The Michigan Mission: A Sportsman's Quest for 5 Species in 72 Hours
November 17, 2014
In 1492, an ambitious emissary of the Spanish Crown set sail across the Atlantic on what was described as a "little hunt," respectively, for the riches and fame of discovering a New World. He succeeded. We now proudly call it home, our hunting grounds and, affectionately, 'Murrica.
Some 522 years later, on what is now celebrated as Columbus Day, I embarked on a little hunt of my own, but not for pearls, rum or spices. I set out for the much finer sportsman's treasures of the Upper Midwest: turkey, king salmon, ruffed grouse, woodcock and whitetail deer.
Columbus had a two-month window of sailable seas, three ships full of men and the King's checkbook bankrolling his vacation — I had three days, a gun, a bow and a fly rod.
If you're in the boat wherein you have only one chance a year to arrange your own cast and blast, you can't afford to point west and hope for the best. Instead, head to Michigan.
Michigan offers opportunities that aptly make it a sportsman's New World. Northern Michigan is where you can essentially draw a silver dollar on a Rand McNally map to pursue five species in 72 hours (map sizes may vary). Here, you don't risk aiming for India and accidentally bagging America — only some of America's finest game and fish.
"Biologist and Guide Al Stewart may have been twice my age, but it was like trying to keep up with a kid who had just heard the music of an ice cream truck."
Beaver Island: Turkey Spot-and-Stalk
Even if Teddy Roosevelt had volunteered for the job, I couldn't have asked for a better hunting partner. For the three-day expedition, I had the company of wildlife biologist Al Stewart, Michigan's Upland Game Bird Specialist and Program Leader, who moonlights as a living legend: He is the only person to have ever both harvested and trapped (for release) Eastern, Osceola, Merriam's, Rio Grande, Gould's and Ocellated wild turkeys — a coveted accomplishment appropriately called the World Slam.
When he isn't busy humbly denying the magnitude of his achievements in the game-bird world, Stewart is doing his part with the Michigan DNR to sustain one of our nation's greatest comeback stories — the wild turkey.
According to Michigan's Annual Fall Turkey Digest, in the "pre-Columbian times of Michigan's history, it is estimated that more than 94,000 wild turkeys roamed the state." Four hundred years later, the birds were all but extinct in every county.
The reestablishment efforts of Michigan's turkey management program over the past century have not only added to the estimated population of 7 million wild turkeys in America today, it's made the Upper and Lower Peninsula a prime gobbler destination. In 1977, hunters harvested 400 turkeys; today, over 30,000 turkeys are taken in the state annually. We wanted to guarantee that two more would be added to the 2015 report
While on a phone call planning the Pure Michigan trip, I asked Stewart where we'd have our best chances for bagging a Michigan fall turkey.
"Beaver Island," he said. "They'll be everywhere."
He was right. Once we set foot on the island, you couldn't throw a stick into a field without hitting a turkey. Moreover, to help meet local DNR management goals, hunters are encouraged to harvest female turkeys during the fall season. If the toms weren't talking, we were ready to oblige the hens.
Beaver Island is home to approximately 35,000 acres of pristine outdoor majesty, half of which is state owned and open to public hunting. Easily accessible by ferry, we opted for a 10-minute plane ride from Charlevoix with Fresh Air Aviation. Spiraling down from the clouds that would end up dumping three inches of rain by the end of the trip, it was hard to believe that the island managed to remain such a well-kept hunting secret.
"That's all public land," Stewart said, putting a finger up to the misty Plexiglas window.
"Where?" I asked, looking out across a thatch-work of autumn oranges and yellows.
"There," he said, pointing his finger at what may as well have been the general direction of the island.
On the first morning of our campaign, we set up on the pine-skirted pastures of Bill Kohls's farm, Stewart's longtime friend and husband to Andy, owner and operator of the island's grooming and boarding barn for pets. We saw the birds roost in the treeline the night before and used the morning fog and heavy rain to slip in undetected.
The plan was simple: Let the birds fly from the roost into the open field directly in front of us, call them back and then take our shots. The birds didn't get the memo.
Fall turkeys are notoriously difficult to work and even spring turkeys in the rain could care less about how well you can whisper sweet nothings with a diaphragm call. As the hazy sun's fingers began to burn off the fog-laced trees, the birds woke, one by one. They shook rain violently from their plumage like helicopters with loose rotor bolts and leapt high from the canopy we couldn't see, gliding into the field, just out of range. All 15 of them.
Stewart, a man who would have his own reality TV show if A&E was ever looking for "The Turkey Whisperer," couldn't call them back. They formed rank and beelined to feed in the far pasture.
"Well, what's the plan?" I asked.
"We're going to them. Follow me," he said. "Stay low, stay close."
He plowed through the trees to reach the field's adjacent road and walked up so we were parallel with the turkeys feeding in the pasture. Two hundred yards of high grass separated us from them.
We were crouching through the brush to close the distance when Stewart suddenly dropped to the ground. He started low-crawling, gun in the crux of his elbows, chin inches off the waterlogged ground. I kept my face a foot away from the heels of his boots and followed. He may have been twice my age, but it was like trying to keep up with a kid who had just heard the music of an ice cream truck.
"An hour later, on our way to scout a potential public deer location, we spotted four massive toms crossing a dirt road. Why? Because it's Beaver Island. That's why. No punch line."
Within 20 yards of the birds, we had reached a thin line of saplings. You could only catch brief glimpses of them feeding as their silhouettes shifted through keyholes in the grass.
"Poke your head up," Stewart whispered.
I carefully looked over the top of the brush.
"See him? See the big one with the most white?"
"Yea," I said.
"Take him. Shoot him now," he said hurriedly, not taking his eyes off the bird.
I popped up, and, spotting me, the jake began a panicked two-step. His dance moved him just enough to put his head in an opening between two saplings. Crack. The smell of gunpowder rose up as the rest of the birds frantically took flight.
Check "turkey" off the list.
An hour later, on our way to scout a potential public deer location, we spotted four massive toms crossing a dirt road. Why? Because it's Beaver Island. That's why. No punch line. A short hike and one shell later, Stewart was posing for the camera with a wide mouth grin and a gobbler sporting a 10-inch beard and 1-inch spurs.
"What's chuck-and-duck? You'll see. Right after it hits you in the eye."
Boyne River, Boyne City: Chuck-and-Ducking for King Salmon
The following morning we were back on the Lower Peninsula, headed to the surrounding area of Boyne City, a resort destination attractive to those looking to poke a ski pole into fresh powder or a fly into crisp, grade-A salmonidae waters.
We met up with the director of operations at Boyne Outfitters, Ethan Winchester, who would join us for the rest of the trip. If you retraced enough limbs and branches on Winchester's family tree, you'd find Ol' Oliver himself somewhere down near its American roots. At just 29 years old, Winchester not only heads up the outfit's fly shop, he's also tasked with preserving the legacy of the late, great Everett Kircher.
If you've never heard of King Kircher, competitive bar trivia is probably not your hobby. Not only is Michigan home to the stalwarts of Ford and Carhartt, it was the stomping grounds of the man who literally made ski resorts a viable thing. Kircher was the brains behind the invention of the chair lift as well as the artificial snow gun.
More importantly, he was an avid sportsman who at one point held a world-record for Atlantic salmon caught on a fly. He asked that his legacy live on through the enjoyment of his game-rich property surrounding Boyne Resort, which is where Winchester's bloodline comes in.
It's Winchester's directive to turn the 1,000 acres of young growth Aspen, lowland White Cedar swamp, upland hardwoods, mature Red Pine plantations and ripe trout runs into an outdoorsman's Mecca tentatively referred to as the "Everett Kircher Preserve." The preserve, which plans to open its fields to sportsmen in 2016, is a complement to the already flourishing buffet of options for hunters and anglers in the area. A stone's throw from the property runs the Boyne River, the public hotspot we chose to wade for king salmon.
"When we pressured a populated hole for too long, we'd just sit back for five minutes and watch as the salmon reoccupied it like it was their favorite armchair in grandma's living room."
The best presentations for the Boyne River in October include net building caddis flies, yellow and green stoneflies, midges and, for those looking for a challenge, tiny white wing black mayflies. We, however, planned to cash in on egg imitations, hoping to hook one of the massive king freshies lumbering upstream.
"What's chuck-and-duck?" I asked guide Robbie Skerratt when he mentioned the technique we'd be using while gearing up.
"You'll see," he said. "Right after it hits you in the eye."
He was referring to the tendency of errant hooks hitting anglers in the face when using the technique. I got a better sense of what he meant once we began wading downstream to the secluded hole we decided to fish.
The short river tunnels through its own Narnia of thick pine overhangs, forcing anglers to be sharpshooters with their pitch and particularly mindful of their back cast; that is, if a back cast is even possible. Most of the time it's not. You have to punch the fly outwards upstream, hence the "chuck," and let the current take it. When your tackle gets snagged (which happens every couple chucks), turn your head and yank, hence the "duck." Somehow, we managed to wade away without any new egg imitation facial piercings.
You could spend all day hunting salmon in these waters. Sleek, torpedo kings kept piling up, trout in tow.
When we pressured a populated hole for too long, we'd just sit back for five minutes and watch as the salmon reoccupied it like it was their favorite armchair in grandma's living room.
I hooked several, fought two, got an air show from one but failed to land any due to my atrocious bass habits. Finessing a Boyne River king, I quickly learned, does not involve flash hook sets and low rod tip rips. After only a couple of hours, Stewart hooked a beautiful 20-pound hen, fresh with fight and full of color. She took off into the current but after a controlled scramble and a little shepherding, a team effort cupped her in the net.
Cross "king salmon" off the list.
"In my lane there was a twig, just one, doing what twigs do — getting in the way. I think I could take that shot 100 more times and never hit it again, but this time I did."
Kircher Preserve, Boyne City: Whitetail Reality Check
Deer were going to be by far the most difficult species of the trip. Always will be. Months of pre-season scouting and preparation will never guarantee that a free-range deer will present you with a shot on the day and time of your choosing. You don't need to go all the way to Michigan to be reminded that deer ATMs don't exist.
What the Michigan DNR is doing to improve the deer hunting experience statewide is what had me excited about my chances.
Since 2010, Michigan, ranked in the Top 5 states for the number of annual deer hunters, has been executing its strategic deer management initiative to give nearly 700,000 hunters, who spend an average of 9.5 million days a field each year, better access to quality deer. These efforts notably include the Deer Habitat Improvement Partnership Initiative, a "grant program designed to foster productive relationships between the DNR, sportsmen's organizations, concerned citizens and other partners that produce tangible deer habitat improvement benefits" in the Upper Peninsula.
Outside of Michigan, few states are taking such concrete measures to make the hunting lifestyle a publicly cherished existence that needs to be sustained for future generations. Even fewer are as proud to announce that they take such a collective stance.
"You may be the only one pulling the trigger, releasing the arrow or occupying a stand, but it's a community of factors that must come together to make the hunt possible..."
With recent license restructuring initiatives and ongoing public hunting land acquisition efforts, Michigan has made it a priority to combat negative stereotypes and anti-hunter misconceptions in order to preserve its rich hunting heritage. I was proud to be an out-of-state hunter on the receiving end of Michigan's goal to give the outdoors enthusiast plenty to enjoy.
Too bad the magic in the Michigan air wasn't able to boost my bowhunting skills on the third morning of the trip. It did, however, provide me with a good dose of humility.
Just before shooting light, sitting in a treestand on the Kircher Preserve, Bowtech Insanity CPX ready to go, half a dozen does made their way down the clear-cut and parked under my tree. They stopped to feed on the acorns that coated the ground like some comical use of marbles in an old chase cartoon. I could hear every breath, snort and crunch as they chewed; count every beat of a hoof, step through wet grass, silent pauses for sniffing my scent in the light breeze. But as the light brightened just enough for me to take a shot, they disappeared. So it goes. I couldn't remember my ATM pin number anyway.
I thought I had missed my chance to bag a Michigan whitetail. I was wrong.
It wasn't 20 minutes later that my phone buzzed: Winchester had taken a doe. Twenty-yard shot. Solid contact. Double lunged. Blood trail to her crash 30 yards from where she took the arrow. We had our deer.
As I was texting him back, I looked up to find two does grazing in the lane to my left, waiting patiently for me to get off my phone. I was in the aspen draw adjacent to the clear-cut path with range over three shooting lanes. The does were standing smack in the middle of the left lane, aptly dubbed "third base."
I drew. The closest doe put her head up, sensing something amiss, trying to place the hint of me wafting down from the stand. She turned and continued to graze, adding 10 more yards to the distance. Now at 35 yards plus change, she quartered broad side. I shot.
"It's never just you and the deer in a vacuum. I had lost sight of that fact."
In my lane there was a twig, just one, doing what twigs do — getting in the way.
I think I could take that shot 100 more times and never hit it again, but this time I did. One of the blades on the NAP Spitfire Maxx broadhead just barely caught it, opened and sailed the arrow into the grass between her legs. She took off and didn't look back.
A missed opportunity? Literally. A humble reality check? Definitely. A failed hunt? No. I was reminded of the fact that no one hunts alone. It's never just you and the deer in a vacuum. I had lost sight of that fact. That tree with its twig is part of the hunt. The guide, land owner or DNR managing a property or ensuring the health of a herd, or the "timing" that puts a single deer in your sights — it's all part of the hunt.
You may be the only one pulling the trigger, releasing the arrow or occupying a stand, but it's a community of factors that must come together to make the hunt possible, and in that sense, success is measured in more than just tags filled.
Besides, even though I missed my deer, Winchester got his, and when you hunt as a group of friends, one member's success is a success for everyone involved. The grilled heart and tenderloins we shared later were testament to that fact.
Check "deer" (and my humility) off the list.
"The GEMS reminded me of Christmas morning as a kid, except now each gift was a thicket of cover with a potential grouse wrapped inside."
Lee Grande Ranch, Cheboygan County: A Ruffed Grouse & Woodcock Wing-shoot
Immediately after the deer hunt, we swapped our bows out for shotguns. We had plans to hunt a special wing-shooting location uniquely made available to Michigan sportsmen: the GEMS, or Grouse Enhanced Management Systems.
We chose the Lee Grande Ranch site in Cheboygan County, approximately 50 miles east of Charlevoix. When we parked the truck, Stewart pulled out his cell phone.
"This is why we did this," he said.
He was holding up a picture of a truck with New Hampshire license plates parked at the site two weeks ago. The traveler told Stewart he had made the long trek with his dog just to camp and hunt the Michigan GEMS. Once we began our hunt, it was easy to see why someone would travel nearly 1,000 miles for these grouse.
"Made to be extremely accessible, the sites are designed as destination spots for young hunters new to the sport, as well as traveling hunters."
The site was a wing shooter's playground. The trails spliced through thick aspen draws, pockets of fern cover, rolling knolls of brush and field.
The GEMS reminded me of Christmas morning as a kid, except now each gift was a thicket of cover with a potential grouse wrapped inside. Every 20 yards presented a new chance for a bird to flush. If one spot was cold, you just looked up and picked a new draw from what seemed like an endless smorgasbord of opportunity and sent the hounds forward.
Our dogs, Ty and Luna, flushed a total of seven grouse before the sun dipped over the horizon. My new Legacy Sporting Series Over/Under 20 Gauge was ready to go. We bagged two. Though we didn't stumble upon any woodcock that evening, Stewart sent me a picture two weeks later of him beaming with a message that read: I thought you might like this. 5 grouse, 3 woodcock. No rain makes it better for the dog.
As I found out, you can plan the trip but not the weather. Regardless, we still had our own dose of luck.
Leaving the field for the last time that trip, we crossed a meadow and I fell into stride on a beaten game trail that peeled aside the wet grass. Elk tracks. Massive imprints in the Michigan earth that my boots now filled. I caught myself and stepped off the trail.
Not yet, I thought. One day, though. One day.
DISCOVERING MICHIGAN'S GEMS
As of September 2014, seven intensely managed, public walk-in hunting areas calibrated specifically for ruffed grouse habitat have been made available to hardcore Michigan bird hunters. Each site is 1,000 to 7,000 acres in size and primarily managed by the DNR for aspen with a shortened rotation age of 40 years.
Made to be extremely accessible, the sites are designed as destination spots for young hunters new to the sport, as well as traveling hunters. The DNR carefully charted each site (maps available online), marking pre-cut walking trails and delineated habitat growth as well as camping and parking areas. Sitting at your computer, one could easily map a route that would allow you to literally wing-shoot your way across Michigan, site by site.
Learn more about Michigan's Grouse Enhanced Management Systems (GEMS) initiative, hunting opportunities and locations at Michigan.gov
For help with planning your own Michigan adventure, visit Michigan.org
To easily scout Michigan's public hunting locations online, download the interactive MI-Hunt Map Application