Cheryl Delaney-Olson heard the big tom turkey spitting and drumming nearby. Crawling on hands and knees to edge closer, the first-time turkey hunter peeked around a bush, leveled her shotgun and fired.

"One shot!'' she said Tuesday. "I was so excited, I was just shaking. I was absolutely thrilled.''

Delaney-Olson, 51, of Osage, Minn., was among 31 women who participated in a mentored spring turkey hunt last year. Her mentor was Kristi Coughlon, 53, of Bemidji, a veteran hunter who shared her knowledge and experience.

"It was just so cool,'' Coughlon said. "I had a ball.''

The women's hunt was a spinoff of the mentored youth turkey hunt, held for the past 13 years to encourage turkey hunting. While the youth hunt has been deemed successful — about 125 kids went out with parents and mentors last weekend — officials have decided that a better way to recruit new turkey hunters might be to focus on getting adults into the field.

The women's hunt was launched three years ago, but this year it has been expanded to include both men and women. Volunteer mentors will take out about 18 women and 37 men next month for their first turkey hunts ever. The newbies range in age from 18 to 71.

"If we get the adults hooked on turkey hunting, hopefully they will pass it along to their families, and it will be a lot easier to get the kids hooked,'' said Mike Kurre, Department of Natural Resources mentoring program coordinator.

The problem with focusing only on youth hunts to recruit new hunters is that those youngsters are totally dependent on adults.

"Youths have to rely on their parents for licenses and equipment, and to get them to and from the hunt, and they can only do it on weekends when they don't have school,'' said Keith Carlson, 52, of Anoka, a National Wild Turkey Federation member who helps coordinate both the youth- and adult-mentored hunts.

Without cooperation from their parents, the interest shown by young hunters can fizzle.

Adults can more easily take up the sport and, if they do, bring other family members into it, too, including their children, Carlson said. Plenty of adults are interested.

"We had 85 applications, and we only could handle 55,'' said Kurre, because of lack of mentors and places to hunt. One mentor accompanies two hunters. "I hate turning people down,'' Carlson said. "Our goal is to get more mentors.'' And more landowners to allow mentored hunts.

Officials want to grow the adult program, but there are no plans to eliminate the youth turkey hunts. More than 2,400 youths have gotten a taste of turkey hunting since the program began in 2002. Officials don't know how many of those have continued to hunt gobblers.

"It's still a way to get kids involved — and get them away from computers,'' Carlson said.

The youths hunted last weekend. The adults are hunting May 16-17. The Turkey Federation plays a major role: All the mentors are NWTF members, and the program is part of the group's "Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt" initiative. That 10-year national plan aims to conserve or enhance 4 million acres of upland habitat, create 1.5 million more hunters, and open up 500,000 more acres to hunting.

One concern nationally is declining hunter numbers. While actual hunter numbers have been stable in Minnesota, the percentage of hunters in the overall population has been declining, and the average age has been increasing. Because hunters fund a healthy share of the nation's conservation efforts through their license fees and taxes on equipment, many conservation groups have promoted youth hunts as a way to recruit more hunters.

"We're working on increasing the number of hunters across the nation,'' said Carlson, who will share his passion next month with two adult turkey hunting novices.

Delaney-Olson, who plans to hunt turkeys this spring, gives the mentored hunts two thumbs up.

"What better way to learn than to have someone show you how?'' she said.

Doug Smith •

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib