The last week in March should be a perfect time to hunt spring turkeys in Mississippi. That far south the gobblers start fairly early—as does the season. We planned it a long time ahead; a hunt with old friends Bill Bynum and Kevin Howard, Mike Jones of the Mississippi tourism department, world champion turkey caller Preston Pittman and a couple other writers and rogues. Problem is when you plan these things you can only go on known conditions — you can’t factor in the weather. The first day gusts blew more than 40 miles per hour and then the predicted front moved in and it rained the rest of the hunt.
For sure there were birds around, but under those conditions it took some luck. David Rearick shot two nice gobblers and Kevin Howard got one. Bill Bynum is a great turkey caller — I shut up when I’m around him because I don’t want to embarrass myself. Twice we had gobblers working, but I finished without getting a shot as did everyone else. That’s disappointing, but it’s part of the game. We had a comfortable, dry lodge to stay in and the southern cooking was fantastic. The last evening Mike laid on a Mississippi specialty, fried catfish, boiled crayfish and all the trimmings. Everybody was happy; a great hunt with old friends in a fine place.
Taking game is nice and, realistically, hoping to is at least part of why we go hunting. But that part of it is rarely a given. The local folks in camp could hunker down and wait out the weather. When it turns nice again the birds will be gobbling and they’ll get their turkeys. Those of us from far away didn’t have that luxury. We had to try, even though the odds were against us. In hunting, the home court advantage is a powerful force. You can hunt the entire season if you choose, or you can wait until weather and/or game movement are most favorable.
In our SCI I’m sure most of us hunt close to home, but we also do some hunting in distant destinations. That’s a different animal because it requires planning, and some of our hunts are outfitted. Hopefully we do our research and try to put ourselves in the right place at the right time for the desired species. However, all research is incomplete because planning is usually done months in advance. We have to plan our schedules and, with outfitted hunts, we have to make reservations (we call them bookings). Game movement can change from one year to the next, and weather is the wild card that no one can predict months in advance.
There are seasonal averages, and some hunting is more impacted by adverse weather. Even so, there’s always the risk of extreme situations like drought, flood or high winds, and even generally reliable situations can quickly change. I’ll never forget a caribou hunt back in ’81 when the then-mighty George River herd changed its migration route. We spent a week, fortunately in Jack Hume’s comfortable and well-supplied camp, glassing mostly empty tundra. There were a few caribou around; those of us who walked far enough took bulls; those who didn’t stayed in camp and played cards, but nobody was upset; it was purely the luck of the draw and we drew bad hands that year.
A good outfitter will always try, but some things are beyond control. Some important things, however, are within the outfitter’s control: Competent guides, country that holds the game sought, an adequate camp and plenty of grub. Some camps are fancier than others, likewise camp fare. Expectations must depend on the situation.
In 2015, Donna and I went on a backpack Dall sheep hunt in the Brooks Range with Erik Salitan’s Bushwhack Alaska. Basically, we got weathered out. No shots fired. We saw sheep and we saw legal rams, but every time we climbed up toward them the weather came down and we huddled in backpack tents for several days! Guides Sterling Mize and Gary Stewart were awesome. All the equipment was fine. There was plenty of Mountain House on the mountain, and lots of goodies in base camp at the bottom. Disappointment, sure; complaints, none. I went back to the Brooks in ’17 with Dave Leonard’s Mountain Monarchs and got a fine ram; Donna is going to try again with Leonard next year but I cannot and will not say that one hunt was “better” than the other. Good guides, good equipment, good camps, adequate food…we just had more favorable weather in 2017 than in 2015.
Let’s add one more thing the outfitter can control: Basic game care, depending on what that means under the circumstances! When checking references don’t forget to ask if they’ve received their animals, how long it took, if the costs were as estimated and if the skins were in mountable condition!
Taking game is without question a basic goal, but if you factor in uncertainties it should not be the most important criteria by which a hunt is judged. The most important thing should be: Did you have a good time? As hunters we become accustomed to dealing with adversity, so perhaps a secondary question when recommending a hunt to others should be: Did the outfitter do his or her job?
I’ve had many unsuccessful hunts, and there can be many reasons. It’s possible to go in with unrealistic expectations, and it’s not impossible to get just one chance and flub it. These things are not the outfitter’s fault. It’s not unheard of for a hunt to be too physically demanding. It’s not the outfitter’s fault if the hunter can’t get up the hill provided a realistic picture was painted. These things must be factored in when answering the question as to whether or not the outfitter’s duties were fulfilled.
Most of the time the answer to that question has little to do with game taken but, human nature being as it is, sometimes we’re a bit too easy on the outfitter if we get the game we’re after and a bit too hard if we don’t. A while back Donna and I did a Canadian moose hunt — another hunt with no shots fired — and a total of one sub-legal moose seen. Although the timing was theoretically perfect, the weather was 20 to 30 degrees above normal. Nothing was moving.
The country looked good and there was sign, so I’ll put lack of game down to warm weather, fair enough. Food was great, high marks there. The camp was crowded, four people sleeping, cooking and eating in one medium-sized wall tent, but we can deal with that. Camp sanitation, however, was nonexistent — no trash bags, no shovel, the stuff of nightmares. This outfitter did not do his job. Toward the end I was almost hoping we wouldn’t get a big moose I’d be compelled to write about. If we had, I hope I wouldn’t think differently about the situation!–Craig Boddington