"I would expect the spring 2016 turkey season to be similar to 2014 and 2015, barring any catastrophic winter weather events," predicted National Wild Turkey Federation Regional Biologist Ryan Boyer from West Branch. "Statewide harvest has been around 30,000 birds for the spring season since 2011 and I would expect harvest to be similar this coming spring.
"Based on personal observation and discussion with other wildlife professionals, the poult production seemed quite high this summer throughout much of the state, considering the cool, wet weather we had for much of the nesting season. Winter weather conditions can play a role in the population dynamics of wild turkeys, specifically in areas of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula where birds are often subjected to harsher conditions than the rest of the state."
NWTF Regional Director Steve Sharp had similar comments. "The indication that I am getting from the fall turkey hunters is that we had a very good reproduction year during 2015 and they are seeing a lot of broods with 7 to 9 poults in the flock. This will mean there should be a lot of jakes gobbling in the spring. Better news is that the 2017 spring turkey season should be outstanding with more 2-year-old gobblers. These hatch figures vary throughout the state, of course."
Dean Hulce in the U.P. had the most optimistic report. He operates a turkey camp in Menominee County.
"We had a great spring during 2015," Hulce said. "We've had two good hatches in Menominee County. We are close to the heyday of turkey hunting in this part of the state. You could stop at almost any property and hear a bird gobbling. It's been a while since you've been able to do that.
"I killed my best Michigan bird this spring out of the 40 or so turkeys that I've gotten over the years. It weighed 24 pounds, had a 10 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/4-inch spurs. Nick (Dean's son) called the bird in for me.
"It was late afternoon when I got the longbeard. We drove onto the property where I had permission to hunt, walked 100 yards and saw a bird in a field and called it in. Most of the birds we got last spring were taken during midmorning to late afternoon. Everybody who hunted with us had a chance at a bird."
Anyone interested in booking a U.P. turkey hunt with Hulce can call him at 906-282-0795.
"Despite the previous two difficult winters, the U.P. continues to provide excellent turkey hunting opportunities," said Michigan DNR wildlife biologist Dusty Arsnoe. "Agricultural areas in Menominee, Delta, Iron, and Dickinson counties remain the best locations to hunt in the U.P. In recent years the hunter success rates in the U.P. have ranged between 30 and 40 percent for both the spring and fall hunting seasons."
Arsnoe, who works out of the Escanaba office, said the Keweenaw Bay Cutters have a turkey-feeding program in Baraga and Houghton counties that helped 330 turkeys survive last winter. And I saw a flock of turkeys in Keweenaw County last fall, which included a longbeard. Those birds should be available to hunters this spring. There are growing turkey flocks in eastern Chippewa and Mackinac counties, too.
Recent severe winters in the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula have hurt turkey flocks in those regions, but they obviously are making a comeback in some places, especially where they are helped to survive winter with feeding programs. The fact that fewer people were feeding turkeys during those severe winters in the northern part of the state during recent years contributed to those declines. The price of corn skyrocketed, causing some individuals and organizations to stop turkey-feeding programs.
"In 2008 the feeding program just wasn't affordable anymore," commented Ken Buckholtz from Escanaba. He's with a U.P. chapter of the NWTF. "We replaced a feeding program with habitat by planting flowering crab apple trees that would provide food to turkeys during winter months."
Jim Maturen from Reed City is president of the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association. He said the Pere Marquette Chapter of the organization helped 2,800 turkeys survive last winter in 13 counties of the northern Lower Peninsula.
"By supporting turkeys during the winter, we know we are not going to run out of birds," he said. "We have a saying in this part of the state when it comes to turkeys and winter: 'You have either a fed turkey or a dead turkey.'
"We had a fairly decent hatch this spring," Maturen added. "Turkey hunting next spring should be similar to last spring. There might be more jakes."
In spite of the fact turkey numbers are lower than they used to be in parts of Region 2, Jim's experience as a turkey hunter confirms that hunters who are willing to work at it can score. Maturen bagged gobblers every spring for 35 years in a row. Last spring was the first he didn't get one, but not because he didn't have chances. At 80 years of age, his eyesight isn't as good as it used to be and he wasn't able to take advantage of the opportunities he got during the spring of 2015.
Based on a DNR report about the 2014 spring season, which includes the estimated number of birds bagged by county, the best counties in Region 2 to bag a gobbler are Manistee, with 874 killed, Newaygo (715), Leelanau (491), Mecosta (489), Mason (336), Wexford (309) Grand Traverse (300), Oceana (274), Osceola (221) and Lake (220).
U.P. hunters will find the most turkeys in Menominee (414), Dickinson (149), Delta (128), Iron (100) and Chippewa (89) counties.
Top picks for Region 3 are Allegan (1,019), Jackson (982), Sanilac (948), Tuscola (849), Kent (831), St. Clair (767), Montcalm (765), Calhoun (728), Lapeer (711), Ottawa (702) and Washtenaw (695) counties.
Of the 30,000 turkeys bagged in Michigan last spring, most of them came from Region 3. Region 2 contributed the next highest number of birds. The U.P. accounted for the lowest number of spring turkeys taken by hunters.
Although most spring turkey hunters are happy to get any bearded bird, there are plenty of older gobblers out there with long beards and even multiple beards for those who are looking for a challenge. Robert Cook took the highest scoring multi-bearded turkey in the state last spring in Eaton County, according to state record keeper Commemorative Bucks of Michigan. That tom had four beards totaling 31 1/16 inches! The longest spur was 1 2/16 inches long and the left one measured 15/16 of an inch for a total score of 33.125.
Robert said he had been watching the big-bearded bird for a while before he got it. He had no idea the gobbler had multiple beards. He thought the beard it had was simply thicker than normal. One afternoon during the last hunt on May 13, Cook and his brother-in-law Sam Zeeb set up a couple of decoys in the area frequented by the tom and started calling from a ground blind.
The hunter and his partner hadn't called long when they spotted the big bird making its way toward their decoys. No less than eight jakes made it to the decoys before the mature gobbler, adding to the excitement of the hunt. When the older tom got to within 40 yards, Robert dumped him with a 3-inch turkey load out of his 12 gauge.
"I didn't realize he had so many beards until I walked up on him," Cook commented. "I was really surprised when I found out he had four."
The tom's longest beard was 11 7/16 inches. The others were 8 10/16, 7 4/16 and 3 12/16 inches in length. The bird weighed 24 pounds. Robert said he's been turkey hunting for about 10 years and usually gets a gobbler every year. His biggest one prior to last spring had a 9- or 10-inch beard.
A total of 182 turkeys were entered in state records from last spring. Naturally, not all hunters who bagged birds that qualified entered them. Unlike deer antlers and bear skulls, the beards and spurs from turkeys do not have to air dry for 60 days before they can be officially measured. They can be measured and entered in state records soon after the bird is bagged.
The total length of beard or beards and spurs are added together to get the final score for turkeys. Turkeys bagged with either vertical or horizontal bow and arrow only have to score 8 to qualify for state records. The minimum score of gun kills is 12.
Go to Commemorative Bucks of Michigan's Web site to locate an official scorer closest to you. CBM's Web site is www.buckfax.com.
Based on CBM turkey entries from 2015, the best counties for book turkeys in southern Michigan, or Region 3, were St. Clair (15), Gratiot (12), Ingham (11), Eaton and Clinton (10 each). Allegan, Lapeer and Sanilac checked in with 8 each.
In Region 2, or the Northern Lower Peninsula, Otsego County led the way with 3 entries. Other counties in that region that had 1 entry each were Mecosta, Arenac, Iosco, Wexford, Crawford, Montmorency and Alcona.
Houghton County was the only county in the U.P. with a turkey entry from last spring, but that's deceiving. Friend Dean Hulce bagged his biggest gobbler ever in Menominee County last spring. I'm sure it would qualify for state records, but he didn't enter it, and I'm sure other book birds were tagged in the U.P. last spring that didn't make it into the records.
The 10th edition of Michigan Big Game Records, which was published during 2015 and has turkey records compiled by CBM through 2014, is the best reference for determining which counties in the state for each region produce the most book birds. In most cases, those same counties offer the best turkey hunting in their respective regions.
For Region 3, St. Clair County leads the pack once again with a total of 469 entries. Clinton County is next in line with 397, followed by Saginaw County with 372 and Gratiot with 316. Counties ranked fifth, sixth and seventh are Eaton (300), Lapeer (282), and Ingham (260). The final three among the top 10 counties in the south are Shiawassee (238), Calhoun (218), and Sanilac (217). Van Buren County isn't far behind with 216 entries.
Top turkey counties in Region 2 are Newaygo (161), Mecosta (96), Mason (85), Antrim (63), Alpena (62), Alcona (56), Osceola (54), Grand Traverse (53), Arenac (47) and Kalkaska (47).
As already mentioned, Menominee County is the U.P.'s top turkey producer with 32 entries in state records. Delta is second with 24, followed by Dickinson County with 14, and Marquette County at 11. Iron County is right behind Marquette with 10 book birds.
While turkey hunting opportunity in terms of the number of birds available, is going up, turkey license sales are going down, and so anyone who wants to hunt turkeys in the spring should be able to. A total of 89,167 spring turkey licenses were purchased during 2014, according to the DNR, compared to 87,189 in 2015. There were 83,769 leftover turkey licenses during the spring of 2014 and not all of those tags were purchased. Plenty of leftover licenses should be available this year again.
Various turkey hunts start on April 20, many of which are only a week long and are for specific turkey management areas, but hunts vary in length. The application period for limited entry spring turkey hunts is January and February. If you missed the deadline to apply, leftover licenses usually are available during mid-March.
There also are an unlimited number of tags available for the last hunt from May 4-31 (Hunt 0234). These licenses are valid statewide, except public lands in Unit ZZ of the southern Lower Peninsula.