property—Tim assured him we had permission to be on the land—the man relaxed and leaned against a tree with an air of exaggerated coolness. Taking a determined pull off his cigarette, it was time for us to live vicariously through his success.
“I got me a slammer first thing this morning. Saw him coming out of the trees and grabbed him. I got a lot of tricks. I’m looking for another one out here, but it’s hard because so many people are out here trying to get something.”
“It’s nice you got lucky,” Tim replied cautiously, not mentioning this hunter had driven away a whole gang of birds less than an hour earlier. I kept watch on the gun slung across the hunter’s back.
The other hunter laughed, “Oh, it has nothing to do with luck—I can hunt deer and I can hunt turkey and that’s skill.”
We nodded through complaints about the Department of Environmental Conservation and city people who were shooting doe and leaving the kill in the woods until we found a hole in the conversation and made our exit. On the way back to the truck, Emily vented frustration about the other hunter, who, in addition to being inconsiderate to other hunters by driving through the woods, by law should have called it a day if he did in fact shoot a bird earlier.
“It annoys me because you can meet a hundred good hunters, and then one guy like that makes everyone look bad.”
Aware of their place in the ecosystem and the tightrope they walk as hunters, Emily and Tim are involved in a constant negotiation of their boundaries. As contradictory as it sounds, they respect and kill animals. When she was 15 and shot her first turkey, Emily cried. Until this year she wouldn’t hunt deer, and still will not hunt hogs.
Back in Brooklyn, I went out for beers with my friend Brian. After recounting my experience from the weekend, he said, “You know, there are people who just go and take pictures of birds. They don’t feel the need to shoot them.”
It’s true it’s rarely necessary for any of us to hunt our own food, but many of us do. It’s also true that many of us don’t need to sleep around a campfire, yet we curl up outdoors often enough. Human beings are still compelled to touch nature, even if it’s within a Thermolite-insulated sleeping bag.
Part of what I appreciate about hunting is the extremism: Why walk away with a photo of a turkey if you can swing its carcass over your shoulder as you swagger triumphantly from the woods? But I still need a safety. While I am intrigued by the combination of specialized knowledge and gore, I’m thankful for the restrictions, regulations, and general mistrust that hold hunters’ feet to the fire.
Because for all the time Emily and Tim devote to watching deer run across the hills, spotting geese with goslings, and crouching against trees contentedly listening to the woods chatter away, that weekend it was a less-conscientious sportsman that ruined the experience.
Sometimes, the hunter’s worst enemy is most certainly another hunter.