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Turkey hunting is safe, but caution is a requirement

by DOUG SMITH, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS - Roxie Miller, clad in camouflage hunting clothes, sat in her blind scanning the southern Minnesota landscape for wild turkeys when she heard a twig snap.

"The next thing I heard was a shotgun blast," she said. "It felt like the wind was knocked out of me. Then I saw the insulation from my jacket flying in the air, and I felt a burning sensation. I put my hand by my upper chest, and that's when I saw the blood and realized I was shot."

Miller was hit by a spray of 12-gauge shotgun pellets fired by a hunter just 30 yards away who thought he was shooting at a turkey partially obscured by brush.

Miller, now 55, of rural Waseca was rushed to Waseca Hospital, then airlifted to a Rochester hospital, where she remained a week. Pellets were imbedded in her head, face, neck, chest, both arms, back and right leg.

"My kids counted about 150 holes in my jacket," Miller said last week.

The incident - which occurred in 2001 - has left scars, both emotional and physical. About 20 pellets remain in her body, and some continue to cause health problems.

Despite Miller's experience, wild turkey hunting has been extremely safe in Minnesota. Just 13 incidents have been reported since modern hunts for gobblers began 27 years ago. None was fatal.

"It's extremely safe," said Jeff Thielen, Department of Natural Resources enforcement education coordinator. "Especially when you look at the number of permits we've given out every year. Other states with turkey hunting would be envious of our record."

"I've touted our turkey hunting clinics as the reason we've had so few incidents," Thielen said.

Those state-sponsored clinics were mandatory when turkey hunting began in 1978, and Thielen figures many of the 40,000 or so turkey hunters in Minnesota have taken the course.

But Thielen said Miller's case and the others like it underscore the potential danger for turkey hunters and the necessity of following hunter-safety recommendations.

There are inherent dangers for turkey hunters that other hunters don't face. Turkey hunters usually are dressed totally in camouflage, mimic the sound of a wild turkey and move through woods where other turkey hunters might be concealed in blinds.

"Almost every one of the 13 incidents we've had, either the shooter was moving or the victim was moving," Thielen said. "That's why we tell people to stay put. Don't be stalking turkeys."

If a hunter must move to a new location, they should put on a piece of blaze orange clothing, Thielen said.

"Also, don't wear any clothing with white, red, blue or black - the colors of turkeys," he said.

Another key, of course - but one that was violated in most of Minnesota's turkey hunting incidents - is to absolutely positively identify the target before pulling the trigger. In Minnesota, only a turkey with a visible beard can be legally killed.

In Miller's case and others, the hunters who fired the errant shots were convinced they were shooting at turkeys.

"We call it premature closure; they want to see it so bad that they think they do," Thielen said.

Miller's nightmare - and the nightmare for the 34-year-old Minnetonka hunter who shot her - unfolded in the woods in the early morning. Miller, her husband, Ken, and a friend set up separately for turkeys on private property.

According to court reports, she sat against a stump in a blue chair - a color Thielen said should never be used by turkey hunters because the head of a turkey is blue.

"We recommend they don't even have something like a blue Pepsi can with them," he said.

The Miller group had received permission to hunt the land two years previously, but not in 2001, according to an affidavit filed in court by the landowner. The Minnetonka hunter recently had received permission to hunt the land from the owner, and neither was aware that others would be hunting it.

Said Thielen: "Never assume you are the only person hunting on a piece of property, even if it's private."

According to court records, the Minnetonka hunter was walking to a spot to hunt when he heard a turkey gobble. He told authorities he saw movement in the brush and saw a flash of blue that he thought was a turkey. He even thought he saw a beard on the turkey. He fired once, striking Miller.

He later pleaded guilty to reckless use of a dangerous weapon, was fined $500, put on probation for one year, lost his hunting privileges for one year and was ordered to speak at gun safety classes.

"He was very remorseful," said Waseca County Attorney Larry Collins, who prosecuted the case.

Miller said the incident has changed her life, just as it likely has changed the life of the hunter who shot her.

"I don't refer to it as an accident," she said. "To me an accident is something that cannot be avoided. And this could have been."

Miller said she's not the same. She hunted for 30 years before the incident, but now finds it difficult to go into the woods alone.

"I don't have the peace of mind that I used to," she said. "It's always in the back of your mind."

She said she's not angry at the hunter who shot her.

"I just try to deal with it and go on," Miller said.

Her recommendations to turkey hunters:

"Don't stalk a turkey. Make sure you see a visible beard. Be more alert. Don't shoot at a sound or movement.

"Take a second to make sure, because once you pull the trigger, there's no calling that shot back."

Uploaded: 4/25/2004