The 2012 spring turkey season is almost here. The good news is Michigan has a very large population of wild turkeys. Whether you enjoy hunting the early season before the toms have been educated by hunters or the late season when most of the hens are already on the nest and toms are more receptive to calling, you can plan on having a great time chasing spring gobblers if you invest some time in pre-season scouting.
According to Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist for the Michigan DNR, Michigan has a healthy turkey population of more than 200,000 birds — one of the largest turkey populations in the country. With a healthy population of turkeys, hunters can expect to have plenty of opportunities to bag a bird this spring, as long as the weather cooperates.
"Weather plays a big role in the outcome of a spring hunt," Stewart said. "If you can remember the spring of 2011, we had plenty of bad weather during the first few weeks of the season. All the numbers aren't in from last spring, but I would suspect there were fewer birds harvested in the state as a result. When we have a warm, sunny spring, we tend to harvest more birds than when we have a cold, wet spring."
Cold, wet springs have an impact on the number of hens that end up with successful hatches. Since the spring of 2011 was cold and wet, Stewart believes the turkey population will be down slightly in the spring of 2012 from the number of birds we had several years ago.
"We certainly won't be at our peak for turkey numbers in 2012. The population fluctuates some over the years. This year the numbers will probably be down some. The good news is we have many turkeys in this state and there are ample opportunities for turkey hunters across the state to harvest a spring gobbler. We have a high success rate in Michigan because we have so many birds. Our success rate average, which exceeds 20 percent and goes as high as 40 percent or more in some units, is higher than the national average."
The 2012 Michigan turkey season will start on April 23 and go through the end of May. Michigan offers a variety of hunting units and tag options that provide plenty of opportunities for all hunters.
Many of the hunts have quota limits while Hunt 234, which is gaining in popularity, is an over-the-counter license that allows hunters to hunt private and public land in all the open units except public land in the southern portion of the state.
The 234 hunt takes place during most of May. The license must be purchased by May 1, which means hunters who think they might want to hunt turkeys during the spring should buy the license ahead of time. Licenses cannot be purchased after May 1. Stewart believes Hunt 234 is a great option for hunters.
"Many hunters believe the best time to hunt turkeys is during the early season," Stewart noted. "However, during the latter part of May, the toms are often by themselves so they can be easier to call in. The weather is nicer and Hunt 234 is several weeks long so hunters have plenty of time to hunt. I typically buy the 234 tag."
If you are one of the hunters who want to apply for a certain unit, below are a few great units to consider hunting in this spring.
If you are looking for a classic big-woods gobbler hunt and are up for an adventure, consider hunting in Unit M, which includes the Upper Peninsula of Michigan except for Isle Royal. There are 8,000 tags distributed for that unit. The season is one long season instead of being broken up into weeklong seasons as much of the Lower Peninsula has. As a result, hunters can take their time and wait for the decent weather to arrive instead of having to hunt a specific week.
There are plenty of places to hunt in the Upper Peninsula. "The Upper Peninsula has lots of public land," said Stewart. "Much of the public land is big sections of property so hunters can walk deep into the woods to hunt and find a few places where other hunters don't go."
The bad news about hunting in Unit M is that the beginning part of the season can be cold. I hunted in the Upper Peninsula a few years ago and harvested a gobbler on the second day of the season — with an inch of snow on the ground.
The other drawback is that the Upper Peninsula is a long way from most Michiganders. But if you are looking for a wilderness turkey hunting experience, Unit M in the Upper Peninsula offers it.
Another unit that offers great turkey hunting is Area J in the northern section of the Lower Peninsula. Drawing a tag in that unit is relatively easy and there is a lot of public land there. I've harvested several turkeys in the unit and finally learned that the second season after the weather has warmed is the best time to hunt.
Hunting the unit with the 234 tag is a great option. Scott Cole from Grand Haven is a turkey chaser who hunts it annually. "I tag a tom almost every year," he said. "I've had relatively good success knocking on farmers' doors and asking for permission. Along with asking farmers, there is a lot of public land in this unit."
Area J is broken up into several hunting seasons. If you are considering hunting in Area J, verify the dates of the different hunting options before applying.
One of the most popular units in the state of Michigan is Area K. The unit is home to 13 counties. Many of those counties hold large numbers of turkeys. One of the most popular turkey hunting towns in the state is Baldwin, which is in Area K.
Although the unit receives extensive hunting pressure, there are many turkeys around. There is also a lot of public land, enough so that hunters who are willing to get off the beaten path will likely find turkeys. Area K is home to Ruby Creek. This sleepy little town located in Oceana County is one of my favorite places to hunt turkeys. Over the years, I've taken several turkeys in Ruby Creek on public land and by knocking on the doors of farmers.
I once received permission from several farmers on one section of Ruby Creek. When I was finished knocking on doors, I had more than a square mile of hunting land all to myself. The area gets hunted but by scouting early and asking permission, an ethical hunter can find great hunting opportunities.
Area K is broken up into several hunting seasons. If you are applying for Area K, check the dates of the different hunting options before applying.
Another popular tag is the ZZ Tag. That tag allows hunters to hunt on private land in about half of the state. The ZZ hunt is several weeks long and is a great option for hunters who own or have permission to hunt on someone's private property. The bad thing about the tag is that it cannot be used on public land. The good news is if you have permission on private land, you can hunt birds that haven't been hunted and could be extremely easy to call in.
I have drawn a ZZ tag several times and have approached my hunt differently each time. Sometimes when I draw the tag, I hunt small parcels of private land that hold large numbers of longbeards that haven't been hunted often. As a result, it isn't uncommon to find toms that are 3 or 4 years old and have spurs longer than an inch; beards sometimes exceed 10 1/2 inches. I often hunt small parcels when bowhunting gobblers because less educated birds are a bit easier to tag with a bow.
On other occasions, I've gained permission from landowners to hunt large tracts of land that hold several flocks of birds. When hunting big woods, you get to walk and call all day and hope a tom responds. When hunting small woods, you have to wait birds out if you don't get one right off the roost.
If you put in for a ZZ tag, start seeking permission from landowners long before the season opens. Chances are you will have plenty of private-land places to hunt. In the southern portion of the state, large private farms are plentiful, which makes obtaining permission simple.
Finding a place to hunt is only half the battle. The other half is finding where the birds are roosting, feeding and strutting. After that, you need to know how to call them back in.
Brett Berry, a pro staff member for Zink Game Calls, spends a lot of time in the woods each spring while hunting turkeys across the country. According to Berry, finding birds before the season opens is critical.
"I spend lots of time scouting by driving around looking in fields and walking in the woods, locating roosting locations," said. "I also look for dusting bowls and scratchings that indicate the area is being heavily used by turkeys."
BRING A VARIETY OF CALLS
Berry is a competition caller and believes knowing how to call is important. He also believes having several different types of turkey calls in your vest is extremely important.
"I mainly use mouth calls but I always keep a slate call and box call handy," Berry noted.
On a recent hunt with Berry, we had a difficult time getting toms to respond to our mouth calls and slate calls. We pulled out a loud box call and a tom gobbled instantly. Having a large arsenal of calls pays off big.
"Sometimes a tom will answer a mouth call and sometimes he won't," Berry noted. "Sometimes a slate or box call triggers him, which is why every hunter should have several different calls. We all have our go-to call but you need more than that."
I suggest hunters try mastering an out-of-the-ordinary call like a wingbone or tube call. A wingbone call is made from the wingbones of a turkey. You suck in on them instead of blowing out. They are extremely difficult for some hunters to master. But after you do, it will be your secret weapon. A tube call is difficult to use but after you master it, you will be able to cutt, cackle and gobble with ease.
Remember to use a decoy or two when hunting. In the last five years, more and more companies have started producing lifelike decoys. Gone are the days when a gobbler saw a decoy and ran for the hills. A couple of my favorites include the Axian-X decoy by Zink Game Calls, and the Pretty Boy strutting decoy by Carry-Lite.
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At the end of the day, the good news is that 2012 will bring a great spring turkey season in Michigan. With a turkey population that exceeds 200,000 birds, if you invest your time in this spring, your chances of bagging a bird are extremely good. Michigan has a success rate that is much higher than other states and an extremely long season. Those combinations add up to a fine recipe for success.