There’s little doubt, when you arrive at the visitor center at Mitchell State Park, that the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center is aptly named.
“When you walk through the door you’re greeted by three monster white-tailed deer that were all taken on state land in this area,” explained visitor center interpreter Ed Shaw. “And a nice big bear, too.
“Right behind the display is big fish tank that the kids gravitate to. We have a number of warm-water species in there – yellow perch, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed sunfish, bluegill, rock bass and black crappie, a couple of each. And they were all caught by the kids in the canal outside the center where we take the kids fishing.
“The kids can come back and visit ‘their’ fish.”
It’s all about hunting, fishing and shooting sports – both now and in the past.
The center, which opened in 1992, is named for Carl T. Johnson, an avid outdoorsman from the Cadillac area. Johnson was a houndsman who rigorously pursued bear and bobcats. He founded the Michigan Bear Hunters Association, was involved with Michigan United Conservation Clubs, served as chairman of the Natural Resources Commission, and founded the Michigan Conservation Foundation.
The Department of Natural Resources named the center after Johnson despite its policy (at the time) of not naming facilities after living persons.
Johnson died in 1998.
The three-winged building has a room dedicated to hunting, another dedicated to fishing, and a classroom that has a little bit of both. The classroom is adorned with hunting/fishing-related art (make sure you check out the fish decoys) from local artists, historical artifacts, and a full mount of a black bear that weighed in near 500 pounds and was taken in the swamp not far from the center.
The classroom is where many of the programs are conducted at the center, though Shaw often takes his show on the road to nearby schools. On-site programs include fishing, fly-fishing, snow-shoeing and hunter education.
Shaw tries to develop a new program monthly, which is then presented both at the center and in schools.
“Our Thanksgiving program was called ‘Talking Turkey’ – about Michigan wild turkey,” Shaw said. “We presented it to close to 800 students.”
The fishing room, to the left as you enter the center, covers all aspects of fish, fisheries and fishing in Michigan. There’s a wide-screen fishing simulator – to give youngsters the quasi-experience of Great Lakes fishing, a fly-tying display (provided by Trout Unlimited) and an invasive-species display, which focuses largely on Asian carp.
Displays featuring mounted specimens of Michigan fish focus on warm-water species, cold-water species and Great Lakes denizens. There’s an ice-fishing display, historical hatchery artifacts, and a touch-screen kiosk that tests your knowledge of Michigan fish and fishing.
Coming soon is a display of fish decoys made by Oscar Peterson, a noted decoy carver (and spear fisherman) from Cadillac, who died in 1951.
“It’s basically American folk art,” Shaw said.
In the opposite wing, the hunting room has displays that include most aspects of Michigan’s hunting heritage. Many illustrate huge management successes – the restoration of elk and wild turkeys, for instance – but there are some sad stories, as well, such as the demise of the passenger pigeon (which once thrived in such populations they were said to darken the skies, but were wiped out, largely by market hunters and deforestation, which eliminated their habitat).
Visitors can see the difference between Michigan ungulates – deer, moose and elk – with swatches of hide so you can feel the differences in their coats.
The furbearer display – provided by the state trappers association – allows visitors to feel the difference of furs. Another display lets visitors learn the varying characteristics among wolves, fox and coyotes.
The interactive bear display (narrated by former Natural Resources Commissioner Bob Garner) talks about how bears are managed, radio telemetry projects and other ursine information.
“Everything you want to know about bears is in that display – with mounts of a mom and cub,” Shaw said.
And there’s a display of Native American hunting artifacts, as well.
“Most people spend about an hour in here,” Shaw said. “And we have a gift shop, run by the Friends of Mitchell State Park, with proceeds going toward school programs and campground developments.”
The next big event scheduled at Carl T. Johnson is an ice-fishing clinic – with both classroom instruction and on-the-water opportunity – set for Saturday, Feb.4, during the city of Cadillac’s annual Snow Fest and featuring a spearing contest and a youth fishing contest.
There’s also an outdoor element at the center. Directly behind the building, a wetland habitat and former pike-rearing marsh offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities spring, summer and fall. Because of its location – nestled between Cadillac and Mitchell lakes – the marsh is especially attractive to waterfowl and other birds that use aquatic habitats. Mallards, wood ducks, black ducks and Canada geese are often present – especially during spring and fall migrations – as well as herons and bitterns. Common songbirds you’ll find in the habitat include red-winged black birds and goldfinches. Several bird of prey species – most notably red-tailed hawks and barred owls – may be seen here. Mammals – deer, beavers, muskrats and raccoons – are common. Turtles are abundant.
A two-mile hiking trail that encircles the marsh features interpretive panels about the plants and animals in the habitat. There’s an elevated observation platform overlooking the complex and a small fishing pier.
The Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center is open daily from Memorial Day through Dec. 1, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The rest of the year, the center is open Fridays from noon to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.
For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrvisitorcenters or call 231-779-1321.