The Old Pro Turkey Hunter Speaks
Amid the crazed climate of social media, the internet’s most camouflaged conservationist talks declining birds, hunting culture, and why he’s using Instagram for good instead of fame.
Earlier this spring, listening to sleet blow against the windows, I absentmindedly doom-scrolled Instagram. But my hit of melancholy was unexpectedly delayed.
I paused on a post showing a wild turkey, a tom in full strut, with a quote by writer Tom Kelly running across the top of the image.
As the words sank in, the familiar, distorted lens of social media cleared:
Turkey hunting is not a game that needs a score or a score keeper and does not require the production of a dead turkey to qualify as a success. Done properly and unscored, it is about as even as anything can be when one of the participants has a loaded shotgun and the other has not.
Who was this person promoting the virtues of an unsuccessful hunt? And near the beginning of turkey season, no less – internet blasphemy. And it got worse.
A quick review revealed previous posts and stories had nuance, history, balance on touchy issues, non-cliche’ literary references, and conservation principles that didn’t smell of virtue signalling. I couldn’t figure out what The Old Pro Turkey Hunter Instagram account was about.
This person was doing a poor job of courting a pro staff gig. The lack of effort made me smile. I couldn’t even figure out who was running the thing; he or she hadn’t included a glowing, self-penned profile.
I realize I’m being awfully hard on social media. I’ll soften it by acknowledging not all brands are craven opportunists. Not all influencers are camouflaged narcissists; I can think of at least a few who are lovely people behind and in front of the camera.
My old man-ish grumbling is driven by the overall, long-term impact of the platforms.
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Social media’s attention economy ruthlessly rewards extremes. The hunting community is no more or less beholden to the algorithm than other groups. But for hunters, the self-harm inflicted by the digital funhouse mirror cuts especially deep.
Hunting is nothing if not nuance. The difference between hunting and just killing is subtle. It hinges on ethics, conservation, and a profusion of other big, messy ideas to make the distinction.
But big ideas are in short supply on social media, so I talked myself into figuring out who was responsible for the broader, more complicated narrative filling The Old Pro Turkey Hunter’s feed. Why expend so much effort quietly bucking the trend? Call it curiosity.
Our mystery man, Jason Worley, 47, of southwest Missouri, wasn’t really a mystery.
The missing bio? He said, “For me it’s 100 percent about the bird and the future. I have no desire to be known or thought of as anyone other than a guy who deeply cares for the resource. Other than a by-line for some freelance writing, few will ever hear my name. I don't want to detract from the message in any way.”
Worley and I went on to speak at length about his background and motivation, turkey numbers, social media, hunting culture, and much more.
He has opinions, but his perspective is clear-eyed about the state of our sport, yet practical about where we go from here.
[Interview has been edited for clarity]
BRS: You have a unique Instagram account, what motivated you to start it? And where did your handle (The Old Pro Turkey Hunter) come from?
JW: I started it as a way to share the story behind the tradition of turkey hunting and to promote the literary side of turkey hunting. Really, I wanted to share something different. Twenty-ish years ago I shut off most video media because I just didn't care for what I was seeing.
After a handful of friends started showing me some clips of the up-and-coming trends as well as the "look at me" mentality of many leading shows, I felt I needed to share a side of turkey hunting that was more intimate. I'm actually not a huge fan of social media, all I do is IG, but saw it as a way to reach out to hunters and make them think beyond just trying to be relevant to what is mainstream these days.
The wild turkey has been facing issues for several years now and I hoped, even if in a small way, to take the focus away from just killing. I am a collector of turkey hunting literature as well as anything about the ''why" of hunting.
I will say over time it has turned into a way to address some of the issues that face wild turkeys and turkey hunting. I try to draw from the past and relate them to certain topics I feel are important.
My handle is actually the title of a book I read in the mid-80s, The Old Pro Turkey Hunter, by Gene Nunnery. It was this book that shaped me as a turkey hunter and in many ways, a hunter. The main premise of the book is that turkey hunting doesn't have to end with a dead bird to be considered a success. It taught me respect for the bird and the experience.
BRS: The Old Pro Turkey Hunter falls outside the big buckets of typical hunting accounts. It seems to me most of these accounts are: 1) This is me or me and my friends hunting; 2) I’m an influencer or associated with the industry and this is me hunting PLUS a marketing angle; 3) Other side of the coin: Anti-influencer / anti-industry hunting memes. Your account strikes me as none of these. Am I right?
JW: I believe your analysis is right. In the beginning I fell into that "look at me" mentality but realized quickly that just wasn't showing anyone the things I held as important.
I have tried hard to engage hunters in a way that will make them think and want to embrace the deeper side of the experience and not just the grip and grin so many would like us to believe is the only definition of success.
I really want hunters to define for themselves what success is. I hate seeing people and/or hunters become a product of the industry themselves. As you may be able to tell, with the exception of a couple companies and organizations, I feel the industry – and I hate calling it an industry – has instilled in many a concept of success that ultimately only benefits them and their bottom dollar.
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BRS: What do you make of the internet (let’s say IG) hunting culture? Is it possible to draw any large-scale conclusions about what social media is doing to hunting as a whole? I could argue the two extremes of “bringing people together, educating, promoting hunting,” vs. “simplifying, dumbing down, exploiting, monetizing an important part of our culture.” Is one more correct than the other?
JW: I agree completely on both arguments about Instagram. There is so much good that can come from it, and there is some good out there, but I feel like we as hunters have fallen into a hole or mindset that hunting is about "me."
Social media is a tricky thing mainly due to human nature and a want to be recognized and relevant. It's a very scary thing when the center of attention is a natural resource, and in the case of wild turkeys, a declining resource.
I think we are just beginning to see the real impacts of it. Many of us who grew up in different times may not recognize those negative impacts until they have taken hold. I'm always surprised at the number of young and new hunters that look to social media as a way to truly learn.
Yes, one can gain some knowledge, but nothing beats an actual hunter taking you out and showing and teaching and exemplifying what hunting is and how to respect it. Social media has shortened our attention span to a point that it's nearly impossible to gain a solid message.
It becomes just entertainment and a way to attempt to be relevant. It's something the hunting world needs to wrap themselves around and sort out fully. I truly believe it will play a big role for each individual hunter. As big a role as the gun they choose, the ammunition they shoot or the camo they wear. It's a part of what we do these days and we better learn to respect it and hold it accountable – at an individual level.
BRS: And do you think influencers are having an actual effect on hunting culture at-large, or is it just surface level entertainment and marketing?
JW: I absolutely believe that influencers have an impact on hunting culture, due to human nature and the need for relevance. Through their actions they can normalize and make many things acceptable, especially with young and new hunters. It's something we’re only beginning to realize.
Sadly, many of them don't view their responsibility as stewards of hunting as anything more than entertainment or a way to get paid. Many only care about a number and not their long-term impact on hunting as a whole. It truly will play a role in our future; I'm confident of it.
Social media is a godsend for anti-hunters and animal rights people. They no longer have to provoke us into a response, now we give it to them freely. Influencers can also have a tremendous impact on hunting pressure on specific places if they fail to be careful about what and where they show.
The concept of an influencer is really nothing new, it just now has a title and a much broader impact. In years past there were outdoor writers who showcased states and locations, but they only reached a select few who may subscribe to a magazine or happened to read an article.
There was a cost to see them and the impacts were limited and delayed. Then we had video media personalities who did the same and also fell into that limitation of cost and availability.
Then came the internet, social media, YouTube, and we have a message at our fingertips and it’s free. Worse, it’s unlimited, unchecked, in our faces 24/7 and it reaches millions in a matter of seconds. The impacts are not delayed and I fear it could lead to specific locations and resources becoming overused and abused. Influencers should be held to a much higher standard, and should be held accountable.
BRS: It’s no secret there’s a growing issue with declining wild turkey numbers. You probably know more about this than I do. What’s going on here? Liberal bag limits? More hunters? Different techniques (reaping, etc)? What can or should be done?
JW: Yes, turkey numbers are definitely declining and have been for some time now. There are many reasons why, and as Dr. Michael Chamberlin said, "It's death by a thousand cuts."
We turkey hunters are a passionate lot and everyone you talk to will have a specific reason for why those numbers are declining and I have to say, each reason is most likely a part of it. I rank habitat loss as the number one reason. The changing landscape that has taken away the needed nesting and brooding habitat is huge.
Much of that changed landscape is now a perfect home for predators, specifically nest predators. The changing weather patterns that lead to colder and wetter springs also play a role. The loss of insects due to pesticide use ,and disease that is easily transmitted from domestic poultry also play a role.
To fix these problems, though, we will need a huge shift in how people use the land, namely private land since it makes up the vast majority of the turkeys’ range. Changing that land use is a huge undertaking that I fear will never reach the level we need it to.
Now, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make a change. We should, and we do it through education and showing people the value of the bird, a value that goes beyond hunting.
A strong incentive program offered to private landowners, either by state agencies or conservation organizations could be huge, especially in areas seeing the most declines. An incentive program focused on helping wild turkeys and promoted to all private landowners and not just those who own hunting land.
On hunting and the turkey hunter: Where do I begin? I believe we turkey hunters play a much bigger role in the future of the bird than we realize. That role goes way beyond promoting management practices, donating money, becoming a member of an organization, or bringing in a new hunter.
Our biggest role will be embracing change and accepting the fact that we can't continue to hunt this bird as we did in the 90s and 2000s. Sadly, in many ways we are hunting it harder and promoting trends that are not sustainable, not with a declining population.
If we want the bird to be around at levels that are huntable at any scale we will have to accept a loss of opportunity, and impose upon ourselves some limitations. We will need to pass that acceptance onto young and new hunters. We have to get away from a kill at all cost mindset.
We also need to wrap ourselves around the fact that our advancements in technology and trends have outpaced our understanding of the impacts of those things, or at least our acceptance of those impacts.
We have removed the bird's ability to elude the average hunter. There are birds that were once unkillable unless you were willing to devote days or even an entire season to hunting them. They are now being killed with specialized guns, spewing TSS from 70 yards behind a fan, on opening day, before they were ever given the opportunity to breed.
The same bird that may have only lived for a week or two longer was at least given more opportunity to breed. But due to our technology, it has now been removed, the breeding cycle has been disrupted and nesting delayed. It's something I hope managers take a serious look at.
In short, If we continue to hunt the bird as we are, we will be as big a reason for their decline as habitat loss, disease, and weather changes, and maybe, in some locations, especially on public lands, moreso. The bird's future rests heavily on us as hunters and what we choose to accept both from a regulation standpoint, but also on a personal level.
BRS: How does your history and experience inform your message?. Where’s the motivation for this effort come from?
JW: I grew up in a hunting family in southwest Missouri. In typical, traditional fashion, my father introduced me to hunting at a young age. He, along with my grandfather and uncles, allowed me to tag along anytime they went hunting or fishing.
Mostly it was small game hunting, but my father also hunted deer and turkey, fall only, as the population of both grew on our family farm. Fortunately, I still live on the same farm.
They were adamant and often very strict teachers, but that strictness didn't end with safety. It carried over into strong lessons about respect for the animal I was hunting. Hunting for attention or a number was not tolerated.
We hunted to eat, relax, and spend time with one another. My turkey hunting began in the October woods. My father never hunted turkeys in the spring but loved to hunt them each fall. After shooting my first turkey in the early 80s I became obsessed with the bird and taught myself to hunt them in the spring.
Of course, I read everything I could and wore out a handful of VHS and cassette tapes. I also grew up, and still am, a fisherman. Second only to turkey hunting is floating the rivers fishing for smallmouth bass. I’m also a serious deer hunter. I try to get into the woods each fall with a rifle, muzzleloader, and bow.
Squirrels also hold a special place in my hunting each year. I guess I’m an all around hunter and fisherman. I simply love being outside and this love led me to study wildlife conservation and management. Sadly, after graduating, life took some strange turns and I unfortunately don't work in the wildlife management field these days.
BRS: R3 (recruitment, retention, reactivation) is the current darling of many state agencies, and conservation and hunting organizations. Is it making a difference? Is the execution living up to the ideal?
JW: R3 is a good thing, but I think we fall short of its potential. Many organizations seem to promote it more as a participation number. This concept that all we need is a high number of participants and we can fix our problems leads to a lot of unacceptable outcomes.
Sometimes it feels like many are just wanting to profit off of that number and our standards are lowered because of it. I'm a firm believer in quality over quantity. That quality can be reached on a large scale, but we need to first create hunters that care about the resource 365 days a year, not just when they can kill it. We do that by devoting ourselves to new hunters for the long term.
We don't create hunters by simply taking them on one hunt, we don't create hunters by simply helping them pass a hunter education course, we don't create hunters by simply getting them to become a member of an organization.
We create hunters by doing all of that for each and every one of them, but it doesn't end there. It's a multi-season, multi-year, and in some cases, a multi-generational commitment to an individual. Through that long-term commitment we create those year-round stewards that care and they will, in turn, do the same.
In many cases they will see their real role as a hunter and steward of the tradition of hunting and never leave our ranks, eliminating that need to "retain and reactivate." And, if they do leave our ranks they are much more likely to continue supporting hunting and its role because they still see the good in it.
I also believe it should be expanded to R4 with "Representation" being added. We hunters have a serious issue with how we represent our beloved way of life. How we represent hunting is as important as recruiting new hunters.
The most important people we need to impress aren't fellow hunters or those opposed to what we do, although we need to keep them always in mind. The most important are those sitting on the fence; the people who don't hunt but have no real opinion on it.
Those that are currently neither for or against it. Those are the people who will make or break our future and we have to get better at understanding how our actions impact them and their decision to support us or not.
Ben Shadley is Editor & Publisher of The Sportsman.