The right place at the right time.
That’s where Jonathon Ballinger and his mom, Cindy, of Amherst Junction found themselves April 11, the first day of Wisconsin’s two-day youth turkey hunt.
The Ballingers were huddled in a blind just north of Waupaca with their hunting mentor, Charlie Wanty. The trio were waiting for turkeys that Wanty had been watching for more than a week.
“I had been scouting these birds and had been seeing them every morning in that field,” Wanty said. “I figured if we got set up in the right spot, we’d have a chance. We’d get there extra-early so the birds wouldn’t hear us coming in. I picked these guys up at 4:15 and we were probably out in the blind by 5. We were out there bright and early. They probably showed up at about 6:45 or 7, right when the sun was hitting the field.”
Wanty accompanied the Ballingers through the state Department of Natural Resources’ mentored hunting program, a way to introduce new hunters to the sport. Hunters must be at least 10 years old; have the appropriate licenses, permits and tags; and can only hunt while within arm’s reach of their mentor.
Cindy prepared for the hunt by completing a hunter education course last fall with her 12-year-old son in Amherst through the Portage County Sheriff’s Department.
“We found out about this mentoring program,” she said. “Jonathon said he’d love to do it and I said, ‘We’ll, I’m going to try it.’ My husband Michael signed us up.”
Wanty has been mentoring turkey hunters for about six years.
“I actually came up through the program, so my first turkey hunt was through this program and I had a blast,” he said. “As soon as I was old enough and had enough experience, they asked me to be mentor and I was all for it.
“I remember my mentor showing me turkey calls and all that fun stuff,” he added. “I was pretty raw. I had no turkey experience. I started with the program and it put me on the right track. From there, I kind of dove into it myself.”
Jonathon didn’t mind getting up early.
“On a school day, it’ll take me about 10 minutes to get up,” he said. “For hunting or anything like that, I’m up as soon as the light goes on.”
Wanty’s preparation for the hunt paid off, as the Ballingers soon had their choice of birds.
“We had a whole bunch of turkeys come in to my decoys,” Wanty said. “We actually had two toms, but we couldn’t get any shots off because there were so many turkeys.”
Cindy got her bird first.
“I shot mine with my gun and Jonathon stood up, dropped the window down and shot a second bird with his crossbow,” she said.
“I was excited for her, but my instincts told me to get my crossbow ready,” Jonathon said. “My heart was pounding. I just felt like I was going to explode. I knew we were going to see some birds. I didn’t know for sure if I was going to get one.”
After the hunt, Wanty and the Ballingers headed to the Waupaca Conservation League grounds and met other first-time hunters that also had a successful hunt. Hunters had harvested eight birds by noon and another group of hunters and mentors headed out to the woods the following day.
“It was an incredible experience,” Cindy said. “I was very emotional. I expected to see birds, but I had Jonathon next to me. Charlie was so patient telling us what to do. It was really neat. I guess what I enjoyed the most was there was so much action. The birds were interweaving and I couldn’t take a shot. He’d patiently say, ‘Not yet, not yet.'”
“I tell them why I’m doing things, like why I’m putting my blind a certain way or why I’m putting my decoys a certain way,” Wanty said. “I try to explain what I do and why and how it can be successful.”
Although Jonathan has shot a pair of deer with his dad, the experience was Cindy’s first time hunting.
“I’ve gone out and scouted with my family before, but never hunted,” she said. “I mentioned to my family that if I was to do any type of hunting, I’d like to try turkey hunting. I know they’re a very keen animal and it would be difficult. I felt like it was something that I could hunt.”
Now that Jonathon has harvested turkey and deer, he’s now looking for an even bigger target.
“I want to go bear hunting,” he said. “I got into (hunting) when I was really young. Dad took me out and I would be able to watch him shoot a turkey or a deer. Whenever he would go out, I was like, ‘Can I go with you?’ I always learn something new whenever I go out with him.”
“As a mom that just shot a bird and a mom of a young boy coming through the program, what a way to start and be taught hunting etiquette,” Cindy said. “It’s awesome, I can’t even put it in words.”
“These guys got spoiled on this hunt,” Wanty said. “It doesn’t happen like that all the time.”
He’s also looking forward to introducing others to his favorite sport.
“I actually get more excited taking others out,” he said. “I just love turkey hunting. We need to get others out and show them what it’s about. Hopefully, in a couple of years, they’re taking other people out.”