Michigan'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

Michigan'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

The wild turkey, once on the brink of extinction, has come a long way in our state. Now we have more toms to hunt than ever before.

Wild turkeys could be the greatest conservation story ever. On the brink of extinction at the turn of the century across much of their range, turkey populations have now rebounded to the point where there are more turkeys than ever in many states, including Michigan.

Biologists now estimate that there are in excess of 175,000 turkeys in Michigan. Many of those birds are north of the Bay City to Muskegon line and in the Upper Peninsula, places where there were traditionally no turkeys at all. Thanks to transplanting efforts, winter feeding programs and habitat management, there are more opportunities to hunt turkeys in the state of Michigan than ever before, and success rates are some of the highest in the country.

“Turkey hunters in Michigan enjoyed a very good season in 2004,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist Al Stewart. “Hunters harvested 37,500 birds during the 2004 season, which is the largest harvest in Michigan history. The harvest was about 12 percent above 2003.”

That’s a long way from the 50 turkeys that 1,000 hunters killed during the first Michigan turkey hunt back in 1969.

“There weren’t any real hotspots,” offered Stewart. “Turkey numbers have expanded so much in recent years that hunting was generally good across the board. South of the Bay City to Muskegon line, turkeys continue to expand their range. Winter feeding bans have affected turkey numbers in the northeast part of the state, so there are fewer birds there now, but turkeys in the U.P. continue to do very well, and there were some leftover permits there. May can be a particularly good time to hunt in the U.P.”

The areas open to turkey hunting have expanded from a mere 4,049 square miles in 1969 to more than 44,450 square miles in 2004. Stewart said that several areas — like L, P and X — would be combined this coming season, so hunters should check the turkey hunting regulations guide for boundaries and zones.

“Success rates of turkey hunters are usually fairly constant,” claimed Stewart. “We usually average right around 30 percent, when in reality a success rate of around 20 percent would be acceptable. That’s why the 41 percent success rate that hunters enjoyed last season is so remarkable.”

Increased hunting opportunities in southern Michigan, longer seasons, less hunting pressure in traditional turkey hunting areas and plenty of birds are just a few of the reasons for the high hunter success rates.

What can hunters expect in the spring of 2005?

“I think we’ll see a similar number of birds this spring if we have an average nesting season,” suggested Stewart. “Reproduction appeared to be good this spring. We enjoyed our third-driest April on record, but the wettest May. The flood plains were dry when most nesting occurred, but then flooded out and I’m sure many of the first nesting attempts were lost. I think there was a lot of re-nesting and the birds moved to the uplands where nesting success was higher.”

Hunters and others reported seeing a lot of turkey poults last summer and fall in a variety of sizes, which indicates that there was a lot of late nesting and re-nesting.

For more information on applying for turkey hunting licenses, application deadlines, zones, season dates, hunting hours and more, visit the DNR’s Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr or contact the DNR Wildlife Division at (517) 373-1263.

FROM THE THUMB

Linda Gallagher is known as the “turkey lady” by many who know her across the state of Michigan. Besides writing for a number of publications, Gallagher’s real passion is turkey hunting, and she takes every opportunity to get out in the woods and fields to take friends or introduce kids to the sport of turkey hunting.

Gallagher doesn’t guide. She said that would be a conflict of interest with the winter feeding programs she heads up, which is critical to sustaining huntable number of turkeys across northern Michigan. But she admits that doesn’t mean she won’t accept donations to the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association from successful hunters that she coaches.

“Last year was the worst turkey season I’ve ever seen,” lamented Gallagher. Why? “The weather,” she stated. “There were lots of birds, but the weather was absolutely terrible. We had temperatures as cold as 19 degrees during the April hunt. We had wind and rain and cold and it made for a miserable hunt. Then it gradually got worse until the very last few days of the season.”

Gallagher said that when the weather improved at the end of May that she and friends killed four gobblers in three days.

One suggestion that Gallagher had was to open the turkey seasons a little later.

“We might possibly be opening our turkey season too early,” offered Gallagher. “Other more southern states, like Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania, open their season a week or more later than Michigan. I know biologists don’t want hunters disturbing the nesting hens, but it still happens anyway.” That might make the weather during the season a little more bearable.

Gallagher had mixed feelings about the prospects for the spring 2005 hunts.

“The Thumb counties should be a hotspot for turkeys this spring,” stated Gallagher. “The birds have been steadily increasing there to the point that they had their first fall season there (last year). I would think that Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron and the northern portion of St. Clair would be good spots to kill a bird this spring.”

While much of the Thumb is private property, there are several state game areas that offer ideal turkey habitat and public hunting. In Tuscola County, check out the Tuscola, Murphy Lake, Vassar, Deford, Cass City and Gagetown state game areas. The Sanilac, Minden City and Cass City state game areas in Sanilac County are likely spots to search for a big gobbler this spring. For more information on turkey numbers and hunting opportunities in the Thumb, contact the DNR field office in Cass City at (989) 872-5300.

THE NORTHEAST

“The reduction in deer feeding has really hurt turkey numbers in the northeast part of the state,” advised Gallagher. “Deer-proof feeders are helping.”

Biologists, wildlife managers and volunteers who run the winter feeding programs are adamant about the fact that the corn that is distributed feed turkeys and not deer. Placing the feed out in the open, close to buildings and houses, and feeding during daylight hours makes it more likely that turkeys will reap the benefits of the winter feeding programs.

In spite of the lower turkey populations in northeast Michigan, Gallagher said that turkey numbers remain high in Alcona, Oscoda and Alpena counties.

“Alcona County had it first fall hunt in years,” said Gallagher. “I would think that it would be a good bet to fill your tag this spring.”

There are plenty of public lands to chase turkeys on in Alcona County. Near half of the county is part of the Huron National Forest. Smaller tracts within the Oscoda State Forest offer additional opportunities. Hunters should find plenty of birds and few hunters in portions of the Alpena State Forest in Alpena County. Look at a map of Oscoda, and the entire map is almost green, which means most of it is within the Huron National Forest and open to public hunting. The area traditionally holds good numbers of spring gobblers.

For more information on turkey hunting opportunities in northeast Michigan, contact the DNR field office in Atlanta at (989) 785-4251.

AREA K OUTLOOK

“Turkey numbers in the 13-county area that makes up Area K have been on a steady decline since 1999,” stated MWTHA member Jim Maturen. “A combination of cold springs, bad winters, increased predation and possibly the West Nile virus has really cut into the number of birds.”

Maturen said that winter feeding programs not only help turkeys make it though the winter, but it helps wildlife managers accurately count turkeys. Birds traditionally cluster at the same locations each winter, and it’s easy to see changes within the population from year to year. Declines in turkey numbers in Area K are widespread. Fall hunting was not allowed in the area during 2004.

“The hardest-hit counties are along the northern portion of the area,” claimed Maturen. “Places like Kalkaska County have a lot less birds because of the last few relatively hard winters. The southernmost counties have the highest number of birds and should produce some of the better hunting opportunities this spring. Mecosta County should be one of the best.”

Wildlife biologist Penny Mechoir said that turkey abundance in Area K basically gets better the farther south you go.

“Turkey numbers in the northern tier of counties like Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Kalkaska tend to be spotty,” she said. “There are good pockets of birds, but you have to scout to find them. There are some very good pockets of birds in the central portion of the area. The birds here relate heavily to large rivers and the bottoms. You’ll find lots of birds in Missaukee, Wexford and Osceola counties. The southern counties have just been inundated with turkeys, and in many places they’ve almost become a nuisance. Hunters should find some very good hunting in Oceana, Newaygo, and Mecosta counties.”

Winter feeding is probably most important in the northernmost counties of Area K.

“We’ve been trying to promote recreational feeding versus feeders,” explained Maturen. “People are somewhat confused by the feeding bans, but there’s nothing that says you can’t feed turkeys. With recreational feeding, the birds aren’t so concentrated and there’s less chance for the spread of disease.”

How important is winter feeding to maintaining turkey numbers in Area K? “Well, I like to say that, ‘it’s either a fed one or a dead one,’ ” said Maturen.

For more information on turkey numbers and hunting opportunities in Area K, contact the DNR field office in Baldwin at (231) 745-4651. For more details on the winter feeding program and joining the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association, call (231) 832-2575.

SOUTHERN MICHIGAN

Turkeys in southern Michigan continue to prosper.

“We’re pretty close to the saturation point as far as turkey numbers in this neck of the woods,” said wildlife biologist Mark Bishop. “You know when the turkey-car accidents are picking up that it is an indication there are a lot of birds.”

Bishop said he oversees Barry and Kalamazoo counties and spends a great deal of time in Calhoun County.

“My early feeling was that we had a horrible nesting season,” admitted Bishop, “but as the season went on what we saw was smaller broods and smaller poults.”

Bishop said that the rains in the spring were pretty regional. Some areas got hit hard while others didn’t.

“In the end I don’t think nesting was a bad as we thought,” said Bishop. “Bowhunters (reported) seeing good numbers of birds.”

Without the severe winters that birds in northern Michigan have to deal with, it was obvious that southern Michigan was ideal habitat for turkeys and they would prosper. “We knew that if we put good genetics in good habitat we would have plenty of birds,” said Bishop.

Southern Michigan might just have some of the best turkey hunting in the state right now. But according to Linda Gallagher, hunters need to take advantage of it while they can.

“Like anywhere else, populations peak, then level off and then start downward as hunters take more of the birds and predator numbers catch up with the population,” claimed Gallagher.

But in a strange sort of the way the explosion of turkey numbers in southern Michigan has helped hunters in the northern part of our state.

“I think fewer hunters are heading up north to hunt now,” suggested Gallagher. “More of them are staying close to home to hunt where they’re seeing plenty of birds, and the hunt quality in the northern of the state has improved.”

UPPER PENINSULA

It seems that with Michigan turkeys these days, everyone is happy.

“Turkey numbers have just exploded in this part of the state,” said Crystal Falls wildlife biologist Craig Albright. “I think turkeys have done better up here than anyone expected.”

Turkeys are getting so numerous in Dickinson, Menominee and Delta counties that fall seasons are now being held to kill some of the surplus of turkeys.

“A lot of the credit goes to the devotion of several U.P. sportsman’s clubs,” said Albright. “Groups like Wildlife Unlimited of Delta County, the Bay de Noc Gobblers and similar organizations and their winter feeding programs are critical to having the number of turkeys we do up here.”

The organizations provide deer-proof feeders and advise residents who want to do recreational feeding on how to do it so that it benefits turkeys and not deer.

Albright said that winter surveys last year revealed that there were some 4,500 turkeys in Delta County. Dickinson County added another 3,300 to the tally, and Menominee County added another 2,800 birds. Twenty years ago, there were few, if any, turkeys in the U.P.

Turkey numbers in the eastern U.P. continue to expand, too, in spite of the fact that wildlife managers there see them more as a natural phenomenon than a viable resource that can be nurtured and expanded to provide a valuable recreational opportunity for sportsmen and sportswomen.

For more information on spring turkey hunting in the central U.P., contact the DNR field office in Gladstone at (906) 786-2351.

* * *

Hopefully given a break from Mother Nature this past winter and with the helpful hand of devoted people, there should be plenty of gobblers this spring to test the skills of Michigan hunters.

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