By Greg Keefer
Some of Michigan’s best deer hunting this month will happen on the millions of acres of public land in the Lower Peninsula. Though big bucks are taken every year from private agricultural lands, our forests, wildlife areas and other acreage open to public hunting can produce quality whitetails as well.
In recent years, populations have for the most part held steady, with only a slight decline in some areas.
“We still have very high deer numbers in Michigan, although the northern Lower Peninsula is down from historical highs in the mid-1990s,” said Brent Rudolph, deer research biologist with the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division. “Much of this has been intentional on the part of the DNR. Deer numbers were straining what the habitat could support, and bovine tuberculosis was found in deer in the northeast Lower Peninsula in the mid-1990s. While it appears that some individual deer management units are approaching goals in that region, most are still over the goal, and ample opportunities to take antlerless deer are still available and encouraged.”
There are a variety of public lands available throughout the L.P. where hunters kill deer every year. State and federal forest lands are found predominantly in the Upper Peninsula and in the northern Lower Peninsula regions, while most state game and wildlife areas are in the southern Lower Peninsula. State parks, many of which offer public hunting access, are scattered around our state. And deer live in all of them. According to the DNR’s annual deer harvest survey reports, kill rates for both antlered and antlerless deer are greatest in the southern L.P. About as many deer are taken here as in the U.P. and northern L.P. combined.
Hunters willing to target our public lands have millions of acres of prime whitetail habitat to choose from. Here are the options available to hunters.
Michigan’s state forest system today has improved dramatically from its disastrous beginnings. Early in the state’s history, wholesale clearcutting for farming and logging purposes resulted in scattered piles of dead wood and failed farms. In 1871, a fire burned over 2 1/2 million acres of such land, and 10 years later, another million acres burned in the Thumb area. The Forestry Commission was created in 1887 to provide seedlings for reforestation and some level of fire protection. The first state forest was established in 1903 in Roscommon and Crawford counties, and over the next century grew from 34,000 acres to over 4 million acres statewide.
Michigan’s state forest system is now the largest in the country and provides exceptional opportunities for public hunting. Contacting individual wildlife offices can result in a lot of good “insider” information on where the current hotspots are.
“Probably the best areas for public-land hunting in my unit would be Mason, Manistee, Mecosta and Oceana counties,” said Penny Melchoir, manager of the Northwest Management Unit. “In past years the Baldwin area has had nice racks, but population numbers have been lower in that area than in the past couple of years.”
The Pere Marquette State Forest in northwestern Michigan, the Mackinaw State Forest at the northern tip of the L.P. and the Au Sable State Forest in northeast Michigan all produce deer in the late fall, though some areas are better than others, depending on conditions and recent hunting pressure.
A county map book will point you in the right direction in locating the state forest boundaries and will help you avoid private lands that are interspersed among the public tracts open to hunting. Hunters can also ask for maps of aspen regeneration work and other timber management activity that enhances whitetail habitat.
For more information, contact the DNR’s Lower Peninsula field headquarters at (989) 275-5151.
In 1938 the Manistee National Forest was created to provide recreational opportunities, and in 1945 was merged with the Huron National Forest for administrative purposes. The resulting acreage covers an expansive 964,413 acres of wetlands, pines and hardwood forests. Deer hunting can be excellent, though some tracts do get a lot of hunting pressure.
“Habitat varies, with a lot of hardwood and aspen areas in the Manistee Forest and the same with much more jack pine in the Huron Forest,” said Carol Nilsson, public information specialist for the Huron-Manistee National Forest. “The U.S. Forest Service manages timber sales for early successional habitats for forage, not only for deer but for other animals as well. We maintain approximately 30,000 acres of forest openings for that purpose.”
Nilsson offers the time-honored tip of pre-scouting as the best way to kill a trophy buck. Another way to beat some of the pressure is to set up along the borders between areas open to public hunting and private lands where hunting is restricted. Big bucks often cross over onto public land from the safety of no-hunting areas.
For information on special regulations and recent timber management activity that will affect deer location, contact the Huron-Manistee National Forest supervisor’s office at (231) 775-2421 or the information number at 1-800-821-6263.
FOREST ACT LANDS
Though most of the Commercial Forest Act’s over 2 million acres are located in the Upper Peninsula, there are 80,000 acres in the northern Lower Peninsula and 7,000 acres in the southern half of the L.P.
“In the northern Lower Peninsula, most of the lands are west of Interstate 75 because there are many private multi-owner hunting clubs in the northeast,” said Thomas Stone, a service forester with the DNR.
CFA lands are privately owned but open to public hunting due to an agreement with the DNR.
“These lands are still private and all rules, laws and due respect apply,” said Stone. “You are not allowed vehicle access or snowmobile use, camping, building blinds on the ground or in trees, or non-hunting hiking.”
Access is considered reasonable if the property fronts on or has an easement to a public road or is contiguous to other CFA or public lands. A property tax reduction benefits the landowners, which may include private individuals, clubs or businesses. Permission to hunt isn’t required but as a courtesy it will go a long way in encouraging landowners not to pull out of the program.
Due to the remoteness of a lot of CFA lands, a plat book and county map are often necessary to determine the property lines of CFA properties. You won’t find many signs posting borders. Currently listed properties can be found on the DNR’s Web site at www.michigandnr.com.
For additional information on CFA lands, contact Cara Boucher, DNR Forest Resource Management Section manager, at (517) 335-3354, or Susan Krusik, DNR Commercial Forest assistant, at (517) 373-1277.
The Lower Peninsula is loaded with state parks and recreation areas, with nearly 72,000 acres of these state lands in southeast Michigan alone.
There are special restrictions for using parks and recreation areas, which are detailed in the “State Land Rules” that are available on the DNR’s Web site.
“Deer hunting is allowed in state parks and recreation areas on a case-by-case basis,” said Brad Wuerfel, media spokesman for the DNR in Lansing.
More parks in the northern part of the L.P. allow hunting than in the lower half, according to Wuerfel.
“Deer hunting in the southern part of the state is a whole different ball game than in the northern part,” said Wuerfel. “In the lower part of the state there is more agricultural land, and folks who live there go hunting for the day. In the north, people go there for a week and even take vacations to do it. There’s a lot of pressure.”
One of the most unique hunts in the L.P. is on South Fox Island, which is located 30 miles off the Leelanau peninsula on Lake Michigan. It covers over five square miles of rough wilderness, much of which is state land and open to public hunting. According to Melchoir, some nice racks are killed, but hunting on South Fox Island isn’t easy. There are no facilities at all available to hunters, who have to find their own transportation to and from the island. The Manitou Island Transit Company occasionally ferries hunters to South Fox Island and can be reached at (231) 256-9061. A permit is required to hunt South Fox Island, and special regulations are in effect. Contact the Cadillac Operations Center at (231) 775-9671 for more information.
Before hunting on state park and recreation lands, check with the area’s local DNR office for any special regulations.
For a listing of state parks that allow hunting, check the DNR Web site and click on “Hunting on Michigan’s Public Lands.” You can contact the state parks information line at 1-800-447-2757.
“Game areas and other southern Lower Peninsula public lands offer good opportunities,” said the DNR’s Rudolph. “Southern Lower Peninsula lands are hunted more heavily, especially during the firearm season, because they are accessible and closer to the majority of our population. However, harvest densities are also greatest on southern L.P. public land because deer numbers are highest in this region.”
More than 80 state game and wildlife areas are scattered throughout Michigan, most of which are found in the southern half of the L.P. Much of the habitat both within and surrounding these areas is ideal for deer. Hunters score some nice bucks on the wood lots, rolling terrain and brushlands often located within easy traveling distance of soybeans and cornfields.
No one knows for sure how many deer are taken on state game and wildlife areas since reporting isn’t mandatory, and deer harvest and hunter effort estimates aren’t kept specifically for state lands, said Rudolph. But considering the ideal habitat on the wildlife areas and on the nearby farmlands and woodlots, these are definitely best bets for hunters from the state’s urban centers.
Rudolph recommends checking the DNR Web site to locate nearby game areas. Area maps can be downloaded, and they show parking lots, field offices and water features such as lakes and rivers. He suggests that northern L.P. hunters use county map books, topographic maps and even aerial photos to help locate boundary lines and the best habitat options.
Adam Bump, a wildlife biologist with the Saginaw Bay Management Unit, said that his area has some great hunting prospects.
“State game areas as well as state forest lands exist in the Saginaw Bay Management Unit,” said Bump. “Deer populations are generally at or above goal throughout the management unit. Deer hunting should be quite good this year, with plenty of opportunities for both antlered and antlerless deer throughout the unit.”
Bump points out that some game areas in his unit require special permits for deer hunting that can be obtained from the DNR office in St. Charles or from area offices. For more information, contact the Lower Peninsula field headquarters at (989) 275-5151 or go to the DNR’s Web site for a listing and description of these areas.
The DNR leases privately owned lands throughout southern Michigan through the Hunter Access Program to create additional public hunting opportunities. The Hunter Access Program, or HAP, differs from the CFP lands in that landowners are not required to manage leased lands for commercial forestry. Lands leased by the state under this program allow public hunting access to deer hunters as well as tax write-offs to the landowners.
According to Rudolph, there are about 17,000 acres of HAP land in the L.P. HAP lands border other privately owned lands where no hunting access is allowed, so it’s important to know where the property lines are. Hunting and fishing rights are the only thing provided by the landowners to hunters, so don’t abuse the privilege. Constructing stands, clearing brush, four-wheeling and other activities are not allowed. All of the hunting regulations apply, and baiting is allowed only with the landowner’s permission.
The real advantage of the HAP program is that otherwise-off-limits properties containing ideal whitetail habitat have been opened to public hunting. Setting up along the edges of woods and fields can provide an excellent vantage point for still-hunters. Big bucks are free to wander onto HAP lands off of adjacent properties where landowners prohibit hunting. A well-placed hunter may get the shot of a lifetime.
Where oaks exist, a real key to good deer hunting is in locating acorns. Do some pre-scouting for oak and hickory stands to find producing trees. Nut tree production can vary considerably from year to year or from tree to tree, even within the same geographical area. Hunters willing to scout for nut trees near heavy brush used for cold-weather bedding will locate deer.
For listings of lands leased by the state under the Hunter Access Program, check “Public Hunting on Private Lands Guide,” which is found on the DNR’s Web site. The guide can also be obtained from southern DNR Operation Service Centers, some license vendors, the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, the Michigan State University C
ooperative Extension and the Michigan Farm Bureau.
HAP lands are open on a first-come/first-served basis. The guide provides a list of farms where daily permits are to be picked up each day for the property you’re hunting. Hunters are required to register with the landowner or at the landowner’s self-registration site daily. All hunters in a party are required to have a yellow hunter tag in their possession at all times that must be returned to the landowner or self-registration box at the end of each day’s hunt. There are no annual permits.
Contact the DNR in Lansing at (517) 373-1263 for additional information on hunting HAP lands.
With 9,100 acres of marsh, bottomland hardwood, grassland and agricultural areas, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is definitely worth mentioning.
“Controlled hunting in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge offers excellent hunting opportunities, with restrictions on the numbers of hunters that can be on the area at any time,” said Adam Bump.
The refuge restricts deer hunting on its land but offers deer hunting by permit drawing, and according to Bump, deer numbers on the refuge are up.
The federal lands in the L.P. have their own set of rules and restrictions that hunters are required to obey. Hunters are encouraged to contact the office in the area they intend to hunt well ahead of time. If you missed the Aug. 1 deadline to submit an application to hunt the refuge in 2004, mark it on your calendar for next year. More information is available by calling (989) 777-5930 or on the refuge’s Web site at www.midwest.fws.gov/shiawassee.
There is a lot of good deer hunting on the Lower Peninsula’s public lands this month. For more information on where to go, contact the Michigan DNR at (517)373-1263. Hunters needing lodging can contact the Hotel, Motel and Resort Association for assistance at (517) 267-8989 or online at www.michiganhotels.org.
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