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Becoming a Participant in the Landscape

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Alex Chambers:  One day, Sam was hunting turkey, they were being extra quiet, but then he saw one.

Sam Shoaf:  So, I hit the deck and I crawled in this gap, straight over to that tree which is a big tulip poplar, it's like a hallway through the spicebush here and I called, and they kept moving down the ridge. They finally gobbled a few more times but it never worked out that day.

Alex Chambers:  This week on, Inner States, turkey hunting, fire ecology and other ways of participating on the landscape. All that, and more, right after this.

Sam Shoaf:  I was young and I shot a deer while it was moving, something I don't do anymore...

Alex Chambers:  This is, Sam Shoaf, he does ecological restoration across Indiana.

Sam Shoaf:  ...and it wasn't a great shot.

Alex Chambers:  He also hunts.

Sam Shoaf:  We saw where it went...

Alex Chambers:  And he thinks a lot about what it means to hunt.

Sam Shoaf:  ...and we followed blood trails, we followed tracks. The thought of the suffering that you've caused just really weighs on you. Then I can't help but exhaust myself, trying my hardest to recover that deer to finish and to pay my respect for a creation. I've got to do my best to find it, and we did, we ended up recovering that deer the next day. So, the whole of that night was pretty rough.

Alex Chambers:  So you went home?

Sam Shoaf:  Yes, it just got dark. It went onto a different property and you're not allowed to go onto another property without checking with the land owner. That evening we did and we went back the next morning and we were able to recover that deer and yes, through the night was pretty heavy thinking you caused that suffering. Going out there with good intentions. I was young and you're not thinking about things that could go wrong but luckily we were able to recover that deer. You still feel some guilt, or sadness, that it suffered for longer than necessary.

Sam Shoaf:  But then you get to work, you take that deer and the butchering process I think is somewhat therapeutic in a way. It's like, well, I'm doing it myself with my hands, I'm taking responsibility and now this is becoming food. And that food is super precious to you, it's like gold in your freezer. When you do it yourself, wrap that meat and keep it it's so precious. And for some reason, even though it is so precious, you want to share it with people; this is something I got myself from the landscape and I want to share this with you. It's interesting how that happens.

Alex Chambers:  This is, Inner States, from W-F-I-U in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. Sam and I met up one evening at the beginning of June to walk through the woods by his house. He lives just outside of Bloomington, at the end of a dead end road.

Sam Shoaf:  It's a beautiful woods and I'm very glad to have it just across the driveway.

Alex Chambers:  And how long have you been in this spot?

Sam Shoaf:  We moved here in September 2017.

Alex Chambers:  Okay.

Sam Shoaf:  Been here for a little while and then I think we met Gary before we even bought the house. We were here, looking at the house, and he was outside and that's just Gary's personality. I mentioned that I hunt and he said, "Oh, you can hunt out here." And it's an awesome opportunity just to be right here next to the house. I love doing the public land thing and going to see new places, but with a young family and a job where I work a lot of hours, it's nice to be able to get home and walk across the driveway, or, wake up early and not have to drive somewhere. So, this ridge top was farmed at one point and what you see a lot in these southern Indiana forests, when they stopped farming, they got a canopy on the ground to stop any soil erosion.

Sam Shoaf:  There's a pine planting farther down the ridge so you can tell that that open area was planted just to get a canopy quickly. I think it's Virginia pine, or red pine, really common and there's a white pine planted down in the valley and those are common. They're not native to this part of Indiana, but that's a common thing on those old fields. It was left fallow, I believe, and you can see the difference in the age of the forest. It's not all even age but it's to that point where there's a canopy on everything and you can see a little bit of succession there. Tulip poplar will grow quickly in an opening and so there's a big row of tulip poplars and then there's that pine planting. I've learned, from Gary, that he had rough grouse out here when he moved in in the '80s, which is really interesting. It's something I've never seen in Indiana and they're not doing so good. They do need younger aged class forest with a ten year old opening in a forest that's got a lot of young samplings, that's what a rough grouse would need.

Sam Shoaf:  This is a lot older than that now and we don't have rough grouse very close to here, 'cause that's the story of a lot of the forests close by, but now Gary just likes the forest for the sake of being a forest. So, I've done a little bit of forest standard improvement like I've let a let a little bit of sunlight hit the ground, hopefully grow a couple of more oak trees; oaks need sunlight. Also, it helps me, as a hunter, have some shooting lanes and deer like oak trees and the things that will grow when that sunlight hits the ground. So, I mean, right here next to us, it's really shady. So, that under story is pretty bare; a lot of beech in this mid story and then some big, tall tulip poplars that would have been early cessational pioneer species when it was open, a tulip popper would take over.

Sam Shoaf:  Then there's scattered oaks, like this black oak. This would definitely not grow now in this under story, it's too shady. Sometimes that can be like a shade desert, it can really take your biodiversity and just drop it down as it gets really shady. Beech trees and maple trees and young tulip poplar have that really thin, smooth bark, and they won't be able to withstand the heat of a fire. I think Native Americans use fire a lot more than some people may anticipate and manipulate a landscape for their own uses; whether that's blackberries or the food that it creates for their game species.

Sam Shoaf:  Anyway, because we don't burn things now or let fires go, we get a lot of beech trees and it gets really shady.

Alex Chambers:  As you were saying about the rough grouse and how they need a ten year aged forest, I was thinking about how that seemed really specific and how would you end up with that?

Sam Shoaf:  Pre-settlement, we're dealing with a really big, intact landscape, without these human created edges. We've got natural fire that would start maybe by lightning, but I think more of those fires were started by Native Americans. So, fire is one thing, for sure, that created a mosaic across the landscape and they could let fires go a long way and just hit natural firebreaks. So, they could burn hot here and not so hot over here, and create this really mosaic like landscape. We've had large herbivores, there was woodland bison that would come through and manipulate the landscape in the plants they chose to eat. Then there was elk. What kind of impact did millions of passenger pigeons have on the landscape? What did they eat?

Sam Shoaf:  What did they choose and how did that create the community of plants that grew in the forest? Then wind throw and tornadoes and things like that that create openings that way. Here's a little spot I opened up. I girdled a couple of the beech trees and sassafras and left those standing, so they'll be good habitat for woodpeckers and insects and things like that. I tried to get some sunlight to the ground but I didn't go too extreme on it, it's a pretty small area but there are way more mayapples in that spot.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, it's really obvious. There's this whole bunch of mayapples in a circle.

Sam Shoaf:  It's as if, all of a sudden, the sunlight hit this spotlight on the ground and grew a bunch of mayapples. Definitely a big aspect of the landscape fire, and how it shaped fire tolerant and fire intolerant species; I call this a scarlet oak. Shorter ski tracks, a lot of branching, like it's holding on to dead limbs. But anyway, that scarlet oak, right there, it's got thick bark and it could sustain a fire, it can survive through a fire. A fire running across a ridge top like this that's north south facing, so the sun really dries out the top on its west side, a fire than rant through here would be pretty hot if you had the right conditions.

Sam Shoaf:  And so species like oaks and thick barked species like hickories would survive that fire and then thin barked species like tulip poplar, maples and other species like that, beech, would succumb to the fire and would be top killed. They might re-sprout but it would give the oaks and hickories a head start. That would also create a lot more open landscape, but then, on the east facing slope over here, it gets less direct sunlight throughout the day and east and north facing slopes don't get as much sunlight so it's darker and wetter, which might make the fire go over there and then lower in intensity and then your beech and maple might grow better over there.

Sam Shoaf:  You've got a lot more separation and a lot of different plant communities if fire is a regular thing on the landscape. That more open canopy, it's got a mid story but it's not chocked full and super shady on the west and south facing slopes where the fire would be more intense, would create a different habitat. A lot of our songbirds and neo-tropical migrants are awesome. This is something that's not a game species that I'm super into and excited about and I need to get better at learning their calls, but these little birds fly all the way to South America and across the Gulf and then come back in the summertime, it's so crazy. They need, I'll use a science-y term, a heterogeneityin forest structure and height. So, a variety of heights in the under story and mid story and then the canopy.

Sam Shoaf:  When you've got a really dense canopy, it's dark and shady and then, maybe, too full of these species that would normally be killed by fire. So, they like these openings. Here we've got a trail with an opening with canopy trees that are really tall, but then an opening with some mid story trees but then open ground. They want that different height and so, as the forest closes in, without fire then you're losing some of that habitat for a species that have a hard time already. They've got to fly all the way to South America and then who's looking out for the habitat down there? So, we've got a responsibility to try to do what we can.

Sam Shoaf:  Some cool aspen over there, aspen is also an early cessational species. When there's a lot of sunlight hitting the ground they'll grow. That's our native big tooth aspen, it looks like the western quaking aspen. Those are really cool, because they're all the same and they're all connected in the roots like one big organism. Those are neat, I love that.

Alex Chambers:  I had forgotten that all aspens are just one plant, it's amazing.

Sam Shoaf:  It's crazy when you go out west and see the mountainside, it's as if that could all be one. I'm sure there's a separation in between, but big chunks of that are one organism.

Alex Chambers:  That's wild. And is that those tall trees over there? Are those the aspens? They're bigger than I expected.

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, they get pretty big. There's a clone there, a good little group together and then I know that there's other clones back along that east-facing slope.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, time to jump in so we can jump out for a minute. I've been talking with Sam Shoaf who hunts and does ecological restoration. I'd say he's equally passionate about both. We're going to keep walking after the break. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States, Alex Chambers. This week, a walk in the woods with, Sam Shoaf, who's a hunter and ecological restorationist. I had the impression he was young when he started hunting.

Sam Shoaf:  Pretty young, yeah. I grew up in west central Indiana, pretty rural community, much flatter than here, a lot of agriculture. My family, my grandma had a hundred acres that was mostly tillable, mostly corn or soya beans and they kept about twenty acres of woods. So, dad grew up doing some small game hunting and stuff, but it was never his main thing. He enjoys doing it, but he also enjoys a lot of hands-on craftsman type things. It was just so common, my friends and their dads did it. I don't remember a conversation, maybe he asked me and I was like, "Of course I want to go to the woods." We would go to the woods to play and builds forts and things like that.

Sam Shoaf:  I remember sitting with Dad before I could hunt with him. I remember, early on, we'd just sit on the ground, scratch out a place in the leaves so you don't make a lot of noise and sit on the ground. Then, in order for me to hunt, I had to take hunter's ed, so I remember doing that and being really excited that it was my opportunity.

Alex Chambers:  How old were you?

Sam Shoaf:  I was eleven when I went and got a deer for the first time and it was a pretty powerful experience. We were on the ground. We hadn't seen anything that day. I heard a deer call, it's like a buck grunt but you could put it on a fawn call and two does came in and it was pretty crazy how close they came in and they walked in straight to us and I was able to shoot one of them, and thankfully, it was a good shot and she was down quickly. At that time, it was like, "Wow, that happened? She's down right there?" And so doing that whole process and then, after that, it was excitement and, as a kid, I don't think you're reflecting on some of the things you do as you get older.

Sam Shoaf:  It got me really excited to be in the woods and getting into hunting more. And so, a few years later, we were doing it more often and I would read Deer & Deer Hunting magazine and Field and Stream on my own at school, at lunch. Deer & Deer Hunting magazine was really cool, they have articles written by ecologists. I thought, "What's an ecologist? Whatever he does that sounds pretty cool, because he's talking about more of the whole system and the forest types and different things and how to relate that back to hunting." And so I remember telling a friend, "When I'm done with sports and I grow up, I'm going to hunt a lot more."

Sam Shoaf:  So then I started to think, everybody always tells you, you can do whatever you want when you're older. And so I started looking at degrees in wildlife biology. Heck yeah, I want to be in the woods all day.

Sam Shoaf:  I didn't know about it at first, it took me a little bit to really get into it and I guess it's just going through the prerequisites and stuff and then we had a summer practicum in the upper peninsular of Michigan after our sophomore year. It was a five week program. We went there with everyone in the class and finally, I got a group of friends and then we did lots of cool stuff. One, we're learning our birds by call. We had already taken dendrology,so we knew our plants. I really ended up getting into dendrology, I felt good about being good at that and being up in the UPE with all your friends and then I actually met my wife up there. As school went on, we started doing some more hands-on learning in those last two years and that's where ecological restoration and invasive species was really introduced to us and we were able to go and do some hands on work with that on Purdue properties.

Sam Shoaf:  I thought, "This is where I fit. This is where I fit into this." There was a prescribed fire class at Purdue where we had to do at least one prescribed fire but you could jump in on others if you had the time and I got three fires in before the end of my senior year. That's where I saw a path and started looking into ecological restoration, companies and jobs, and found Ecologic down here in Bloomington and I was working at Ecologic three days after I graduated and all but three months, in the last eight years, I've been at Ecologic. I've got to see a lot of Indiana's eco-systems, work on a lot of public land and get a real sense of ownership for that. It is all of ours and then I get to be out there and work in it and experience it and help to restore it.

Sam Shoaf:  So, really get to feel a sense of ownership and try to convince others that you should feel this sense of ownership. It is yours as much as its mine. So, seeing all these places and then we've started doing prescribed fire. Fire's a natural part of the landscape and eco-system and it's been absent for a long time. Using it as a tool to do restoration is really fun and yes, I started that from deer hunting with dad.

Alex Chambers:  That was all they hunted for a while, but then some folks at work invited Sam's dad out West to hunt elk. Sam's in college at this point. His dad comes back.

Sam Shoaf:  He said, "You've got to go." As soon as I was done with college we went out. Public land in the West is vast. I didn't have any public land around me growing up. When we went to the West and you look at the map, everything in green, you can go and you can hunt, you can explore. You can camp anywhere for 14 days. That aspect of adventure was like, wow, turn it to eleven. We did that once and we struggled. The mountains are incredible and they'll torture you. Climbing up and down and getting used to that elevation and trying to chase elk. Elk bugle and you can bugle back at 'em and you can communicate back and forth.

Sam Shoaf:  You've got another diaphragm call; instead of a turkey call, it's an elk call and I got a bugle tube and we're bugling at elk and hopefully trying to get them to bugle back. The second time we went, we went to Idaho. We were struggling. We were trying to figure it out. We'd listen to podcasts and we'd read books, then you'd get out there, try to do these things and it's like, "Is this working? Are we doing the right stuff?" And we're not getting into elk. You'd see signs but not hearing bugles and stuff. We did bump a couple of bulls and we said, "Oh no!" We found where there was a lot of elk and said, "We should try to go back to that spot." But it had been three days and we were doing ten or 12 miles a day, so much elevation change and so we went into town to wash our clothes and take a shower.

Sam Shoaf:  We're at the laundromat and a guy in the laundromat, who didn't look like a hunter, whereas we were all wearing camo and washing our camo clothes, he came in in his street clothes and he said, "Oh, you guys are out here hunting? Where are you from?" We said, "We're from Indiana." We started talking with him and he said, "I bird hunt, but I don't hunt big game but I live around here." He said, "You should try out this spot. You should try out maybe this other spot." And I said, "Wow, thanks." I have a mapping app on my phone and I had my laptop with me. So, I'm taking his way points and I'm putting 'em down on the map. He walks out and, we thought, "That's awesome, cool interaction." I love meeting people like that and having these conversations and connecting on something.

Sam Shoaf:  And he came back in and said, "Oh, I got one more spot." And that was really close to where we had been and we had seen elk sign. We thought, "We'll just go back down there." So, that same day, we went back down, it was probably a five to seven miles outside town, back close to a spot where we were that we had seen a lot of elk sign. Elk signs are pretty obvious sometimes. They're really big animals, a big version of a deer. So, we're headed down that way and thought we don't know anything other than he said, "Go down Wolf Tone Pass." There's a hiking trail and we just started going and we'd do a couple of elk calls here and there. It's 3:30 in the afternoon, it's not a great time. We just kept going and a creek was flowing in the valley we were walking in, which, in the West, you pay attention to thermals as well.

Sam Shoaf:  The cool air falls in the morning, so the wind goes downhill and then, in the afternoon, it heats up and the wind goes uphill. So, you've really got to plan out your strategy on a species like elk where they can smell you really well and where you are when you're trying to hunt them. This creek was really helping us 'cause it's cool air and it's flowing in our face the whole time while we're walking into it. We get 3 miles back and we're still thinking, "Is this going to be worth it?" And look down at the ground and there's this muddy spot with an elk track in it, "That looks fresh. That's the best elk sign we've seen since we talked to that guy and came out here, so, let's go that way." And we went that way and up this ridge a little way and we tried to be really smart and once we got out of the creek bottom, the wind was going uphill toward where we thought the elk were.

 So, we just sat down and took a break and then once it cooled off and the evening was coming and the wind was coming down, we got into position on this really muddy elk trail that had a lot of sign and dad was going to step back and call for me and I was staying on this elk trail, and we really ended up being in a line, looking uphill and we start elk calling, cow calling and out walks this bull. He looked big. To get really good eyes on an elk bull in that situation, it's like "oh man, here he comes and he's big". It's really not that big of an elk compared to other elk, but, for us, Indiana flat land people, this was real and it was an elk. Dad was supposed to be calling for me and that plan didn't work out. He went straight to the calling.

 He went straight to Dad. Stepped in an opening at 22 yards and Dad made a great shot. I can remember the sound of an arrow going through the elk, like a baseball bat hitting a wet blanket and we watched him fall. Arrow through both lungs, he only went 50 yards and after all this effort we made it happen. It was kind of surreal. And then the real work began of getting this elk out, being 3 miles back and all we had done at that point was watch YouTube videos. And so luckily it was an evening and it was cooling off because it was getting to be around 85, 90° in the middle of the day; September in central Idaho.

 But we had the time in the evening and we worked from eight o'clock when we had that bull down and we made two trips with very heavy backpacks, full of elk meat, back to the truck and we were driving out of there with it quartered out in the back of the truck at seven AM. That adventure aspect and then the hard work part appeals to me. I've heard it described by the media podcast I mentioned earlier as, type two fun. Type one's roller coasters, it's fun right now and you get off and you think, "Oh, that was really cool." Type two fun is, you hate it during it sometimes, it's really tough, but then, you get home and you look back and think, "I want to do that again." That was a great experience to have with my dad who's always been pretty close. He's a really great father figure for me, a coach figure and now we've got a good friendship as well; to experience that together and to be successful and then bring a lot of elk meat home.

Alex Chambers:  The elk meat is pretty nice. Sam likes having a freezer full of meat he hunted. But it's not just about bringing home the bacon, which I guess would mean he was hunting pigs and that seems weird, plus having to cure the meat. It's not just about bringing home the game, it's about how you play it. This is getting confusing. Let's take a break. I'll try to clear it up in the meantime.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to, Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers and, here's what I'm trying to say about, Sam Shoaf, he likes being in the woods. That's a big part of what hunting is about for him. So, that time he didn't shoot a bird, it wasn't all bad.

Sam Shoaf:  A turkey feather. Turkey scat. So, turkeys will dust, it's like a parasite control thing. They dust and I have a little bear dirt in my yard and the turkeys dust in my hard, then I go out here and I hunted it out here this year and, no luck, on the turkeys out here, but then I'd come home and they'd been in my backyard while I'm at work. The turkeys have been in different spots, but often, they'll be out at the end of this long ridge, which is 200 ft tall, I think. It's a pretty tall ridge. I guess pretty standard for southern Indiana, but that's pretty tall for the rest of Indiana. They'll go off the edge a little bit. For a bird, a turkey doesn't like to fly that much. So, they go and fly into treetops that are their eye level.

 I'll find them roosted at the end of this ridge often and it's nice that I live so close, because I can get out and hear 'em almost from my house and I just walk really fast down here and often, they're down at the end here but it wasn't the case this year, they were so quiet, they weren't gobbling, I couldn't hear 'em. But I've had some hunts that are 15 minutes. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  Is that a little disappointing?

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, sometimes. I look forward to it for so long and then I'm glad it happened, but I wish I had more opportunity. I try to look for people to take out, like my wife, didn't grow up hunting, but she's embraced it somewhat. Wouldn't say she likes the long slogs of sitting and waiting but we've been able to get out together a little bit and it's fun to do together, introduce it to someone. Someone you love and get them out doing something you love.

Alex Chambers:  Is she the first person you've really taught?

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, I guess so. And she does it opportunistically, here and there, when we get the opportunity. She doesn't really go and and do it on her own. I'd love to teach more people and have people get that experience. You're really becoming a participant in the landscape instead of just a passer-by. You start to look at things differently. As I say with deer hunting you're thinking about the wind, something that you're not normally thinking about on a hike. It's been tough, an even aged forest for deer hunting can sometimes be hard to pattern the deer and where they're going to go. But I'm thankful for the opportunity because it's interactive and you can hear them and move and react and there's a calling aspect of calling back and forth, which is really fun.

Alex Chambers:  Wait, so the turkey's calling back and forth?

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, you're calling to the turkey and then, hopefully, getting a response and maybe the response isn't vocal, it's just that they're moving toward you. I use a diaphragm call that is just a piece of latex stretched over a horseshoe shape of aluminum and then it's got some tape on it so it doesn't hurt your mouth and I just practice on the way to work and get out here and try to sound like a hen that a big gobbling tom wants to come and check out. [LAUGHS] So, that part's really fun. Let's get over this.

Sam Shoaf:  A lot of everything else that you hunt is in the fall and the winter. So, I got my degree in wildlife biology and then I work in ecological restoration which is mostly, invasive plant control but other things involved in restoration. So, I know my plants, and the springtime is such a fun time to be in the woods if you're into plants. Spring ephemerals are beautiful and they're so niche in the time that they grow; they take advantage of that sunlight before the trees leaf out. Just being in the spring woods, after a long winter, is a really cool thing. I love the springtime. Then turkeys are cool, crazy birds. The males heads change colors based on their mood. They gobble. They sleep in trees, but they don't often fly unless they're really scared, or flying down from a tree, or up to a tree, to go to sleep.

Sam Shoaf:  They're just cool birds and the calling aspect, is interactive. Deer hunting's fun and that's what I grew up doing and that's why I do what I do now and why I got into natural resources from those experiences in the woods when I was little. But with turkey hunting, you can move and interact with the bird, so, it's pretty dynamic and fun in that way. It's quite a bit tougher to hunt deer from the ground and try to move, you've gotta be really stealthy. If you're trying to eat venison and fill your freezer, it's not always the highest odds to try to move through the woods and do your hunt. I try to set up on a place that you see deer sign and you expect 'em to be moving through and sit and wait and keep the wind in your favor and make a good ethical shot at the opportunity.

Sam Shoaf:  A lot of sitting and waiting, you get to collect your thoughts and observe the woods around you for maybe hours at a time. I enjoy it as well. It's just a good change of pace from fall to spring.

Sam Shoaf:  And then, as I grew up, you meet other people and, honestly, for me there had to be a realization, oh, some people don't like hunting. And so then you really have to start thinking about, why do I? And, as an adult looking now and knowing about ecology and things like that, I feel it's as if you're participating in the eco-system and we are a part of it and to separate it and always be something that you're looking out the window, or you're just being a passer-by, you can't get restoration done that way, you have to participate and good habitat is created that way too, that's where all these species that I hunt live off of.

Alex Chambers:  I feel like I can see how hunting would lead you to want to be able to preserve the landscape, the biodiversity of the native plants and all that, because it's going to be good for the species that you're hunting. But is there a way that the actual hunting of the animals is also a participation in the ecological system in your mind?

Sam Shoaf:  Yes, totally. It's a hard thing to explain. You're participating in what humans have done for eons, or millennia, since humans have been around. So, it's a natural experience that you can connect back through time and there was all kinds of different people, not everybody did that but many, many did and most of it started that way. A connection to a very deep human thing as hunting and then being connected to the landscape in that way and not just connected to my job and ecology in that way, but a really deep, human experience. It's one of those things that it's hard to explain the feelings about hunting.

Sam Shoaf:  Maybe this is not too far of a stretch, but you can't explain to someone how it feels to have a kid, until they feel it and until they do it themselves. You can try and it sounds cliché and you just end up saying those things that everybody says. Once they feel it, then they know. Yeah, hunting can be sad. You try to be as good at it and as clean and ethical as possible, but then, at the end of the day, I turn it into food and the sadness of taking a life becomes something I've taken this from the landscape but I'm going to utilize it and, I mean, literally build my cells in my body. That's a pretty deep connection that you have and I can't help but feel like, what I learned about where they were that time, I want to go and do it again.

Sam Shoaf:  I want to go and experience that again and then feed myself and my family that way. It's a complicated thing to put into words but it's a deep experience and I've wrapped it into my job and my life. It's all just one big thing now.

Sam Shoaf:  This turkey season was weird because they weren't gobbling as much as you would have expected them to do during the breeding season. So, I was walking this trail, which is right on the ridge top a north, south, running ridge. Normally, I could hear 'em gobbling, even if that's off this property, from way back where we started so I'd be able to develop a plan and move to that area. I got all the way out here and I was walking, probably, the pace that we're walking, trying to be a little sneaky and not step on sticks and snap things and calling along the way, no gobbles. It was really frustrating. I got to about right there and I looked over that way and I saw what I thought was a turkey fan, and then it turned and it was a turkey fan.

 I hit the deck and I crawled in this gap, straight over to that tree, which is a big tulip poplar, surrounded by a hallway through this spicebush here and I got set up on that tree 'cause they would've been right in front of me. They moved around that dead tree and over there and I felt like they could see me, but now, looking back I think I could've moved a little bit but I felt like I was pinned down. I got to watch 'em for a long time, which was really cool, see them strut and, like I said, his head's changing colors from coming in and out stretch; coming from this white to blueish red and then it would be brilliant red sometimes. I watched that for a long time until they moved over that lip of that ridge and then I crawled out here and moved up there, still, zero gobbles.

Sam Shoaf:  He's around hens so I guess he had all the ladies that he wanted close by, 'cause that's what they're doing, they gobble to attract the females to come to them. When we're turkey hunting, we're doing the opposite, sounded like a hen and I'm trying to get him to come to me. But he didn't gobble until I got over there and a crow flew over. This is a funny thing turkeys do, loud noises during the breeding season, they're so amped up that they'll gobble at a loud noise. It's like, this is my time of year; crow calls, bluejays, owls, thunder, car doors, car horns, [LAUGHS] they'll gobble at that. A crow flew 50 ft over this bird, and called and he finally gobbled one time, though I knew he was there already.

 Then I called and they kept moving down the ridge and they finally gobbled a few more times but it never worked out that day, though it was fun, chasing them and having that interaction and seeing their interaction together too, that was pretty fun. It didn't work out that hunt this year, but it's a fun story and walking through these woods I know these spots now. I have these little places where things happen and it's fun.

Alex Chambers:  I can see the corridor right there through the spicebush to the tree.

Sam Shoaf:  Right there. But they were over there. So, I was outside the hallway. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  You said you set up on the tree. What does that mean?

Sam Shoaf:  I just set down, with my back against the tree, I have my knees up so I can have a place to rest my gun and then I'm all camouflaged, with turkeys you don't have to worry about the wind 'cause they can't smell as well, but their eyesight is really good; face mask, all camouflaged and trying not to move. And so that's why that diaphragm call really comes in handy, 'cause you could do some calling without moving your hands. There's other ways to call, friction calls; scratching on a piece of slate, or a box call which is two pieces of wood that are scratching together and sound like a turkey, but you've got to move your hands. At those last moments, when the turkey may be able to see you, the mouth call is really handy.

Alex Chambers:  Have you had that work?

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, I've had it work. Before last year, actually, they were gobbling just over that ridge and I was just up there a little ways and three birds gobbling on the roost and they flew down and I had to call it a little bit while they were still in the tree and sometimes, I could even hear a bird turn and gobble at me. "Yeah, he heard me." And they came jogging down this trail and I was set up and able to get a shot as he was coming down the trail.I was able to get the one in the front and it was over really fast. It's satisfying, but also, a little disappointing it was over so fast, but then you're just so grateful.

Sam Shoaf:  These turkeys live out here and I'm so thankful for that. I have so much respect for a bird like that that's literally, scratching out a living. They scratch at the leaves to eat acorns and bugs and things like that. They were all gone at one point and then we reintroduced them and brought them back that's going to be a great meal for my family and that I was able to make it happen. Then you have some of the most fulfilling experience some days when you don't get a bird or a deer or anything else, it's just the experience in the woods and what you take away from it. What you learn about your quarry or yourself, if it was a difficult day or what you learned about the woods.

Sam Shoaf:  It's just a couple of pieces of layered latex and then an aluminum frame that they stretch 'em over and then that's tape just to make it a little bit bigger and fit your palate.

Alex Chambers:  It's like a half circle and you put it right in your mouth, so you bite down on the half circle, it's almost like a dental thing.

Sam Shoaf:  Yeah, it does. So, you trap it against your tongue and the roof of your mouth and force that air over those reeds and it's amazing the sounds that you can get out of it.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, so, let's hear something.

Sam Shoaf:  Turkey yelp. [TURKEY NOISE]

Sam Shoaf:  And they'll come into that.

Alex Chambers:  That's amazing. Super cool.

Sam Shoaf:  That's one of the most fun parts about turkey hunting is doing that, interacting with them.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to, Inner States, from member supported, WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Inner States. Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is, John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Sam Shoaf. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from Ramón Monrás-Sender and Airport People. Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  Maybe you could tell that that was not a real barn owl. When I was standing next to Sam Shoaf watching him do it, I was still a little unsure. Alright, that's it for now. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.

Sam Shoaf

Sam Shoaf, in the spot where he didn't shoot a turkey (Alex Chambers)

People hunt for a lot of different reasons. One extreme is the men – I’m sure there are women who do this too, but I haven’t come across any – who go after big game so they can show off their trophies, the antlers or hides that prove what they managed to kill. At what I would call the other end are the people who hunt primarily for food, people who take seriously the taking of a life, honor the animal, and do their best to be merciful. (For a poetic reflection on this relationship, I recommend Leah Naomi Green’s poem, “The More Extravagant Feast,” from her collection of the same name.)

Sam Shoaf is solidly in the latter camp. He’s thought hard about what it means to take a life, reflected on the suffering he caused when, as a young hunter, he shot a deer while it was moving and couldn’t find it until the next morning. He has immense respect for the species he gets to know in the woods.

Spending all that time in the woods made him want to take care of native habitats – and not just so he could keep hunting. Studying ecology in college, he realized he loved learning plants, and identifying birds by their songs. Now he works in ecological restoration. He still hunts, too. For Sam, both practices are ways of becoming a participant in the landscape, which is necessary, he says, if you want to take care of a place.

Sam and I took a walk in the woods owned by his next-door neighbor in early June. With his full-time job, and a young family, that’s the best place for him to hunt these days. We talked about calling turkeys, public lands out west, fire ecology, and what hunting is all about for him.

By the way, Sam isn’t immune to the desire for some sort of trophy. After our walk in the woods in early June, he sent me some further thoughts on antlers.

For me personally it would be dishonest not to say that antlers and hunting big bucks (or bulls, in the case of elk) is still part of the motivation and intrigue of hunting.

Antlers are really cool and ephemeral. Whitetails, and other cervids like elk, grow new antlers every year. They start as hair-covered protrusions that are soft and have blood flow. As we get closer to the rut, or breeding season, the bucks’ testosterone increases and the blood flow eventually slows and the antlers become hard bone and the bucks shed the remaining fuzzy velvet skin on the antlers. They sport these unique antlers through the breeding season and by late winter they shed the entire antler and the process starts all over again. 

Hunting older age class animals and putting value on the a larger set of antlers has been attributed to be one of the aspects that helped recover species like deer across the country. A change of the culture from market hunting, at the end of the 19th century, to more of sporting culture that promoted responsible harvest and fair chase, encouraged the taking of larger bucks and not just the killing every deer that you have a shot at.  Some of these principles were codified into law and state regulations limited the harvesting of does so that the deer populations could recover.  We are now obviously on the other end of the spectrum in some areas where deer populations are booming, and the harvesting of antlerless deer is encouraged to reduce deer numbers.

For me personally I will pass on some small bucks in hopes that I can get an opportunity at a larger buck.  Indiana is a one buck state, and it is not difficult to get shot opportunities at young bucks who aren’t as wary as their older, more experienced, brethren.  Taking a larger buck is a challenge.  It takes patience, woodsmanship, a understanding of deer behavior and an intimacy with a particular piece of ground so that you can predict where deer might be at certain times.  Also, taking a larger buck gets you way more meat than a smaller one or a doe. This being said, my ultimate goal at the end of the season is to have venison in my freezer. So I will take does whenever I get the opportunity, and if I find myself with an empty freezer and deer season is coming to a close then I shift to a meat hunter and will harvest small bucks. 


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from Ramón Monrás-Sender and Airport People.

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