Soon after his shotgun’s blast, the hunter sprinted toward what he thought was a coveted prize: the wild turkey gobbler he’d been calling to and watching.
But Kenneth Dienst found he actually had shot his brother and a friend.
“Right after he shot, he thought he saw a turkey flopping on the ground, but when he hurried up there, he saw two guys rolling on the ground. He’d shot (both) in the face,” said Jim Bussone, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism game warden who investigated the April 12 incident in Crawford County.
“The shooter swore he’d seen strutting toms and some other turkeys right up until then.”
But in reality, he’d been looking at a gobbler’s preserved tail fan, behind which Gary Dienst and Justin Wiles had been hiding and sneaking. The shooter was behind another fan. Bussone said the hunters ended up hunting each other.
According to Dan Peak, Crawford County sheriff, the victims – who spent time in three hospitals – are expected to survive.
Their story that day is one of bad decisions made by all, a potentially dangerous hunting tactic and the tricks that excitement can play on the human mind.
“When I teach hunter ed classes, I tell them even some good people can become undone by a big deer or a turkey and make mistakes,” Bussone said. “You always have to be thinking, be careful and stay under control.”
April 12 was opening day of the Kansas spring turkey season, an exciting time when hunters usually replicate the sounds of hen turkeys to bring amorous toms into shotgun range.
Kenneth Dienst is from West Plains, Mo. Gary Dienst and Wiles are from Arkansas. They were hunting on leased lands in southeast Kansas.
Bussone said Kenneth Dienst had been dropped off at one property, while his buddies went to hunt at another. As well as turkey calls, the hunters were using a tactic known as fanning, in which the preserved tail fan of a wild turkey is used to attract, or sneak up on, a wild gobbler.
Bussone said problems began when Gary Dienst and Wiles returned to the property where Kenneth Dienst was hunting without telling him they were there.
Bussone referred to changing locations without alerting others as “one of the cardinal sins we teach against in hunter ed.”
“They were calling to each other and sneaking up on each other like two toms coming at each other,” Bussone said. “Both swore they were sneaking on real turkeys.”
Hunting is a relatively safe pastime, said Mike Miller, Wildlife and Parks information chief.
Last year, Kansas had 11 people injured while hunting amid an estimated 5 million hunter days across the state. None were fatal.
There was one fatality in 2015, from a record-low six reported incidents.
Kansas turkey hunters annually total about 300,000 days’ hunting and have had nine incidents over the past 11 seasons. Nationwide, turkey hunting accident rates fell for many years.
“At one time, incidents were up to around 8.1 per 100,000 turkey hunters,” said Tom Hughes of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a conservation group that has helped pull America’s wild turkey population from as low as 200,000 birds a century ago to more than 7 million today. “The last we checked (about 10 years ago), we were down around three incidents or less.”
Hughes credited education for lowering the accident rates. Turkey hunters are warned against wearing anything that’s red, blue or white – the colors of a tom turkey’s head – and against trying to sneak in on the sounds of turkey calls.
Hughes fears accident rates may climb again since fanning has become popular with turkey hunters. He said he has heard of several accidents nationwide. The Crawford County accident is thought to be the first in Kansas.
Fanning is an effective tactic, and toms that have often ignored a hunter’s calls have run to a turkey fan, thinking it could be a rival tom. Some turkeys have actually collided with fans held by hunters.
Other times, hunters have hidden behind a fan and crawled across open ground to a flock of turkeys that think it’s just another bird coming to tag along.
Garrett Roe of Hays enjoys fanning. Since 2010, his company, Heads Up Decoy, has sold a turkey fan holder that looks like the head and main body of a tom. Hunters can attach it to their bow or set it up on a stake.
Roe said he has not heard of any customers being involved in hunting accidents. Still, he urges caution.
“You always have to be aware of your surroundings,” said Roe, who primarily hunts on open prairies. “We’re usually set up out in the open so we can see. We also hunt almost exclusively on private ground where there are no other hunters.
“If there are other hunters around, we make sure all are aware of each other.”
Excitement alters reality
But a hunting accident still occurred when Gary Dienst and Wiles knew they were sharing the hunting area with Kenneth Dienst.
“We often see what we want to see; our perception becomes our reality,” said John Simmering of Hesston, a psychologist and hunter of more than 50 years.
“You have this heightened awareness and excitement on a hunt. Then we see something, like a fan, and it triggers our brain to start filling in things we’ve seen before.”
Simmering thinks Kenneth Dienst thought he was looking at a flock of turkeys, possibly a flock he had seen earlier, when he decided to take a shot from about 30 yards away. Efforts to contact Dienst were unsuccessful.
Bussone, Hughes and Miller all said Kenneth Dienst broke several hunting safety rules by not being 100 percent sure of his target and shooting at movement. Rather than deliberately aiming at the head and neck of a bird for a quick kill, he also just fired at a fan, which sits at the other end of a turkey, Miller said.
Kansas law also says hunters may only shoot turkeys with visible beards, a hairlike growth protruding from the chests of most toms. The shooter obviously did not see a turkey beard when the shot was fired, Miller said.
“The error is always with the shooter on these kinds of things. They pulled the trigger,” said Hughes, with the National Wild Turkey Federation. “The problem is with some techniques, like fanning, it makes it all too easy for the shooter to make that mistake.”
Peak said the single shot put multiple shotgun pellets into the faces and bodies of both victims. Kenneth Dienst drove the victims to a hospital in Girard. They were flown to a hospital in Joplin, Mo., and then to the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Fayetteville.
The hospital could not release any information on the victims.
The shooting has been ruled accidental by Peak. Bussone and Hughes fear it will be repeated.
Last weekend, the game warden checked several hunters in southeast Kansas. Most said they had brought some sort of fan, though few had used them.
“I told them I’d appreciate it if they didn’t use them,” he said. “They can if they want to, but I don’t want to work any more of these cases.
“Hunting is supposed to be fun, not something where you get hurt or maimed.”