Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years. Although our turkey population has been stable and hunting has been good, the state has not seen a substantial turkey population boom in quite some time.
That is about to change.
Although the numbers aren’t in yet to know for sure what the 2012 hatch was like, all indicators show that the 2012 hatch was a very successful one.
“Anytime you have a warm, dry spring you typically have a great hatch,” said Joe Robison, a biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and a pro staff member for Zink Game Calls. “In addition to having a dry spring, we had an early spring, which can help with brood rearing.”
There is an extremely high mortality rate among ground-nesting birds, including turkeys. An early spring means hen turkeys that lose a nest due to predators, high water or bad weather conditions will have a chance to have another brood.
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“Hens that lose a nest will re-nest and do so all the way into the middle of summer,” advised Robison. “The fact that we had an early spring means hens had a lot of time for a second nest if needed.”
One great indicator of a good hatch is seeing large broods of chicks throughout the spring and summer, which was definitely the case during the spring of 2012.
“Everywhere I looked, I saw hens with chicks,” said Scott Cole, an avid turkey hunter from west Michigan. “We even saw lots of hens and poults in the northern Lower Peninsula, which hasn’t been the case for several years.”
Turkey numbers have struggled in the northern Lower Peninsula the last several years, and so the hatch of 2012 should help bird numbers rebound in that area. The turkey population in Michigan is well over 200,000 birds and may grow slightly this year. As a result, the 2013 spring season should be a good one.
“I think hunters should expect a great season this year,” said the biologist. “There will likely be many 2-year-old toms around, which should make hunting exciting.”
Those who hunt turkeys sparingly and don’t get very excited about it should consider going all-in this year.
“The success rate in Michigan is fairly high,” said Robison. “About 36 percent of hunters fill their tag. In addition, hunters report that they don’t have much interference from other hunters when turkey hunting, which makes hunting turkeys a great experience for anyone who enjoys hunting.”
One of the reasons Michigan hunters don’t have much interference from other hunters is because the majority of the birds taken each spring are harvested on private ground. In previous years, 90 percent of the turkey harvest took place on private ground. More than 80 percent of turkey hunters hunt only on private property.
“What the numbers reveal is that many people don’t utilize public ground for hunting, and so hunters who are discouraged about hunting on public land shouldn’t be. The numbers show that public-land hunters will have great opportunities because not many people hunt turkeys on public land.”
There are more than 58,000 square miles of land open to turkey hunting every spring in Michigan, and so it is safe to say that even hunters who only hunt on public ground will have the woods to themselves. That’s especially true if they scout ahead of time and find areas that other hunters overlook.
In 2011, roughly 86,000 turkey hunters tagged more than 30,000 birds. It is safe to say that Michigan is a great place to hunt turkeys in the spring. Although the state has an extremely healthy population of turkeys, only one bearded turkey can be taken each spring.
To hunt turkeys in Michigan, hunters must draw a tag for a limited draw unit, purchase a leftover tag, or buy a hunt 234 tag, which allows hunters to hunt the late season. Although the tag drawing system discourages some hunters, anyone who wants to hunt turkeys in Michigan can and likely will have plenty of opportunities to fill their tag if they hunt, regardless of which unit they hunt. Following are some of the best units to hunt from around the state.
THE ZZ UNIT
For hunters who want to hunt on private property, one of the best tag options is the ZZ tag, which is good for private land in about half of the state. The tag is good for the first two weeks of the season, plenty of time for hunters to find birds and fill a tag. I like this tag when I get permission to hunt small parcels of land in southern Michigan.
“The southern portion of the state is home to many turkeys,” said Robison. “Several of these birds live on small parcels of private property.”
Small parcels are overlooked by far too many hunters, but birds that live on small parcels are often easier to pattern and hunt. That’s nice for hunters who have a limited amount of time to hunt.
When hunting small parcels, it is important to note that figuring out where turkeys are roosting is extremely important. Shortly after they fly down, the birds may leave one parcel and go onto another. Over the years, when hunting small parcels I have had the best luck tagging birds by knowing exactly what trees they roost in and calling in a tom right after his feet hit the forest floor in the morning.
If you enjoy hunting with a bow or crossbow, small parcels can be just the ticket, especially when you consider discharging a firearm on small parcels of land is against the law if you are in close proximity to other houses or occupied buildings. The biggest tom I have taken in Michigan was when I had the ZZ tag and used a bow to hunt on a small parcel of ground. I tagged the bird a few hundred yards from a house.
If you have private land to hunt on, ZZ is a great tag. However, keep in mind that if you draw the ZZ tag, you cannot hunt on public land.
Although hunting small parcels of land can be fun, hunting big chunks of public ground can also be fun. Hunters who want to hunt big woods and aren’t afraid of a drive should consider putting in for Unit M, which is in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.
Far too many people don’t even consider the Upper Peninsula as a place to hunt turkeys, but the southern portion of the Upper Peninsula is home to a healthy population of the birds. The mild 2011-2012 winter along with a good 2012 hatch should result in good hunting during the 2013 season.
With miles of public ground and few turkey hunters, the Upper Peninsula has a lot to offer turkey hunters. Menominee County is home to multiple farms that contain large crop fields and rolling hills, just the places that turkeys like to call home. Knocking on a few doors and asking for permission to hunt can result in great hunting opportunities.
When it comes to hunting on public land, it is hard to beat west Michigan and the state game areas in Muskegon and Allegan counties.
“Many years ago, many of the turkey restoration projects took place in West Michigan,” Robison observed. “The turkey population in those areas has really exploded over the last decade. Muskegon State Game Area is home to many hardwoods, river bottoms and to farm ground, which are all very attractive to turkeys.”
I know several people who have been successful hunting the state game areas in southern Michigan. Most of them put in their time scouting to determine where turkeys are roosting and feeding, and where other hunters are hunting. Kevin Jensen from Fruitport hunts on the Muskegon State Game Area almost every year and typically tags a bird.
“I spend a lot of time in the preseason scouting,” he said. “When I go hunting, I know where the birds are and where the other hunters are. I have become successful by hunting hard and spending a lot of time in the woods. The nice thing about the Muskegon State Game Area is that it is large so if I don’t get a bird first thing in the morning, I can walk and call, or sit in my blind and call periodically. Likely, sooner or later a tom will respond.”
Robison believes that many of the state game areas in southern Michigan offer fine hunting.
“Hunters looking for great hunting opportunities on public land should get online and look for state game areas in their area. State game areas are managed for wildlife and offer great hunting.”
One tag that allows hunters to hunt on public and private land like the state game areas is the ZF tag.
One of the best tags to have during a Michigan turkey season is the 234 tag. It is an over-the-counter tag. The hunt usually opens in early May and goes until the end of May, giving hunters almost an entire month to tag their birds.
“In my opinion, this is one of the best opportunities for Michigan hunters because it gives them plenty of time to hunt,” said Robison. “Many hunters can only hunt on the weekends. This tag allows them to hunt several weekends and increases their chances of getting a bird.”
It is important to note that this tag is good during Memorial Day Weekend. Many people have a three-day weekend, which gives them an extra day to hunt. The downside of this tag is that although it is good on public and private land in much of the state, hunters can’t use the tag on public land in the southern portion of the state. To know which units are open and which ones are closed, check out a current copy of our turkey-hunting regulations.
Area J in the northern Lower Peninsula is a great place to hunt on public land with the 234 tag. Area J is a large unit that covers several counties and lots of public land. The spring in the Northcountry comes later than the rest of the state, making this a great place to go during the late season because toms are often still gobbling heavily.
“I hunt Area J almost every year and am amazed how late the buds on the trees are up there compared to the rest of the state,” said Doug Kuiper from Holland. “It stays colder up there longer, but in May, the toms really talk up there and I love hunting in the big Northwoods. We get birds almost every year.”
Many hunters prefer hunting the early season. One of the most popular units to hunt the early season is Area K. Area K is a large unit that holds a large population of turkeys. The problem with the early-season hunts is that they only last a week and the weather is sometimes cold.
Drawing a tag for the early season hunt can be difficult because many people put in for the tag. The 2012 spring season was a great time to hunt the early season because of the early spring. Many years, however, there is still snow on the ground in places. Hunters who can take several days off from work and want to hunt birds that haven’t been called to or shot at should consider putting in for the first hunt.
Gobbling is typically at its peak during the first week of the season. If you have private land to hunt in southern Michigan, put in for the ZZ tag and the hunt that takes place during the early weeks of the season. If your time is limited, or you want to hunt large tracts of public ground, consider getting the 234 tag, or hunting one of the northern units where you can walk for miles without seeing another hunter and likely call in birds that rarely, if ever, get called to.
One thing is certain: The turkey population in Michigan is high, and so are your chances of success this spring if you spend time in the woods.