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Veterans Hunt to Heal During Hunt Camp

Veterans Hunt to Heal During Hunt Camp

Participants at hunt to eat's first wild turkey veteran hunt camp.

A veteran’s experience attending a Hunt to Eat veteran-based wild turkey Hunt Camp

America has been at war for nearly two decades, sending multiple generations of warriors overseas. Countless veterans have selflessly endured multiple combat deployments. Most who served their country will agree the bond shared with your brothers and sisters in arms is irreplaceable. It’s a connection forged through shared misery and occasional fun. However, at some point, everyone leaves the military.

Regardless of how long you served, when you leave the military, you leave your tight-knit community and take your baggage home. Many veterans are left feeling alone in a society they don’t understand and, in turn, doesn’t understand them. The loss of this community takes a toll on a veteran’s mental health. With veteran suicides occurring at an alarming rate, it is more critical than ever to raise awareness and band together to give veterans what they need: a community and a mission.

Time in Nature Helps Veterans Heal

As a Marine Corps veteran and current police officer, I’ve been in armed service for the better part of two decades. My service has not gone without incident. Thankfully, I have been fortunate enough to find myself surrounded by good people. However, a recent life and death incident left me feeling particularly worn out. I needed a break. Fortunately, I was able to take a few weeks off. This just so happened to line up with Idaho’s muzzleloader elk season.

While off work, I was able to spend an entire week in the woods with my good friend, Mike. While I did not punch my elk tag, I enjoyed icy cold mornings, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, naps in the woods, and the opportunity to watch massive herds of elk from a distance. Mike and I even shot a couple of turkeys one day and enjoyed an impromptu turkey giblet and Mountain House lunch. After a week of connecting with nature, I felt renewed and whole. Work was the last thing on my mind. That week really opened my eyes to the healing power of the outdoors. I knew I needed to share this with other first responders and veterans.

Introducing Veterans to Hunting

About that same time, I wrote several short stories for Hunt to Eat. They also recognized the need to get veterans outside and put me in touch with their Director of Veteran Affairs, Tony Vinca. Tony and I had several conversations about veteran hunter recruitment and using hunting as a tool to get veterans connected with each other and nature while promoting healing. We wanted to give vets a new community and mission in the outdoors. With spring hunting just around the corner, we decided a turkey hunt would be a great place to start. Thus, the first annual Veterans Idaho Turkey Hunt Camp was born. 

We hosted the camp at my property in North Idaho. I enlisted the assistance of a great local turkey hunter, John “The Turkey Whisperer.” After several months of scouting, planning, and fundraising, we were ready to go. We had eight veteran hunters with varying hunting experience scheduled to arrive at camp on May 14th, 2021. We had veterans from the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps attending from as far away as Virginia. 

A sign that reads "Veterans Turkey Camp Idaho 2021" hangs on a red barn below an American flag.
The welcome sign to the first Hunt to Eat Veteran Wild Turkey Hunt Camp hangs below a waving American flag.

Hunt Day 0

Tony arrived in town a few days early to help set up. John and I decided to take Tony, who had yet to hunt for himself this season, out for an unofficial first day. The season in North Idaho thus far was exceptional. John and I already spent four days in the woods together with four birds to show for it. We took Tony up high into the mountains for his first taste of Idaho mountain turkey hunting. Composed of steep, conifer-covered mountains, deep drainages, clear-cut ridges, and clear lakes, most would associate this type of country with elk hunting. 

The three of us got started just as the sun came up. It wasn’t long before we got some action. However, the first high country thunder chicken John managed to lure in failed to follow the script. Hiding under a giant pine tree, I sat over Tony’s shoulder with the camera silently watching the clearing where we anticipated the bird would appear. 

“He should come right through those bushes,” I whispered. 

“I’m ready,” Tony whispered back, his old Winchester 12 gauge poised for the shot. 

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

Gobbles thundered as the bird made a cautious approach. As he drew closer, it became apparent the tom wasn’t coming from the planned direction. A glimpse of the tom’s blue head was visible as he moved through the brush to our left. 

“He’s right there, I see him!” I whispered.

“I don’t have a shot that way,” Tony said, “I have to move.” 

Tony slowly swung his shotgun. John was calling in the brush behind us. The tom continued to gobble. Just as the turkey’s head came into view, his snood straightened and his head turned bright red. He busted us. Before Tony could get an ethical shot, the tom turned tail and fled.

Eagles Need to Eat, Too

It was tough to miss the opportunity. However, Tony, a hard-charging Army vet, could not be deterred. We continued on and covered several miles while John stopped and called into every canyon. So far, our efforts were rewarded with big mountain and lake views framed by clear blue skies. The woods were beginning to green up and everything was vibrant and alive. It was a perfect time to be in the woods. Tony learned the grouse were nesting when he nearly sat on a nest as he dove to get set up for an inbound bird. Thankfully, he realized his landing zone was taken before committing.  

Our next opportunity came when we heard several gobbles from across a wide drainage. John got the birds so worked up, they couldn’t take it anymore. About four gobblers took to the air and glided to our side of the drainage.

The birds sounded like jet planes as they crashed through the trees beneath us. We quickly set up overlooking an old logging road. John called, and the gobbling group came closer. Just as the birds were about to crest onto the road, I caught a flash of movement as a shadow passed overhead. 

“Another fly turkey?” I thought.

Nope! Before I could finish my thought, the shadow morphed into a large golden eagle and swooped down on the turkeys like a dive bomber. What ensued can only be described as pure chaos. Clucks, gobbles, dust, and feathers filled the air. Somehow, after all the drama, the eagle failed to snag a turkey, as did we. The toms remained in thick cover, wanting nothing to do with us. We continued to hunt.

One Door Closes, Another Opens

Later in the afternoon, as the sun rose high and we began to sweat, we glassed up a huge tom strutting deep in a canyon about 800 vertical feet below us. At first glimpse, a pursuit of the bird seemed unreasonable.

“This would take an elk-sized play to get in on that bird,” I told Tony. We laughed at the thought of making such a stalk for a turkey, yet decided to make a go of it. We came up with a game plan and climbed down into the drainage. 

The gobbler was in a perfect hiding spot, making an approach nearly impossible. He was big and old for a reason. After a slow and methodical maneuver just to get within about 200 yards, we set up. John worked his calling magic. The tom gobbled and very slowly made his way up the hill to us. After what seemed like an eternity, the long beard came into 57 yards, well within the range of Tony’s choke and ammo. 

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John and I waited with anticipation, my arms about to fall off from holding the camera. When I was about to throw a rock at Tony, boom! His old Winchester erupted, and the first gobbler of the 2021 Veterans Turkey Hunt rolled hard. He was a nice mature bird, and we couldn’t have been happier hunters. Tony earned his Idaho turkey. He hiked miles through difficult country and suffered multiple missed opportunities, but his persistence paid off.

While hiking back to the truck, John stirred up another tom about a mile from the trailhead. Despite our fatigue, we put our game faces on and got set up. The tom was hot, and within a couple of minutes, John, an Air Force vet himself, had the second gobbler of the hunt on the ground. It was a long, but epic, unofficial first day of turkey camp.

The area that the veterans at Hunt Camp were hunting for turkeys. Large rolling hills are pictured under a bluebird sky.
North Idaho’s topography is unforgiving, yet beautiful.

Hunt Day One

Most of the hunters arrived midday on Friday. The weather was unseasonably warm with highs in the mid-’80s. However, the birds had been extremely vocal and hunting was great up to this point. I was excited to show off North Idaho. After everyone settled in, Tony, John, and I broke the hunters into small groups. I got a couple of great dudes, Shane (Air Force), and Justin (Army), assigned to me. We hit the road and went to a spot where I had some good luck the week prior. I was excited and honored to have the opportunity to show some fellow vets around. 

Despite the smoking hot temps, the day was beautiful. Justin and Shane were in awe of the natural beauty that is Idaho. We stopped several times to call and enjoy views of the lake and distant snow capped mountains. Unfortunately, the turkeys were not as excited as we were. We heard several hens yelping but not a single gobble. We hiked in about 3 miles, stopping and calling as we went. I did my best John impression.

Lessons in Turkey Hunting Ethics

Before we started, I told the guys we didn’t want to shoot a bird we didn’t call in. I wanted them to experience all the fun of a traditional turkey hunt. I explained the concept of why it is generally considered to be more sportsman-like to call a tom in rather than shoot one out of a tree, or jump one up and get lucky. As the hours ticked by without any real action, I began to feel some pressure. I wanted to show these guys a good time. 

We stumbled onto a jake who flew up out of the brush and stopped in front of us. Justin was up first to shoot. I told Justin to take the jake if he wanted, but I was really hoping he wouldn’t since we hadn’t called the bird in. I was sure we could call in a mature tom before the end. Justin shouldered his shotgun and aimed in. I waited, but no shot sounded. Justin opted to pass on the bird, and I was pleased with his decision.

Unfortunately, we hiked until the evening rolled around without another opportunity. Despite the turkeys’ lack of cooperation, we had a great afternoon. The three of us became quick friends. I was excited about the next two days of hunting with these motivated veterans.

Hunt Day Two

The next morning came quickly. Sleepy-eyed, I was up making coffee and packing lunches at 3 am. After a quick breakfast, the guys and I hit the trailhead before sunrise. I took my team to the same area where Tony found his bird a few days prior, as there was no shortage of turkeys there.

We went directly to the top of a high saddle and walked out onto a ridge. I let out a few yelps into the drainage below, and a thundering gobble immediately echoed from the same spot where Tony’s bird went down. It appeared another tom quickly moved in on the vacant seat on the landscape. The tom was far away, as before, but the gobble was big and we were excited. 

I explained the difficulties of the plan; there’s little cover and lots of elevation. I gave the “elk-sized play” spiel and left it up to Justin. 

“It’s up to you, bro. That’s a big play, and risky,” I told him.

“Well, I came here to hunt, and I’m gonna give it my all!” Justin replied without a second thought.

Making An Elk-Sized Play

We began our descent, quickly losing at least 800 feet of elevation. On the way down, we took a break to watch a big cow moose feeding only 400 yards away on the far side of the canyon. We stood still for a moment, enjoying her unwitting company.

Continuing on, we took our time, picking the best approach before settling into the same setup used to take down Tony’s gobbler only days before. We sat in the branches of an old blowdown and I started calling. The tom gobbled, and I couldn’t wait to tell the story around the campfire. Sadly for me, it wouldn’t be the story I hoped for.

Eventually, we watched the tom strut on a dirt road about 200 yards below us. For reasons only a turkey would understand, the tom decided to walk the other direction, never to be seen or heard from again. Slightly disappointed, but not discouraged, we climbed back up the mountain and had some lunch. 

Big Country Makes For A Long Day

The rest of the afternoon was spent chasing silence until about 5 pm when we finally caught up to another gobbler. This gobbler came in close, but Justin never had a shot through the thick North Idaho brush. It had been a long, hot day, but incredibly fun. Justin and Shane were great sports. I drug them for miles over some of the roughest country around and they followed without complaint. We had close calls with gobblers, saw some moose, and enjoyed another day in the woods. As the sun started sinking low, we headed back to camp without a bird, but we packed out some great memories. 

That evening was spent around the campfire enjoying some comradery and John’s homemade wild turkey chili. We handed out some great gifts provided by Hunt to Eat and several sponsors. John’s group had some luck that day. Retired Marine Corps Staff Sergeant John Sommer was able to connect with a nice mature tom late in the day. We used his success as an opportunity to have John, the Turkey Whisperer, guide our vets through processing a wild turkey. We shared our campfire with family and friends. People exchanged numbers and made plans for future adventures. The camp was already a success.

Hunt Day Three

In need of some good rest, we started day three by sleeping in. Tony whipped up some breakfast burritos and we enjoyed some extra coffee and breakfast with the crew.

The morning was crisp and seasonal. Things felt right; we even heard distant gobbles on neighboring properties. After breakfast, some of the hunters had to hit the road. Others had time and motivation to get out for another morning hunt. Shane, Justin, and I went out with John. We drove for about an hour to a spot John was itching to checkout.

As soon as we got out of the truck, we heard a gobble coming from a nearby field. The field butted up to a piece of national forest. Hearts racing, we quickly got our gear on and set up about 100 yards from the field. John started his calling sequence.

For about 20 minutes, the tom slowly made his way in our direction. His gobble got louder and louder until it seemed like he was right on top of us. Now, I don’t care who you are; an approaching gobble will get anyone’s blood pumping. John and I had a couple of decoys set up, and the tom was coming in on a string.

Hunt ‘Til the Last Minute

Just as I saw the bright red and blue head peer over an old stump, Justin’s shotgun exploded. The bird went down, and it was done. Justin just put down his first North Idaho mountain turkey. After days of hard hunting, battling heat and mountains, we all felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Our teamwork finally paid off. Watching Justin take his turkey, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment for our camp and the cause we support. 

Justin’s bird was a beautiful Merriam’s. We spent time taking photos and relishing in the moment. Not only did the gobbler signify a successful hunt, but it was also a tribute to successful turkey conservation efforts in Idaho. Thanks to organizations such as the Idaho Fish and Game and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Idaho has a healthy population of wild turkeys to include two subspecies: Merriam’s and Rio Grandes. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer turkey for Justin to take home to his family. This was a perfect ending to a hard hunt, and no one would have changed a thing. 

Veteran hunters pose with a downed wild turkey in Idaho.
Tom (fart left) poses with his turkey hunting team. Justin (center right) poses with his hefty mountain bird.

The Wrap Up

After three days of hunting and hanging out with new friends, it was clear our camp was a success. We set out to build comradery, educate new hunters, and promote healing through nature. Personally, I made several life-long friends with who I’ve enjoyed keeping in touch.

Our community is now a little bigger and stronger. The veteran hunters were provided lessons on everything turkey hunting from the basics of calling to processing their wild harvest. They had an opportunity to sample food made from wild turkey and got to experience the best of North Idaho.

Most importantly, I saw veterans start to heal. I had a personal conversation with one of our hunters who opened up about his own battle with PTSD, and how this camp was just what he needed. This was the most humbling and rewarding experience of the event for med. While this camp was a mission accomplished, the war still presses on. We can’t do enough to thank and help the men and women who’ve sacrificed so much to ensure we can all enjoy free and wild places. 

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