By Dylan Cooper, columnist
It was a tall order in inviting a father and his two young kids to go turkey hunting, then trout fishing, and then have them go finish the day at soccer practice. Having it happen perfectly like it did on Saturday, April 3, was nothing short of an Easter blessing.
The plan was to take the boys for their first turkey harvest, then to the Kids’ Fishing Day at Graves Mountain Lodge, then let them get back home for afternoon soccer practice. I had concerns about the amount of time I had to make it happen and the amount of energy the boys (and dad) would have to make it through the day. So to my surprise, Levi Stickler, 10, and Austin Strickler, 8, both of Luray, were ready to go at 4:45 a.m. when we met for an hour’s drive to the private land I was taking them hunting on for youth turkey hunting day. We arrived in plenty of time to set out two hen decoys and one jake decoy borrowed from a family member, then we tucked in behind a makeshift pallet blind I had set up weeks earlier amongst a small island of trees in a cut cornfield.
The weather was cold, but clear and calm. Much better compared to the couple of very windy days we had prior. Because of that, I thought maybe the turkeys had been cooped up so Saturday was going to be a good day. It was barely legal light when we heard the first gobble from the roost. A bunch more followed. I kept asking Levi, who was already on the 20 gauge, “Did you hear that one?” with a grin. He was wearing Walker’s ear muffs so of course he could.
It seemed like the toms didn’t pay as much attention to my hen calling or those of the real hens as much as they did themselves. We may have heard up to eight different gobblers in the 15 minutes before the first turkey hit the field. That would have been enough of a success just to have so much action in our first outing.
A pair of jakes were the first ones to come over to the lone hen decoy. I had said we would take the first opportunity he got to harvest a bearded bird. Then from the opposite direction we spotted a single gobbler in full strut heading our way. And it happened just like it was meant to be. He came in nice and easy straight to the jake decoy. Then he came out of strut and just walked around craning his neck at the jake trying to figure it out. That gave Levi plenty of time to calm down and make the shot count.
My initial reaction to the shot, though comical, was an instinctive motion from when I learned to turkey hunt by jumping up to run over to it. Especially on a big gobbler, you never know what can happen after the shot. You want to make the kill happen cleanly and ethically. So I typically run over to it to finish the job, or maybe to stop it from getting away after getting dazed. I’ve had to track a couple turkeys over the years and that is not a task I ever want to repeat.
But it couldn’t have happened more perfect for Levi. His bird might have taken a total of 15 seconds to expire. The shot was perfect and clean. So my jumping up was futile and actually scared the couple of jakes that were coming in to investigate, as well as a pair of gobblers further across the field, which ended the chances at a double for the boys. We were still elated, though, to have a beautiful mature gobbler on the ground at 18 yards with a nine inch beard and one inch spurs all before 7 a.m. Levi did his best to carry the bird all the way back to the truck, but had to have dad help the last 100 yards.
By 9:30 a.m. the boys were at the Rose River, a spinning rod in their hands, and looking for a new quarry hidden in the fast moving water. I left them with their dad so I could attend to any other families in need of fishing advice, rigging, or untangling as part of my volunteer duties with the Rapidan Chapter of Trout Unlimited. I checked back a little while later, and they hadn’t found any trout so I pointed them in the right direction. Over the course of the next couple hours they hooked and netted 11 rainbow and brook trout between the two of them. It was the best day they’ve ever had for trout fishing and probably mine as well. Off to soccer practice they went while I got to see quite a few other happy families making memories on the stream bank that day.
This past Saturday was also Trout Heritage Day on a few other streams around Virginia including the Hawksbill Creek. Brown trout were stocked by DWR alongside the usual brook and rainbow trout in an attempt to provide anglers with their chance at a Virginia Trout Slam. This is when you catch all three species of trout in the same day in any water in the state. Lucky local angler Chris Pierce achieved this feat and topped it off with a beautiful 4.34-pound citation-sized rainbow trout out of the Hawksbill on Saturday morning.
If you missed out on the family fishing and hunting this past weekend, there are more chances. The Town of Luray is holding their Youth Trout Derby this Saturday, April 10. Check-in will take place at the Route 340 park & ride and includes goodie bags for the registrants from 7 to 9 a.m. Trout fishing for youth ages 15 and under will occur from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be lots of great prizes and great fishing. A huge thanks to the Town of Luray Parks and Recreation Department and their partners for hosting this opportunity for families to enjoy trout fishing. A reminder: Hawksbill Creek (from the Mechanic Street bridge to the end of the greenway loop) will be closed to fishing starting Friday, April 9 until the conclusion of the Youth Trout Derby.
Other than that, this Saturday is the opening day for Spring Turkey season. May 1 is the 2nd Annual Trout Fishing Tournament on Hawksbill Creek benefitting Stanley Volunteer Fire Department and Fraternal Order of Police, Page Valley Lodge 65.
If you’ve read any of my outdoor columns so far, you’ve seen that I try to highlight and encourage recruitment and retainment of our youth in hunting, fishing, conservation, and other outdoor related activities. I truly think it’s what will save the outdoorsman’s way of life from the onslaught of attacks by a growing suite of adversaries. It’s quite simple for me to see when I look at the smiles of the kids in these photos I took Saturday, I can tell that their life is better by being in the outdoors.
In case you missed it, recently there was quite a bit of drama in the hunting world. An op-ed was posted by Matt Rinella, the brother of the famed MeatEater host Steve Rinella, on the MeatEater.com website about why recruiting, retaining, and reactivating hunters is what is killing hunting. It even included a foreword from Steve approving of the piece! I was appalled, but I thought that maybe it was just a bit of sensationalism in order to get more clicks on what is probably the fastest growing following in hunting media. The editors at Outdoor Life even took offense to it and posted their response. So much backlash occurred that Steve himself had to write a response to cover his own butt.
I don’t agree with Matt’s call for concern. I haven’t hunted out west like he has, but I can see where popular shows like MeatEater have caused a recent spike in big game lottery and license applications there. But in the east, we have an always decreasing amount of available hunting land, and yet a stable or sometimes growing big game population. Still, hunting and fishing license numbers seem to be decreasing here in VA. Ten years ago these licenses totaled 1.36 million in the state, and last year it was down to 1.16 million even when everyone thought COVID-19 would encourage more people to go get their own food. That’s a decrease of 15 percent in a decade. Neighboring West Virginia has had a 13-percent decrease in their resident licenses in the last five years.
It seems like there’s not an overabundance in recruitment and retainment to me. Perhaps the visual of overcrowding is due to the seasoned hunters and fishermen who are just getting out more because of being laid off or working from home since COVID-19. There are a plethora of other reasons why the license decrease is happening that we can discuss down the road.
For now, please take a kid hunting and fishing.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.