*This article was originally published in the Michigan Out-of-Doors Spring 2020 print edition.
By Erick Johnson
Growing up in Michigan, springtime has always been a time of revival for me.
Winter isn’t all that bad: there’s always ice fishing and a little coyote hunting to be done, and of course, you can spend hours at the fly vise dreaming of summer hatches. But there’s just something about the warmth of the sun on your shoulders and a new freshness to the breeze. The kind of April day when the snow is gone and the foliage is down, and you can see what winter has left for you.
Spring for me in Northern Michigan was always a time of year that I enjoyed being able to get back into the swamps and haunts I had missed all winter. I spent days just walking to see what winter could tell me about her season. Looking for shed antlers, checking for buck sign I missed the previous fall and finding the occasional mushroom-filled my days. But, mostly, it was a time to scout for new trout waters. An avid trout angler since my teenage years, I’d spent every spring of my adult life in search of backcountry brook trout waters.
All of that changed during one bad winter. Layoffs and cut-backs hit my wife and I hard. We moved several times, finally settling in my hometown downstate, trying to get back on our feet. I still did a little trout fishing here and there and my share of two-tracking when I could, but it just wasn’t the same. I was missing the passion I’d once had for the spring.
Friends and coworkers had been suggesting for years that I give turkey hunting a try. They told me it was just like bowhunting in October. The same rush, the same anticipation and it got you out of the house and sharpened your hunting instincts after a long winter. My only experience in the turkey woods had been in college. With the mosquitoes, poison ivy and stifling heat, it wasn’t anything I wanted to replay anytime soon.
So when my good friend Jeff invited me to join him spring turkey hunting, I was a little skeptical at first. When I shared my concerns about my lack of calling experience, he assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. Jeff had been guiding friends and family for years with some success.
I got my application in that January, drew a license and we waited until spring. We got out early in April and checked the local haunts for signs that our resident turkey population had thrived through the winter. We’d stop and he’d give a hoot with a locator call; then we would wait for a gobbler to respond before moving on to check the next area. We got a few responses and saw plenty of turkeys, including some real boss toms on our scouting trips. This turkey hunting thing was already starting to grab ahold of me. And of course, it was great to be back out in the spring woods again.
I had drawn a tag the first season in our unit, and anticipation was flying high a few days before it was to begin. We figured we’d have a great crack at a nice tom sometime during that week. Then I got a phone call that was a little bittersweet for me. I was called back into work, and we had a new job starting the Monday morning of my hunt.
Jeff and I both worked in the construction trades and had been laid off for a few weeks. While it was sweet relief for my depleted checking account, it was a bummer to miss the morning hunts of our short, week-long season.
Jeff said we’d just have to hammer one down on Saturday morning.
I had some concerns having only one day to hunt but figured we’d give it our best shot. I got to Jeff’s house plenty early that morning, and we were soon parked at a small parcel of public land nearby in the predawn. A couple of quick hoots from his locator call got several aggressive responses, and we booked it into the woods, trying to get set up. Jeff quickly instructed me to sit against a tree while he moved away with the decoy and began calling. In my hurry to get settled in near darkness, I lost track of him.
In the dawn, the spring woods exploded with the sounds of turkeys. Cackles, gobbles and purrs quickly blended into music that can only be described as sweet. Hens and jakes were around me, sounding off, with no gobbler in sight. I couldn’t tell where the turkeys’ talking ended and Jeff’s calling began. I had totally lost track of where he had gone and quickly decided that should a tom show himself, I wouldn’t shoot for safety reasons. He truly had disappeared into the shadows and was speaking a language I didn’t know.
There was something about the orange-pink dawn and the calling in the woods that awoke something missing in me the last couple of years. I was in awe of what was going on around me. The scene was quickly broken up by the roar of a shotgun a couple hundred yards away. We learned later that a neighbor had snuck in from his property and collected the tom with his own sweet calling. We had been so close, yet so far.
Jeff quickly rose from a tree not 30 yards away and said it was time to try the next spot. I felt a little sheepish that my caller friend had been so close yet out of sight.
We quickly drove a few miles away to another little honey hole. A quick check of the area revealed plenty of turkey strutting and dusting had happened recently. Jeff again gave a couple of locator calls, and a gobbler responded a few hundred yards to our southeast. We rushed to get set up as Jeff commenced to sing another turkey love song.
Suddenly, another tom gave a shock gobble not a hundred yards to our north.
Within minutes, I could see him running in through the water and blow-downs in the swamp in front of me. He passed me quickly, and I searched for an opening in the brush. I readied my shotgun, and when the bright red head of the tom intercepted the green fiber optic bead of my Remington 870 shotgun at 30 yards, I fired a magnum load of six-shot.
He quickly went into a spin, and I ran after him firing a couple of finishing shots. It was over in less time than it takes now to write about it. I had collected my first spring turkey! He was a beautiful tom with a 9 and five-eights–inch beard and three-quarter-inch spurs. I couldn’t have been more proud.
As we drove back to Jeff’s house, I couldn’t believe we had pulled it off with only one morning to hunt. The energy of a giddy, rookie turkey hunter with his first bird in the bag filled the truck cab. When we got back to the barn, we found that Jeff’s dad, Billy, had also scored a beautiful gobbler that morning.
We gathered up Jeff’s family and headed out to a big breakfast over at the local café. We relived the hunts over and over again, adding details that the other hunter missed. I don’t think breakfast ever tastes as good as after the sweet success of a hunt. I had finally found my passion for the spring again.
One year later, almost to the day, I called in a mature gobbler where a pine ridge met a popple slashing. Jeff’s dad was less than 100 yards away when he heard my shot. I’d bet he could see the grin under my facemask from there.
Eight seasons later, I proudly called in a beautiful tom for my 7-year-old son Orrin. After several seasons watching his dad and friends in the woods, it was finally his turn to harvest a bird in the way I’d been taught. In the celebration that followed, his grandpa declared that, at the age of 65, he’s ready to try turkey hunting.
This spring will find three generations of our family listening to the sweet sounds of turkeys gobbling at dawn. My 4-year-old twin daughters recently protested the unfairness that their older brother and grandpa get to hunt with “daddy” this spring, and they are anxiously awaiting their turn. We should all be so lucky as to savor such a spring revival.