Adventures of a Rookie Sportsperson

CPW Public Information Officer Joey Livingston, RSP participant Alex Navon and CPW Wildlife Officer Aaron Berscheid (pictured left to right) learned first hand that hunting is about more than success. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife / Alex Navon

Novice hunters learn the pursuit of game offers valuable lessons that outweigh the harvest

By Joey Livingston
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Our hearts were pounding from excitement on an early morning of Colorado’s spring turkey season as a large Merriam’s gobbler marched his way towards us.

Would this be our chance to harvest a turkey? Would we actually get to “void” a turkey hunting license? Would we be the first members of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 2024 Rookie Sportsperson Program (RSP) class to bring home wild game?

Our hunt started well before sunrise at 4:30 a.m. in an area southwest of Colorado Springs near Cheyenne Mountain where we began our trek through the forest to find some birds and a place to hide. Eventually, we set up on a hillside overlooking a small valley with a 12-gauge shotgun at the ready, watching anxiously for the turkey we could hear gobbling nearby but out of sight.

Our mentor, CPW Officer Aaron Berscheid, had taught us to call in adult male turkeys – called toms – by using a wooden turkey calling device called a slate call that imitates the sounds female turkeys make when they are in heat and ready to mate.

As novice hunters, RSP participant Alex Navon and I were not terribly confident we could use the slate call effectively enough to call in the tom despite the instruction we received. Fortunately, the RSP offers some advantages and our mentor took the lead, using his experience to draw the gobbler in.

So here we were with a big, beautiful tom strutting toward the hillside. His tail feathers were spread to attract the female he thought he heard. I could see his head crown, which is white during the spring mating season. His snood hung long down his face and his major caruncles were engorged with blood, again due to it being mating season.

This tom had distinct breast feathers and an eight-inch beard, suggesting it was a large and mature male, a specimen of a turkey that any hunter would be proud to harvest.

Some people think hunting is easy. You get a firearm and camouflage, get out to the forest early and you can be home by lunch, right? This is far from the case in Colorado where giving animals a fighting chance (called the rule of fair-chase) is an integral aspect of wildlife conservation and management.

The RSP teaches people the skills they need to increase their chance of success while hunting, but success is not the only goal. The program’s primary mission is to encourage participants to live an active lifestyle that promotes the conservation of Colorado’s natural resources.

To get participants ready to hunt turkey this spring, Wildlife Officer Drew Vrbenec hosted a Turkey Hunting 101 class in early April.

“The class covers various aspects of turkey hunting, from the biology of turkeys to necessary gear and hunting strategies,” Vrbenec said. “Spring is turkey mating season so you can imitate their sounds to attract them and draw them in, but you must remain hidden with camouflage and hunting blinds – which is a camouflage tent – because they have keen eyesight and can spook easily.”

Vrbenec went on to discuss how the class aims to equip participants with the knowledge and skills needed to enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding turkey hunting experience, emphasizing the importance of persistence, patience, and an appreciation for the outdoors.

“We were very clear about the challenges of turkey hunting during the class so I was excited to see how enthusiastic participants were about learning,” Vrbenec said. “We discussed how each hunting trip, whether successful or not, offers valuable learning experiences and opportunities to appreciate nature.”

With the knowledge gained during Officer Vrebenc’s class, Alex and I headed out well before sunrise with hope and optimism that we would beat the odds and successfully bag a bird.

Wild turkeys, despite what some believe, can and do fly. Turkeys will spend their nights roosted in trees out of the reach of predators such as coyotes, foxes, bobcats and mountain lions. As the sun comes up, they leave the roost in search of food, and in the spring, a mate. This is a hunter’s best opportunity to bag a bird.

As we marched quietly through the dark forest, Officer Berscheid began using both a diaphragm and slate call to imitate the sound of a female turkey ready to mate. Female turkeys will make a distinct chirp or clucking sound that can send a male into a frenzy trying to find her.

Then we heard it: “Gobble, gobble, gobble.”

There were toms nearby interested in our calls! We placed a decoy hen in front of us and hunkered down in some brush so we wouldn’t be spotted. Officer Berschied continued chirping away to draw them in.

We knew the turkeys were close, but couldn’t get one in sight to take a shot. We repeated the process a few times, moving to several more locations as we tried to pinpoint them. Our anticipation continued to build as the minutes and hours passed.

Then, from our fourth location on a hillside overlooking a valley, we finally saw a large tom strutting into view, gobbling away as he looked for the hen he expected to be there. After all the hours of anticipation, Alex and I could barely contain our excitement.

“When we got our first response, I was like ‘oh yeah, here we go!’,” Alex said. “But we had to move around to a few spots even though we could hear them gobbling all around us. When we got to that spot on the hill where we finally saw one, Officer Berscheid was telling me, ‘calm down, be quiet, stop moving.’ But I kept seeing the turkey getting closer and closer and my heart just kept pounding and it was hard to stay still.”

Alex and I then learned a hard lesson that we had been warned about by Officer Vrbenec: success is not guaranteed.

Before we could get a clean shot, our tom spotted us, made a “putt, putt, putt” noise to warn other birds of nearby danger and then took off in the other direction.

Our hunt was ruined by a simple movement as we tried to get comfortable after sitting frozen in place. It was enough to send the tom running, sounding the alarm.

CPW harvest statistics show that in 2023 only 34% of spring turkey hunters were successful, with each hunter spending an average of 16 hours in the field. Only two of our 20 RSP participants successfully harvested a turkey this year.

You would think the experience would be disheartening, especially after all that work, taking a class from trained professionals, buying equipment, getting up and driving super early, and hiking through the dark forest.

But Alex said it will be all the more rewarding when he finally voids his license.

“Even though we were unsuccessful today and didn’t bag a turkey, I learned quite a lot,” Alex said. “I learned a lot about stealth, trying to be quiet and getting into a good position early in case your leg falls asleep and how to use brush and branches in the foreground to try to mask where you are at. You think not moving would be easy, but even turning your head slightly can give you away.”

The following morning, Alex, Officer Berscheid and I headed out again and ran into an additional challenge, maneuvering public and private land boundaries and using GPS. A vital aspect of hunting is knowing how to navigate to avoid trespassing onto land you do not have permission to hunt.

Landowners in Colorado are not required to mark their land as private and the onus is on the hunter to know where they are. Trespassing is one of the most common tickets CPW wildlife officers issue.

Learning from our mistakes of the prior day and utilizing lessons taught during Turkey Hunting 101, we brought a pop-up hunting blind to better hide our location and movement. We also had a better idea of where the turkeys were roosting and were even more optimistic that we would be successful.

As the sun began to rise, we could hear the turkeys gobbling right on the boundary where we had permission to hunt. So we decided to set up our blind and decoy, and began tempting them to cross the boundary with the sounds of a hen ready to mate.

We could hear a gobbler move in so close it seemed to be on top of us, taunting us. It was so loud it sounded like it was mere feet away but we never caught a glimpse. Eventually, the turkey moved deeper into the area we did not have permission to hunt. With the prospect of success diminishing and family duties later in the day, we decided to call it and head home.

The turkeys lived to gobble another day.

After two early mornings and two unsuccessful hunts, I asked Alex what got him interested in this program and if it has been worth it so far.

“Absolutely,” Alex said. “I have always been interested in hunting and I have a 3-year-old that I hope to teach once I am competent. I am from Puerto Rico, my dad was an archer and I have friends that are into hunting but I am excited to finally learn for myself. Even though I wasn’t successful these past two days, I have learned so much already and look forward to all of the other events coming up this year.”

Check out some photos and a short video from the day.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of our “Adventures in the Rookie Sportsperson Program.”

Joey Livingston is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Joey has lived in Colorado for 9 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at

Please visit the CPW Calendar to discover opportunities to engage the sportsperson in you:

Saturday, June 15 – Bird Beak Bonanza at Highline Lake State Park
Have you ever wondered why bird beaks all look different? Join CPW for an interactive program to explore bird beak specialization. Step into the “feathers” of our feathered friends to explore how different bird beak shapes are suited for various and interesting feeding methods. Adventure begins at the Highline Lake State Park visitor center.

This program is free but a valid day pass or annual pass is required to enter the park.

Saturday, June 22 – Level 1 Mountain Bike Fundamentals at Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Have a mountain bike but not really sure how to ride it? Mountain biking is more than just riding a bike and understanding the basic skills of mountain biking will not only make you safer on the bike, but will boost your confidence and make riding more fun. Bring your bikes, helmets, snacks, and water and join Bike Instructor Certification Program mountain bike instructor, Ranger Rick, to learn the fundamentals of mountain biking!

This program is intended for novice riders and recommended for ages 14 and up. For the safety of the group and flow of the lesson, no riders under the age of 14 will be permitted. Adventure begins at the Limekiln Trailhead parking lot. Please register at this link.

This program is free but a valid day pass or annual pass is required to enter the park.

Wednesday, June 26 – Women of the West at Mueller State Park
Mueller State Park was home to many hard working women. Meet CPW Naturalist Allison on the trail to experience and hear about the daily lives of women who lived in Mueller. Adventure begins at the Elk Meadow Trailhead.

This program is free but a valid day pass or annual pass is required to enter the park.