Compared to other years, I believe this turkey season has been the lousiest one I’ve ever experienced. Though, judging by my Social Media feeds, many other hunters have been very successful. I find the number of turkey hunters incredible - the number of successful hunters, astounding. And to think that only 20 years ago, turkey hunting was essentially an anomaly here.
In the big scheme of turkey hunting, I suppose I’m a bit of a newbie. I drew a tag when I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the mid-90s. The season was only 10 days long and the hunting zone very specific. Unfortunately for me, I had to drive over two hours to get there, so scouting was out of the question.
I was dating my wife Angie at the time and during a family get-together, I overheard one of her relatives lamenting the fact that he didn’t draw a turkey tag that spring. I casually mentioned my good fortune, then explained that I had no idea where to go and admitted I had never turkey hunted before. He left the room expeditiously, then came back and waved me over to the kitchen counter and gave me a well-marked map. He told me exactly where to go. I couldn’t believe my luck.
A few weeks later, I drove south to Menomonee, Michigan, smack dab in the middle of the UP’s turkey hunting zone. My plan was to scout the day before the season, then hunt the opener and head home. As a side note, I had never truly hammered the steelhead, and that day, I learned more about what eventually became my occupation than all other years combined. As it turned out, the Menomonee River steelhead run was peaking. I’d never seen anything like it. Thankfully, I always kept my waders and rods in my Jeep, so scouting turkeys was quickly shoved to the back-burner.
I hooked fish on nearly every cast, and though it was nearly impossible to land them solo, I was figuring things out. I won’t lie, the thought of becoming a fishing guide entered my mind for the first time that day.
I was on a tight budget, so I had planned on sleeping in my Cherokee, and by the time I left town, it was dark. I followed Uncle Bob’s map down a “two track” 30 miles north of town, until I came to an open area where he suggested I park. The UP sky is relatively void of excessive light pollution, and though there was no moon, the sky was bright with stars.
All kinds of animals croaked, tweeted and sang the night away. I was literally only a few hundred yards from where the map had a big red circle with the notation “birds here.” Other than that, I was flying blind. I sat on a stump and enjoyed a cold beer while taking it all in. The magnitude of wild places like that can be overwhelming for some folks.
I was losing blood at an alarming rate from hordes of mosquitos. The stench of Deep Woods Off and steelhead slime permeated the air and I smoked cigarettes Bob Marley style in an attempt to generate a dense cloud of mosquito-repelling smoke. Heavy layers of bug spray, beer belches, haze of smoke – nothing was working. I was dying by exsanguination.
Plus, I was getting a little nervous. Some of the night noises didn’t seem like harmless birds or crickets. I was fairly certain several bears, a cougar and possibly a bigfoot were watching me and kicking it up a notch with occasional gnashing of teeth and clawing of tree bark. I was wimping out. It was time to head back to civilization.
It took me 20 minutes to hit pavement and I was relieved when I saw the yellow stripes. I cranked the Grateful Dead song, Dire Wolf on the car stereo: “Don't murder me, I beg of you, don't murder me. Please, don't murder me.” It seemed so appropriate.
I noticed a Motel up ahead and the neon vacancy sign was sputtering in Vegas blue. It was one of those ring the bell deals and the guy came to the counter with his boxers and a wife beater on, “Ya need a room der, eh?”
I handed him the twenty-five bucks and then complained about mosquitos and my situation with turkey hunting in bug hell in a few hours. He said, “Hang on der, be right back.” He returned with an aerosol can. It was some sort of military-grade bug repellent with a list of warnings that took up the entire side of the can. He told me to spray the outside of all my clothing in the parking lot and warned, “Whatever ya do, don’t breath dat stuff.” I swear when I was done, the black top was melting from the overspray.
The room was classic knotty pine with a fly-fishing motif, which I thought was exceptionally fitting given the incredible fishing I had experienced earlier that day. A few hours later, I carefully put my clothes on and drove back up to the red-circled area on the map.
A glimmer of dawn broke through the trees on the eastern horizon, and shortly thereafter, I heard my first gobble. The bird was roosted in a stand of ancient northern white-cedar 150 yards away. He gobbled for about 15 minutes, and I called quietly when I figured fly down was imminent. So far, so good.
Eventually, he landed within 100 yards of me. His grandeur and the fierceness of his gobbles was entrancing. Amazingly enough, I had never seen a wild gobbler in full-strut, nor had I heard one vocalize at that range. I had a couple calls and worked at being proficient over the course of the winter. Nobody showed me, I just figured it out for myself and this turkey answered me every time.
In the end, he never ventured into shotgun range, as a short length of old barbwire fence separated us. He wasn’t going through it, or over it. I felt helpless, but with no prior experience, I thought I did pretty darn good. Of course, Bob’s intel was dead on.
I look back on those two days and I realize how different my life would be if I never drew that turkey tag. Oh yeah, and that chemical on my clothes that was banned in 47 countries, ticks and mosquitoes were literally collapsing around me once they got too close. And I feel fine, so all is well that ends well I suppose.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.