Learn To Hunt program provides mentors for first-time hunters

(Paul A. Smith/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)
Matt Dannenberg, first-time turkey hunter from Madison, Wisconsin, carries...
Story by Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 20, 2012
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OREGON, Wis. — “Garrr-obble-oble-oble-oble-oble!”

The oak and pine woods reverberated with the call of the wild turkey. Matt Dannenberg’s eyes widened.

A turkey’s gobble can be heard for more than a mile. When the bird is just 75 yards away, you can feel the sound in your chest.

Even after 25 years of turkey hunting, the sensation amazes me.

Dannenberg, 23, a first-time turkey hunter from Madison and my student for the weekend, was doing everything in his power to stay still as his heart rate and respiration spiked.

What had started 10 minutes earlier with hopeful calls to a distant gobbler had evolved to a close encounter of the longbeard kind.

But due to deadfalls and terrain, the bird was still out of sight.

“It’s got to get at least twice as close,” I whispered to Dannenberg, seated at my right shoulder.

Bill Torhorst and his son Carson, both of Oregon, clucked and purred on slate calls about 20 yards behind us.

The bird drew nearer and unleashed another forest-rattling gobble.

Dannenberg swallowed hard behind his camouflage facemask.

Fetching dinner had never been so exciting.

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Hunting is as natural to humans as sleep and procreation. But as modern civilization takes us farther from the land and more into urban and digital environments, participation in hunting has declined.

The original impetus for hunting — food — is largely gone.

Indeed, in 21st-century America it’s possible to live without ever having raised, gathered or harvested food. It’s all there, neatly arranged on shelves at the store.

Not everyone is satisfied with the quality of that food or that lifestyle, however.

The recent “locavore” movement, which heightened awareness of the value of locally produced, sustainable and unprocessed food, has helped attract some to hunting.

In his book “The Mindful Carnivore,” Tovar Cerulli recounts his transition from vegetarian to an omnivore who hunts.

Like many, he appreciates the honesty and responsibility of a life that includes taking fish and game for the table:

“If my existence was going to take a toll on other things, I would rather exact that toll consciously, respectfully, swiftly — and for the specific purpose of eating.”

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Dannenberg was part of a group of 22 current or former University of Wisconsin students who enrolled in a Learn To Hunt program largely out of a desire to procure protein from a natural, wild and sustainable source.

Along the way, many also shot a firearm for the first time and were reconnected with their hunting genes.

The program was sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW and the Department of Natural Resources.

Keith Warnke, hunting and shooting sport coordinator for the DNR, helped organize the event March 23-25. Each student was assigned a mentor.

On a Friday afternoon and evening included classroom sessions at the Oregon Sports Club on turkey biology, hunting tactics and firearm safety. A shotgun patterning session was then held at Torhorst’s property in Oregon.

And the group enjoyed a wild-game dinner prepared by Kate Golden of Madison, herself a participant in a Learn To Hunt event last spring, and DNR warden and hunting safety specialist Todd Schaller of Madison.

The smoked wild turkey breast and grilled duck and venison helped add an exclamation point to the value of hunter-obtained meat.

“I know I’m standing here eating on a paper plate, but this is as good or better than anything I’ve had in any restaurant,” Dannenberg said.

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Courtney Glettner, 25, is a Wisconsin graduate student who was raised in a non-hunting family in Berkeley, Calif.

She was a vegetarian until 5 years ago when she worked on a ranch where goats and beef were grass-fed.

Impressed with the operation, she started to eat meat. When she moved to Madison and learned about the Learn To Hunt program, she decided to give it a try.

“Growing up, I never thought I would (hunt),” Glettner said. “But hunting makes sense, ethically. And I want to know where my food comes from.”

Glettner was teamed with mentor Darren Marsh of Stoughton. They hunted on public land in Dane County. About 8:30 on a Saturday morning, a longbeard came near their blind, following a hen.

Glettner’s shot was true and she harvested her first wild animal, a 24-pound tom with an 11-inch beard and three-quarters-inch spurs.

As the group met for lunch at Indian Lake County Park in Dane County, Glettner smiled as she held up the big bird.

“This was a cool experience,” Glettner said. “I used to collect turkey feathers I found. Now I have feathers with meaning.”

The tail fan will be mounted on a wall.

Marsh assisted her as they gutted and butchered the bird. Glettner talked about how she planned to prepare the various parts. It’s important, she said, that every part be utilized.

When they finished, she hoisted a brown paper bag bulging with nearly 20 pounds of fresh turkey.

“It’s like the grocery store but so much better,” Glettner said.

By noon the first day, six of the students had killed a turkey.

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The desire to acquire free-range turkey isn’t limited to college students, of course.

Fourteen-year-old John Misey of Whitefish Bay developed an interest in hunting because he enjoys archery and “wild game is so much better than store-bought meat,” he said.

Misey knows this because, even though he’s “stuck with a non-hunting father” as charitably described by his dad, Rob Misey, he’s eaten wild game provided by friends of the family.

This spring John wanted to try turkey hunting. So Rob accompanied John to a hunter safety class, a DNR-sponsored turkey hunting seminar and helped his son look for local hunting opportunities.

After a fair amount of work, they decided to hire guide Joe Rinderle of Hometown Guiding.

“You’ve got to remember, not only don’t I hunt, but I don’t know that many hunters,” said Rob Misey.

Rinderle, though, was just the ticket. He had ground blinds, access to properties with turkeys and even helped the Miseys shop for camouflage clothing.

The first day of the Youth Hunt brought John several opportunities but no bird.

The second morning on a different property two gobblers came near the blind, then veered off. Just when John thought all was lost, a pair of jakes approached the decoys.

He set his sight on the larger bird and was soon holding his first wild-game harvest.

John and Rob made it back to Whitefish Bay in time for church service.

Later that day, his mother, Monica, cooked the turkey for Easter dinner.

“It was amazing,” John said. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

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More than 100 Learn To Hunt programs were held in Wisconsin last year for a variety of species, including deer, bear, waterfowl and small game. Turkey programs were the most popular, representing about 65 percent of the events.

Most programs are hosted by local clubs. To encourage new hunters, the programs are typically free to participants and may be held prior to the regular seasons. Participants do not have to complete a hunter education class prior to the event.

The DNR issues permits for and helps coordinate the events. If interested in participating as a mentor, program host or new hunter, contact Warnke at the DNR at (608) 576-5243 or keith.warnkewisconsin.gov.

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In a day and a half of hunting, Dannenberg had heard gobbling on the roost, heard a fly down cackle, seen a hen posture at a decoy and veer around our blind, heard a live hen yelp and watched a jake run to our calls and away just as fast.

He had also learned the importance of woodsmanship, of remaining still.

And he had experienced the magic of dawn in the spring woods.

One Sunday morning we set up 100 yards from a roosted tom. After gobbling lustily from the tree, it flew down and walked the other direction with hens.

At 10 a.m. we decided to move and were met by Bill and Carson Torhorst, who suggested a different woodlot. They donned camouflage and offered to help call.

The first set-up yielded only distant gobbling. The second, however, drew interest from a longbeard.

The woodlot rumbled with gobbles as the turkey continued its approach.

Bill and Carson took up positions behind us and worked their calls masterfully. Occasionally we scratched the leaves with our hands, imitating a feeding turkey.

The tom was convinced. At one point, it flew over a 5-foot-tall woven wire fence. A pile of branches prevented Dannenberg and me from seeing the bird until it was 15 yards away.

The bird then stood upright, allowing us to positively identify it as a bearded turkey.

I gave Dannenberg the OK to take the shot. Seconds later he held up a 26-pound gobbler with an 11-inch beard and three-quarters-inch spurs.

The bird had come from at least a quarter mile away, through the woodlot, across a ravine and over the fence.

On his first weekend of turkey hunting, Dannenberg had experienced the hunt of a lifetime.

We removed our hats and Bill Torhorst gave thanks for the bird, for friends, for all that we were privileged to experience that day.

The hunt had a deeper significance, too. Bill Torhorst was a leading advocate for legislation that created the Learn To Hunt program in Wisconsin. It allows novice hunters ages 10 and older to participate.

At the time the legislation was introduced, Carson, who had hunted from age 8 but in other states, was the “poster boy” for supporters of the bill.

Now the young hunter is helping teach others.

“I’m hooked,” Dannenberg said. “This was an incredible experience.”

I showed Dannenberg how to gut and butcher the bird. The 26-pounder was rich with yellow fat and will make excellent eating.

No trip to the grocery store could be as educational, as natural or as fulfilling.

Paul A. Smith

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