The First Hunt

Time sure flies because I can remember my first spring turkey season quite vividly, almost like it was yesterday. Probably it is because it was a special moment in time and I had been fortunately drawn for a very limited spring turkey hunt in northern Michigan during a time turkey hunting in this state was basically in its pioneering stages. The wild turkey had been successfully reintroduced to several areas up north and the bird population had reached a point where state wildlife officials believed harvesting surplus males was a viable option. This occurred in the late 1960’s and I was one of the 30 hunters drawn (for a particular area) for what some referred to as an experimental hunt. (I had found out about this hunt and how to apply for it from watching the late Mort Neff’s weekly “Michigan Outdoors” television show).

It was for a fact a real experiment for me because other than knowing what a male turkey (gobbler) looked like, I didn’t have a clue at all about wild turkey hunting. I know I was excited when my big “turkey hunt” envelope arrived in the mail. Along with a metal “turkey tag”, a map of the area I was allowed to hunt in and a sheet covering the rules of the hunt, there were also a few hunting tips offered. According to the rules, this was a shotgun only hunt and slugs and buckshot could not be used, and hunting was allowed only from sunrise until 1:00 pm. The hunting tips were quite simple and basically informed you that turkeys weren’t color-blind and had very sharp eyesight, excellent hearing and the best method to hunt wild gobblers was to lure them into range by duplicating a hen turkey call because the spring breeding season for wild turkeys would be taking place. I do believe the tips also mentioned trying to go for a headshot to anchor the tough birds.

The first thing I did was obtain my first turkey call, which had to be special ordered at the local hardware store because unlike today, there wasn’t much demand to have turkey calls sitting on the shelf. My turkey call arrived with a small sheet of paper giving directions on how to use it, and other than that, it was my first introduction to turkey calling. Needless to say this would be the beginning of a never ending and trial and error learning experience.

My first turkey shotgun was my grandfather’s ancient 12 ga (Model 1900) Browning “Auto-5”, and I stoked it with high-brass number twos (which was legal back then, but nothing larger than #4 birdshot is allowed today for hunter safety reasons). As for camouflage I wore the same camouflage (in the old leopard frog print) coveralls that I used for bowhunting whitetails in the fall. My “hunting wheels” happened to be the only wheels I owned which was a 1959 Rambler that I had put over-sized tires on for more ground clearance thus allowing me to cover some rough ground (it actually did quite well in this regard). Another advantage to this old car was the fact the front seat could be dropped down to join the back seat to form a comfortable bed. All I needed was a sleeping bag and I was snug as a bug in a rather weatherproof shelter that didn’t take much time at all to setup. To say I was mobile with this unique system would be an understatement.

Remaining light and mobile and camping right in the middle of the hunting area would be something I would continue to do over the years when hunting spring turkeys in northern Michigan. It wasn’t only cheaper on a limited budget, but also there is truly something to be said about crawling out of your sleeping bag in the morning, stretching, and then be able to start hunting right off the get go. Until my three sons came along to change my ways, I tended to be a loaner during outdoor activities. On occasion I would have a companion, but no more than one, and I generally preferred going solo. It might be selfish on my part, but being solo meant I didn’t have anyone else’s schedules or opinions (especially on my cooking ability or eating habits, which can be quite irregular when in the field) to deal with.

My first spring turkey hunting camp was as simple as could be. I found an isolated spot in the public hunting area, parked the old Rambler just so, and unloaded the back seat, which entailed a folding lawn chair, a cooler full of food, a two-gallon jug of drinking water, a Coleman lantern and two-burner stove (extra white-gas fuel was in a gallon can stored in the car’s trunk, along with two and a half gallons of extra gasoline for the car if needed), a couple folding TV trays (one for holding the stove and the other for eating). I then took a plastic sheet, cranked the corners into the front and back windows on the driver’s side and pulled the rest over top of the car roof and used the excess tied off to handy trees nearby to form a lean-to that entailed my sleeping quarters in the car (an advantage was that my dome light in the Rambler only worked by turning on a switch – which meant leaving the car door open didn’t run the battery down). This took only a few minutes with most of my time spent getting a campfire ready and gathering wood for it.

There was a small pond nearby (actually just a two-acre sinkhole) and it happened to have some blue gills that took care of my afternoons fishing for them with a fly rod (when possible, I fried the fish with some morels I found when turkey hunting). The pond also furnished the water for cleaning up and filling a bucket I kept near the campfire.

My first night in camp was interesting because it would be my first introduction to Michigan coyotes and there seemed to be a bunch in the area that let out a series howls all night long. Owls were hooting and a multitude of frogs were croaking in the pond, so it was quite a serenade to enjoy by a crackling campfire. I must admit that the night noises didn’t bother me any and in fact I savored them. Besides that, with a 12 ga shotgun close at hand to cuddle if need be, I wasn’t afraid of much.

I thoroughly enjoyed that first spring turkey hunt and even saw a gobbler that had been responding to my calls but had obviously wised up because I said something wrong or talked too much per my hen turkey lingo, which was very limited in quality and diversity. I certainly didn’t hurt the turkey population at all either, but I sure became smitten with the challenging pastime, and in time I’d eventually learn how to do it right, even if only occasionally so.

The wild turkey program in Michigan is certainly a very successful wildlife conservation story and turkey hunting opportunities (including buying a general turkey license that is for the majority of the month of May and my favorite choice) over the counter. Since I’ve been able to hunt turkeys close to home in my Thumb area, I haven’t performed any more trips in this arena up north and am quite satisfied with this fact. There is something to be said about sleeping in your own bed at night.

One thing is for certain, I will always cherish that very first Michigan turkey hunting experience because it was truly a brand new adventure that has led to an annual outdoor pastime that I look forward to and enjoy each spring.