Standing in chest waders, hiding in standing corn at Shiawassee River State Game Area, Randy Willis said he found waterfowl hunting to be an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve never imagined I’d be able to do this,” said Willis, a 56-year-old registered nurse from Augusta and one of three winners of the Pure Michigan Hunt drawing for 2011. “This is very cool.”
Having never waterfowl hunted before, he didn’t have the experience or the buddies with the equipment to show him the ropes, he said. Willis acknowledged that he didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “This is a blast,” he said. “I can’t say enough about it.”
Like many of the folks who apply for the Pure Michigan Hunt, which allows winners to participate in every limited-license hunting opportunity in the state, Willis said the chance to be chosen first in a drawing at a managed waterfowl area was well down his list of motivations for applying.
“Elk was the big draw,” said Willis. “I’ve been applying for elk since 1984. I’ve hunted bear before and spring turkey for years, but by purchasing the Pure Michigan Hunt application, and I purchased five, that was five extra chances to hunt elk in your home state. That’s special.”
Turned out it was very special. Willis hunted elk the first four days of the season in August and saw one small bull, but decided to pass on it. “One of the advantages of the Pure Michigan Hunt is you get a chance to come back later,” he said.
When the early season resumed in September, he came back. The elk were bugling and responding to the call and on the second evening, he had a 5-by-7 bull come within 45 yards of him. “He was bugling, just screaming at us,” Willis said. “It was storybook.”
Willis said he wanted to try to take it with his bow, but the elk was outside of his comfortable shooting range.
Later that evening, he saw a nice 6-by-6 moving through an opening at 250 yards. Willis put down his bow, picked up his .300 Mag., and when the elk stopped, he shot him.
And that was after he’d taken a bear, his first success in the Pure Michigan Hunt adventure. Willis hunted for 12 days over bait in the western Upper Peninsula. He said he saw a lot of bears, but was holding out for a record-book quality animal. But on the last day of his hunt, he took what he called “an average bear,” and was happy with that.
Then came the waterfowl hunt.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do about it,” he was. “Then Barb Avers (the Department of Natural Resources’ waterfowl specialist) called and asked me if I had plans. When I told her I didn’t, she said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”
Avers put Willis in touch with Brian Siess, the president of the Shiawassee Flats Citizens and Hunters Association. Siess offered to guide Willis and his partners. So at 5 a.m. on opening morning of waterfowl season, at the drawing for hunting areas, Willis had the first choice.
And when Barry Pratt, who works at Shiawassee, announced to the waiting hunters that a Pure Michigan Hunt winner had the first choice that morning, Willis was greeted with a round of applause. Two hours later, with decoys in front of him and a couple of experienced waterfowl hunters calling for him, Willis was into it.
Willis invited his 80 year-old father, Gordon, with whom he’s been hunting since he was a lad, and his buddy Chris Ostrander to accompany him. Siess enlisted fellow Shiawassee veteran Butch Boivin to assist.
It started quickly with geese pouring into the flooded corn and buckwheat field Siess had chosen. In no time, the guys were banging away at Canada geese as Siess coached them on how and when to shoot. Two hours into the hunt, the party had a limit of geese in the bag.
The rest of the morning was dedicated to ducks. There were fewer ducks than geese flying and they were less impressed with the decoys and calling than the geese had been. By 10 a.m. the three of them had managed three mallards and a wood duck.
“I have to give a special thanks to Butch and Brian,” Willis said. “We’re feeling pretty special. To be able to come out here and hunt with experienced guys who are involved in the management here is special. The whole experience has been extraordinary, Willis said.
Willis said he primarily bought his Pure Michigan Hunt applications to give something to the DNR for wildlife management.
“The money goes to the Game and Fish Fund, so I figured I was making my donation,” he said. “You’re not only supporting the game and fish management, but you’re putting your name in the hat for something special. When (DNR Wildlife Division Chief) Russ Mason called and told me I’d won the Pure Michigan Hunt drawing, I said ‘Who’s pranking me?’”
Willis’ father, who is a lifelong hunter, but had never been waterfowling before, said he had an outstanding time, too. “It’s a blast,” he said. “It was so neat that those guys at the DNR were willing to step up and help us out. We didn’t have the equipment or the knowledge. Otherwise, we might have had to let this opportunity go by.”
Willis was most effusive in his praise for numerous DNR staffers, who put him in contact with guides and helped him understand all the rules, as well the sponsors who donated prizes (such as rifles and crossbows) to the Pure Michigan Hunt winners.
Willis admits he hasn’t bought any Pure Michigan Hunt applications for 2012 – yet. “I’ve been spending all of my money hunting,” he said. “But before the end of the year, I promise I will. There are folks that buy a Lotto ticket every week. I think it’s a better investment to buy Pure Michigan Hunt applications.”
To learn more about the Pure Michigan Hunt, visit www.michigan.gov/puremichiganhunt.