Father-daughter turkey hunting reunion adds to family lore, beats fertilizing the grass

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Melissa Johnson, her father Greg and the opening-day turkey

It wasn’t my plan to follow the story last week on shooting elk with a story this week on shooting turkeys.

But you know what Mike Tyson liked to say about plans: Everybody’s got one until they get hit.

In my case, it was a gentle-but-effective visual punch from Melissa Johnson, the 23-year-old daughter of my neighbor, Greg.

I was out in the front yard square dancing with the fertilizer spreader Saturday morning when Greg and Melissa pulled up in front of the Johnson house just down the street. Dressed in camouflage gear, they climbed out of Greg’s pickup and strolled toward the house, with Melissa lugging a massive brown bundle of feathers that stretched almost to the ground.

What could I do at that point but stop feeding the lawn and start finding the story?

Greg Johnson grinned when I showed up with my cell-phone camera, a notebook and some questions.

“I always tell Melissa that you go hunting for the stories,” he said. “It’s not about what you kill.”

If one of the stories happens to be about a father-and-daughter hunting trip on the opening day of spring turkey hunting, the fortuitous flight of an eagle and the urgent mating dance of a hormonally infused tom turkey, well, that’s pretty hard to beat.

“We had at least six strutting in front of her at different times,” Greg says.

He was doing the turkey calling, along with his buddy Mike Kintigh, who just happens to be regional supervisor for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department in Rapid City.

At one point, the two of them attracted a little crowd of turkeys, with a couple strutting toms included. But there was never a clear shot at just one. And Melissa didn’t want to risk taking a shot that might kill more than the one tom her license allowed.

Especially considering the occupation of her hunting companion.

“It’s a little intimidating, hunting with a Game, Fish & Parks guy,” she said.

Yeah, you don’t want to mess up when you’re traveling with a guy with a badge, even if he’s not wearing it at the time. Melissa didn’t mess up. And that particular nervousness passed quickly.

It’s not like Kintigh is a stranger, after all. He and Greg have coached state-champion youth trapshooting teams in Rapid City for many years, taking some to national competitions. Melissa was a state trap champ herself a few years back, and went on to leave her mark at the national level.

She drifted away from all that during her later high school years and in college. But now, working at the local hospital, she’s coming back to guns and their role in outdoor recreation and building family hunting lore.

“That’s what it’s about, the lore and the storytelling. My dad always tells me that hunting is not about killing things. It’s about the stories,” she said. “It was great. And it’s really nice to bond with my dad when we can do something where we’re on equal footing.”

She was certainly equal to the task when it came time to point the Mossberg 3 1-2-inch magnum 12 gauge at the right spot and deliver a lethal load of steel shot. Which is not to say she wasn’t still a bit rattled by the scene.

“She was physically shaking after she shot that bird,” her dad says.

There’s a lot of that going around in the spring turkey hunting game, even among older, more experienced hunters. They include my niece’s husband, Rich Widman of Brookings, an investment specialist by trade and president of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation by love.

On Sunday as I was changing my blog plans so I could write about Melissa’s turkey, I got notice on Facebook that Rich had bagged one himself. But not without what seems to be the requisite amount of hyperventilating and elevated heart rate.That’s especially true when the shot follows the fetching spectacle of a charged-up tom engaging in the courtship rumba.

Rich had able callings assistance from from his brother, Mark, as well as a friend and the friend’s cousin. Soon a tom was coming into range, and got close enough that Rich clicked off the safety on his shotgun.

Which was all it took to spook the bird.

“They have amazing hearing,” Rich said.

Next time, though, was the final strut for one tom.

“It was cool. We set up and called. And you could hear them getting closer and closer,” Rich said. “I could see a tom peak his head up over some brush, and I thought he saw me. But he kept coming closer and closer.”

Too close for his own good, at 25 yards.

“I nailed him,” Rich said. “I was actually shaking, too.”

They topped the morning off with a stop at Deerfield Reservoir, where they caught some rainbow trout. All on public property.

“What’s really cool is you’ve got so much access out here for hunters,” he said. “Whereas back east access is a problem. We’re losing duck hunters and pheasant hunters because of it.”

There weren’t any access problems for Melissa Johnson, hunting in the national forest west of Hermosa. Like Widman, she was struck by the strut of the big toms in classic turkey hunting situations.

“I was pretty anxious about it,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting. First you can hear them but you can’t see them. Then they come strutting around.”

She got a break when an eagle flew over and scattered the big flock, making it easier to hunt  individual birds. Melissa finally blasted one that was 25 to 30 yards out.

It was her first shot at a turkey after about a decade away from the sport.

“She hunted from about 12 to 15 then kind of left it,”Greg says. “This year, though, she’s become super interested in it. We shot her first turkey when she was 13 and her second one now that she’s 23. Maybe she’ll shoot one every 10 years.”

Actually, he thinks the next will be a lot sooner than that. So does Melissa.

“We’re going to go deer hunting this year and then we’re hoping to get an elk tag,” she said.

And next spring turkey season?

“Oh yeah,” she said.

That means more time with dad and more shots, and especially more stories.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.