Michigan's 2009 Upland Wingshooting Guide
October 04, 2010
With population cycles on the upswing and strong responses to better -- and more plentiful -- habitat, 2009 is shaping up to be an excellent year to sample Michigan's upland opportunities. (October 2009)
A wet spring made nesting difficult for Michigan's pheasant population, but numbers still appear to be increasing.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
Michigan's upland wing-shooting opportunities are as diverse as the Michigan landscape. The rolling farmlands of southern and eastern Michigan are home to decent, huntable numbers of pheasants and quail, and the abundant public land of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula offers thousands of acres of public hunting for grouse and woodcock. Combine this with the indication that grouse numbers appear to be on the upswing, the grouse cycle is peaking and pheasant numbers seem to be rebounding with improved habitat, and you have all the makings of a fall wing-shooter's paradise.Finding Pheasants
Where you find suitable winter habitat, you'll find pheasants in Michigan. "There are still birds around," said Michigan Natural Resources upland game bird specialist Al Stewart, adding that he's heard a lot of roosters crowing while out turkey hunting this spring. "Where the good wintering habitat is, you still find birds. Last winter was a very difficult winter, but we did experience some breakups at critical times."
Alternative thawing and breaks in the winter weather allow pheasants to find grit and reach grain sources at critical times. Pheasants are resilient birds, and, they can make it through a tough winter if they have the cover to get out of the weather.
Stewart said that Michigan hunters have been harvesting around 100,000 birds in each of the last few years. For that number to increase, pheasants would have to have a good nesting season, something lacking in recent years. "Production was not as good as we'd hoped last year," Stewart said. "That's three years in a row where we have not had good reproduction."
Stewart said that Michigan has experienced a surreal amount of rain this spring. The moisture is good for insect production critical for young chicks, but the heavy rains have also flooded some lowland habitats that might serve as nesting cover. "There are places that have water that don't normally have water," said Stewart. "Right now, we're about two weeks behind with the weather. The first couple weeks of June are critical. That's when the chicks hatch, and it's important that we have some warm, dry weather then."
According to Stewart, some things that have hurt pheasant numbers the last couple of decades are the fragmentation and maturation of the Michigan landscape. "Everyone wants their own little piece of nirvana," said Stewart. "Where you once had a large tract of grasslands, you now have a subdivision or five-acre lots, and it has hurt pheasant numbers. I've always said that you can't grow pheasants on asphalt and dirt."
Another problem that Stewart pointed out is that the remaining habitat is maturing through natural succession and is transforming into more woody vegetation, which isn't good for pheasants either. Trees, bushes and shrubs provide less prime habitat for pheasants and more places for predators to hide.
Michigan's traditional pheasant hunting season takes place from Oct. 20 to Nov. 14 in zones 2 and 3 and Oct. 10-31 in Zone 1. The hunting area in Zone 1 was expanded last season to include all of Menominee County and portions of Delta, Dickinson, Iron and Marquette counties. Michigan's late pheasant season runs from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1 in the area of southern Michigan bordered by U.S. Highway 131 on the west and south of M-20. Limits are two male pheasants per day and four in possession.
For the exact boundaries and specifics of the pheasant-hunting season in Michigan, visit www.michigan. gov/dnr, or consult the 2009-2010 Michigan Hunting and Trapping Guide.
Bobwhite quail are kind of an anomaly in Michigan. Far removed from their traditional southern U.S. range, they are still fairly common in several southern Michigan counties and provide some recreational sport. But their numbers are even more weather-dependent than pheasants, and after a severe winter, the season has often been closed. "Quail are even more sensitive to winter and storms, especially ice storms," said Stewart. Quail populations are often boom or bust, he said, but in spite of the often brutal conditions during the winter of 2008-09, Stewart was emphatic that Michigan hunters will be able to hunt quail in 2009.
The quail season in 2008 ran from Oct. 20 to November and is likely to remain the same for 2009. The bag limit for quail was five per day and 10 in possession. Consult your hunting guide or the MDNR Web site (www.michigan.gov/dnr) for information on counties in Zone 3 open to quail hunting.
Although harvest data was not available for the entire 2008 pheasant season, the early-season report from pheasant cooperators indicated that pheasant numbers were about the same as the previous few years. Forty-one cooperators turned in 241 surveys for the Oct. 20-23 period, down from 57 surveys in 2007. Hunters flushed an average of 0.7 roosters per hour statewide (zones 2 and 3). This number was almost identical to 2007 (0.6 birds per hour). Counties having at least 10 hours of hunting effort with the highest rooster flush rates were Tuscola, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Huron. The majority of the cooperators (49 percent) thought that pheasant populations were down from the previous year in the areas that they hunted. About 20 percent of the cooperators thought that pheasant numbers were up or up slightly from 2007.
South-central Michigan has been one of the last vestiges of pheasant nirvana. The rolling hills there, set-aside lands and agriculture offers pheasants plenty of suitable habitat, and they seem to be responding. "It appears that pheasants have come through the winter very well," reported South-Central Management Unit wildlife supervisor Dave Dominic. "People are reporting hearing and seeing more birds. The only bad thing now is all the water. We're not really sure what kind of impact that will have on nesting." Dominic said that while they don't monitor quail numbers per se, he would expect a similar improvement.
Dominic said that he has seen an encouraging trend in recent years in his district that should help both pheasant and quail numbers. "Wild land is becoming more common again," said Dominic. "Farmers are not farming and tilling like they used to. We're starting to see people leave habitat, instead of farming from fencerow to fencerow. There's more wintering and nesting cover and less intense farming than there was 15 years ago, and wildlife has responded."
Dominic said set-aside lands as a result of tax credits, CRP an
d CREP have helped pheasants and quail tremendously. Look for improved hunting this fall in Branch, Hillsdale, Ionia, Clinton, Jackson and Eaton counties, where you find tracts of good habitat. For more information on pheasant hunting opportunities in south-central Michigan, contact the South-Central Management Unit of the MDNR at (517) 641-4903.Southwestern Reports
"Winter was tough on the birds," said Southwestern Management Unit wildlife biologist John Lerg. "It was particularly bad in the snow belt in northern Berrien and Van Buren counties. There are still a few pockets of birds around, though."
Lerg suggested looking for mixed habitat containing row crops, grasslands and abandoned properties. He admitted that finding such a piece of property these days is rare, but they are there if you do your homework. Look for increased numbers of birds given a good nesting season in Calhoun County up into Barry County. Pockets of birds can also be found in Cass and Berrien counties, where grasslands restoration is taking place on private lands. For more information, contact the Southwestern Management Unit of the MDNR at (269) 685-6851.
Veteran wildlife biologist Arne Karr seemed almost giddy about pheasant prospects in Michigan's "thumb." Once a stronghold for pheasants in Michigan, pheasants have been on a long-term decline in the thumb until recently. "The CREP program has helped tremendously," claimed Karr. Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program lands are set aside because of environmental issues of soil erosion, water quality and wildlife habitat. Michigan partners with the federal government to preserve the habitat as part of a long-term comprehensive plan. The lands are enrolled for 15 years, so there is a long-term benefit. Farmers and landowners make out because CREP's financial benefits exceed those offered through previous federal programs. It's a win-win situation for farmers and pheasants.
"We had a number of pheasants going into the winter and we're seeing birds out and about," said Karr. "The critical time is in June. I'm mildly impressed at how the birds made it through the winter. With a good nesting season, we could possibly have a little bit better season."
Michigan's eastern "thumb" region offers good pheasant habitat on public lands. Many of these properties are places where the state co-ops management of the lands with Pheasant Forever. Hunters will find good habitat in the Minden, Sanilac and Cass City state game areas in Sanilac County. You'll find good numbers of birds on these areas early and late in the season. Also, check out Vassar, Tuscola, Deford and Gagetown state lands in Tuscola County. For more information, contact the MDNR's Cass City field office at (989) 872-5300.
Upper Peninsula Reports
If you see a guy with an English setter in the back of his truck and a huge grin on his face, you'll know he's a Michigan grouse hunter. That's because this season promises to be one of the best grouse seasons in quite some time.
"Grouse numbers have definitely been on an upward trend," claimed Al Stewart. "That trend has been reflected in the numbers provided by hunting cooperators. The cycle typically peaks in years ending in 8, 9 and 0, so the next couple of years will be as good as it gets. I'm optimistic about this fall."
Spring drumming counts would seem to substantiate Stewart's optimism, at least in the Upper Peninsula. Drumming counts conducted in April and May 2008 showed a 29 percent increase in the average number of drums heard per route compared with 2006, the last year during which drumming counts were conducted. The number of drums heard in zones 2 and 3 over the same periods were unchanged. Biologists are reporting hearing more drumming this spring, especially in the U.P. The increase in drumming coincides with the peak of the 10-year grouse cycle.
The increase in grouse numbers is backed up by reports from hunting cooperators during the early season on Sept. 15-18, 2008. Data from the entire season was not available at press time. Cooperators returned 95 useable surveys and compiled 493 hours in 43 counties. Zone 2 saw the most hunting hours, followed by zones 1 and 3. Hunters reported the highest flush rates for grouse and woodcock in zones 2 and 3, respectively. Individual counties having at least 10 hours of hunting effort with the highest flush rates for grouse were Marquette, Gladwin, Ontonagon, Grand Traverse and Crawford. Although the woodcock season was not open during the survey period, cooperators also counted woodcock flushes. Individual counties having at least 10 hours of hunting effort with the highest flush rates for woodcock included Wexford, Allegan, Gladwin, Kalkaska and Mackinaw.
About 44 percent of the cooperators reported grouse populations were up or up slightly from 2007 in the areas they hunted, with 32 percent reporting populations about the same as the previous year. About 29 percent thought the woodcock numbers were up or up slightly, while 32 percent thought woodcock numbers were the same and 38 percent thought the numbers were down. "We have seen a 1.1 percent to 1.3 percent decline in woodcock numbers annually since 1969," said Stewart. "It's been documented that habitat is the main issue. Other species that depend on the same type of habitat are seeing similar declines in their populations. It's compelling evidence."
Woodcock thrive in early-succession aspen, and a maturing aspen forest along with less cutting has resulted in shrinking quantities and quality of habitat for woodcock. "The state is continuing to cut aspen at the desired level unlike some other agencies," said Stewart. He said that the MDNR is working closely with the Wildlife Management Institute to create more grouse and woodcock habitat. "The real problem we face is that 50 percent of the aspen is on private lands. We need to focus there and educate the landowners on the benefits of aspen cutting and the social value."
The western counties of the U.P. will likely provide some of the best grouse hunting in the state during the next few years. "We're just conducting drumming counts right now, but it seems like there are more birds around," stated Western U.P. Management Unit wildlife biologist Terry McFadden. "It always seems like it's boom or bust, but a lot of hunters were happy last season." McFadden said that an active timber industry in the western U.P. means there's no shortage of habitat. Some of the best hunting will likely be found in southern Marquette, Dickinson and Iron counties this fall. There is an abundance of public lands to hunt in these counties too.
McFadden said there's been a slight decline in woodcock numbers every year. Even in areas where there is good woodcock habitat, McFadden said he's noticed a decrease in singing on his routes this year. A wet, cold spring is about the only thing that could hurt grouse numbers and expectations this fall. For more information on upland opportunities in the western U.P., contact the Crystal Falls field office at (906) 875-6622.
"We have a lot of swampy, lowlands that are not the best for grouse in the eastern U.P.," explained wildlife biologist Sherry MacKinnon. Where you find suitable habitat though, you will find grouse. MacKinnon said eastern Chippewa, western Mackinaw and parts of Schoolcraft counties have good numbers of birds. MacKinnon sa
id that hunters she spoke to harvested more grouse and woodcock last season. She said that the 3,000-acre Stickler unit is managed for grouse, and she heard that grouse numbers were up considerably there last season. The prime grouse habitat that has been created there improves grouse numbers on surrounding public lands too. Most hunters reported seeing and harvesting more birds last fall in the eastern U.P. Drummond Island has always been a great grouse and woodcock destination for upland hunters.
One bright spot for eastern U.P. hunters was woodcock. "Woodcock numbers have been pretty steady," claimed MacKinnon. "Our numbers have not been down like other parts of the state." For more information on upland opportunities in the eastern U.P., contact the Eastern U.P. Management Unit at (906) 293-5131.
Much of the hunting effort for grouse and woodcock in Michigan takes place in the northern Lower Peninsula. The abundance of public lands and the proximity to downstate sportsmen makes it a favorite of hunters.
"The top of the cycle is not like the old days," cautioned Baldwin field office wildlife biologist Larry Smith. "Every peak is a little lower and a little lower." Smith said that part of the problem is deterioration in the quality of habitat. "A lot of the aspen on state lands is maturing. The oldest stuff is 30 years old. You just don't get the regeneration when you cut when you let it get that old, and having young second-growth aspen is critical, especially for woodcock." Smith said that the prospects for woodcock are "really bleak." Woodcock numbers were comparable to last spring, but still low.
Smith said that his own flush rates for grouse were up last year, but drumming counts were down this spring. He said turkey hunters and field personnel are seeing good numbers of grouse, but drumming counts don't seem to reflect those numbers. Prime habitat on state and federal lands should have better grouse numbers this fall. Look for good hunting in Gladwin, Grand Traverse, Missaukee, Newaygo, Lake and Roscommon counties.
It's rare when the stars align, the grouse cycle is near its peak and there is some good news on the horizon for pheasants. It might be a sign of the best seasons in years for Michigan's upland hunters.