By JOHN McCOY
The man in charge of West Virginia's hunter safety program has strong feelings about spring turkey hunting, which lasts through May 11.
"In my opinion, it's the most dangerous time to be in the woods," said Lt. Ed Goodson of the state Natural Resources Police. "You're dressed head to toe in camo, the woods are greening up, and you're sitting in vegetation trying to sound like a turkey."
In terms of hunter safety, Goodson said deer hunting is much less hazardous because most of the leaves have fallen by then and hunters wear blaze orange clothing.
"Turkey hunting requires a good bit more caution," he added.
To help hunters understand the potential dangers, the state's hunter safety education course devotes one entire section strictly to turkey hunting. Goodson outlined some of the lessons.
"The most important thing is to positively identify your target," he said. "The only legal game during the spring season is a bearded tom turkey. If you can't see a beard, you shouldn't take the shot."
Never, he added, should anyone shoot at a sound or a movement.
"When you're sitting there calling, you're imitating a hen," he said. "Not everyone is going to hunt a hen, but most hunters believe that where there's a hen, there's a tom. So your calling is liable to bring in another hunter, and that hunter is going to be listening for sounds and looking for movements."
If another hunter comes toward your calling location, Goodson said the worst thing you can do is to stand up or try to wave him away.
"Don't move. Just call out in a loud, clear voice that there's a hunter nearby," he continued. "The only thing that talks in the woods is a human, contrary to what Disney would have us believe."
On the other side of the equation, Goodson said it's never a good idea to try to stalk or sneak up on a turkey.
"Can't be done," he said. "It will hear you or see you. To sneak up on a turkey, the bird would have to be deaf and blind."
Gobbler hunters look for specific colors. The top of a tom's head is white, its cheeks are blue and its wattles are bright red.
Goodson said turkey hunters should never, under any circumstances, wear those colors.
"Not even as undergarments," he added. "A little bit of a T-shirt showing one of those colors could get you shot."
When he hunts, Goodson even avoids wearing black, because it's a color that "looks too much like a hen."
To better protect themselves, Goodson recommended that hunters sit against trees at least as wide as their shoulders.
"That way, if someone behind you shoots at sound, you're going to be protected," he said.
Many hunters use decoys, and Goodson said the best way to carry them into the woods is in a bright-orange bag.
"If you just carry your decoys in your hand, you look too much like a turkey walking through the woods," he explained. "Carry them in an orange bag. Once you get to your hunting spot, you can set the decoys out and put the bag out of sight."
He also cautioned against carrying a dead turkey out of the woods uncovered.
"If you don't want to carry it in a plastic bag, there are alternatives. I've heard that some guys spray-paint old potato sacks blaze orange to allow for better ventilation," he said.
Mistaken-for-game shooting incidents, once frequent during West Virginia's spring season, have now become rare. Goodson said he'd like to think nearly 30 years of hunter safety education had something to do with that.
"Turkey-hunting safety isn't all that complicated," he said. "Just be careful. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it, and make sure you're shooting at a turkey."