Our Spring Turkey Outlook

Michigan's turkey guru says the 2004 season should be similar to 2003. That's a good thing because hunters killed a record number of gobblers last year.

By J.W. VanHouten

"Prospects for Michigan's 2004 spring turkey season look good and are expected to be similar to 2003," said Al Stewart, upland game-bird specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources when asked about the upcoming spring season. Gobblers are plentiful, and this spring should provide a great hunt for everyone who drew a permit.

Michigan's 2003 spring turkey season was another good one for turkey hunters. I even managed to connect on a jake during my first trip out. Unfortunately, he had a "diseased" leg and I couldn't make a meal out of him. But the season was a success for me, and judging from the results reported by the DNR, it was for many other Michigan hunters as well.

Michigan's spring turkey hunting season is based on an area/quota system. This system was set up primarily to distribute hunters across geographic areas (management units) and time (hunt periods). The goal has been to provide hunting opportunities while maintaining acceptable levels of hunter satisfaction.

A survey of hunters was conducted following the 2003 spring season to determine turkey harvest and hunter participation. In 2003, an estimated 88,969 hunters killed 33,416 turkeys. Statewide, 39 percent of hunters bagged a turkey. The 2003 turkey harvest was 8 percent higher than the 2002 harvest and was the largest in Michigan's history. This clearly shows that the last few years have been excellent, and things only look like they are improving for this year and in the future.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

The number of people hunting turkeys increased by 2 percent, and hunting effort increased by 3 percent between 2002 and 2003. The majority of hunters rated their hunting experience as excellent, very good or good. About 87 percent of the hunters reported no or only minor "interference" from other hunters.

In 2003, 78 percent of the state (44,540 square miles) was open for wild turkey hunting from April 21 to May 31, and the same amount of area should be open for turkey hunting this year. Hunting areas were divided into 33 management units, with hunting licenses available for three types of hunts on these management units. These included the following: licenses for quota hunts on a specific management unit; licenses for quota hunts on private lands in southern Michigan (Hunt 301); and licenses for an unlimited quota hunt that included all units (Hunt 234).

A limited number of licenses were available for quota hunts and they were valid only in certain management units and only during a limited time period (seven to 20 days). Most quota hunts began before May 5 and lasted for seven days.

A private land management (Unit ZZ) was created in 2003 that included private land only in southern Michigan. Hunters who selected Hunt 301 could hunt the first two weeks (April 21 to May 4) anywhere on private lands in Unit ZZ. This unit and hunt period was created to provide additional hunting opportunities and increased flexibility for hunters who had difficulty finding time to hunt during shorter quota hunts. In 2003, approximately 24,000 hunters purchased a license for the ZZ hunt (Hunt 301). This year, hunters should consider taking advantage of this new unit that will again be offered in 2004. It provides a great opportunity for increased hunting time.

Michigan's turkey season looks like it's going to be another one for the record books. Updated historical harvest information from the DNR indicates that the number of applicants, number of hunters, number of turkeys killed and success rates have all increased since 1969. Wild turkeys in Michigan have expanded steadily and the state has attempted to monitor this growth through a number of survey techniques. Hunters should continue to assist the state by cooperating with mail surveys they may receive in the future to further assist them in managing our turkey resources.

Stewart said the 2003 turkey season was another banner year, which means it broke the previous year's record harvest. He also said the top counties in Michigan should again include Antrim, Iosco, Montcalm, Ionia, Allegan, Barry, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Cass in the Lower Peninsula, and Dickinson, Menominee and Delta in the Upper Peninsula as far as population densities go. Southern Michigan had the best nesting success in 2003 and will undoubtedly have the best population of birds this year because of good survival rates throughout the year.

Hunters harvested roughly the same percentage of turkeys in the last few years, and by all accounts will do so again this year. Again this was due to a greater number of hunters, a larger turkey population and plenty of acreage open to hunting. Predictions have been very accurate during the last few years, and the state has worked very hard to provide the most up-to-date and accurate information for hunters. Last year the prediction was for another record year. It appears we're headed there again in 2004.

The best places to harvest a turkey this year will again be in the traditional areas of the state. However, it appears that the southern areas will support more young-of-the-year due to good nesting success and therefore more jakes. Season dates, quotas and zones were not set as of press time, but they will follow the traditional dates, with various season lengths within each hunt unit.

Last year's "new" Private Land Limited Quota Hunt Unit (ZZ) was very successful and will again be used this year. Units open for this hunt were limited to Unit M and Unit O in the U.P. and new Unit ZZ, which encompasses a large portion of the L.P. This will be a very popular choice again this year. It is suggested that, if possible, you try for this very beneficial hunt.

Forecasts from state regional field staff indicate that 2004 will again be a successful one for Michigan hunters. The Upper Peninsula's four hunting units - MA, M, O and N - will again be good areas to try. Northern flocks depend on supplemental feeding from organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation or Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association, and as in past years, fall hunting may affect this spring's flock. Most of the northwest corner of our state supports a good population of birds, but this year, Area J appears to have a lower population because there are local reports of significant reductions in numbers and sizes of flocks.

The ever increasing concerns over chronic wasting disease (CWD), West Nile Virus and TB in our state have lead to interest in the possible affects on the wild turkeys. West Nile Virus has been

shown to appear in several species of birds, including wild turkeys, but recent publications have indicated that turkeys don't appear to be affected by the virus in that it doesn't cause mortality. West Nile doesn't appear to be transferable to humans from contact with the blood of birds, with the main vector being the mosquito. But hunters should show caution when field-dressing and/or handling birds. Complete cooking of any wild game is recommended to completely destroy bacteria and viruses.

As discussed in previous articles, CWD and TB continue to be of concern since CWD has been found in wild deer populations in southern Wisconsin, while TB is still an issue for some areas of Michigan, primarily in the northeast. Although CWD and TB are not of concern to wild turkeys, they may affect the population indirectly. With the modified/curtailed baiting and supplemental feeding regulations, repercussions for turkeys in northern areas of the state may be an issue. Many turkey flocks in these areas rely heavily on supplemental feeding to survive the winter and therefore may suffer.

Most parts of the Lower Peninsula will again be open to turkey hunting this spring, but always check the current state-issued dates/units/zones appearing in the application brochure for correct up-to-date information. The unlimited quota late season (all units, roughly May 5 to May 31) might again be a good choice for turkey hunters since you get the maximum amount of time to hunt during this very productive season. During this hunt period, all spring units are open (excluding public lands in Zone 3) and there are "unlimited" licenses available. You are guaranteed a license in this hunt if you are not selected during the draw. As was the case last year, drawing results will be available on the Internet and are generally posted around Feb. 15 if hunters want faster results. Just go to www.michigandnr.com.

I've recommended it before, and I'm going to do it again this year because a hunter would be wise to try the unlimited quota late-season hunt even as their first choice. You're guaranteed a license and you can hunt almost anywhere in the state. You also have more time to hunt, and the toms are ready to mate again because many of the hens are on the nest. Also, licenses for Hunt 234 could be used in any management unit except for public lands in southern Michigan Unit ZZ. It started later than most quota hunts but lasted for 27 days (May 5-31). An unlimited number of licenses were available for Hunt 234. Beginning in 2003, hunters could purchase a hunting license for Hunt 234 without going through the process of applying and being in the lottery, although hunters could still obtain a license for Hunt 234 through the lottery process. In 2003, 52,032 people purchased a license for this hunt. For all other quota hunts in all units (excluding 301 and 234) 31,769 hunters purchased a spring turkey license.

Over 75 percent of Michigan hunters hunted on private land last year, up from just over 70 percent the previous year. This trend has continued for the past few years and will undoubtedly increase in the future. If you do not have access to private land for turkey hunting, don't give up. Utilize the expansive state and federal lands found in most parts of Michigan. Statistics do show that over 80 percent of birds are harvested on private land. This makes sense since this is where most hunters are, but public lands hold birds just like private lands, granted at lower densities. But hunters just need to find the pockets that hold them. Get out and scout early and often, and find that "honeyhole" that holds turkeys. They are out there.

Where and when to go? You should try the hotspots outlined by the DNR. In the south, Montcalm, Ionia and Barry counties look good again this year, plus they have a lot of public land. Iosco County in northeast Michigan is frequently overlooked but has a high population of birds. Alpena and Presque Isle counties look good but remember this is "club country" and access may be limited. Don't let this deter your efforts, however, and ask permission to hunt. The U.P. counties in open units look good again this year so don't overlook areas MA, M, O and N.

Also consider Unit ZZ - as described earlier - the limited quota hunt that encompasses most of middle and southern Michigan if you have access to private land.

Some good opportunities are also available through Michigan's Hunter Access Program that opens up private land for use by hunters. Contact the DNR for a brochure, check with license agents for a copy or contact the state at www.michigandnr.com. Remember that these areas are restricted to the southern area (Zone 3) of Michigan but they provide for some real good hunting access to private lands. The number of hunters is limited for each parcel participating in the program so it's like having your own lease to hunt.

OK, so you've read all the articles, you've practiced your calling and you've bought every description of camoflage clothing available. The predictions look good and the birds should be out there waiting for your calls. We're lucky in this state to have good habitat, good numbers of birds and plenty of access. Don't pass up a chance at one of Michigan's best resources, the wild turkey. If you don't get a turkey, consider yourself lucky just to be out there hunting. Just being afield is what it's all about anyway. Spend some time in the turkey woods with a family member, friend or have some time alone. It's a great way to live!

Remember, no matter which unit or date you hunt, you should have the opportunity to bag one of North America's greatest game birds, because this year there will be plenty of turkeys.

It's too late to apply for this spring's hunt, but plan ahead for 2005 and remember that the application period is January 1 through February 1, and you can apply on-line as in past years. Apply at www.michigandnr.com.

Also, if you get the chance, don't forget to speak with the field staff of the DNR at regional offices. Their contact information is available on-line and in the application brochure.

Al Stewart is always willing to talk about any game birds in Michigan, especially the wild turkey. You can contact him at (517) 373-1236.

Take some time to contact local farmers for more information about flock movements and to ask permission to hunt. They are glad to talk to you, and may even ask you to "get rid of some those darn turkeys eating my crops!"

Have a good hunt!

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