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Alabama program provides path from non-hunter to hunter

After the 2023 spring turkey season, Adam Arnold considers his transition from non-hunter to member of the hunting community complete.

Although 33-year-old Arnold has held a fishing license for many years and has enjoyed using the Cahaba Wildlife Management Area Public Shooting Range, he had never hunted until spring of 2018, when he participated in the Adult Mentored Hunting Program. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division had just begun the now-popular program in the fall of 2017.

Adam Arnold displays the turkey he harvested at Portland Landing SOA this past season. (Adam Arnold,ADCNR)

As a CPA (certified public accountant), Arnold was in the middle of one of his busiest seasons when he took a break from his work computer and checked his personal email. One of the emails was from a mentored hunt with photos of successful deer hunts.

“That email talked about opportunities for turkey hunting,” Arnold said. “I’d never done hunting, but I’d done a lot of target shooting. I decided to give hunting a shot. I applied for a mentored hunt. It was 10 o’clock at night, kind of an impulse thing.”

Arnold was in luck. He was drawn for the mentored turkey hunt at Portland Landing in March 2018. He showed up for the hunt with nothing but hiking boots and the shotgun he used for shooting clay targets. He did purchase a turkey choke and turkey-specific shotshells but had never fired those shells.

When he got to the lodge, he was greeted by WFF Director Chuck Sykes, WFF R3 Coordinator Justin Grider, WFF Biologist Justin Gilchrist, other WFF staff and mentors. The first order of business was a safety talk, followed by a session to pattern his shotgun.

“They put us in a realistic turkey hunting position, which was different,” Arnold said. “All my shooting had been standing up, shooting clay pigeons. I was sitting with the gun propped up on my knee. That took a little getting used to. Then we fired on the range and patterned our guns. We learned more about the anatomy of the turkey and aiming at the target.”

WFF staff then prepared a wild game feast of fried wild turkey, fried catfish and venison dishes.

Arnold invited his friend, Jim Dodson, to accompany him on the SOA hunt. (Adam Arnold,ADCNR)

“That was really cool to see the final product of what you harvest,” Arnold said.

After the meal, more instruction from WFF staff followed, and the mentees were issued the camouflage clothing for the next two days of hunting as well as several turkey calls.

“We learned more about the reverse nature of turkey hunting,” Arnold said. “You know, the gobbler usually calls the hens to him, and we’re trying to call the gobbler to the hens. We learned about the different calls turkeys make, like the yelp, cluck, purr, cackle and gobble. It was a very informative couple of hours.”

Early the next morning, Arnold went to the woods with Sykes, another mentor and another hunter, Charles Barrow. After hearing no gobbling, the group did a little scouting, and Sykes spotted turkeys in the distance. After a lunch of venison burgers, the hunters headed back out that afternoon.

The first turkey encounter was with a hen that responded to the calling as she walked a semicircle around the hunters.

“I was fascinated watching a conversation between a hen and a hunter,” Arnold said. “That’s when I got a feel for just how still you have to be, and how quiet.”

With no gobblers in sight, the hunters made a move. After getting set up, one of the mentors whispered for the group to be still. He had spotted two gobblers coming in from their right.

“My heart starts pounding a bit,” said Arnold, who was the primary shooter on this hunt. “Then these two gobblers came in in full strut. They weren’t gobbling. We wanted to try to get a double, so we waited for the turkeys to get closer. Then they came to a point and started to go back. That’s when Al (Mattox, his mentor) gave me the instructions to take it. I took my shot. Then everything was in slow motion. Then everything went fast forward and the turkey flopped.”

The second gobbler hesitated after his partner hit the ground, barely long enough for Barrow to get off a shot as the turkey started to flee, resulting in a double for the hunt.

“I just remember a feeling of accomplishment in the moment and very thankful for the opportunity,” Arnold said. “I’d never seen a wild turkey up close. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it’s all about.’ It’s a magnificent bird.

“We came to the lodge, and it was great having that community of hunters, learning about what everybody else saw and heard.”

Arnold’s hunting journey continued that winter when he purchased a Marlin lever action rifle for shooting deer out to 100 yards. One of his friends, Jim Dodson, had a farm and invited him to go deer hunting.

“I was sitting in a shooting house when 13 turkeys step out into the field,” he said. “I watched them peck around for 40 minutes and saw how they interacted with each other. About 30 minutes later, a medium-sized doe walked out. I texted my friend about the doe. He said if I wanted the meat, go ahead. So that’s what I did.”

Arnold took the deer to the processor and picked up the venison a couple of weeks later.

“I started cooking with it, and it was really awesome,” he said. “I’ve learned some really great recipes.”

Arnold then registered for one of the small-game hunts at the Cedar Creek Special Opportunity Area (SOA) and went squirrel hunting in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt. He got his first whitetail buck at his friend’s farm in 2020. He’s been on several other SOA hunts, one for antlerless deer and two dove hunts.

“Going on SOA hunts is really cool to me,” he said. “It’s cool to see the property. It’s cool to meet the other hunters.

“And sometimes something unexpected happens. I was on a deer hunt at Thigpen Hills and a pig came out. There’s no closed season on feral pigs, so I took a pig. I literally brought the bacon home.”

After several years of trying, Arnold was drawn for a 2023 turkey hunt at Portland Landing SOA, and he invited Dodson to be his guest.

Each Thursday before a scheduled hunt, the hunters can scout. Arnold and Dodson walked their assigned blocks for three hours and spotted three turkeys.

“I was out there with a friend who has a lot more turkey hunting experience than I have,” Arnold said. “We were able to make decisions together and came up with a good game plan.

“We got in the woods the next morning about 5:15, and it was the first time I’d ever heard a gobble in the wild. It made the hair go up on the back of my neck.”

The partners had a close encounter with a gobbler that morning, but Arnold couldn’t get a clean shot. The second day of the hunt was fairly blustery, and the turkeys didn’t cooperate. On the final day of the hunt, the hunters started early.

“We got to the property at 4:55, and we were amped up,” Arnold said. “We hike in stealthily, and we hear them gobbling. We take a roundabout path to where they were. That gobbler was hammering on the roost. He flies down off the roost and the gobbling gets more frequent and pronounced. Then I heard this deep bass and rattling. I asked my buddy if that was drumming, and he said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

The hunters had hen and jake decoys set up, but the gobbling tom apparently didn’t spot them and strutted past the set-up. The hunters made a quick move of about 100 yards, which they quickly second-guessed.

“Then we hear this pop, pop, pop,” Arnold said. “It was a gobbler attacking our jake decoy. We thought, ‘We blew it. We blew it. We blew it.’ It went quiet for a minute, and we stayed in our position. I see a white tennis ball-looking object pop up. Four turkeys popped up. We were very still, but my gun was nowhere near pointed in their direction. I had to make a quick decision to pivot to my right. One started to strut, but he tucked when I moved. I shot him at 25 yards, and he flopped.

“My first turkey hunt was awesome, but my second hunt on the SOA was even better. It just magnified everything I’d learned from the first one. Walking away on that last day with bird in hand was incredible. I can’t thank the program enough and what the mentors did. I never dreamed it would turn into this.”

Grider remembers Arnold’s 2018 turkey hunt very well. It was the AMH program’s first event during turkey season. Since its inception, the AMH program has taken about 750 people on their first hunts.

“Adam and Charles harvested the first turkeys ever taken at a mentored hunt,” Grider said. “Fast forward to the next season. Adam is deer hunting and doing everything we had hoped after we teach them about hunting.

“Now, five years later, he comes back to Portland and harvests a turkey on his own. It’s really neat to see the program come full circle, utilizing those skills that we taught him on the Adult Mentored Hunt.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program for more information on AMH or www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/special-opportunity-areas to learn more about the SOA hunts.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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