By: Eric DavisGetting Ready
Turkey hunting season has always been an after thought in our family. Springs are just plain busy, bugs come out, yard work, wild mushrooms, fishing season kicks off, bow fishing, etc. It is almost a blessing that Michigan has short turkey seasons.
This year was different. I decided that I had had enough of chasing turkey's by myself in the Huron National Forest. It has been nice to get out but the incentive wasn't quite high enough to create the drive necessary to spend hours on end in the woods. Due to my Dad's success the last two years (just missed out on a kill in 2000 and killed a jake in 2001) in the Thumb, I decided to apply with him.
We both drew a tag for the last two weeks of May in the Thumb.
By the time Monday May 13th rolled around, we had each purchased a decoy and I added a slip-on recoil pad to my gun. I bought a hen and Dad bought a jake. The recoil pad was a welcome addition to my set up. We both shoot single shot NEF's chambered for 3 1/2 inches out of a 12 ga. (oh yeah, that hits hard on both ends).
A great time to scout for turkeys is during morel season. I've had my scout (Dad) out for several years digging up the biggest and best morel mushrooms to share with anybody who will dare. This year was different. We were determined to make the mushroom hunt a family event on what is traditionally the best weekend of the year (Mother's Day).
The Saturday of Mother's Day weekend this year found my wife (Nicole), my daughter (Sierra - 3 years old), myself and my parents preparing a hot dog (roasting) lunch to pack for the hunt. So, off we headed for the mushroom grounds with a picnic lunch. Nicole put on the best show when she found her first mushroom and of course a three year old will always take a great picture in the springwoods with "flowers" in one hand and a mushroom in the other. We found about three-dozen mushrooms. Also, Nicole was able to get a turkey to respond to her "hoots" in the woods (we marked that spot).
The meeting notice bell dinged on my computer to remind me that I could be in the woods chasing Turkey's in Michigan but I was lucky enough to find myself at work knowing that there is a big Tom out there gobbling my name. Oh well, it is hard to play when the bills keep coming in the mail.
By the time Friday afternoon arrived, I could not sit still. I arrived at the lodge to find out that my Dad (school teacher) had played hooky on Wednesday to hunt. His hunt story was encouraging. He had called in a pair of jakes and then a lone jake. He passed on all the birds and apparently the lone jake managed to walk in front of another hunter's barrel a few minutes later.
I couldn't stand it any longer. I had to get out and see if we could get a bird to respond to the owl call. Nothing would respond at any the half-a-dozen stops.
The Real Opening Day
"What time should we set the alarm for?" I asked.
"Don't bother, we'll go when we are ready" was the reply.
It does seem odd but it worked just fine. Waking up when ready avoids the misery of the alarm (albeit, a very pleasant sound during hunting seasons). But, the excitement of the hunt does not allow me to sleep overtime.
I was very surprised to see the clock read 0600 when I rolled over. We made our first stand at 0730 (I did not think it would be that late by the time we made it to the woods).
We set up under a pine tree that looked onto a stand of Sumac bushes. This is the tree that Dad shot his first from a year ago. I like to refer to it as the "Killing Tree". It offers a lot for concealment; coniferous, low hanging branches, good visibility, comfortable, etc. Sumac grows in sandy soil with ample sun. The clearing (including the Sumac) covers approximately two acres. The dust bowls are numerous and used on a regular basis.
After about an hour of light calling, I noticed some movement behind me. I turned my head to see a deer at twelve yards. I had to avert my eyes immediately because I had been spotted. I also hissed to Dad that there was a deer behind us. After a few moments he (yes, he - about four inches of antler that may have been three inches at the bases) continued along followed by another buck of the same size. He spotted me as well and after a few minutes of peek-a-boo, he decided enough was enough and with a snort he bounded off the way he came followed by his buddy. They made a wide circle and passed in front of us at about fifty yards.
I should have paid more attention to the thermometer. It was cold. Maybe it was forty degrees in the woods, much colder under the "Killing Tree". The weatherman had warned of frost freezes on the plants. My long underwear and layers of shirts did not hold out the cold for very long. By the time nine A.M. rolled around, I was ready for a walk and I went. Now, the "Killing Tree" faces west and on the east side of the tree is a two-acre pond. So, as Murphy's Law would have it, the clouds broke and a turkey gobbled when I had walked to the other side of the pond. I heard some clucking from under the "Killing Tree" and made an inexperienced decision to run back to the stand.
Once the panting started to subside, I could hear the chuckling over my shoulder. The bird had not moved toward us. We decided to pick up and head his way. After some locator calls and return gobbles, we set up in a very small clearing two hundred yards closer. Now he was close and he was excited as well as interested in the clucks that were sent his way. I remember smiling the last time he gobbled. He was forty to fifty yards out and moving our way. This was going to be nice and easy - find a bird, call him in, and shoot him. That was last we heard from that bird and he never showed his colorful head.
After a feeble attempt at changing the position of the call, we packed up.
It was 12:15 by the time we made it to the truck. We had planned on heading out for lunch. The weatherman and the weather changed our plans. It looked like rain would end our day in a couple of hours (we couldn't be back from lunch for a couple of hours). So, we ate some venison jerky and cookies on our way to the Mushroom Grounds (where my wife had talked turkey a week before).
As we came to a fork in the trail near where we had located a turkey the week before, the decision was made to try a locator call. A response! Straight ahead, nowhere near last weekend's turkey. Of course we felt obligated to pursue this bird, and we did. He gobbled us right in to a set up on the edge of a clearing with a small creek and a little swamp nearby. We thought we had found a good place to set up and call and active bird but he was not interested in our decoys or calls. I think we moved in to close and were spotted.
Our persistence allowed us to sit through two brief hailstorms while we called from this location. Hail! In the late season no less. Michigan weather definitely allows for a wide range of experiences during all the seasons of the year.
After forty-five minutes we gave up on the location and circled along the ridge back to the Mushroom Grounds. It was not long before we started finding morels. Not just a couple at a time but a half-dozen at a time. This was the timing we had hoped for last weekend. They were not hard to spot from the trail and there were always more where that one came from. We found three-dozen in a twenty-yard circle and fifteen more under an elm that was four inches in diameter. In total, we gathered up six pounds of morels on our way out from turkey hunting.
And, we only managed to get turned around once in our excitement mushroom hunting. After consulting the compass, it was just a short walk to familiar territory (don't tell the ladies).
Of course we had mushrooms with dinner.
The Excitement Level Rises
Woke up as the sun was rising (0530) and the birds were beginning to chirp outside the window. Of course there were morels in the scrambled eggs.
The truck was pointed for the Killing Tree. This trail presents us with a split at the back corner of a field. It was there that we stood while the owl hoots drifted off across the woods. A few seconds passed before we received a response. Was that a second bird a few seconds later? Was that a third bird a few seconds later? (Is this sounding redundant?) All three gobbles sounded like they were coming from a different location. But, there are two valleys that funnel to this point along with the wide-open field behind us. Wow! How exciting!
We stood for a few minutes trying to count the birds and decide what our next move would be. I was directed to seek out the best opportunity here while Dad took the decoys and headed for the Killing Tree.
I moved a few yards and hooted again. The response was definitely from the field. After listening a little longer, I headed for the edge of the field. I sat down and pulled out my binoculars to examine the different tires that are buried on edge in the field. This "field" -it is no longer farmed - contains a couple of old sheds and several large hardwoods along with the tires. It is on hundred acres of semi rolling ground with grass that is eighteen inches high.
The first tire I looked at was the right one - it gobbled as I was looking at it. He was 200 yards away and ready for love. I worked the cedar box and picked up the binoculars for another look. He had heard me! He was looking my way and tucked his head to start walking my way! Soon, he disappeared in the hills. Ooohh, the questions. How long will he take? Will I have warning? Will he hang up? Where will he appear? Am I hidden well enough?
Ten minutes later, a red turkey head appears in a valley out at sixty yards. It is obvious that he knows where the calls came from as he looks for the source. Then he gobbles and struts and gobbles and struts and gobbles and struts. For fifteen long minutes I watched. Occasionally, he would stop and look. I should have kept a decoy to bring him the final thirty yards. He started moving - east - away from me. It seemed like a good time to move, so I moved with him.
I set up forty yards from the original spot. A couple of soft clucks were rewarded with a gobble and then silence. A few short minutes (probably a few seconds) later, a turkey head appeared over the rise fifteen yards from where I was sitting. I managed to get my gun up and cocked without startling the bird. "Putt, putt". Now all I needed was a positive identification. It did not come as the bird looked around for five to ten seconds. Then the head disappeared.
A few second later, another gobble - maybe thirty yards away. I moved again and did not receive any other results.
I had had enough of the game. I couldn't find a good set up and this bird did not want to sacrifice his life for my cause.
I headed for the "Killing Tree". I found that the bucks had been through and little else was going on. The weather was cold enough to drive Dad to walk for a warm up. After a short while, I needed to sun myself. Two does passed through while I was warming up.
Dad came back and we called and sat for a little while longer.
Today we had planned a lunch. Jerky, sardines, cheese, and zucchini bread - wow, what a wonderful lunch as we discussed our next move.
We decided to head for the area where we hunt deer. I have been presented with at least one bow opportunity at a turkey in this area for four years running while deer hunting in the fall (yes, it will be nice when I can carry a fall turkey tag while bow hunting for deer). And, we had been able to set up on a bird the previous spring in this area.
As luck would have it, we jumped a turkey as we split the trees between the road and the first clearing after a forty-yard walk. We hooted as we looked for more mushrooms (real hard-core dedication, eh?).
A half-mile into the woods, my Dad stopped and turned after crossing a small stream. From the grin on his face, I thought he had found a dozen pound size mushrooms. But, he asked if I had my camera. Lying in the grass and sunning itself was fawn. The disposable camera did not do the little thing justice, as we were only ten feet from it. I snapped a couple of quick pictures and we slipped away.
We set up on a finger ridge at 1215. At 1230, I got laughed at for cat napping. But, I got shushed when I went to get up. He found a place in the sun and proceeded to lie down!
At 1315, I noticed that it was 1315. We had slept instead of napping. Oh well, that is how it goes when the day warms up. We moved on.
The "Mushroom Grounds" produced the same initial results as the day before. This time we thought it might be better to slip around the swamp from the ridge instead of the field. On the way, we encountered a deer bedded on the side of the ridge. After some work with the binoculars, I determined that it was a buck and not a pregnant doe. Still, we made a wide circle around him.
Eventually we found a shooting lane to set up on. Again, we called with no results.
It was a quick one-hour drive home as I relived the weekend and looked forward to the next (it would be a four day weekend because of a vacation day and the holiday).
Thursday afternoon arrived four days later. I headed for the lodge (well, kinda, sorta, maybe).
The alarm was set for 0430 - we had to get to the woods early in order to get the early bird. We slept until 0600.
On our way into the "Killing Tree", we set up on the edge of the field for the gobbling tom (most likely the one I had encountered the week before). After some calling and watching we moved on. I believe that the bird I could see in my binoculars was a hen despite the gobbling coming from the area. The gobbling and seeing the bird never happened at the same time. I also believe that these minutes were foreshadowing for the morning.
We moved on to the "Killing Tree" and set up. A doe came through. At 0930, there was a whisper of a turkey in the brush. Since I had decided to take the first available this weekend, I raised and cocked my gun. The turkey stepped to the edge of the brush and presented a frontal shot. The shot was not taken - hen. A few seconds later, there was a whisper about the Tom in the brush. Once in a while I could see a flash of bird on either side of the tree that was blocking my view. The hen seemed curious about the decoys but was not interested in a closer look. She turned and walked the other way. The Tom followed without investigating the decoys.
Bummer! But how exciting!
Ten minutes later, there is another whisper. This one was urgent. "Tom coming down the lane!" I got my gun up as he came into my vision at a fast walk looking for a fight. I saw a pair of hands go up next to me and cover some ears. When the bird cleared the trees, I pulled the trigger.
If I hit him, I did not hurt him. He changed the style of his walk to a 'heads up, I'm getting out of here, what just happened' style. His mistake! The single shot on the lap next to me came up and went off. The turkey tipped over face first.
After retrieving the bird and draining our bladders, we sat back down and debated who owned the tagging rights. I ended up losing based on Sunday morning commitments by my father (he actually killed it, so he tagged it). The bird had a ten-inch beard with three-quarter inch spurs and weighed in at 17 pounds. Definitely a mountable bird.
At 1030 we packed up and headed for home. There were ulterior motives to my hunting the late season in Thumb with my father. He had ordered thirty-five squares of shingles to deliver today.
When lunch was over, I headed for the skinning table while he fiddled around on the roof. The shingles arrived, the bird was cleaned, and it was time to relax.
The Next Day
The natural alarm went off at 0530.
The success of the previous morning called for our return to the "Killing Tree". My video camera came along for this hunt. It needed to make its virginal trip hunting; we had been experiencing so many different encounters with the woods that something needed to be recorded (when will they incorporate the sense of smell into video?).
A hen came in to the decoys at 0815 and Dad was able to record five minutes of her life.
And again we headed for the "Mushroom Grounds" for our boisterous friends. Today he continued to gobble until the first strike of the slate. Then nothing.
Rain was in the forecast and in the air as we walked the last hundred yards to the truck. We ate a late lunch of jerky, cheese, and bread as we headed for home.
It felt like time was beginning to slip away. So, after consulting the hunting guide and realizing that hunting hours were extended until roosting time, I decided that I would head back after the Red Wings game for an evening hunt.
The day ended at the "Killing Tree" with no interest from any birds.
On My Own
The watch started beeping at 0500 Sunday morning. As habit, I got out of bed at 0600, fixed breakfast and headed out by myself.
I decided that a small change was in order. I would head to the "Mushroom Grounds" first without calling (including locator calls), and still-hunting to a set up.
A locator call was unnecessary. The birds were already making noise. I approached the two-track that split the woods and slowed to a stop. As I still-hunted through the pines, I heard some scratching and chirping. A flash in the trees caught my attention. I brought my gun up once I noticed a short beard. When I shifted my weight to get a shot, I was busted.
I set up the decoys nearby and called once. Since I was not comfortable with the set up, I pick up and moved before I had set down.
I moved seventy yards and set up the decoys in the field. I found an oak tree at the edge of the woods with a fair amount of undergrowth to help conceal me while allowing good vision of the surrounding woods and field. I was set up by 0810 when the gobbling started picking up in the pine trees and on the hardwood ridge behind me.
I called once at 0830. Ten minutes later, I was so concerned about the bird behind me that I stood up to look for a better tree to sit against. I could not spot one that looked better and sat down where I was. Much to my dismay, a turkey head popped up over the hill where I had been looking - the jake? I could not believe it. I had allowed myself to be spotted twice in one morning. I was bummed, yet determined to stay put. Ten minutes later, a bird fed into the field seventy yards away. Soon, I spotted a second turkey that had moved out into the sunlight that I had not noticed. Both birds were feeding as I glassed them. Neither seemed to have a beard and neither was gobbling. I thought it was odd to see two hens feeding so early but I was not going to scare them away.
What more could I ask for? I had a good set up with two decoys within range, a couple of more live decoys out on the hillside, and gobbling from two spots.
Then, one of the birds on the hill gobbled. The binoculars came up and I could see about six inches of beard through the tall grass. So, I looked at the other bird and determined that he was a jake. Apparently, the older bird had not spotted the decoys as he fed because he stopped feeding and headed my way. I reached down and worked the box call when the birds were hidden between the hills. He would gobble every thirty seconds and did not seem to be in a hurry. Soon, I could see tail feathers over the edge of the hill as he strutted and gobbled. My gun was up, the hammer was cocked, and he just needed to come a few more yards and present a shot.
His curiosity got the best of him when he stretched his head out to look around the hill at the decoys. I was confident of the yardage being thirty but a turkeys' head is very small looking at thirty yards. I hesitated to shoot as he continued to look. Then, I convinced myself that it was time to pull the trigger. The gun roared there was a puff of feathers when the bird took the shot. I paced off the yardage at twenty-nine yards. The turkey had a beard that measured nine-and-a- half inches with three quarter inch spurs while weighing in at seventeen pounds.
After retrieving my thoughts, I wanted to make a phone call to my wife and to my parents. It was only 0900. Then I packed up and headed out with a big smile on my face.