Our state has become one of the best in the country to kill a gobbler. If you need a place to hunt, try these public-land options. (April 2007)
Photo by Travis Faulkner
Turkey hunting in Michigan has come a long way. Wild turkeys can be found just about everywhere in the Lower Peninsula, and prospects for killing a bearded bird there this spring are excellent. Upper Peninsula turkeys have a tougher time making it through winter, but hunters usually do well in the central section of the U.P.
The turkey's ability to evade hunters far exceeds what they appear to be capable of. Most hunters have a challenge on their hands when it comes to outsmarting a big tom. No matter how many birds there are, shooting one is more than a matter of luck.
"Calling is essential," said Tim Payne, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist in the Southeast Management Unit. "You're trying to call a tom away from other hens, so try to sound like a lonely female looking for a friend."
If you don't have a place to hunt, our state has plenty of public land on which to shoot a gobbler.
"We have well over 48,000 square miles of public lands in Michigan, and you can hunt turkeys on just about all of them," said Michigan DNR upland game specialist Al Stewart. "Statewide, the turkey population is looking pretty good, and they're spread out fairly evenly. There really isn't any one place that's better to hunt than anywhere else, though the highest concentrations of birds are in the lower third of the state."
The opportunities for Michigan turkey hunters weren't always as good. Birds were present in good numbers up until about 1900. After that, overharvest completely eliminated them from the state. During the 1950s, the DNR began restoring turkey populations, and in 1964, the first fall season was launched. Four years later, a spring season was introduced. During the 1979 turkey season, there were only 4,000 square miles open to gobbler hunters, and just over 8,000 hunters utilized them. During 2006, there were 102,000 hunters statewide.
If you need a place to hunt, these public lands hold plenty of promise for this spring's turkey season and many more in the future.
"This part of the state is good for turkey hunting, and there's a lot of public land to hunt on," said Mike Donovan, a wildlife biologist with the DNR's Northwestern Michigan Management Unit. "The winter of 2005 was pretty mild, and people are seeing more turkeys than in recent years. I've been seeing my own as I'm out and about."
The region is heavily forested and traditionally has been good gobbler country. Harsh winters set turkey populations back, Donovan said, but due to some milder cold-weather seasons in recent years, the turkey flock numbers are high. If the birds can find food during the winter months, they'll do just fine.
"We have a turkey food plot program in which private landowners plant crops in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources," Donovan said. "Along with the food plots, there are plenty of agricultural areas and bird feeders to help keep the birds healthy around here."
The Huron-Manistee National Forest comes highly recommended by Donovan as a place to look for spring toms. The Huron and Manistee forests are managed out of the
forest supervisor's office in Cadillac, and all state DNR hunting regulations are in effect. Nearly a million acres of ideal habitat in the northern part of the L.P. is open to hunting, and it often goes overlooked simply because it is federally owned.
Pre-scouting in the forest definitely increases your chances for killing a bird, according to Donovan.
"Getting out there in the winter is the ideal time because they're grouped up and visible," he said. "When the spring breakup of concentrations of birds occurs, just start checking on the public lands nearby to see where they went. In the winter, the birds will most likely have been on private property since that's where the agriculture is. Just quietly walk down trails and old logging roads on public lands to listen for gobbling, and look for sign to find them."
For additional information, contact the DNR's Northwestern Management Unit at (517) 241-3101.
It may come as a shock, but some of the better turkey hunting in northeastern Michigan will be found on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan off Charlevoix County, according to Northeastern Management Unit wildlife biologist Brian Mastenvrook.
"There are a lot of turkeys on Beaver Island, and if you're looking for a different kind of a hunting experience, this is it," Mastenvrook said. "About a third of the island's 60 square miles are state owned and open to public hunting. You'll need a map to make sure you're on state land, but the turkey hunting opportunities are there. Much of the area consists of northern hardwood forest and swamp, which is classic turkey habitat."
Access to Beaver Island is by boat or plane only. Beaver Island Boat Company at 1-888-446-4095 will get you there by water, or if you prefer by plane, call Island Airways at 1-800-524-6895.
The Mackinaw State Forest north of Mancelona -- also known as the Jordan River Valley -- is another good spot with steep hills, according to Mastenvrook.
Local hunters and organizations such as the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters are the bread and butter of much of the region's turkey hunting.
"Turkeys survive around here because people feed them through the long, hard winters," Mastenvrook said. "The turkeys will start on private lands where they're sustained by supplemental feeding and will cross over onto public lands where hunters can get at them."
For more information, contact the Gaylord Operations Service Center Management Unit office at (989) 732-3541.
"Isabella County has a lot of turkeys, and they're just about everywhere, especially in the southern half of the county," said DNR wildlife biologist Adam Bump. "Unfortunately, most of the county is private land." However, the Edmore State Game Area in the southern part of the county is on Bump's list of top public spots to try.
The Mackinaw State Forest north of Mancelona -- also known as the Jordan River Valley -- is another good spot with steep hills.
"The state land in southwestern Midland County south of U.S. 10 may be a good place to check out, too," Bump said. "We have
more oak in that portion of our state ownership, and turkey numbers seem to be strong in those areas. Based on our spring turkey hunting surveys, hunting pressure on public lands in Midland County is fairly low, so hunters should have plenty of room to themselves."
You can hunt on the Crow Island State Game Area in Bay and Saginaw counties, but this is a good area to scout before the season.
"Bay and Saginaw counties offer other opportunities as well, though most often on private lands," Bump said. "Turkey numbers in all four counties are excellent, and hunters can anticipate having opportunities just about anywhere in my area."
Al Stewart, the DNR's upland game specialist, put things in proper perspective.
"Turkey hunting isn't just about killing a tom," said Stewart, who spends his share of time in the woods when he's off duty. "It's about being in the woods and enjoying it. It's about calling birds in, working them around and having a good time."
For more hunting information contact the DNR's Saginaw Bay office at (989) 684-9141.
"Southwest Michigan is rich with turkey hunting opportunities," said DNR wildlife biologist John Lerg out of the Plainwell Operations Service Center. "Southwestern Michigan has high turkey populations, and turkey hunters here enjoy success rates that compare very favorably as you review success rates from across the state. The outlook for 2007 is good."
Southwest Michigan has enviable turkey populations as a result of the good mix of open and forested lands on both public and private properties, according to Lerg. The sandy soil of southwestern Michigan is also a big help because it provides good drainage to keep turkey nests high and dry.
The Allegan and Barry State Game areas and the Yankee Springs State Recreation Area are open to public hunting and have high densities of gobblers, according to Lerg. The Allegan State Recreation Area in Allegan County has plenty of access roads. You have a better chance of getting off the beaten path in the Barry SGA in Barry County. This area is adjacent to Yankee Springs SRA, which allows hunting on limited portions of its property. Forest openings are periodically created to provide turkey habitat to complement the area's woodlands, grass and agricultural fields.
According to Lerg, good calling and a decoy are standard tools for local hunters. As the season progresses, it's wise to move away from the roads to call toms because they have a natural wariness of roads and human activity, especially in this part of our state.
"Successful hunters are often saying that they tried several birds before one came within shooting distance," Lerg said. "This can mean a lot of days afield before getting a bird. Turkey behavior and responsiveness to calling seems to change markedly from bird to bird and from day to day."
For more information, contact the Southwestern Management Unit at (269) 685-6851.
"The turkey hunting is definitely better than it was 10 years ago, and every one of our public areas around Lansing has turkeys now," said DNR wildlife biologist Earl Flegler. "Turkey hunting is still turkey hunting, and you've got to go out there and find them, but there's a lot of good turkey habitat and good numbers of birds. It wasn't that many years ago that turkey releases were being made, and now they're established all across the state."
Flegler points to two of his larger areas as being best bets for a longbeard this spring.
"The Maple River and Gratiot-Saginaw State Game areas both have good bird habitat and numbers," Flegler said. "On both of them there is good road access on parts of the areas, and on other sections you can walk for a couple of miles without seeing a road. There's plenty of room for hunters to spread out."
The Maple River SGA is located in Clinton, Gratiot and Ionia counties. The main unit borders the Maple Rapids area, and the east unit is accessible from U.S. Highway 27.
The scattered chunks of the Gratiot-Saginaw SGA are accessible from Meridian and Woodbridge roads. The area is located on the Gratiot-Saginaw county line.
Being in a populated area, Flegler urges caution during the spring hunt.
"I haven't heard of any spring hunting accidents in my area over the last several years, but it can happen," he said. "I'd be hesitant about using a decoy on public lands around here because between the calling and the decoy, someone could mistake the decoy for being real and someone getting hurt."
"Southwestern Michigan has high turkey populations, and turkey hunters here enjoy success rates that compare very favorably as you review success rates from across the state. The outlook for 2007 is good."
But the calling is needed, according to Flegler, to bring in the love-struck toms.
Contact the South-Central Wildlife Management Unit at (517) 641-4903 for more information.
"I have two public areas that are fairly good for turkeys," said DNR southeast Michigan biologist Tim Payne. "They are the Port Huron State Game Area outside of Port Huron and the Lapeer State Game Area outside of Lapeer. These are my best areas for wild turkeys."
That doesn't mean there aren't more opportunities in the region.
"North of here, turkeys need supplemental feeding during hard winters, but around here there's plenty of food available," Payne said. "They find plenty of cutover crops, acorns and other forage to eat in the cold weather. We've also established scattered openings in the forest and meadowlands where the poults can get a good start with a lot of protein."
The DNR's Al Stewart is an avid gobbler hunter along with being a turkey biologist. He's had the opportunity to sample the turkey hunting in the southeastern part of the state.
"Turkey populations are higher in the southern part of the state, and turkeys are now abundant," Stewart said. "No one has to drive more than an hour and a half to get in on some good hunting. I've hunted all over the state and have had the good fortune of shooting some Grand Slams."
The Port Huron SGA is located in St. Clair County, and the Lapeer SGA is in Lapeer County, so both areas serve metro-area hunters from Detroit and Pontiac.
The Holly State Recreation Area is another southeastern Michigan spot with good hunting, according to Payne. The Holly SRA is in Oakland County between Flint and Pontiac, and an hour's drive from metro Detroit. Hunting pressure can be intense, but the area's nearly 8,000 acres of rolling woodlands and open fields provide some elbowroom. Almost all of the area is open to public hunting.
Payne is a stickler for safety.
"Turkey hunting is one of the times you can be camouflaged, so be positive of your target," he said. "Know and clearly identify the bird. There's no shooting at shadows or a call."
Decoys aren't totally out of the equation, but they should be used sparingly, according to Payne. Local hunters are beginning to use decoys more often to distract the toms when they move in close to try to figure out what's going on.
For more information, call (248) 359-9040.
"Much of the primary turkey range in the western U.P. is in Delta and Menominee counties," said DNR wildlife biologist Craig Albright. "Overall, the February 2005 turkey population estimate in Iron County was approximately 1,300 birds, slightly below the winter population of 1,500 birds. The same time frame population estimate was approximately 2,900 turkeys in Dickinson County. That flock is well above our numbers goal. The February 2005 flock in Menominee County was over 2,500 birds, which was right on target."
"The Maple River and Gratiot-Saginaw State Game areas both have good bird habitat and
numbers," Flegler said. "On both of them there is good road access on parts of the areas, and on other sections you can walk for
a couple of miles without seeing
a road. There's plenty of room
for hunters to spread out."
More good news is found in Unit O, according to Albright. Unit O includes Delta, Marquette and Alger counties, and about 5,700 turkeys call that area home. That breaks all previous records for Unit O. Albright noted that turkey hunters are enjoying more liberalized rules for 2007 due to the good populations of gobblers throughout these counties.
Good areas to consider targeting in Alger County are the Au Train Basin State Wildlife Management Area and the Cusino State Wildlife Research Area. The Portage Marsh State WMA in Delta County is another good bet for toms this year.
In Delta County, a local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation -- the Bay de Noc Gobblers -- runs an extensive winter feeding program. In the winter of 2005, the group counted 4,851 turkeys at their feeding sites.
Turkey survival rates in the eastern half of the U.P. aren't as good, and there is little hunting pressure. Wildlife managers have found so few turkeys in the eastern region that biologists don't manage for them.
For more information, contact the Western U.P. Management Unit in Gladstone at (906) 786-2351.
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For additional information on turkey hunting in Michigan, call the DNR at (517) 241-3101. For a map of the wild turkey densities by county, go online to www.michigan.gov/dnr. Lodging information is available online at www.travel.michigan.org, or by calling 1-888-784-7328.