Michigan's Tremendous Toms

Michigan's Tremendous Toms

While Michigan hasn't enjoyed a long tradition of excellent turkey hunting, booming populations are fast giving the Wolverine State a reputation as one of the hottest turkey destinations in the Midwest. (April 2009)

The author displays a trophy gobbler with a 12 1/2-inch beard he took in Calhoun County. Photo by Kenny Darwin.

There are more turkeys and tremendously large toms in Michigan, more than in its entire history and the 2009 spring hunting is expected to be fantastic.

DNR biologists estimate there are more than 200,000 turkeys in Michigan. Thanks to transplanting efforts, there are birds in the Upper Peninsula and in the Lower Peninsula north of a line between Bay City and Muskegon, places where traditionally there were no birds. In the southern third of the Lower Peninsula, the population is booming, thanks to available agricultural food sources, mild winters and fewer predators. In fact, the chances of taking a mature tom sporting a 10-inch beard is tremendous across the Wolverine State, an attribute that has placed it in the top five states in the nation for wild turkey hunting opportunities.

"Last season, Michigan had a success rate of an amazing 43 percent, which is simply remarkable," reports Al Stewart, Michigan DNR upland game bird specialist. "Hunters harvested 42,000 turkeys during the 2008 season, the largest harvest in Michigan history. The kill was up about 13 percent above 2007, and this spring you can expect to see more bragging-size longbeards draped over shoulders of successful hunters.

"Eighty percent of the state is open to turkey hunting and the entire Lower Peninsula has great gobbler opportunities. By spring 2009, we will have 48,000 square miles open to hunting. We have come a long way from the first Michigan turkey hunt in 1969 when 1,000 hunters took a mere 50 birds. Today, Michigan hunters can expect fun-filled wild turkey hunts and chances of taking a big ol' tom is the better than ever in the history of Wolverine State turkey hunting."

Stewart said he was certain there would be an increased number of toms this spring, especially after the outstanding poult hatch of 2008 and dry, warm weather. Hunters and landowners reported seeing plenty of birds this fall and winter in a variety of sizes, with huge, bearded toms mixed in indicating good nesting and excellent survival of old mature toms.

For information regarding wild turkey season and rules, application deadlines and more, call (517) 373-1263 or visit the MDNR Web site at www.michigan. gov/dnr.

"Last year was the best turkey hunting season I've ever seen," exclaimed David Dietrich. "The weather was perfect, warm and dry and the temperatures were ideal. More importantly, the toms went nuts last spring and the breeding season started early in April, built to a fever pitch in late April through May and there were still toms chasing hens into June. Plus, last year there were so many toms that they were strutting their stuff every day."

Dietrich is a central Michigan trophy gobbler chaser who scouts the area in search of toms sporting 11-inch or longer beards. His longest one is an amazing 14 1/2-inch beard from a monster tom that weighed almost 28 pounds, taken near his home in Ingham County, near Williamston.

His tactics are simple -- he scouts from county roads using good binoculars, spots huge gobblers, determines their daily routines and gets permission to hunt on private ground. Each year, he hunts a new location, a secluded hotspot that supports a trophy tom.

"I'm lucky to live and hunt in Michigan where the DNR has done an outstanding job of managing the turkey population," he said. "It is sort of a last hunting frontier where you can have a trophy hunt and easily get hunting permission from local farmers, which is just the opposite of getting deer hunting permission.

DNR experts are predicting an outstanding season for big gobblers and tremendous hunting this spring. Photo by Kenny Darwin.

I concentrate efforts on dairy farms where farmers feed turkeys by spreading cow manure enriched with grain, and my other hotspot is stubble corn fields where grain is available to foraging turkeys."

Dietrich says Michigan's southern peninsula gobbler population is quickly expanding, and big toms are easily found because there is little hunting pressure, plenty of turkeys, mild winters and the availability of agricultural food sources.

"Southern Michigan has the hottest turkey hunting in the state and hunters should take advantage of booming gobbler numbers because like anywhere populations eventually will peak, then level off and slip downward as predators and hunters take more birds," explained Sara Schaefer, Southwest Management Unit biologist.

"We're very close to our saturation point in many counties and you can tell when the car/turkey accidents peak and that is happening in Kalamazoo, Barry and Calhoun counties. Southwest Michigan has ideal turkey habitat -- rolling terrain, oak forests, farmlands and warm winters -- and the population is prospering. We knew if we combined good genetics and ideal habitat we would have outstanding population dynamics and turkey numbers have simply exploded in this part of the state."

Schaefer said the high cost of gasoline and abundant gobbler numbers close to major Michigan cities like Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids has led to hunters hunting close to home and kill figures have skyrocketed. Many seasoned hunters no longer travel north in search of longbeards after discovering there are more and larger gobblers almost in their own back yards.

With that being said, do a little pre-season scouting to locate land turkeys are using. Gobblers are easy to locate in spring when there's gobbling going on and birds are displaying in open areas during the breeding season.

One hotspot is found in southwestern Michigan near the towns of Dowagiac, Niles and Berrien Springs. The St. Joseph River backwaters and surrounding rolling hills, highlighted by agricultural fields, oak ridges, wood lots and heavy brush, are home to some big toms.

Another likely tom hangout is the Grand Haven SGA, which follows the Grand River from Grand Haven in Ottawa County for several miles to the east. Best access is off country roads and you will need a Michigan atlas for directions.

For more information, contact the S

outhwest Management Unit at (269) 685-6851.

"South-central Michigan is loaded with turkeys," explained biologist John Niewoonder. "One deadly trick is to find private land surrounded by parcels of state land, some of which is agricultural, that gets very little hunting pressure. There are quite a bit of privately owned parcels scattered around public land in Montcalm Stanton SGA and birds use the fields for feeding and displaying, then roost in the nearby forest. This SGA offers excellent mixes of croplands, thick brush and forests.

At times, it's hard to find one spot that looks better than another but pre-season scouting should pinpoint flocks of turkeys and the trick to hunting success is to zero in on hot gobblers willing to respond to calling and decoys. At times, big ol' toms will move a few miles and relocate where there are available food crops; usually stubble corn is a major draw. Smart hunters are willing to try new hunting locations and making a move can put you in the middle of some exciting hunting."

More information is available by calling the South-Central Management Unit at (517) 641-4903.

"Turkeys have done better in mid-Michigan than we ever expected," wildlife biologist Dave Dominic said.

"Some original turkey plants were done at the Dansville SGA and their offspring have contributed to booming populations on surrounding private lands in Ingham County. Plenty of hunters prefer to hunt the late season on private parcels and birds have very little, if any, hunting pressure. One tactic is to set up on the edge of open agricultural fields where morning birds fly down from bordering woods to feed and display. But it pays to have more than one location to set up, in case birds are staying in the woods or make a switch to a new open area."

Dansville SGA is well known for large gobblers sporting huge beards and smoky-gray colored birds. Some hunters call them "Zebra" toms because they have a beautiful mix of black and white feathers. There is good hunting in stubble corn fields off Ewers Road and the rolling hills along Williamston Road hold plenty of birds.

"Turkeys will gather on food sources or gravitate to private land open agricultural fields where food is available through winter," Dominic said. "Cattle or dairy farmers near Dansville are overrun with large flocks of problem turkeys and gaining hunting permission is a breeze. Once spring arrives, the birds spread and excellent hunting is found on private and state lands where public hunting is allowed. Another good choice is the Waterloo SGA, which has more than 20,000 acres to hunt with camp grounds, cabin rentals, lakes and miles of ideal gobbler habitat."

Waterloo is located north off I-94 in Washtenaw and Jackson counties. The habitat is diverse and state land is mixed with private property and bordered on the east side by the Pinckney State Recreation Area. Around 9,000 acres of Waterloo is open to hunting. Get a map of open areas from the Division of Wildlife Web site. Make certain you are not trespassing on private land interspersed with public lands. The Waterloo headquarters is off exit 156.

For information, call the South Central Management Unit at (517) 641-4903 or the Waterloo office at (517) 522-4097.

"The thumb counties are fast becoming a new hotspot for spring turkey hunting," Rex Ainslie from the DNR Saginaw Bay Unit said. "The birds have been steadily increasing and we have had a fall hunt the last couple years to trim excess turkeys. Top counties for spring hunts include Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac and northern St. Clair."

Most of the thumb is privately owned rich agricultural fields mixed with wood lots ideal for turkeys. Public hunting is available in Tuscola County, and you can expect plenty of gobbles at the Murphy Lake, Tuscola, Vassar, Gagetown and Cass City state game areas. The Sanilac, Minden City and Cass City SGAs in Sanilac County are likely locations to search for a big tom this spring.

For more information on hunting opportunities or turkey numbers in the thumb, call the MDNR Cass City field office at (989) 872-5300 or the Saginaw Bay Management Unit at (989) 684-9143.

While turkey numbers are not as high in the northeast as southern Michigan, there are still plenty of gobblers to hunt this spring in Alpena, Alcona and Oscoda counties.

"There is a lot of public land open to hunting in Alcona County," said Tim Reis, Northeast Management Unit DNR biologist. "Nearly half is part of the Huron National Forest, but smaller tracts in the Oscoda State Forest offer more opportunities. Take a peek at a map of Oscoda and almost the entire county is green because it is inside the Huron National Forest and open to public hunting. Turkey hunters should also find good numbers of birds and few hunters in the Alpena State Forest in Alpena County."

For more information, contact the Northeast DNR Management Unit in Gaylord at (989) 732-3541.

"Gobbler numbers in the 13-county area that makes up turkey zone Area K have been on a steady decline since the late 1990s," said MDNR biologist Larry Visser. "A combination of cold weather, lack of winter food sources and increased predator numbers has sent the turkey population into a tailspin and cut the number of available birds. Declines in Area K are widespread. Turkeys traditionally flock during winter at the same locations and it is easy to see changes within the population. Some winter-feeding programs have helped turkeys make it through harsh winters and given wildlife biologists an accurate turkey count.

"Turkey numbers get higher the farther south you go into Area K. Turkeys in the northern section tend to be spotty around Kalkaska, Traverse City and Leelanau. There are some pockets of birds, but to find them, you must do a lot of scouting. On the other hand, there are solid numbers of toms in Missaukee, Wexford, Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta counties. The southern counties in Area K are experiencing a population explosion similar to southwestern Michigan, and some locations are inundated with turkeys to the point where we are getting a lot of nuisance complaints. My recommendation is to concentrate on Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta counties.

"These Area K counties are highlighted by plenty of agricultural food sources and the vast Manistee National Forest lands open to hunting. Gobblers often relate heavily to the White and Muskegon rivers and other smaller streams and river bottoms. One excellent hotspot is around the Haymarsh Lake SGA, which covers 5,800 acres in Mecosta County northeast of Big Rapids. It has great turkey habitat in the form of small streams, lakes, beaver ponds and a mixture of oaks, maples and cedar swamps. Another area loaded with gobblers is the private property around the Pere Marquette State Forest in Mecosta County, which is surrounded by a variety of agricultural food sources like beans, corn, alfalfa and more."

For more information, contact the Northwest Management Unit at (231) 775-9727.

"Turkey numbers are very good in the Crystal Falls area of the western Upper Peninsula," reported Bob Doep

ker, a DNR biologist. "Part of the success hinges on feeding programs by several sportsmen's groups, which is critical to gobbler survival during cold winters with deep snow and high predator numbers. The organizations use deer-proof feeders and advise residents on how to properly feed turkeys.

"Twenty years ago, there were few turkeys, but our latest survey showed about 3,300 birds in Menominee County, 2,900 in Dickinson and 4,600 in Delta. Good hunting depends on how severe our winter is, how deep the snow gets and if we have freezing rain in early spring. If we get mild weather and have a gradual spring warmup, there will be plenty of gobblers in the spring to test the skills of hunters."

For more information, contact the Upper Peninsula MDNR at (906) 228-6561.

Turkey hunters interested in attending courses hosted by the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association or the National Wild Turkey Federation, should call (517) 373-1263 or visit www.michigan.gov/dnr and request a Michigan Wild Turkey Hunting Guide 2009 for dates.

While Michigan hasn't enjoyed a long tradition of excellent turkey hunting, the booming populations are fast giving the Wolverine State a reputation as one of the hottest turkey destinations in the Midwest. Spring 2009 is shaping up to be the best ever and you can count on seeing plenty of mature gobblers sporting trophy-sized beards. Are you ready? Do you have your calls tuned, camo in order, hunting area scouted and big toms located?

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