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‘Mistaken for game’ shootings can be avoided

JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Turkey hunters can reduce the risk of shooting someone else, or being shot, by following a handful of simple safety guidelines.

When a hunter shoots another hunter, chances are that the investigator writes “mistaken for game” on his incident report.

During West Virginia’s spring gobbler season, conditions become especially ripe for such shootings. Springtime foliage restricts visibility, and hunters dressed head-to-toe in camouflage sit in the woods making turkey sounds.

Still, mistaken-for-game shootings aren’t as frequent as they used to be. Hunter safety education classes have been mandatory for a generation now, and hunters are more aware than ever of how to be safe in the turkey woods. Shootings are rare, but they happen.

Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter education coordinator for the state Natural Resources Police, said people have a hard time understanding how just how easy it is to mistake a human for a turkey.

“I always hear in the classroom, ‘How can anyone make a mistake like that? People and turkeys look nothing like one another.’ Well, you can’t look at it that way,” Coleman explained.

“When you’re hunting, you’re usually looking for movement, or for colors associated with the critter you’re hunting. Let’s say you’re in that state of mind and you see a flash of red. Your mind locks onto it and you automatically think, ‘that’s a turkey’s wattles.’”

Coleman recounted an incident that occurred several years ago: “The gentleman was dressed in full camouflage, but he had bright red socks on. Guess where he got shot? That’s right. The shooter locked in on the socks and didn’t even see the hunter that was attached to them.”

Equally problematic are “sound shots,” hunters shooting blindly at turkey-like noises or even a rustle of leaves. Coleman said that usually happens when hunters get too eager.

“They’re all excited to see a bird, and they hear a noise. Their mind works out that they might be hearing a turkey. They hear the noise again, and their mind confirms it’s a sound a turkey might make, and they decide to shoot even though they can’t see what made the noise.”

Glenn Jones, a long-time hunter safety instructor, said such sounds are all too often made by hunters trying to sneak up on what they think is a turkey.

“So you have one hunter sitting there calling, expecting a turkey to come in, and you have a second hunter trying to sneak up on the sounds the first hunter is making. It’s [a shooting] incident waiting to happen. Most shootings occur from just that scenario.”

Jones said hunters always should assume that other hunters are in the woods and are within earshot of their calls.

“During spring gobbler season, the only quarry that’s legal is a bearded tom turkey,” he added. “One way to make sure you never shoot someone else is to make sure you see that beard, and positively identify it as a turkey’s beard, before you put your finger anywhere near the trigger.”

He recommended that hunters carry a small pair of binoculars specifically for that purpose.

“Your eyes can play tricks on you. Anyone who has spent much time deer hunting will tell you it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a deer has antlers or not. Binoculars allow you to know for sure. Same goes with turkeys. Binoculars will let you know very quickly that a turkey is a turkey, and whether or not it has a beard.”

Both Jones and Coleman believe that turkey hunting today is safer than it has ever been.

“Last year we only had two incidents during the spring gobbler season, and both those were the result of falls,” Coleman said. “The hunters in this state have become pretty conscientious, and pretty safe too. We want them to stay that way.”

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