A Rendezvous with an Old Hen…

Two wild turkeys squabbled. The rampage continued longer than most; the altercation sounded unresolved. An hour after first light the two began dithering at each other, on the ground, to the south. Blue jays screamed, adding a sense of intensity to the woodland melee. Then all went quiet on that pleasant October morning in the Year of our Lord, 1795.

A fox squirrel bounded from a stout red oak trunk with a modest crackling of crisp leaves. After two short hops, leaves and dirt flew as the bushy-tailed tree rat dug for a breakfast morsel. The acidic aroma of rotting leaves tickled the nose, yet the air smell fresh and clean as it does in mid-April. Perhaps the choice of a downed oak top, its summer foliage intact but browned and curled, accentuated the smells of fall.

Wedges of Canada geese winged to the River Raisin from the southeast. Crows cawed by. A chipmunk scampered along a rotted log. Four chickadees bobbed on the tips of a witch hazel’s slender branches. Then a raspy hen turkey clucked to the north, “Ark, ark…ark, ark, ark, ark.”

“Ark, ark,” a bird answered from just over the knoll to the south. The first bird to speak uttered a soft cluck in response.

A traditional woodsman sitting in a fallen tree top.The birds sounded equidistant from the oak-top fortification. The frizzen rose and fell. Sufficient black granules filled the Northwest gun’s pan. A blue-wool clad knee inched up. The trade gun’s forestock rested on the ribbon-festooned leggin. The muzzle hung over the smallest of the three main limbs of the broken trees crown, pointing in the direction of the north turkey. An anxious thumb fidgeted on the smoothbore’s hammer. “Will one bird pass on the way to the other?” “Will they meet out front?” “Will they not show at all?” Such questions churned in a humble woodsman’s mind.

The crunch of steady, yet cautious, footfalls in the leaves grew closer as a wild turkey approached from the south. The bird made no effort to mask its passage. The bulk of the top’s dried leaves formed an almost impenetrable palisade—a positive and a negative asset for the returned white captive who spent his youth tutored in the ways of his adopted Ojibwe family.

“The turkey must pass by before taking a shot,” the forest tenant reckoned. The Northwest gun’s tarnished brass butt plate slipped up to its rightful place against the block-printed trade shirt. With a coordinated flex of the trigger when the thumb pulled back on the hammer, the sharp English flint jumped to attention.  “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the hunter prayed in the quiet of his mind…

Documented Priming Powder

Flipping up the frizzen to check the prime is an ingrained habit that dates to the first 1790s adventures with “Old Turkey Feathers.” Although it is rare for me to take another firelock to the field, I follow the same procedure with any flintlock arm.

In those formative years, I loaded the trade gun with 2Fg black powder and primed with 4Fg. I remember a “trial run” on an early-September Sunday afternoon. I carried the new, fringed voyageur bag made out of gold elk hide. An almost-black powder horn hung on a separate strap made of madder-colored wool. The cow horn powder receptacle was made from a kit. Antiqued brass upholstery tacks held the lathe-turned walnut plug in place, just like an “authentic mountain man” showed me. A brass, three-grain, push-type priming flask jostled about in the bottom of the shot pouch

At any rate, I skulked over a rise. A gray, barkless oak trunk threatened great bodily harm. I took careful aim, squeezed the trigger and “Klatch!” Seconds meant life or death. With the gun still pushed into my shoulder, I pulled back the cock and the frizzen in one Fess Parker style “Daniel Boone motion.” Again I took aim at the charging “hostile,” squeezed and “Klatch!” As a last dying act, I dropped the gun from my shoulder and stared into an empty priming pan—I had lost the precious black granules somewhere on my back trail. A memorable wilderness classroom lesson learned…

About ten years ago I focused a fair amount of research on the Northwest trade gun as it related to the trading post hunter persona. No primary documentation mentioned any backcountry hunter in the Lower Great Lakes region carrying a separate priming horn in the late 18th century. Further, none of the trade inventories that supported my character mention a “priming powder” of a finer grade.

A number of times, Francois Victor Malhiot, a clerk for the North West Company, writes of trading “a double handful of powder” for one prime beaver pelt in his 1804 journal (Malhiot, 218). Malhiot doesn’t mention what any of his consumers put the powder in, but other traders do.

The year before, 1803, Michel Curot, a clerk in the employ of the XY Company, sent one of his men to accompany two Native Americans back to their village. He asked Brazile David to guide the pair:

“He [David] Asked me for thirty Balls, his horn full of powder, and one pair of deer skin shoes, and some Tobacco that I gave him…” (Curot, 422)

Like similar passages, “horn” is always singular, and all of the ledgers and trade goods inventories mention only “gunpowder.” With much reluctance, the priming horn with its 4Fg black powder ended up in the shooting box, destined for range work and competitive marksmanship contests.

The next wilderness classroom lesson dealt with priming from the horn, depending upon granules derived from “a double handful of powder.” After all, a major goal of all traditional black powder hunters is to live within the confines of the resources available to our forefathers in a specific time, geographical location and station in life. This is the only way to experience a true sense of kinship with our beloved hunter heroes.

Black powder granules in 'Old Turkey Feathers' pan.The first time I primed from the horn, the granules looked like river stone in the pan. I fought the urge to count them. A reduced lock time became an immediate concern, followed by the potential loss of game, or worse, the wounding of a majestic forest tenant. No game wandered by, so a tough ethical decision never presented itself that day.

As I so often do when faced with a problem involving Old Turkey Feathers, I retreated to the range for some additional wilderness classroom tutelage. I paid great attention to the speed with which the new priming powder ignited and burned. Much to my delight, I saw little or no difference. Satisfied, I returned to the glade and my simple pursuits.

If I recall correctly, a wild turkey was the first to meet up with the death bees, urged on by powder from the horn. Other game followed as confidence in the larger black granules returned. Today, neither I nor my alter egos give the coarser priming any mind. Sprinkling the pan from the horn is as much a habit as flipping up the frizzen to check the prime.

And that is another unintended benefit of priming from the horn. The fit of the frizzen to the pan on the lock of Old Turkey Feathers has never been tight. The current lock is the best parts of three locks, made serviceable by years of experience, a dash of magic and pure luck. If I remove the mainspring and shake the lock, parts fall off.

To be fair, many of the original Northwest guns I have handled show a similar gap. As a result, 4Fg filters through this authentic space where the coarser granules of 3Fg or 2Fg black powder do not. Thus, I find that I do not have to be as careful about the orientation of the “plane of the pan” as I used to. I lean the smoothbore against a tree, roll it from side to side, point the muzzle down or up, and I still have sufficient priming powder to dispatch the death messenger. I have never tried to fire the trade gun upside down. Hmmmm…

To the northeast, a large, bronze-feathered bird walked from behind a shag-bark hickory. Two steps in the open this old hen paused to survey the forest. She stiffened, then raised her gray head. “Aarrkkk,” she clucked once, stern and demanding. The south bird’s progress halted. A soft “cllkk” placed the utterance ten paces behind the fort and ten paces east. Squinting eyes watched the old hen circle the hickory, then disappear.

The steady cadence of scaly, purple legs walking on brittle oak leaves renewed. A black shape cleared the fort’s northeast corner, well within the smoothbore’s effective distance. Five steps forward, this wild turkey’s keen eye slipped behind two oaks. The Northwest gun swung hard to the right. The turtle sight longed for an opportunity to unleash the death bees. Tail feathers appeared first, sidling side-to-side as the turkey walked straight away. In a handful of heartbeats, the bird emerged, but now too far for a clean, humane shot. With squinting eyes, Msko-waagosh, the Red Fox, had no choice but watch the bird move on to its rendezvous with the old hen…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“Swamp Hollow Woodsmen”

“Snapshot Saturday”

Six 18th-century woodsmen.

Deep in the wilds of the Old Northwest Territory a small group of backcountry woodsmen gathered at a clearing dubbed “Swamp Hollow.” They hunted tree rats and fowls by day and swapped tales of harrowing adventures around a dancing fire at night. All too soon they went about their way, each returning to his own hunting grounds, each carrying treasured memories of time spent at Swamp Hollow…

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Temptation Teased…

Temptation teased. Three broad green blades of prairie grass rolled between sweaty palms. A greasy, blackened thumb pressed the tangled ball into the Northwest gun’s muzzle. The young turkey’s gray pate again popped up in the deep grass and yellowing milkweed stems that surrounded the base of a bushy red cedar tree.

A wild turkey hen stepping from deep grass.The fowl’s head jerked side-to-side, inquisitive and uneasy.  A piercing brown eye slashed away at the woodsman who stood in the open, perhaps eighteen human steps distant. A dirty buckskin pouch half-filled with hefty lead shot lay within easy reach of the backcountry hunter. Temptation teased…

With a knowing smile, the woodsman placed a shiny round ball sprue up on the grass wad. Rubbing hands, in full view of the wild turkey, formed two more blades into a thinner wad. The same thumb pushed this new wad over the lead ball. A wooden wiping stick eased the wad-ball-wad firm on the black powder with one simple stroke.

Holding the Northwest gun’s muzzle up, the woodsman turned to the west. The turkey’s head dropped into the safety of the grass. The woodsman shook grinned as he walked to his own grassy depression and sat. The sharp English flint came to half-cock with a loud “click.” Black powder granules dusted the smoothbore’s pan. The frizzen seated with an audible “snap.” Instead of offering the hunter’s prayer, “A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the woodsman thought, “That youngster had to hear that.”

The left knee, clad in denim, rose up. A leather shoe’s rubber heel dug in. The left elbow found its usual, comfortable place as the tarnished brass butt plate eased against a green denim shirt. The cock clicked again. Whisker stubbles rested easy on the trade gun’s straight comb. The turtle sight settled on the paper target’s pre-determined aiming point, seventy-five paces distant. After a slight exhale, the right index finger pressed against the trigger.


Orange sparks arced from the muzzle as the thunderous roar echoed up and down the big swamp. Beyond the white, drifting smoke cloud, after a half-second delay, the round ball struck cardboard with a “thwap.” The gray-pated head never appeared again, but still, temptation teased…

Joyous Range Time with ‘Old Turkey Feathers’

Twice this week I’ve been blessed with joyous time at the shooting range—and twice I’ve seen a wild turkey within the Northwest gun’s effective distance. I say that temptation is teasing, but there is no thrill in taking a turkey that ventures close to the shooting range to investigate the repeated claps of strange-sounding thunder.

For me, the thrill of plunging headlong into a simple pursuit set in the 1790s far outweighs bagging a wild turkey. I did not dress “period-correct” for either shooting test. I should have, and I thought about it—no, I really wanted to, but I didn’t. In hindsight, I believed there wasn’t sufficient time, plus the needed mindset was not there. So, by conscious choice, this traditional black powder hunter did not cross time’s threshold, which by default rendered the wild turkeys non-existent in my 18th-century Eden.

Instead, these jaunts were centered on learning more, still in the setting of the wilderness classroom, about a particular trade gun and how it performs with natural wadding and a round ball.  Not that long ago I wrote about John Tanner’s skill with a firelock in “Beyond the Northwest Gun’s Effective Distance.”  As so often happens, one passage in a hunter hero’s memoir keeps rumbling through a living historian’s mind. Tanner’s statement, “We fixed a mark at a distance of one hundred yards, and I shot first, placing my ball nearly in the center,” has caused its share of sleepless nights.

The full context surrounding this sentence includes the note that the other shooters involved in this match feared/respected Tanner’s marksmanship. And after he won the match, he noted that “Not one of either party came near me…” (Tanner, 100) The word choice leaves little doubt that Tanner knew his own ability, given the limitations of his gun.

The one variable that is missing is whether he was shooting a rifle or a smoothbore—he does, after all, tell of owning a rifle, too. There is also the possibility that he was shooting a rifle and his fellow competitors used smooth-bored trade guns. Regardless, this passage sets a noteworthy woodland skill standard.

From the outset, I loaded “Old Turkey Feathers” with a patched round ball. In the late 1970s that is how most smoothbores were loaded. The patched ball was an appropriation from rifle shooting. There were a few shooters who came from British battle re-enactments who used paper cartridges, but most of them switched to a cloth-patched ball to compete. Despite this loading method’s lack of historical background, the accuracy of a patched round ball is hard to beat.

In the 1980s, using a patched round ball, I felt comfortable taking a shot at a deer out to 80 yards. I had “a few secrets” gleaned from watching national championship shooters at Friendship. Thoughtful range practice taught me that the round ball started to “tail off” at 85 yards with my deer hunting load. The tail off started at 75 yards with a lighter, target load. Much like a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckleball (I know that dates me), wind resistance can push the ball in any direction.

A marble-sized ball of narrow bladed grass.The trading house inventories and the narratives of the woodsmen known to hunt with a smoothbore make no mention of cloth patching material. X-ray examination of several recovered 18th-century smoothbores show various configurations of natural materials used as wadding. Armed with that information, I started loading with leaves and grass for wadding, or as neighbor Jeff says, “Compost.”

The purpose of my latest range testing was to press beyond the 50-yard effective distance established by my abilities and the ballistic performance of leaf/grass wadding in Old Turkey Feathers. When designing this wilderness classroom lesson, I chose to work my way out to 100 yards in 10-yard increments. I usually shoot from a sitting position with my left elbow resting on my left knee so I chose to use that rest to minimize the human error factor.

To start, I opted for the same target load used in the earlier tests that determined the 50-yard effective distance. Each shot was loaded the same, regardless of distance, with a keen eye toward maintaining a consistent load. I selected several clumps of broad-bladed green grass that appeared identical and counted the blades as I rolled them into wads.

I also duplicated the sight picture at each distance, rather than raising the front sight in relation to the barrel’s back flat as the yardage increased. At first I found this aspect a bit surprising, because with years of experience shooting the same gun, I automatically increased the windage as the distance increased.

As expected, the greater the distance, the greater the drop in the death sphere. But the roundish groups that characterize shots out to 50 yards soon became “linear.” The impact points formed a rough horizontal line across the target face, spreading wider as the distance grew. This line accentuated the drop and pointed out the error of minute changes in sight picture, given the lack of a rear sight.

The drop at 60, 70 and 75 yards (I added this distance, because when I hunted with a patched ball, I practiced at this distance and have a lot of data recorded) amounted to 8 ½, 9 and 9 ½ inches, respectively. The linear groups measured 8, 9 and 10 inches.

At 80, 90 and 100 yards the drop progressed from 12 ¾ to 16 inches, and the groups jumped from 14 inches to 26 inches in width. These results were not surprising, given the tail off of the target load after 75 yards with a patched round ball. They also confirm the imperative need for establishing an effective distance to affect a clean, humane kill.

During the last session I took time to up the black powder charge 10 grains, then I shot a group at 80 yards. The width tightened from 14 inches to 10 inches, and the drop decreased by almost three inches to 9 inches below point of aim.

I thought through the night’s shooting results, and jotted down questions as I packed up. I have other wad combinations to test, to say nothing of adjusting the black powder charge and perhaps trying a different projectile size.

I often say, “If you tell me what we are hunting, I’ll have a load for it.” Such a statement is based on almost 40 years of traditional black powder hunting experience. Like any living history endeavor, there are always more wilderness classroom lessons than time to experiment. If I am to share a sense of kinship with John Tanner, I need to concentrate more range time on loads suitable for longer distances.

Those test targets consumed almost two prime beaver pelt’s worth of round balls. To say the least, I came away from the two sessions feeling exhilarated and filled with enthusiasm. There is little doubt that Msko-waagosh can never best John Tanner’s marksmanship, unless he was shooting a rifle that day. But like that inquisitive wild turkey, the temptation teases…

Give traditional black powder a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“Got Scalping Knife?”


English-style 18th-century scalping knife

A fall project (and it probably will become an ongoing project) requires an English-style scalping knife, maybe two. I say two, because I have a journal entry where a knife was intentionally broken to meet a specific circumstance.

I just posted a detailed description of the knife I am looking for in the “Wanted” category. The two primary concerns are that the knife’s design comes close to the original and that the blade will keep a good edge.

If you have a knife that you have no further use for and it meets the specs listed, please email the specifics, along with pictures and an asking price.

Be safe and may God bless you,

Dennis Neely




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“Oh What a Beautiful Morning!”

“Snapshot Saturday”

A mountain man strolling through camp singing.

As the brilliant sun broke through the pines at Swamp Hollow, a mountain man by the name of Ron LaClair strolled through the hunting camp singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” Up and about, the other woodsmen stopped their morning chores and joined their voices with LaClair’s. The chorus resounded through the forest and set the tone for the day’s simple pursuits. A cherished pristine moment captured in a daguerreotype-style image…

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An Existence Based on Survival

Silence invoked a peaceful solace. Snowflakes drifted. Subdued yellows backlit the oaks and cedars on the far hill. A broken-over sedge grass leaf, brown and wispy, twitched. On the west side of the big swamp, out in front of a forked red oak that split and tented in a violent summer rainstorm, a little grove of poplar trees stood barren. Winter’s white dust highlighted the slender sentinels’ larger branches. Snowy ribbons wandered east and west. Ice filled the tiny creek, but the swamp’s muck was still pliable and unfrozen. Such was the beginning of that wilderness morning, December 10th, in the Year of our Lord, 1797.

Three crows winged westward. “Caw, caw, caw, caw…” Their chants, the first sounds uttered by fowl or creature, echoed in the pleasant cold an hour after first light. A wild turkey hen clucked, “Ark, ark…ark, ark, ark, ark,” somewhere in the tall oaks that overlook the hidden bog. Then quiet returned.

The smell of damp wool permeated the air. Snowflakes and water droplets dotted the crimson trade blanket’s ridges and valleys. The Northwest gun’s muzzle pointed east. The smoothbore’s forestock rested where the blanket covered a leather leggin. The trade gun’s lock and butt stock hid under the wool that passed beneath the woodsman’s right shoulder.

The crackle and crunch of brittle leaves announced the crossing of the south island by a large doe and her two offspring. The trio paused where the swamp willows and elders meet the island’s south bank. Ears flipped. Shiny black noses sniffed. Intense, brown eyes peered to the southeast.

A white-tailed deer's head peers over frosted sedge grass.The whitetails dropped down as they entered the swamp. Only when their heads and necks remained upright was their existence visible as they plodded on the brushy path that wandered to the lone maple tree at the swamp’s far edge. They lingered but a few moments, then bounded up the hill to the safety of a monarch oak, busted up years before. Heard, but unseen, the doe and fawns milled about on the hilltop, then went silent.

“Jay! Jay! Jay!” Blue jays screamed to the south. Two more chimed in on the ridge, straight uphill from the split red oak. Dead, dry leaves rustled on an upper branch that curled against the ground. A plump fox squirrel hopped along that main branch, brushing off snow here and there. The squirrel stopped two trade-gun lengths shy of the jagged break, and began to chatter. “Chukk, chukk, chukk, chukk…”

The “crunch, crunch, crunch” of a walking deer wove its way into the fox squirrel’s barking. The sound seemed to come from the north, but no movement betrayed the maker. The crunches grew soft, then ceased. With a quick flip of its bushy tail, the fox squirrel’s rhythmic chatter ended. A few hops later, it scampered down the north limb, rattling the leaves on that top and scattering little white puffs in its wake.

Again the silence of that December morn allowed a humble woodsman time to reflect. In the midst of deep contemplation, a large doe stepped from behind a bushy cedar tree that leaned over the swamp, twenty paces upwind. She exhibited great caution, as the other deer had. She flipped her ears, sniffed and looked about. This pause lasted for ten minutes or there about.

Once satisfied, she, too, dropped down from the swamp’s cut bank and plunged shoulder deep into the tangle of swamp grasses and elder bushes. Her hooves crackled the ice on the tiny creek as she traveled with her head down. The trail she chose led to a brushy point with a modest-sized box elder tree, but she did not emerge from the swamp. Heartbeats jumbled together into another ten minutes of wilderness observation by an experienced forest tenant. Then the doe walked from the swamp to the trunk of the box elder before she again waited and watched…

Imitating the Ways of the White-tailed Deer

“I don’t pay attention to does and fawns,” the modern hunter declared. Others around him nodded their heads in agreement. “If it’s not a buck, a good buck, I’m not bothered with it. Most of the time, does are just a nuisance.”

“Either you dominate the outdoor world,” or “you learn to become a part of the forest;” these are the two most prevalent philosophies regarding the pursuit of wild game. The fellow who espoused ignoring does and fawns falls into the first category. He appears to be one of many in the camo-clad crowd, if the outdoor television stars and/or videos posted online are any indication of numbers.

This ‘dominate ‘em or blend with ‘em” thinking is not new. The other night I was doing some research on the Siege of Fort Detroit and the taking of Fort Michilimackinac in the summer and fall of 1763. One author contrasted the French and British fur trade policies. The French inter-married with the Native Americans and assimilated to the culture while the British policies attempted to dominate the Great Lakes regions, or any area that fell under their rule. This clash is evident throughout the French and Indian War, on into the American War for Independence and beyond.

Most 18th-century journalists include a hostile nemesis somewhere in their writings. Avoiding a life-threatening clash weaves its way into many harrowing hunting tales. For the young clerk of the XY Company, George Nelson, the concern was always with the Sioux:

“…On my return I found others [diver ducks] perched on trees that had fallen in the water. I crawled up & was going to fire, when a thought struck me that I had better not. ‘Who knows if there be not a Sioux near.” I reluctantly retired. At a few paces further on I discovered the track of a man!” (Nelson, 78)

Thus, the avoidance of a hostile encounter is incorporated in many traditional black powder hunts. This detail mirrors the historical record, and with careful scrutiny, can be found in most of the journals from the 1790s or other time periods. To be sure, the primary purpose of the simple pursuit is still the taking of wild game for the table. However, the stealth needed to accomplish both elements of the scenario is somewhat the same.

When discussing and evaluating still-hunting and stalking techniques as they relate to the time of our forefathers, a solid piece of advice is to imitate the ways of the white-tailed deer. Again, by subjecting the old narratives to careful study, references to applying woodland observation to daily survival abound.

Msko-waagosh watching from behind a dead red oak tree.Quiet movement, concealment in natural cover, pausing to observe the forest, attention to clothing color, accoutrement fit and a slow, deliberate progress all contribute to becoming a forest tenant. Each of these contributing factors, along with others, is of great importance and is worthy of further discussion.

The point I wish to make is that we all have choices, regardless of our hunting style and/or time period. In most instances, the majority of my hunter heroes embraced living within the parameters of the glade as opposed to dominating it. Thus, I subscribe to the same philosophy, and by doing so, take great delight in observing, evaluating and attempting to emulate the ways of the white-tailed deer.

The older does, the tutors of the herd, live an existence based in every day survival. The events of that morning in December of 1797 represent a pure learning experience. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the feel of the forest were the does’ guide to the next step. And that is good enough for this humble woodsman…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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“The Business of the Forest”

“Snapshot Saturday”

A traditional woodsman perpares to field dress an eight-point buck.

A light snow fell as the trading post hunter leaned his Northwest gun against a stout red oak and positioned himself with the tree’s trunk protecting his back. He drew his knife and settled about the business of the forest. Old Northwest Territory, three hills east of the River Raisin, in the Year of our Lord, 1797…

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Relying on Constant Self-Evaluation

A solitary gray head appeared. A young wild turkey stretched its neck, then cast inquisitive glances side-to-side in the deep prairie grass. The petite bald head disappeared in the shadows. Here and there a grass blade twitched. A bronze-feathered shape came into view, then vanished. Several gray heads popped up, then pulled back into the cover.

Tall cedar trees and clumpy prairie grass hid an old ravine, six paces to the north. The flock’s matron stood guard behind a large red cedar tree. Her head twisted and turned in the spaces between boughs. Her body was not visible, and if a woodsman did not suspect she was close by, her presence would go unnoticed.

A flock of young turkeys stepped from the deep grass.Minutes later, a wayward youngster stepped from the thick, pale-green tangle. Another ventured forth, and then another, each basking in the warm afternoon sunlight. The birds pecked and poked in the sparse cover as more siblings emerged. In time, the entire flock stood exposed. The caution of the old hen increased.

The birds of this flock were small for mid-September, and the brood appeared to be a second or perhaps late hatch. They wouldn’t offer much meat. Meshach Browning came to mind. He wrote of taking young turkeys for the dinner table. His wife, Mary’s, eldest sister came to visit:

“…as she arrived at one o’clock in the day, Mary asked me to bring home some young turkeys for supper. Telling her I could soon do that…Into the glades I went, where I soon saw three or four old turkeys, with perhaps thirty or forty young ones. I sent Watch [Meshach’s dog] after them, but they flew into the low white-oak trees; and when I would walk fast, as if I was going past them, they would sit as still as they could, for me to pass on; but after walking twelve or fifteen steps, I would stop and shoot off their heads…” (Browning, 122)

In all, ten turkeys herky-jerked into the open. The old hen stayed in the shadows with her neck stretched high. She uttered a soft “putt” now and then as her keen eye slashed away at downed logs and adjoining autumn olive bushes. As the flock flowed west, the concerned hen slipped away. The birds strung out as they pecked along, never more than a few turkey-strides from the sanctity of the deep prairie grass and seclusion of the old ravine…

The More We Learn, The Less We Know

This was the summer that “wasn’t.” One family crisis after another kept (and still keeps) me from time traveling and writing more than the bare minimum. Learning to appreciate stiff-backed emergency room chairs, avoiding hoof-and-mouth disease in crowded waiting rooms and clock-watching are not my idea of worthwhile hobbies.

Carrying one’s own reading material is a must, if you want to avoid a plunge in the sheep-dip tank after handling “waiting room magazines.” Plus, living history and hunting of any kind are not the subject matter of those tattered missives.

And yet there is a ray of sunshine, at least I thought there was. The other day a “hunting magazine” peeked out from beneath a pile of celebrity tabloids. I fought the urge valiantly, really I did, but ended up picking up that fall hunting issue. Low and behold, it was dated “2017.”

A broad-beamed, thick-bodied, record-book whitetail buck graced the front cover. A full-page advertisement on the inside cover page touted the absolute necessity of using a known brand of camo. The pages contained one must-read columnist’s insight after another. Forty-five minutes of skimming reinforced my worst fear—I know nothing about hunting deer, and by inference, wild turkeys, small game and waterfowl.

I was practically in tears when a writer explained why “Old Turkey Feathers” needed a plastic-jacketed bullet. Another told me there is no hope of getting close to a white-tailed deer with a captive’s humble attire. Those rags must be burned—I made a note to apply for a burning permit first.

A few pages later, I discovered deer cannot be killed from the ground; I’m supposed to be shooting from a metal doily strapped up in a tree, facing west, or is it east? And in the spring, the farmers from around the settlement must gather and plow up the North-Forty. For all these years, the wrong grass grew; a new seeding will provide a proper home for the deer, turkeys and other small critters. Oh, the misery of it all!

The worst problem with picking up that magazine is it raised doubts about my woodland knowledge and methodology—all from the influence of one issue’s writings.

To be fair, the habits of the creatures of the wild are in a constant state of change, but that is the nature of the wilderness experience. Woodland knowledge and the skills needed to take advantage of that understanding must change, too. Constant learning, constant improvement, and constant adjustment are, and have always been, a hallmark of a productive hunter.

The term “productive” comes with its own set of qualifying parameters that vary from person to person. It is no secret that we manage our deer herd and restrict the taking of animals. Young bucks or undersized wild turkeys get a pass, but that does not mean they avoided walking or strutting in front of the turtle sight. In general terms, “productive” applies to any individual who understands wild game, can find the birds or animals he or she seeks and can place himself or herself in a position to take a clean and humane shot, day after day—if they so choose.

One of the first lessons learned when I veered from the path of a modern hunter was to question and evaluate every hunt. With time, this habit becomes instinctive for the traditional black powder hunter. Self-valuation is a mainstay of living history, and I think even more so for one who relives the simple pursuits of long ago.

A few weeks ago at the Woods-N-Water News Outdoor Weekend I explained the living historian’s constant process of evaluating a persona based on the historical record. One lady who was a sewing instructor spent a lot of time looking at Msko-waagosh’s linen outer shirt. She said she liked to study older garments as a source for learning technique, and she commented in a positive way on the stitch choices and the simplicity of the common 18th-century trade shirt.

Traditional hunter, Darrel Lang, with a large buck.Another discussion centered on a photo of Darrel Lang’s buck. The individual wanted to know what brand of tree stand he used. Questions about camouflage patterns came next, along with a query about how far away the deer was. Over the course of the next few minutes, Darrel answered that he was on the ground, wearing the clothing he had on at the show and that the buck was about 20 paces distant.

With each answer, the man’s face reflected his growing surprise at the answers. As it happened, there were two other traditional hunters in the camp, and they all confirmed the methodology of the traditional black powder hunter.

As we spoke about the reactions later, I postulated that modern hunters are so programmed with the “you can’t…unless you use…” statements that they have no idea how their grandparents hunted, let along their grandparents’ grandparents a century or more removed. There is little doubt such arguments are powerful sales tools, and with constant repetition, very forceful persuaders.

Each time I present the traditional hunter’s lifestyle at a show or seminar, there are a fair number of people who do not believe Old Turkey Feathers, or any antique arm, is capable of bringing food to the table.

In contrast, there are folks like one gentleman in particular who explained to his teenagers, “This is the latest technology of the time.” He had questions regarding ballistics, and when I answered, he made an interpretive comparison for his children specific to the arms they are using. He did the same for the clothing and the accoutrements. His children are lucky.

The rest of the guests fall somewhere in between the two extremes; they appreciate the demonstrations and displays, which act as a tempering force to the modern world’s repeated misconceptions, or at the least, misunderstandings. And quite often, I find myself embarking on a mini-seminar, explaining the intricacies of a still-hunt, how to undertake a stalk and the importance of using natural ground structure for concealment and ambush.

For me, it is hard to remain cognizant that sitting and watching a flock of young turkeys, which is all too common for the traditional woodsman, is not the norm for a majority of modern hunters. The concept of becoming a wilderness tenant is just as foreign, given the back-slapping and disrespectful celebrations broadcast by some of the popular outdoor media personalities when a game animal or bird surrenders its life.

For the traditional black powder hunter, the self-evaluation regarding woodland skill proficiencies, coupled with the constant researching and comparison of our portrayals to those recorded in the journals of our hunter heroes, exerts a humbling pressure on each and every time-traveling adventure. In essence, the more we learn, the less we know…

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

Posted in Clothing & Accoutrements, Living History, Turkey Hunts, Wilderness Classroom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments