Cold, snowy winters and damp springs are two of the major factors limiting turkey populations in Michigan. With the nasty winter and frigid spring Michigan suffered through in 2013-2014, you'd think that turkeys would be decimated, but the truth is the tough birds survived the winter fairly well and pulled off a decent hatch in less than ideal weather. The result produced pretty good hunting last spring and should bode well for 2015.
"The truth is that last winter probably impacted turkeys in southern Michigan more than it did in northern Michigan," claimed Michigan Department of Natural Resources Upland Game Bird Specialist Al Stewart. "We heard some claims of dead turkeys, but there was no proof of any widespread losses. No one reported any turkeys hanging from limbs by their feet!"
Stewart estimated Michigan's wild turkey population at around 200,000 birds. That number has been fairly constant over the last few years. During a typical year, between 100,000 and 140,000 hunters apply for tags with about 80,000 of the tag holders actually making it into the woods to hunt. Michigan hunters typically harvest around 30,000 gobblers in the spring with about 38 percent successfully putting their tag on a bird. Michigan ranks sixth or seventh in wild turkey harvest in the country with harvest numbers comparable to more famous turkey venues.
Michigan hunters have the option of applying for a permit for a specific unit and time, or opting for hunt 0234 that guarantees hunters a permit or tag that allows them to hunt the entire month of May. Beginning in 2014, Hunt 0234 licenses were sold as leftover licenses with no quota and could be purchased throughout the entire spring turkey-hunting season.
Many hunters opt for the later hunt. Michigan's turkey seasons typically open the third week in April and run through the end of May.
During Michigan springs, typically cold weather and snow make the earliest hunts difficult and less productive. Gobblers are generally more fired up as the weather warms and breeding is more intense. That also allows hunters to spend more time in the woods, which is a key to turkey hunting success. The limit is one bearded turkey in the spring (17 percent of our hens have beards). Turkeys now reside in all 83 counties.
Stewart said it appears that hunters did well in Michigan in the spring of 2014. "Eastern turkey numbers have stabilized across much of their range after decades of expansion and reintroduction into new habitats and suitable range," he said. "There's no state where turkey hunting is as good as it was 10 years ago. Turkey numbers have flattened out and you'll experience peaks and valleys in turkey numbers due to winter conditions and reproduction."
The one exception, according to Stewart, is in the Upper Peninsula where turkey numbers continue to grow. "Birds in the U.P. are really expanding," he claimed. "Turkeys in the U.P. are doing very well and expanding west. Numbers are good across much of the U.P. and it's presenting a lot of new opportunity."
Stewart said that the turkeys that now inhabit northern Michigan have evolved over time and have learned where to find a handout when things get tough.
"Turkeys came though the winter fairly well. In the northern part of the state, the birds have become more acclimated to winter. They search out food sources. Individuals who are feeding wildlife benefit turkeys."
Jim Maturen, the director of membership/chapter development for the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association (231-832-2575) and president of the of the Pere Marquette Chapter, said that last winter chapter volunteers fed 2,861 turkeys 16,300 pounds of corn in 13 counties spread over northern Michigan. Without it, turkeys in those areas would have had a much tougher time.
"In spite of the feeding, I'm sure we lost turkeys big time last winter," claimed Maturen. "Which makes you wonder why the NRC approved a fall season in 2014." Maturen said the best turkey habitat in northern Michigan comes in a 100-pound bag.
Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Kleitch, from the Gaylord office, said that wildlife managers were concerned about the affects of the winter of 2013-2014 on turkeys in northwest Michigan.
"We were really worried about the severe winter and turkey numbers being down because of it," she said. "Fortunately, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. We have been seeing good-sized groups of turkeys and lots of poults so I think we came though it OK."
Key to winter turkey survival in northeastern Michigan is a cooperative program between the Michigan DNR and the National Wild Turkey Federation. "The NWTF has been planting winter food plots in the area since the early 2000s and those are critical when you have a winter like we had in 2013-2014," said Kleitch.
Kleitch indicated that the NWTF plants in excess of 300 acres of standing corn, sorghum and sunflowers that provide a high-energy food source for turkeys and other wildlife during the winter. Another option for winter turkeys is acorns that are particularly plentiful in oak stands found in Montmorency, Otsego, Crawford, Ogemaw, Oscoda, Roscommon and other northeast Michigan counties. Turkeys also gravitate to farms found in the Atlanta and Alpena areas where they can find waste grain during the winter. Often, turkeys are found in close proximity to the farms when the spring season opens.
Linda Gallagher, an outdoor writer and avid turkey hunter, stated that snow levels were more than 2 feet on the level for more than 5 months in the winter of 2013-2014 accompanied by weeks of temperatures that never topped 10 degrees. In spite of private feeding efforts, Gallagher estimates that turkey populations in Unit J are half or less of what they were three years ago.
For more information on turkey hunting opportunities in northeast Michigan, contact the DNR Gaylord field office at 989-732-3541.
Southwest Michigan usually is in the bull's-eye when it comes to severe winter weather, and wildlife managers have been concerned about turkey survival there. "Southwest Michigan, especially along and west of US 131, is notorious for its bad winters," explained Barry State Game Area wildlife biologist Sara Schaefer. "We had 2 feet or more of snow on the ground for a good part of the winter and it got crusty, which is not good for turkeys. But something kicked in and told the turkeys to stay put instead of walking around every day. They conserved energy and fed on crab apple trees instead of trying to find waste grain. Plus, they tended to roost and stay in the pines if the weather was bad and not feed every day.
"They must have come through the winter fairly well because we're seeing plenty of turkeys and good brood sizes. We thought turkeys might go into the spring in poorer than normal condition, but they have survived quite well."
Hunters should find good turkey numbers and good hunting on state game areas in southwest Michigan like Allegan SGA in Allegan County, Barry and Middleville SGAs in Barry County, Fulton and Gourdneck SGAs in Kalamazoo County, Leidy Lake and Three Rivers SGAs in St. Joseph County, and Lost Nation SGA in Hillsdale County. For more information on turkey hunting opportunities in southwest Michigan, contact the DNR's Plainwell Customer Service Center at 269-685-6851.
Michigan turkey hunting Unit K encompasses some of the state's best turkey habitat and extends from Oceana, Newaygo and Mecosta counties all the way to Leelanau County. The unit takes in thousands of acres of state and federal lands that offer hunters plenty of opportunity. Unit K typically has some of the highest concentrations of turkeys in the state.
"Hunting was kind of tough last year," claimed Ludington resident Mike Smith. "The birds were around, but they didn't talk very much and weren't moving much. That might have been because of the cold, wet spring we had. There were birds in the traditional places where you'd expect to find birds, but they seemed to get henned up early. We could have shot jakes, but were looking for a mature bird. We never did get one."
Smith said he didn't think the winter had much effect on turkey numbers. "We had a great hatch this past spring," claimed Smith. "We were seeing flocks of 20 to 30 birds while bow hunting this past fall. A lot of crops are still up, which means more food for the birds, and there are lots of acorns."
Wildlife biologist Chad Fedewa, who works out of the Rose Lake Wildlife Research Station in East Lansing, said that the brutal winter of 2103-2014 had little effect on turkey numbers in central Michigan. "Losses were surprisingly low," he said. "We didn't get a lot of reports of dead turkeys. Hunters and other people reported seeing quite a few birds in the spring. We saw some broods this spring. The population in general has kind of stabilized across much of Michigan." Feweda said that food plots planted by the DNR and crop sharing with local farmers helped turkeys make it through the winter.
Ingham, Clinton, Shiawassee and Gratiot counties that Fedewa oversees have some excellent turkey habitat and public hunting opportunities. Most areas are an ideal mix of beech, maple and oak forest, agriculture and open fields where turkeys can forage. At 5,000 acres, Danville State Game Area has some of the best turkey habitat in southern Michigan. Hunters will find 4,000 acres of land open to hunting at the Rose Lake State Game Area. Maple River SGA has 10,000 acres of river bottom that turkeys love. The Gratiot/Saginaw SGA has 16,000 acres that are heavily forested and home to expanding turkey numbers. You'll also find public hunting opportunities at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Clinton County.
For more details on turkey hunting opportunities in central Michigan contact the Rose Lake Wildlife Research Station at (517) 373-641-4903.
Although turkeys can be found across the entire U.P., the highest numbers can be found in Delta, Dickenson, Iron and Menominee counties. Winters are less severe in this area of the U.P. known as the Banana Belt, and there are plenty of dairy farms and agriculture that can help birds make it through winters. There are ample state and federal lands in those counties that turkeys disperse into come spring and that provides outstanding public hunting opportunities.
"I would say that turkeys numbers are down from what they were five years ago," claimed Crystal Fall field office wildlife biologist Monica Joseph. "Reproduction has been relatively poor the last few years. The birds here rely on winter feeding, and with the cost of corn up, it's much more expensive for individuals and sportsman's clubs to feed. The numbers have reached an equilibrium that is probably good in term of overall numbers."
Joseph estimated there are approximately 7,000 to 8,000 turkeys in the prime habitat found in Menominee, Iron, Delta and Dickinson counties.
"The winter of 2013-2014 was a bad winter for turkeys," explained Joseph. "We had snow early and periods of really cold weather, but nesting success seemed to compensate for the losses."
Joseph said that she saw three or four different-sized poults in the fall. "The birds really like the dairy, cattle and horse farms in the southern U.P.," she said. "They'll feed on the silage and pick grain from the manure." Come spring, Joseph said, the turkeys disperse up to 10 miles to take advantage of the available habitat.
For more information on turkeys in the southern U.P., contact the Crystal Falls field office at 906-875-6624.
It appears there are plenty of turkeys all across Michigan to provide great spring hunting in 2015.