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First-time hunters flock to program

William Bowman (left), of Neenah and his hunting mentor, Max Jenson, of Stevens Point show off Bowman’s 14.8-pound jake that he shot April 7 during the second day of the Waupaca Learn to Hunt program in Waupaca County. Bowman harvested the bird near Poy Sippi in Waushara County. Greg Seubert Photo

Waupaca class teaches turkey hunting

By Greg Seubert

Charlie Wanty was only a teenager when he shot his first turkey in 2004.

Twenty years later, his love for the sport of turkey hunting is stronger than ever and he is now president of Waupaca Learn to Hunt, a program that gives first-time turkey hunters a chance to bag their first bird.

More than 30 hunters participated in this year’s program, held April 6-7 at Brooks Dairy Farm near Waupaca.

“I didn’t grow up in a hunting family,” Wanty said. “I started hanging with some buddies that liked to hunt. This program, for me, was an outlet to get into something. It was the second year of this program.”

Wanty was able to have a successful hunt in his first year of participating in the program.

“You can participate multiple times, but if you shoot a bird, you can’t do it again,” he said.

Wanty now oversees the group that helped jumpstart his obsession with turkey hunting.

“Every turkey hunter who becomes die-hard once they really experience it, it’s in their blood,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s being around guys with passion.”

Wisconsin’s spring turkey season is unlike other hunting seasons, as it is the first major hunting opportunity after winter.

“A lot of guys are deer hunters, so they’re sitting in their bow stands and their gun stands all fall,” Wanty said. “Come spring, they just want to go. Turkey hunting’s great because it’s all during the day. They’re out there.”

Participants in the program learn there’s more to hunting than harvesting an animal.

“We have a warden and a local biologist talk. We have a guy who talks about what I call Turkey Hunting 101: the gear, the guns, the decoys. We have a guy talk about etiquette, how to treat land, how to get permission from landowners. It’s not just about the hunt.”

He compared Waupaca Learn to Hunt to an angler learning how to use a fly rod to fish for trout from an experienced angler instead of trying to figure it out on their own.

“It is learning to hunt,” he said. “What’s cool about this program is we have no age limit. A lot of people mistake it with the youth hunt and it’s not. If you’re 55 years old and you’ve never hunted for turkey, come to Learn to Hunt. We get people from all over: Milwaukee, Madison. A couple of years ago, I took a guy out in an outdoors wheelchair. If you want to learn to turkey hunt, we’ll have you hooked.”

The program is more popular than ever, according to Wanty.

“We fill up every year,” he said. “We have a ton of volunteers who are extremely passionate, want to give back and the fire is still burning. Three of the guys on the board started the program. They kind of handed the torch off, but they didn’t run. They’re still here to help.”

The program has been based for years at Brooks Dairy Farm. Some of the hunters and mentors hunt on the property, but most others head out to different locations.

“We kind of go above and beyond,” Wanty said. “What makes this program successful is we do a lot for hunters with gear bags and raffles.”

Twenty years after shooting his first turkey, Wanty now mentors other first-time hunters.

“They’re not paid, it’s all volunteer,” he said. “They just love turkey hunting so much. Some just want to take their kid or their nephew, but our mentors are saying, ‘Whoever you have, I’m going to show them the ropes.’ A lot of our mentors have killed 20, 30, 40, 50 birds and they just love taking new hunters out.”

Wanty doesn’t see the program slowing down anytime soon.

“We’re constantly full and this year is the fastest we’ve ever filled,” he said. “The signup usually starts Jan. 1. We get so many referrals. People are telling their friends, families and neighbors. We get a lot of siblings coming through where we get three different generations. We have five or seven different mentors now that all came through the program and they’re giving back. It’s creating a culture that they want to be part of.”

Kyler Meyer, 11, of Weyauwega shot his turkey at 6:30 a.m. April 6 with his dad, Jake, and his mentor, Adam Ruelle, in the blind with him.

“We were only in the blind for 30 minutes,” he said. “We heard turkeys gobbling from our right and our left. Adam was going to call, but then he heard them fly down. Then, two other toms came and the tom that I shot gobbled at them. Then, two hens flew down. The tom saw the hens and when he got closer, he strutted and kept walking closer to us. I shot him from about 10 yards. It was like now or never for that bird. We were all screaming and yelling.”

Meyer found out about the program through his dad.

“When my dad shot his turkey last year, I wanted to do it,” he said. “He went on Facebook and saw this.”

He said he learned a lot through the experience.

“If you’re going to shoot a tom if they’re strutting, you should wait until they at least pick their head up,” he said. “You could damage the feathers. He was right there and dropped right away.”

The turkey had no idea Meyer was only a few feet away.

“He was just worried about the decoys,” he said. “We had three decoys: two hens and one jake.”

Meyer, who also hunts deer and rabbits, said he would tell others interested in turkey hunting to sign up for the program.

“I would tell them this is a good way to learn to hunt,” he said.

First-time hunters like Meyer get more out of the program than just having the opportunity to harvest a turkey, according to Wanty.

“Let’s compare this program to the youth hunt, which is next weekend,” he said. “What’s different? It’s the social aspect. We have an education night and they’re around other kids and others in the same boat as them, talking about hunting and sharing stories. For people that have maybe had a tougher hunt, at least they come here and they’re sharing lunch, seeing other birds and getting excited.

“I get a little stressed out with all of the insurance, logistics and the week leading up to it, but I always picture kids’ faces on Saturday morning with their first bird,” he added. “We’re just trying to give them a good experience.”

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