Michigan’s Great Turkey Comeback…
Michigan has a booming turkey population along with increased hunter numbers. More turkeys mean more hunting opportunities and more reasons to modify your hunting tactics. Southern Michigan is fast gaining a reputation as a turkey hunting Mecca. But abundant turkey populations can lead to confusing hunts. Sometimes the ticket to success hinges on understanding turkeys and modifying your hunting strategy. Many times hunts are foiled because love crazed gobblers go after hens and refuse the sweet love talk announced by savvy callers. With so many turkeys in Michigan, hunting them can be frustrating. Here’s why.
Setup before daylight near Dansville and you will have an exciting hunt. Sunrise will put the eastern horizon aglow when the first gobble echoes across the countryside, usually from the tall maples down by the creek. That bird will be answered by another to the west and then more respond from the woodlot to the north. During the magical 20 minutes before fly-down, gobbles echo across the vast landscape, each triggering another, like “The wave” at MSU Spartan football games. You may count a couple dozen toms in a four mile stretch amid the croplands, woodlots and swamp lands.
You would think that Stevie Wonder could call and kill a bird with a BB gun within fifteen minutes. But it is much more challenging because once the birds hit the ground, they immediately find companions and you can go a couple hours between gobbles.
I’m awestruck by Michigan’s great turkey comeback. In the 80s I drove to Missouri to hunt gobblers. The 90s found a few birds in central Michigan. Now, there are hundreds within fifty miles of the Lansing Capitol and southern Michigan has a strong population.
So many birds have provided an increase in opportunities for success, but also failures. Back in the day when the population was smaller, gobblers had to work to find a hen. They were somewhat loners that eagerly responded to a call. These days there is rarely any time of day when there isn’t a willing hen around. Hens are never all nesting at the same time and finding a lone tom is a daunting task. With so many hens available, gobblers are sometimes tough to call and hunters need to modify hunting strategies.
Michigan turkey hunters need to be adept at luring not only gobblers but hens too and often they have toms in tow. This makes scouting even more important. Sometimes you can find a lone gobbler and call him into range, that’s not as easily done with hens around. More often than not, perfect hunts go sour because hunters do not concentrate on calling dominant hens.
Undisturbed turkeys are as patternable as whitetail deer, especially in southern Michigan’s open farm country. In such wide open places the easiest way to scout is from a vehicle at dawn. Use quality binoculars and spend hours observing birds to determine daily patterns. Often the best strategy is to watch hens, figure out their home range and setup along their path to intercept gobblers. The trick is to scout undetected and setup before daylight to intercept unsuspecting gobblers.
Trying to call in hens is a game with no chiseled-in-stone rules. Every day is different, every hen is different. Basically, you use two calls, one that offers security and another that challenges their place in the pecking order. As a rule, start with soft talk. You can always get louder later.
Wild turkeys are always talking, making contact calls, engaging in small talk, such as soft purrs, mellow clucks or barely audible sets of two or three yelps. They are gregarious birds by nature, raised in flocks dominated by a lead hen and members are always purring, making contact noises that keep social order and reflect security and inter-flock contentment.
One deadly tactic is to use a slate call to mimic wild birds. The idea is to replicate the soft calls, mixed with occasional soft yelps. Mixing sounds of scratching in leaves can trigger hens to come close and their toms will follow.
Savvy hunters understand that gobblers are usually at the end of turkey flocks as they traverse the countryside. This means you need to be extra patient and allow wary, adult hens to wiggle past at close range and wait for trailing toms.
The closer you are to where birds roost or feed the better your chances. Patience is the key to success. This method is a far cry from the aggressive exchanging of loud yelps and frenzied gobbles between hunter and fast-coming tom. Many times receptive hens only reply with a few soft yelps, if that. Smart toms following hens are often speechless because with a harem in front, they likely will not gobble for fear of giving away their position to other competing longbeards.
If you have a dominate hen responding with soft talk and she is coming your way, don’t stop what you are doing. Keep chatting and hope she draws the big boys into range.
If she stops, try little louder calls and when she gets kissin’ close shut up, don’t move and hope she passes by with longbeards in tow.
If you can’t coax a lead hen with purrs, soft yelps and words of encouragement, sometimes you can do it with threats or challenging talk. Start with a little at a time. Don’t jump into loud yelps and strings of cutting, this could spook her and send her in the opposite direction. Instead, every time she responds give her what she gave you, only with a tad more volume and extra note. You know, like the bully in the playground mimicking everything you said–the one you wanted to punch in the nose at recess.
Sometimes you can get hens running your direction by cussing them out, using loud threatening tones and yelping to challenge them. Hens have a well-defined pecking order and nasty language can bring’em running. Most of the old boss gals have no patience for interlopers.
Keep in mind that calling hens is no cake walk. Wise old birds that dominate flocks often head the other way. But there is a 50/50 chance one of the trailing boyfriends may become excited enough to sneak close for a peek.
Many times a flock of hens will be towing dominate gobblers and sometimes trailing longbeards too. Trying to get one of the latter to peel off and come within easy range is always worth an effort. If you can see a flock, try to get close and you can tell the mood of trailing gobblers and see if you have a chance.
This was the case when Scott Goldammer dusted a dandy gobbler. It was opening day; birds were in sizable flocks, with about 20 in the flock we spotted. Two monster toms were strutting amid the hens while three subordinate toms were trailing 40 yards behind. The subordinates were fanning, gobbling and bumping into each other, a solid clue their minds were preoccupied with the mating ritual.
Scott slipped down a fence row to within 200 yards of the birds, which were headed the opposite direction. All the gobblers stopped and listened as he yelped and cut on his H.S. Strut dominate hen box call. After standing stationary for a few minutes, first one bird and then the other two broke strut and the race was on. If the birds stopped Scott would give them some more music. They would go into a comical half strut, sort of half-run or waddle that had me laughing from 500 yards away from a roadside where I watched the action through binoculars.
When gobblers popped up at 20 yards from Scott, I could see him raise his Benelli 12 gauge. Suddenly a big gobbler was knocked backwards a couple yards and feathers flew, a second later I heard the gunshot. Watching the young hunter running to the downed bird and dancing in a victory circle around the kill with gun raised overhead will never fade from my memory.
The point is this, any time you can work a little competition into a hunt, it will greatly increase your chances at success. The idea is to pull a tom away from live hens, a daunting task but it happens on occasion. One trick is to get between courting gobblers. I’ve seen kings desert their queens out of jealousy.
Setup between roosting flocks is a wise move. The end result is a fired up tom flying down and running into range to beat others to a hen decoy. Sometimes using a jake decoy will get gobblers miffed and they will challenge the subordinate by leaving a flock.
In the past few years I’ve been using a live turkey fan to take some stud longbeards in areas with incredible turkey densities. The fan is spread, nailed to a board; the meat sprinkled with Boraxo hand soap and allowed to dry. A hole is made in the bottom and an arrow shaft is placed in the hole and inserted in the ground. The fan tilts and turns with the wind and looks like a real gobbler tail. Toms see the imposter and come to investigate. One time I quickly dusted an 11 ¾ inch bearded gobbler that saw 2/3rds of my fan across an open cornfield. He broke away from two hens and came directly at the fake tail with his feathers puffed out and head tilted forward for a fight. That’s when my Benelli ended his love sick trek.
The presence of multiple wild turkeys presents a problem of hunting undetected. The woods and fields are full of birds, making it difficult to move without alarming gobblers. Do it a time or two and you may no longer have the problem of too many turkeys where you hunt because wise birds move to a different area.
A good friend of mine loves to cut and run for gobblers covering many miles in Kalamazoo County. If you don’t take a bird when you’re with him, you’ll lose at least five pounds from all the hiking. My pal loves staying on the move, making several sets a day and calling aggressively to bring in a tom.
A better tactic is to scout, find a good spot, set up before dawn and stay there all day. This strategy will help to not spook turkeys and it is a good way for hunters to not ruin each other’s chances when hunting the same property. These days there are more turkeys, but also more turkey hunters. With increased hunting pressure, toms quickly learn to keep their beaks shut. More and more are traveling silent and sneaking into decoys silently. Hunters waiting in ambush in a natural hide or quality pop-up blind like Double Bull are the trend of the future.
Blending into the environment is what turkey hunting is all about. Smart hunters match their camouflage to the terrain. Early season hunters use brown camo and the late season troops are dressed in green. But in order to let hens stroll past, you need to look in the mirror and make your outfit perfect. Face must be covered, gun needs to go undetected, hands need gloves, and even boots must be camouflaged. Savvy hunters use head nets, face mask, camo gloves, pants and boots. Their gun matches the environment and seldom these days can you find a hunter with old school blued barrel and shining wood stock.
Once turkeys are a stone’s throw away, you need to stop all movement. Learn to relax, think about the calm water of the Great Lakes, try to not blink or better yet break eye contact and look down; using the bill from your cap to conceal your eyes. Forget that live wild birds are filing past, forget about the kill, concentrate on not moving and try to go undetected.
A stealthy approach and undetected hunt are keys to success. Begin morning hunts with soft purrs and clucks and expect hens to show before gobblers. This happened to me when I hunted the creek. A parade of four hens moved past my position. I sat against a huge oak and didn’t move, relaxed, became one with the forest. But when a 24 pound gobbler brought up the rear my heart kicked into high gear.
After the exciting point blank range kill I tossed the brute over my shoulder and headed for the truck. I used the low land along the creek to hide my exit because my buddy was still planning to hunt the property. Twice I had to stop and change course or hit the deck to keep from spooking turkey. What a bountiful resource!