My brother was as mad as he was befuddled. Bob had been deer hunting on the Huron Manistee National Forest, southwest of Mio in northern Lower Michigan, as had family members, for decades. Deer were scarce, like they were through much of Michigan in the 1960s. But that’s not what had Bob upset.
His long-odds deer hunting venture had been compromised by someone shuffling noisily through the woods just over the ridge, making vocal sounds of absolute gibberish. His hunt fouled up, Bob returned to camp.
It happened again the next day, but this time the hunt-wrecker topped the ridge, and my astonished brother saw that his hunt was not fouled-up, but fowled-up. The leaf-kicking, babble-broadcasting intruder wasn’t an idiotic human, but an eastern wild turkey — the first he’d ever seen and at that time virtually unknown to all but a few Michiganders.
A few years later, we clutched scarce lottery-won permits, and with literally no idea of what we were doing, hunted an expanding population of wild turkeys in that same chunk of Oscoda County. We experienced predictable results — unfilled tags. But we and other hunters began to learn more, as turkeys became more numerous and more widespread. Experienced turkey hunters organized workshops to share their knowledge and skills. Manufacturers widened the variety of calls, camouflage and other gear that until then had been mainly homemade or borrowed from bowhunting.
Ten years later, I tagged along when Michigan DNR biologists and technicians drop-, cannon- and even landing-netted Oscoda County turkeys, now more plentiful than desired, especially on private lands. Trap-and-transfer spread them around the northern two-thirds of the state, small clusters dropped into pockets of turkeyless turkey habitat.
New efforts would bring in birds from other states, for release throughout southern Michigan, in a dramatically successful reintroduction program in what biologists call the big birds’ “ancestral range.”
A few decades more have passed, and few are the Michiganders who have not seen wild turkeys. In one recent year 70,000 hunters spent well over a quarter-million spring days seeking them — and bagged 30,000 birds.
And despite the northern Michigan introduction — Mio and Baldwin areas there, plus Allegan in southwestern Lower Michigan — that many older hunters experienced, southern Michigan has emerged as prime examples of turkey hunting country. That’s where your best chances are likely to come this spring.
Regulations for this season were still being crafted as this was written, but Al Stewart, our Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist, and thus overseer of all Michigan things turkey, said he expected few major changes.
This year will be the first in a fourth three-year set of “stabilized” regulations, and was expected to include once again: All huntable Michigan areas open for some kind of turkey hunting. Hunting divided into about a dozen management units. Three kinds of hunts: Quota hunts, with limited licenses available good for all lands within their boundaries; a quota hunt with practically unlimited licenses available on all private lands in southern Lower Michigan (called Unit ZZ); and a no-quota (guaranteed permit) hunt (called Hunt 234) covering all lands in Michigan open to turkey hunting, except for public lands in the southern Lower Peninsula.
Maybe it’s good to focus on those last two categories first. After all, the application period passed long ago for the most popular quota hunts. There may or may not be a few tags for them still available at license agents and online. But there are almost certainly licenses left for the ZZ Hunt, and for sure Hunt 234.
Stewart says Hunt 234 is no longer considered “the loser hunt, the mosquito hunt,” tags it once wore. “It has become a preferred hunting option.”
“It took 15 to 20 years for turkey hunters to realize that Hunt 234 has the most consistent weather, that birds are still gobbling well.” Come May, Stewart says, most hens are nesting while toms are still randy. “Any yelps (including those hunter-made) may seem like the only hen in the woods.” Tom is likely to notice and respond.
So, we have early seasons and late seasons, short ones, and long ones, hunter numbers thinned through drawings, everybody-in guaranteed hunts.
“We have had the ability to adjust our regulations to correspond to turkeys going from a species of scarcity to an animal of abundance,” says Stewart. “We have different ways to preserve the kind of quality turkey hunting people ask for.”
In addition to the menu of seasons, with licenses allocated either by drawing or over the counter, there are two ways you might be able to hunt anywhere or anytime: Be very young, or be very lucky.
First, young. A hunter age 9 can buy a mentored youth hunting license, and hunt with a mentor at least 21. His or her hunting license is good for one turkey during any hunt period in any area. These are sold over the counter, so there’s still time to put a mentored hunt together this spring.
Or, be lucky. Three people drawn from the thousands who purchased a Pure Michigan Hunt found among their pile of licenses, permits and equipment a spring wild turkey hunting license valid for all areas open to turkey hunting and for all periods — and they can keep hunting until it is filled or the last season ends. Those were already drawn for this year — but think about buying a $5 Pure Michigan entry for next year.
So, you’ve got options. How should you explore them? First, think south.
Before what is now Michigan was settled, experts say, maybe 100,000 wild turkeys roamed it, almost all of them below the line we draw from Bay City to Muskegon. Now they’re statewide, in numbers twice as high, supporting a spring turkey season that, with all its options, is the nation’s longest. We rank about seventh nationally in turkeys harvested. Success comes to nearly 1 in 3 hunters, and yet the flock thrives.
And most of that success comes south of the Muskegon-Bay City line.
Admittedly Michigan has seen turkey populations decline. “The trend is showing up throughout eastern wild turkey range,” says Stewart. A Midwest Wild Turkey Consortium is looking at why. These kinds of trends (ups and downs) are not unusual. In the restoration stage, we see great increases in population, and then hills and valleys in bird numbers.
Don’t expect big changes, though. “For the most part, in Michigan, what you see is what you’ve got.” By the year 2000, Stewart says, “We think we reached a restored flock, a plateau. By then we filled in all the voids, and now we’re going to see a population with ebbs and flows.”
Weather doesn’t much limit birds in southern Michigan. To the north, “It’s something of a crap shoot,” Stewart says, although in most winters, “the birds come through relatively well.”
In spring 2016, “We had pretty good production,” despite a mid-April blast of winter weather. Last fall, “People (were) seeing quite a few birds, even in those areas in northern Michigan that are not open to fall hunting. I even had a guy from the southern edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula” far north in the Upper Peninsula and previously pretty much turkey-free, “who saw some toms and hens. He was pretty excited.”
Winter 2016-17, of course, was still a question mark as this was written. But for most Michigan turkeys and turkey hunters focused on the southern third of the state, it is unlikely to be much of an issue.
Eric Mohr, whose dad Richard helped conduct turkey workshops in the late 1970s, is among those who’ll be pursuing turkeys this spring. Twenty-five years ago the Midland math teacher tagged along with Richard and his buddies as they chased turkeys on a large northern Lower Michigan club. Standard Michigan turkey hunting then meant listening for a gobbling tom and then trying to get close enough to call it in before other hunters got closer. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Folks often got frustrated — or worse.
Now Mohr hunts closer to home, often with a bow, on a couple of farms to which he has access. “It’s different than up north, in the big woods, where at first light you try to get him to gobble, and then go after him, and if it doesn’t work out go look for another. Here it’s an agricultural setting, little woodlots, fingers of woods. It’s different. Establishing the pattern comes into play.”
Mohr likes May hunts, and doesn’t even begin scouting until late April, since he’s found that birds seen in one spot can be gone by a hunting season a few weeks later. His aim is to pin down bird locations, roosting and travel patterns. “If you can be where the turkey already wants to be, that makes it a lot easier.”
Stewart offers the following pre-hunt advice. “I’d search along a creek/river bottom that is adjacent to any steep oak ridge. I’d set up near the top of an open oak ridge or next to an opening near where the birds are roosting. I’d spend more days scouting than hunting.”
That’s a change, one of many in the sport. “Turkey hunting has changed an awful lot,” says Al Stewart, “and all for the good.”
In 1977, all or parts of just 17 Michigan counties were open to turkey hunting, and would-be hunters had a 1-in-4 chance of drawing a permit. Of those who did, 10 percent, about 400, bagged birds. Managers set a goal of a 20 percent turkey hunting success rate.
This year, as in 2015 and 2016, all 83 counties offer turkey hunting. Success among those who actually hunt (72,000 of 87,000 license buyers in 2015) will likely be about 40 percent again — about 30,000 birds.
One of those longbeards could be yours. Thanks to strong turkey numbers and generous and varied seasons, spring 2017 could be your best Michigan turkey season ever.
HOW DO THEY KNOW?
Turkey managers keep in touch with their clients. That’s why the Michigan DNR invites all turkey hunters to go online and report on their spring season: hunting effort, success, equipment used, and whether they encounter interference from other hunters.
They’re asked, too, whether they bagged birds on public or private land, whether it was a juvenile or adult, and overall how they rate their own hunting satisfaction and the health of the turkey population in their area.
The core of the survey, said Al Stewart, were three facets of Michigan turkey management goals, from the hunter’s vantage point. “Was it fun? Were hunters successful? And were their hunts free of excessive interference,” from other hunters?
After the spring 2015 season, 13,568 randomly selected turkey license buyers who had not filed the online report got a questionnaire seeking the same information. That’s roughly one third — a huge sample in statistical terms. More than half responded.
When the online and survey reports were compiled, they showed 70 percent of Michigan turkey hunters rated their experience good, very good or excellent. “And how many activities can you say that about?” Stewart asks rhetorically.
Most hunters, he says, report little or no interference from others. — Steve Griffin