Among the current wave of cutting-edge turkey hunting tactics is fanning and its many variations: reaping, creeping, and crawling. In gaining a deadly tactic are we eroding turkey hunting traditions?
I killed my first turkey gobbler in 1961 so I guess you could call me old school and old-fashioned, even though I have tried to stay on top of new developments and trends in the world of turkey hunting. My respect for and admiration of the magnificent bird has only increased through my many years of intense scrutiny and avid pursuit, and everyone who knows me knows I hold wild turkeys in the highest esteem. Yet I am a little embarrassed—even disappointed—when these regal birds display a behavioral flaw that makes them appear, from all perspectives, to be downright stupid.
The wild turkey’s nearly flawless survival instincts have served them quite well for hundreds of thousands of years; they haven’t had to change much about their behavior to continue thriving, but there’s a fairly large caveat to this statement. Gobblers in the spring have an exploitable chink in their armor. A glitch in their git-along, if you will. A kind of selective blindness that allows a full-grown human, in wide-open plain sight, to crawl into effective shotgun range by simply holding a turkey tail fan in front of his face. This behavior is such an uncharacteristic anomaly in a creature so highly programmed and aware of its surroundings that I still find it hard to believe a gobbler can be so easily duped. And yet, sad to say, he can.
And leave it to humans to find an exploitable weakness. I first heard about the “tail fan” tactic back in the ’80s from friends who hunted in New Zealand, and even saw it work first-hand, but when considering New Zealand we’re talking about a country so overpopulated with feral turkeys they are an annoying nuisance. Knowing all New Zealand turkeys had come from domestic stock, and had no natural predators, I didn’t give such “tame turkey” tactics much consideration, other than thinking it would never work locally, stateside, with truly wild turkeys. I was, of course, quite wrong.
I do know the sight of a tail fan has a mesmerizing effect on turkeys. If it didn’t, a 12-pound turkey hen would never allow a strutting 20-some-pound gobbler in bad need of a manicure to walk on her back until her internal organs were nearly mashed out of her body—but I never in my wildest dreams imagined a tail fan would turn into a popular hunting device. Wrong again!
Using tail feathers to approach a turkey is developing a growing number of advocates, especially among a younger generation of neophyte turkey hunters. This growing popularity, I believe, is due in large part to TV shows and feature articles touting the tactic. It seems traditional turkey hunting strategies have become tired and redundant after so many episodes of, “strut, gobble and boom” scenarios (and realistically, how many different ways can you shoot a turkey?). So when something new comes along the media is quick to jump on it. The personalities and pundits describe this “exciting new tactic” in glowing terms by giving it catchy names: “creeping,” “fanning,” or even the most-demeaning of names: “reaping” (Let’s go reap some turkeys!). The term even seems to hold some real appeal for the younger generation.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no personal problem with how anyone chooses to hunt turkeys, as long as their methods are legal and not detrimental to the turkey population. What I am concerned about is losing sight of, and growing away from, the portrayal of turkey hunting as a calling and a craft. The thought that this noble pursuit is a singularly unique and demanding activity that requires skill, intellect, patience and deliberation—as opposed to something as simple as crawling across a field with a handful of feathers.
The true essence of turkey hunting, as I see it, is communicating with another species using its own language and on its own turf—and carefully manipulating individual birds to the hunter’s advantage. But what about the creepers? Do we put these individuals in another category? Do we label them turkey hunters or turkey creepers?
There are more, deeper questions as well. Will the allure of the active pursuit and instant gratification of creeping up on a turkey eclipse the desire to learn and appreciate the time-honored turkey hunting traditions? Are the “creepers” missing out on the thrill of intimate conversation with another species? On the satisfaction of planning a successful hunt strategy? Are they missing out on the feeling of accomplishment at the culmination of a successful, hard-won encounter? These are questions I ask myself when I am contemplating what the future holds for the sport of turkey hunting.
There are many more turkeys now than when I started turkey hunting, so I think my generation is leaving the resource in pretty good shape. But my generation is also on the way out, and a whole new group of potential turkey hunters will soon be taking our place. Will those new hunters take the time to learn the basics of turkey hunting, those time-honored traditions, or will they shoot for the soft spot?
I hate to even admit that turkeys have such a gaping hole in their biological armor, but the weakness is most certainly there, should anyone choose to exploit it. You might have guessed my own personal choice by now. I have avoided exploiting this turkey weakness. In my mind my choice to avoid fanning is every bit as clear-cut and definitive as my choice to avoid exploiting how a deer behaves in a spotlight—but that’s just me. I’ll say again: I have no problem with how anyone chooses to hunt turkeys as long as it is legal and doesn’t do harm to the population. And I’ll admit there is a certain amount of strength and stamina involved in crawling across an open field—something I don’t think I could handle these days, even if I had the desire.
In the end my message is fairly simple. As turkey hunting evolves, I just don’t want us to get too far from what I love and respect about turkey hunting, too far removed from the pursuit that reached out and grabbed me by the throat and so enthralled me as a young outdoorsman and has continued to deliver—over so many decades—many untold hours, days and months of pure enjoyment, adventure, and yes, even hard-won lessons. I am a better outdoorsman, and man, for all of it. I can only hope that with solid parental instruction, and the deft teachings of conservation organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, the grand tradition of turkey hunting will continue for generations to come. It’s been said that when it comes to opinions, everybody has one. What you’ve just read are mine; it’s my hope that they’ve struck a chord among my turkey hunting brethren.