State program gives teens an early shot at turkey hunt
SOMEWHERE OFF THE MOHAWK TRAIL — A shotgun blast shatters the early-morning mist and echoes across the barren cornfield. Avery Miraglia, a baby-faced 13-year-old dressed in camouflage, has squeezed the trigger of his Remington 12-gauge. There’s a puff of smoke and then the whoosh of a wild turkey taking flight. It’s still more than six months until Thanksgiving, but not for this lucky tom.
Maybe it was the strutting, Mick Jagger-like move that caused the eighth grader to miss the targeted neck of the magnificent gobbler just 20 yards away. But miss he did.
As the jolted bird escapes, Miraglia, who can’t get no satisfaction, fires off two more shots. Even though it is two days before turkey hunting season, all of this is perfectly legal.
April 26 was the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Young Adult Turkey Hunt. Hunters aged 12-17 were allowed to shoot a male turkey after completing a comprehensive safety and education course. They get a two-day head start on the grownups — regular turkey hunting season began April 28 — provided they are with an adult mentor.
Avery’s father, Joe Miraglia, an expert hunter and vice president of the Ashfield Rod and Gun Club, sat with his son in a blind in an undisclosed Franklin County cornfield where they received permission to hunt by the owner.
They’ve done their homework the last several weeks, and they spot the big bearded tom, along with several juvenile males and hens, at their secret location. Only the males can be shot in the spring season.
When the Miraglias arrived at 4:30 a.m., it was pitch black, a raw 39 degrees, and raining hard. Father and son strapped flashlights on their heads like miners. The narrow beams illuminated their breath above them and the muddy earth below them. The rest was darkness.
They found their way to the camouflaged blind, and Joe set up four decoys — three hens and a tom — 18 feet away.
The miserable weather seems more conducive to drinking Wild Turkey indoors than shooting a wild turkey outdoors. But in the next several hours, the air will become sweet, the ground will smell alive, and no one complains.
“We don’t let the rain hamper our spirits,” says Joe, who works at a local wastewater plant. “I don’t guarantee that we’ll get a turkey, but I do guarantee we’ll have fun.”
Joe then talks turkey recipes.
“I think I’ll make the ‘easy cheesy turkey,’ ” he says. “You take the turkey breast and cut it into long strips, put a piece of Swiss cheese on top of it, and cover it with cream of celery soup. Put croutons on top of that and bake it for an hour at 350 degrees. Oh yeah, it’s delicious.”
Joe uses all of the turkey — even the bones, which he makes into turkey calls, and the feathers, which he uses on decoys.
Avery is no rookie. He bagged two big turkeys last season. He even had a premonition about his first one.
“When I shot my first bird, there was a shooting star that morning,” he says. “I shot the bird at first light. There was a lot of adrenaline.”
His father says continuing the hunting tradition for his family is paramount.
“It’s real important to share what we know with our younger kids,” he says. “My grandfather from Ireland hunted in the Berkshires. What they hunted is what they ate.”
He shrugs off criticism of hunting.
“I would rather kill my own that have someone else do it,” he says. “It’s better than those factories where the birds are force-fed drugs to make them grow. You can’t get more organic than this.”
Plus, he says, it gets the kids away from TV.
His son, who lovingly calls his ponytailed father “a redneck hippie,” wholeheartedly agrees. He says hunting is better than going to Disney World or sitting on the couch with an X-Box.
“A video game is not real and not as much fun,” he says. “You actually get to interact with stuff and not just buttons.”
Safety is foremost
The plan is to lure the male into range with mating calls and then aim for a clean, humane kill. Hit them any lower than the neck, Joe says, and you’ll have more problems than pellets in your poultry.
“They’re a tough bird,” he says. “They’ll get up and run away.”
Safety is the biggest concern. Turkey hunting is not like deer hunting, where everybody but the deer wears orange. The hunters are hidden and the turkey calls are all too realistic.
“You have to be careful you are not hunted by another hunter,” says Joe.
There have been zero accidents in the six years the youth program has existed, according to MassWildlife, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and local sportsmen’s clubs, all of which make the hunt possible.
Avery can’t name every one of the “10 commandments” of the hunter education course, but he can recite the ones that matter most.
“Keep the muzzle pointed away from people,” he says, “readily identify every target, treat every gun as if it were loaded.”
As the fog lifts and the sky turns an inky gray, the pitter-patter of rain makes it hard to hear bird activity.
Avery is asked if he’s nervous.
“Not really,” he says. “Not until I hear the first gobble, then my heart starts pumping.”
Under the watchful eye of his father, Avery loads the shotgun and checks to make sure the safety latch is on.
He hopes to shoot a bird just after sunrise, then adjourn to the Foxtown Diner in nearby Shelburne Falls by 7 a.m. for chocolate chip pancakes.
But his father says turkeys are not dumb. And patience is a virtue.
“Out here in the field, they’re very smart,” says Joe. “Any movement and they’re gone. Turkeys have excellent eyesight and hearing; if they could smell, they’d be harder to shoot than deer.”
At 6:50 a.m., after repeated calls, one is answered by a distinct “gobble-gobble.”
“He’s behind us,” whispers Joe, peeking out the back window. “Here he comes. Don’t move, don’t move . . . ”
The tom heads for the decoys and enters the kill zone just 20 yards away.
Avery squeezes off three shots in a total of 5.16 seconds.
But before you can say, “cranberry sauce,” the bird clears the cornfield and tree line, looking more like a Usain Bolt wannabe than a peck-the-ground gobbler.
“The way he was flying, you didn’t hit him,” says Joe. “There goes your stack of pancakes. Breakfast is on hold buddy.”
“Awwww, awww,” says Avery.
His father smiles and says, “Welcome to the club.”
Avery is crestfallen but offers no excuses. Even when he misses a juvenile male with a single shot less than a half-hour later.
“There is no replay button,” Avery says later with a shrug. “I need to get better. I have more respect for the old man.”
High success rate
Historically, Native Americans were respectful of wild turkeys, more interested in using their feathers than killing them for food. During Colonial times, turkeys thrived through most of Massachusetts — Ben Franklin wanted to make it the national bird instead of the bald eagle — but by the mid 19th century, they had disappeared in the Bay State.
In the early 1970s, MassWildlife imported turkeys from New York and strategically released them in various locations. Today the state turkey population is estimated to be 18,000-20,000 and growing.
At the check-in station at the Conway Sportsman’s Club, there is excitement in the air and there are harvested turkeys on the ground.
Ashlee Townsley, 14, poses with her 20-pound wild turkey as it is tagged and weighed. She can give thanks for having home-court advantage on Opening Day.
Ashlee was having breakfast at home at 6:10 a.m. when her mother heard something outside.
“My mom stuck her head out the window and heard turkeys gobbling and clucking,” says Ashlee. “A hen and a tom were on the move on the snowmobile trail.”
Within five minutes, she had two toms, a jake (juvenile), and a hen in her sights. She fired at the bigger tom.
“One shot, yeah, he went down and he was flopping,” she says. “He ran away and came back but then I stepped on his head, just to hold him down.’’
For the Young Adult Turkey Hunt, 243 teens were eligible to hunt. They have a success rate of 36 percent on their Opening Day, far better than the average hunter’s success rate of 12-14 percent for the whole season. According to Astrid Huseby, MassWildlife recruitment specialist, this is because mentors have done stellar scouting and the birds are not yet wary of turkey calls.
“The main goal of this is to get kids outside and learn about safe, ethical hunting under the watchful eyes of a mentor,” says Huseby. “Plus the kids are having fun.”
There is no talk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals here.
“PETA stands for People Eating Tasty Animals,” says Ashlee. “By the way, they don’t know what they’re missing.”
Lindsay Rajt, a PETA spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview, “We urge parents to take their children out to healthy, nonviolent outdoor activities like hiking, camping, canoeing — activities that teach kids how to respect and appreciate wildlife vs. sending them the message that making others suffer is fun.”
Avery Miraglia may have missed with the shotgun earlier in the day, but he can’t resist taking one more shot at PETA, a verbal one.
“Most of the PETA people are vegetarians — they’re killing plants, and that is awful,” he says with a smile. “Plants deserve to live.”