Michigan's Spring Turkey Outlook

Michigan's Spring Turkey Outlook

All indications are that many of our state's turkey hunters will be experiencing the same success this year as the author did last year when she bagged a gobbler. So how does it look in your neck of the woods in 2006? (April 2006)

My eyes were drooping as I sat against the big maple tree. The warm spring sun served only to lull me further off to dreamland. It had been a long day that had begun at 4:30 a.m. But dry, mild weather is a rarity in northern Michigan in April, and I had resolved to make the most of the opportunity Mother Nature had given me that day.

Two gobblers were out there somewhere, although neither had responded to my short series of clucks and purrs -- topped with a seductive yelp -- in the hour or so that had transpired after I spotted them moving along a wooded hillside and rushed ahead of them to "cut them off at the pass."

I wasn't surprised, because after all, this was public land, and I was certain my calls weren't the first ones these birds had heard from a hopeful turkey hunter in the last week and a half since Michigan's 2005 spring turkey season had begun.

My four previous setups that same day had been typical of what many hunters know as the game that is spring turkey hunting -- all of them hearing talkative, apparently eager gobblers, yet all of them ending with an empty game bag.

With work awaiting me at home, this would be my final attempt of the day. But with only three days left to hunt on my tag for Area J's second seven-day early season, time was running short.

It hadn't been a bad season so far, and certainly not the debacle that occurred in 2004, when extended extremely cold, windy, wintry and wet weather had kept gobblers tight-lipped and apparently totally uninterested in the opposite sex throughout Michigan's six-week season.

Three gobblers had fallen to my calls so far in 2005, one to a buddy's 12-gauge during a typical late-April snowstorm, and two to the shotguns of first-time turkey hunters now hooked on the phenomenon of spring gobbler hunting.

Now, finally, it was my turn. But except for the twittering of songbirds, the forest was quiet. But there is an old adage that is especially true among dedicated turkey hunters -- "Never say never." I fought desperately to keep my eyes open, focusing my attention on the antics of a chickadee on a nearby branch.

Suddenly a twig snapped directly behind me. A deer, I thought, as I slowly turned my head and glanced behind me. What met my eyes was the flash of a red head and the glaring stare of a dominant wild turkey tom standing 30 feet behind me.

How I managed to turn completely around, re-position my 12-gauge against my shoulder and take the shot before the bird melted back into the safety of the forest, I'll never know. But a few seconds later, I was thanking the wild turkey gods and affixing my kill tag to the leg of my 19-pound gobbler.

It was just after 3 p.m. It was a tough hunt, but well worth the effort. For me, it was one for the books, and most definitely the hunt of a lifetime.

With excellent populations of wild turkeys across much of Michigan -- and with cooperative weather this spring -- our 2006 turkey hunters should have excellent chances for their own hunt of a lifetime.

"Barring any disasters, we're in pretty good shape for this spring," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland game-bird specialist Al Stewart about Michigan's wild turkey numbers. "I expect to see another good turkey season out there."

According to Michigan DNR estimates, more than 165,000 Eastern wild turkeys now inhabit more than two-thirds of our state, thanks to pro-active stocking efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, supplemental winter survival wild turkey feeding programs, and habitat-management programs undertaken by the DNR, U.S. Forest Service and a variety of conservation groups.

Thanks to those efforts, wild turkeys are now thriving in areas where the state's sparse population of native birds never existed previously, such as most of the northern Lower Peninsula and the western Upper Peninsula. Best of all, most of those same areas are now open to spring turkey hunters. More than 50,000 square miles of the state, much of it public land, now offers spring turkey hunting opportunities.

"There are now even excellent spring hunting opportunities for turkey hunters very near major metropolitan areas, like Detroit, where the hunting is very good in Lapeer, Oakland, St. Clair, Livingston, Monroe and Washtenaw counties, as well as near Grand Rapids and Flint," said Stewart. "That's quite an improvement over the 4,049 acres initially offered to the handful of turkey hunters we had in the late '60s when spring turkey hunting first began in Michigan."

And with the expansion of spring turkey hunting across all of Iron County in the western U.P. this year, turkey hunters should find more opportunities in Michigan than ever before.

As hunters have become more informed on the wily ways of the spring gobbler, success rates have also soared.

"With more birds, which has led to increased opportunities over a larger portion of the state, combined with longer seasons and more informed hunters, we've been averaging a success rate of 30 percent for the last few years, one of the highest rates in the country," noted Stewart. "Last year was no different, with a success rate right around 38 percent. Compared to other turkey hunting states such as Missouri and Iowa, which each have an average success rate of 20 percent, that's pretty remarkable.

"The success of the re-introduction of wild turkeys to the state of Michigan is truly a wildlife success," Stewart continued. "In fact, success beyond our wildest dreams."

But success in Michigan always depends, year after year, on one thing -- weather. Without assistance from man, wild turkey populations in Michigan will survive and thrive only if the winter is relatively mild, with minimal snows and short periods of extended cold.

"In many areas of northern Michigan, where most of the state's public-land turkey hunting areas exist, without some type of supplemental turkey-feeding program during the worst parts of the winter, there wouldn't be enough wild turkeys to hunt, regardless of how good the hatch was the year before," said Jim Maturen, a veteran turkey hunter and co-founder of the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association, which conducts an annual winter turkey-feeding program each winter wherever needed across much of the northern L.P. "It didn't take long for us to realize that a wild turkey won't survive more than a few weeks in the

bitter cold of February and March if he can't dig through three feet of snow to scratch out food from the ground. Here in Area K, which is one of the state's largest turkey hunting units, as well as in most other areas of the NLP such as Area J, we have a saying that's always held true of our turkeys during a hard, snowy winter -- 'It's either fed or dead.' "

The same can be said of much of the western U.P.'s wild turkeys, according to Craig Albright, a wildlife biologist with the DNR in Escanaba. Credit for the area's continued wild turkey explosion is due to the extended efforts of winter feeding, conducted over many years by Wildlife Unlimited and other sportsman's organizations, as well as growing contributions from members of local National Wild Turkey Federation chapters.

"As a result of that concern and those efforts -- which must be undertaken every winter, particularly in northern Menominee, southern Marquette, Alger, Iron, Dickinson, and Delta counties where snow depths and cold weather can be deadly -- wild turkeys have done better than anyone ever expected."

After a dismal 2004 nesting season when abnormally cold, wet spring weather took a heavy toll on both the mating season and what few poults were hatched, the 2005 hatch appeared to be a good one, although perhaps a bit late, said Albright.

"We saw a lot of little, newly hatched poults as late as August, probably an indication of nest predation earlier in the year, forcing many hens to nest a second time when foliage better protects the eggs from view," the biologist said. "But overall, the 2005 hatch looks like it was very good. And last year's warm, dry summer meant that poults should have been able to find good numbers of insects, which they feed on exclusively for several months before changing their diet to mast, berries and nuts, grains and vegetation."

Despite a fairly liberal fall season developed to assist in management of turkey populations -- and a spotty 2005 hard mast crop of acorns and beechnuts -- Albright said he believed that this spring, hunters should find even more birds than the 12,000 accounted for in the region last year.

"Our fall turkey seasons, unfortunately, have almost no impact at all on our populations," Albright said. "What impacts the birds up here is winter. As long as the birds have the feeding programs to fall back on when the snows get deep, they'll be there this spring."

More good news is that as of the 2006 spring season, all of Iron County will be open to spring turkey hunting for the first time.

"Much of Iron County, as well as good portions of Dickinson, southern Marquette and Delta County, has good holdings of both state and federal lands," Albright noted. "Turkey hunters who get out there and do a little pre-season scouting should find some very good public-land turkey hunting opportunities with very little pressure from other turkey hunters this spring in the Upper Peninsula."

In the Lower Peninsula, hunters will find it difficult to choose just one "hotspot."

"There's going to be a lot of them, I think, barring an unnaturally bad winter," said biologist Al Stewart. "In mid-Michigan, our wild turkey flocks continue to do very well in Isabella, Midland, and Saginaw counties, and are still expanding in Huron, Tuscola and Sanilac counties as well as farther south in Lapeer, St. Clair, Washtenaw, Livingston and Oakland counties, as mentioned earlier."

Southwestern Michigan -- in particular the counties of Calhoun, Cass, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo and Muskegon -- are also well worth investigating, according to a report compiled by the DNR on Michigan's wild turkey densities. Best hunting opportunities anywhere in central and southern Michigan will be found on private lands, Stewart pointed out.

"Those with Unit ZZ tags, which is open in all of southern Michigan on private lands for the first two weeks of the season -- or the later Unit 234 tag, which gives hunters almost a month's worth of hunting time -- should do very well, as they have for the last few years."

But the lucky hunters who are successful in the state's annual lottery for one of southern Michigan's limited public-land tags should also do well. Hunters with a southern Michigan public-land tag will want to consider pursuing their quarry on state lands such as Waterloo State Recreation Area, which has more than 10,000 huntable acres in Washtenaw and Jackson counties, Pinckney State Game Area in Livingston County, the Allegan and Barry state game areas, Stanton State Game Area in Montcalm County and Dansville State Game Area in Ingham County.

"Wherever they choose to hunt, hunters who live in southern Michigan who can't make the trip up north shouldn't have any problems finding good numbers of turkeys right around home to pursue," Stewart said. "But these hunters do need to remember that the Unit 234 tag, which is now available over the counter during the months of January and February as well as through our annual spring turkey hunting lottery, is not valid on public lands in southern Michigan as it is in northern Michigan. So they should be sure to have permission to hunt private lands ahead of time."

Although it looks like we had a good hatch last spring, southern Michigan may not offer just a closer hunting experience, but also one with better hunting opportunity.

"Although it looks like we had a good hatch last spring, our turkey count during the winter of 2004/2005 showed another drop in numbers in Area J, which has always had one of northern Lower Michigan's highest densities of wild turkeys," said wildlife biologist Brian Mastenbrook from his office in Gaylord. "Whereas we had 12,000 birds in 2004, still down from our high of some 16,000 a few years ago, our 2005 winter count showed just 10,000 birds."

Area K has also continued to decline in wild turkey numbers, due to a combination of several years of mediocre to poor spring nesting and increased predation.

In northeastern Lower Michigan, the news is especially disheartening, said George Kerschenheiter of the DNR's Mio office.

"We conduct a brood count from this office every year, and the 2005 count indicates that our wild turkey numbers will stay about the same as they have been for the last few years, which is down quite a bit from what they were 15 years ago," he said. "Even around the Fairview area -- which touts itself as the 'Wild Turkey Capital of Michigan' -- you hardly see any birds anymore. There used to be 3,000 to 4,000 birds just around town there. Now there's only about 2,000 in all of Oscoda County."

Kerschenheiter pointed to Alcona County, with an estimated 2005 wild turkey population of 4,000 birds, along with portions of Alpena County as offering the best opportunities for northeastern Lower Michigan turkey hunters. He blamed an increase in predators and confusion over the ban on feeding deer in the area as well as a poor nesting season in 2004 for the continued decline in northeastern Lower Michigan's wild turkey numbers.

Highs and lows are always going

to occur in any wildlife species after a population has stabilized, Al Stewart pointed out.

"Everything depends on the weather -- the spring breeding season, hatch, poult viability, fall food supplies, predation and winter flock survival. Wild turkeys, with their susceptibility to weather -- especially cold, wet, wintry weather -- are particularly vulnerable, and that's very apparent in Michigan," Stewart said.

But he is optimistic about this spring's season.

"I think we'll have another good season, just as all of our seasons have been," said Stewart. "There's plenty of birds out there, and I'm sure that many turkey hunters will enjoy the hunt of a lifetime this spring."

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