Gobblers Galore

Gobblers Galore

Spring gobbler hunting is back bigger and better than ever. Here's where to go for your longbeard in 2008. (April 2008)

David Hale, turkey-calling expert and manufacturer of Knight and Hale Game Calls, bagged a nice Michigan gobbler.
Photo by Greg Keefer.

"We had a good nesting year and a lot of jakes in the spring of 2007," said Al Stewart, the DNR's upland game specialist in Lansing.

"Turkeys are spread out over most of the southern third of the Lower Peninsula and there really aren't any spots to hunt that are better than others. We now have birds in 79 of the state's 83 counties, with most of them in their native range south of a line drawn between Muskegon and Bay City. Simply put, we have a lot of birds."

Michigan's efforts to reintroduce gobblers throughout the state have been one of the Division of Wildlife's finest success stories. According to Stewart, 80 percent of Michigan is open to turkey hunting in 2008, covering 48,000 square miles. Twenty percent of that land is open to public hunting and most of it has turkeys.

The first turkeys reintroduced into the wild in Michigan found a home in Allegan County in the 1950s. The DNR continued restoration efforts in the 1980s with trapped birds from Iowa, Missouri and Pennsylvania. These birds adapted beautifully, even in the northern Lower Peninsula where they weren't native. Today, there are viable populations of turkeys in sections of the state where they never existed before.

Michigan's first fall turkey season was held in 1965 and was soon followed by a spring opener in 1968. In 1969, more than 3,000 hunters went afield during the spring season and a total of 50 birds were harvested. Our inexperience at chasing big toms was embarrassing. Only 2 percent of the hunters that year put a bird in the bag. In 1989, more than 22,000 hunters set up in the woods and took 6,195 birds. In 20 years, the hunter success rate jumped to 28 percent and it was clear that turkey hunting was here to stay.

Michigan now ranks No. 5 in the nation for turkey-hunting opportunities, Stewart said. Last spring, 97,000 hunters bagged 39,000 birds. We've come a long way and it's only getting better.

Here's a look at where you can bag your turkey in 2008.

National Forest

The Huron-Manistee National Forest is the largest single public landholding in the state. Tracts of the federal forest lie scattered across parts of the L.P. and total nearly a million acres of prime turkey country.

This can be some rugged, lonely country, just the kind old toms love. There is good road access and at times, the hunting pressure can be high, but birds abound and there's plenty of room for gobbler hunters to spread out.

Bagging a spring turkey takes plenty of skill and a whole lot of being in the right place at the right time. There may not be another animal in the woods that is more wary than a big gobbler, and anyone who can talk a turkey into shooting range has earned some bragging rights.

New ideas and products that really work sometimes tip the odds in favor of bird hunters.

One new piece of equipment that makes you scratch your head and wonder why no one ever came up with it before is the Hunting Mirror by In-Sight Hunting Products.

The Hunting Mirror has been helping hunters defeat the age-old problem of having birds walk up behind them where they can't be seen. Turn your head to hear what snapped the twig and your bird slips away into the woods. The Hunting Mirror leaves your hands free and gives you a 360-degree view without having to turn your head.

For additional information, contact the Huron-Manistee National Forest supervisor's office in Cadillac at (800) 821-6263.

Gratiot-Saginaw WA
"We have turkeys everywhere," wildlife supervisor Dave Dominic said. "A couple of the best areas in south-central Michigan are the 16,000-acre Gratiot-Saginaw area in Gratiot and Saginaw counties and the Waterloo Recreation Area."

The flat to rolling topography of southern Michigan is evident here with typical hardwoods and field edges where toms are actively pursuing the hens. Calling in this terrain means you'll have to concentrate on camouflage, since a bird's sense of hearing and sight are much more fine-tuned than yours. These birds have seen plenty of hunters and are going to give anything that is out of place or making the slightest noise a wide berth.

The area offers good mixes of cropland, timber edge and heavy forest. Hunters will find that the many breaks in the timber create accessibility to fields where hens feed and the toms are strutting and bugging.

There are few spots on the area that are better than others. Look for sign and roosting areas and go from there.

For more information, contact the South Central Management Unit at (517) 641-4903.

Waterloo SRA
Dominic's second choice for good turkey shooting is in the Waterloo Recreation Area. This giant recreation area has many acres to hunt, modern campgrounds, rustic cabin rentals, lakes and other day-use facilities. Waterloo is the largest area of its kind in the L.P. at over 20,000 acres.

As far as turkey hunting goes, it's excellent. There's a good population of toms and ample turkey habitat to set up on. Doing a little scouting before going afield allows you to take into account the closed hunting areas, parking availability and some of the best turkey country in this part of the state. Showing up blind on Waterloo can mean wasting the better part of a day just finding a good spot to set up on. Have a couple of spots picked out, so that if your first pick already has someone on it, you'll have a backup in mind.

About 9,000 acres of the area are open to hunting. A map is indispensable if you're not familiar with Waterloo and can be obtained from the Division of Wildlife's Web site. Private property is interspersed with public lands and it's up to you to ensure you're not trespassing.

Waterloo is located off I-94 in Jackson and Washtenaw counties. To reach the area headquarters, use exit 156. For additional information, contact the South Central Management Unit at (517) 641-4903 or the Waterloo Wildlife Office at (517) 522-4097.

Flat River WA
"Flat River is very good for turkey hunting," wildlife biologist John Niewoonder said. "There's good turkey habitat in the form of white pines, oak stands for mast pr

oduction, openings in the woods, fields, rolling hills and a lot of diverse terrain. As a result, there are a lot of turkeys around here."

Though the area is a good one for old tried-and-true tactics, it never hurts to try something new.

"Decoys like the Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl have become even more effective because after you get a tom's attention with the calling, the decoy does all the work," said turkey-calling expert and manufacturer David Hale of Knight and Hale Game Calls. "I'm not sure why these decoys are so effective, but I think that the big white head coupled with a real fan tail along with a submissive hen sitting on the ground is what does it."

Hale points out that hunters who prefer not to use decoys can mimic a fight between longbeards by calling with what he terms an aggressive "purring." These noises are commonly referred to as fighting purrs and acknowledge that in the tom's springtime world, everything ends up in a brawl.

Improvements are always being made on manufactured calls, said Hale. The new Hammer Series offers slates, glass and aluminum components that are designed to match specific weather conditions and personal preferences.

The area covers 10,000 acres in Montcalm and Ionia counties.

For more information, contact the South Central Management Unit at (517) 641-4903.

Tuscola SGA
There aren't many good turkey haunts to choose from in the Saginaw Bay area, but the Tuscola SGA is one to look into for public hunting.

Most of the area is marshy, but there is still upland habitat worth taking a look at. Scouting ahead of time is important, especially when checking nontraditional hunting grounds.

I've personally seen birds in the more familiar steep-hilled pine forests of the Midwest and I've seen a few birds in some very unlikely places.

One tom surprised me as I drove a country road that had a ditch running under the roadway that was lined with brush and small trees. A path in the grass led away from the road and there was the gobbler without a care in the world. I couldn't help but think that this was either one very smart or one very lucky bird. He probably survived the season because no one would ever think of looking for him there.

Concentrate efforts around bordering dry land and look for the birds moving out of woods to strut and feed. Surprisingly, turkeys will sometimes spend time in marshy areas and be completely overlooked.

The Tuscola SGA lies in Tuscola County.

For additional information, contact the Saginaw Bay Management Unit at (989) 684-9141 or the Cass City Field Office at (989) 872-5300.

Haymarsh Lake SGA
Northwestern Michigan's public shooting areas offer similar turkey prospects across the board, wildlife biologist Larry Visser said. One's as good as another with huntable populations of wild birds, and it's up to the hunter to scout out his spring turkey.

With that being said, the Haymarsh Lake SGA would be a good place to start.

Toms are easier to locate in the springtime than in the fall. There's much more gobbling going on when the old toms are sowing their wild oats. The mentality is similar to what most 16-year-olds are thinking when they're waxing their cars and these birds are much more vulnerable, and distracted, than in the fall.

Do a little pre-scouting for turkey sign to locate sections of the property turkeys are using.

Look for large trees along the grasses for roosting spots and scratches a short distance back into the woods. Droppings under the trees will let you know which big branches are the preferred overnight haunts.

Decoy sets are limited only by a hunter's imagination. Single jake decoys or jakes in combination with hens are effective, since toms are spoiling for a fight.

Haymarsh Lake SGA covers 5,780 acres in Mecosta County just northeast of Big Rapids. It offers great turkey habitat in the form of prairie seedings, small streams and lakes with a mixture of oaks, maples and aspens.

Contact the Northwestern Management Unit at (231) 775-9727 or the Paris Field Office at (231) 832-5520 for more information.

Grand Haven SGA
The river-bottom woods, backwaters and surrounding agricultural fields are all ideal for L.P. gobblers. Most of the area is built up and doesn't look much like ideal turkey habitat, but apparently, no one's told the turkeys.

Big farm-fed toms share the area with plenty of white-tailed deer. Both species have adapted to life in the realm of humans with the exception of a few weeks of hunting pressure every year.

The Grand River SGA follows the Grand River from the east side of Grand Haven in Ottawa County for several miles to the west. Access is off smaller roads in the area and a good map is in order.

The SGA offers good mixes of cropland, woodland and heavy brush. It's hard to find one spot that looks better than another and that's where a little legwork comes into play.

Poel Island is a refuge, but there can be some good hunting north of the river channel between Dermo Bayou and 138th Avenue. Another spot to check for turkey activity this spring will be on the area's eastern edge on both sides of the river. From the north, a gravel road can be taken from 138th Avenue to the east into the area, and from the south, take the gravel road off Green Street. The key is to finding the suitable habitat.

For more information, contact the Southwestern Management Unit at (269) 685-6851.Montcalm Stanton SGA
"Some of our smaller areas are pretty good for turkey hunting in the south-central part of the state," Niewoondersaid. "They're surrounded by private land, some of which is agricultural, and these spots don't get a lot of hunting pressure."

Montcalm is one such spot. There's quite a bit of scattered private ownership around the public lands that allow for birds to utilize the forest for feeding and roosting and open fields for poult production and strutting, displaying or just getting out of the woods.

Hunters setting up along the field edges bordering the crop fields can find good shooting in the early morning and late evening hours. Setting up decoys in the forest openings can bring in a few gobblers as well.

If you're going to call, do it well. For help in improving your calling, try the National Wild Turkey Federation's "Spittin' Feathers II" CD, which is a collection of various clucks and gobbles. Match your calls to the real thing.

Additional information is available from the South Central Management Unit at (517) 641-49


Upper Peninsula
"Turkeys have done better in the U.P. than anyone ever expected," wildlife biologist Craig Albert said.

"We even have sportsmen who tell us there's too many turkeys because they want to spend the money on something else now. The reason turkeys have done so well is because people have taken them under their wing, so to speak."

Winter feeding programs from a number of private sources have allowed turkey numbers to skyrocket. According to Albert, 13,000 birds are available in the general area of Menominee, Dickinson, Iron and Delta counties.

The NWTF and the various county Wildlife Unlimited chapters have banded together to donate thousands of dollars to buy corn to feed the birds through the U.P.'s severe winters. Without supplemental feeding, the turkeys probably wouldn't survive. The only role the Division of Wildlife plays is to refer landowners who would like to participate in the feeding program to the right organizations.

According to Albert, the turkeys will gravitate onto the private lands where the supplemental feeding is going on during the winter. Once spring arrives, the birds are off and running and spread out into the public forest and corporate lands in these counties where public hunting is allowed.

For more information, contact the Western U.P. Management Unit at (906) 786-2351.

* * *

A new development this season is a second chance for hunters not drawn during the initial application process. Hunters may purchase a leftover tag over the counter. Check the MDNR Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr for details as well as downloadable area maps.

To reach Knight & Hale, visit their Web site at www.knightandhale.com. Contact In-Sight Hunting Products at (814) 453-3024. Contact the National Wild Turkey Federation's Turkey Shop at (800) 843-6983.

Information on where to stay is available at www.travel.michigan.org or by calling (888) 784-7328.

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