If I had to rate the weather and its impact on Michigan’s turkey population I would say conditions were perfect and wild turkey populations slipped through the nasty winter conditions in fantastic shape. Sure some parts of Michigan had 10 inches of snow in late November but December was highlighted by extremely warm weather, lack of snow and turkeys thrived. A surprise ice storm covered available food shortly after Christmas followed by a cold New Year’s Eve but 40 degree temperatures came the following week that gave birds a reprieve from low temperatures and remaining snow quickly melted leaving food sources easy pickins. Little snow remained in southern Michigan into January and turkeys were surviving winter with ease. This is good news for turkey hunters.
I expect minimal 2016 winter kill and populations look solid going into spring. The most important variable that has helped Michigan’s turkey population to rebound was ideal nesting weather spring 2015 and there was excellent recruitment of young birds. We finally got warm weather and less rain in spring 2015 and hens raised bumper crops of young poult. This is following several years of nasty cold spring weather, frost, snow, freezing rain and recruitment took a tail spin.
For a long time it looked like Michigan’s turkey population was on a major down slide. Even southern Michigan flocks which have mild weather and available food sources, compared to birds up north, reflected the declining trend. Hunters soon discovered where there used to be abundant turkey populations suddenly there were few. Filling your gobbler tag was difficult work and many hunters who had exciting hunts in the past went home empty handed. Unseasonably cold spring weather was the culprit and populations began to thin out. However, the excellent nesting season of spring 2015 brought many poults and the population is back on an upswing. The only problem is the young male turkeys will only be small jakes this coming spring hunting season and the number of adult gobblers is somewhat declined from previous years.
Get north of a line from Bay City to Muskegon and wild gobbler population took a major hit. Keep in mind that turkeys in northern Michigan have tougher winters, more predators and if the snow gets deep the food sources disappear. This is also the case in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota where biologists don’t even attempt to promote northern turkey populations because they simply cannot survive winter. In many parts of northern Michigan turkey numbers are still very low.
One solution would be to increase live trap and release projects and rekindle stocking efforts. Last year a few birds were live trapped and released in the Oscoda area but most of northern Michigan needs to boost populations too. Another solution would be if the DNR would lift regulations regarding feeding of wildlife and allow local conservationists to feed turkey through winter months. However, many sportsmen in northern Michigan are asking “how does the DNR expect bird populations to grow if you have no population to begin with?” It would be great if DNR turkey biologists would get some of those monster bearded gobblers from Wisconsin and plant them in Michigan. Just look in the NWTF record books and you can see that Michigan has few entries because our flocks lacks the genetics to grow long spurs and trophy beards. By introducing superior genetics Michigan could be entering gobblers in the books with monster 17-inch beards.
Another important factor that has influenced Michigan’s turkey population is the excellent fall 2015 acorn crop. When it comes to deer and turkey hunting, an increase in mast crops help both to survive winter and critters often are moving, looking for fresh acorns and hunters simply see more wildlife. Nut-producing oak trees are a great place to hunt and last fall oak ridges in many parts of Michigan were covered with acorns. Wild turkeys prefer to lounge under white oak trees feeding, preening, resting and gobbling massive amounts of the nutty fruit as it drops to the ground. If acorns are available you can expect turkeys to be in the vicinity and oak trees are one of the most sought-after areas to hunt in fall and spring.
The rain of 2014 helped acorn trees and come spring when they flowered the weather was warm, ideal for pollination and acorn growth. In some parts of Michigan forests floors were covered with acorns this past fall. This abundant food source will help deer and turkeys survive winter.
I started seeing major flocks of hens with poults during duck season last fall. Come deer season more flocks appeared and some areas of central/southern Michigan had plenty of young birds dancing across the countryside. One early January photo outing produced 112 turkey sightings, most were young birds. However, there were a few adult gobblers scattered in various areas.
Winter gobblers are a strange lot. It seems the boys gather in bachelor groups during fall and stick together through winter until spring breakup. Pods of adult gobblers are difficult to approach because lookout birds are always standing tall, heads up. I’m certain the group is continuously protected by sentinels and therefore predators find them difficult to approach.
Even in southern Michigan predators take their share. Coyote love charging flocks and pulling young unsuspecting poult to the ground. But the number one killer of wild turkeys is red-tailed hawks. Boy, southern Michigan is absolutely loaded with red-tails. Death from above comes on silent wings as hawks dive bomb birds from their back side. Most never know what hits them and hawks prefer to take the smaller birds that tend to be somewhat unprotected and trailing the main flock.
I’ve witnessed hawks killing turkey in open fields, thick brush and hardwood forests. Most have been young hens but on one occasion I watched a circling Red-tail swoop down and dust an adult gobbler in full fan. On another occasion I witnessed a Red-tail miss a hen, fly into a tree, dive and miss again and eventually followed the scurrying turkey until it was under a brush pile. The relentless red-tail perched on top of the fallen tree and waited several minutes before it flew away. The turkey stayed lodged in the thick rabbit brush pile for another 30 minutes then dashed for the safety of an overhanging thorny crab apple tree. Red-tailed hawks are the kiss of death for unsuspecting young poult turkeys.
The new recruits are a welcome sight for turkey hunters looking to fill their turkey tag spring 2016. Although in most of Michigan adult gobblers are still trying to recover from harsh weather, predators and lack of food and finding those big ol’ gobblin’ monsters can be a difficult task. Most reside on private land in Michigan’s agricultural belt where dairy farmers sweeten snow fields with fresh manure laced with corn. Others hang out near agricultural areas where winter thaws expose food sources. This winter gobblers should have a cake walk and birds should be in excellent condition come opening day.
I use winter treks to locate adult birds with trophy beards. The strategy is simple, just cruise country roads until you locate gobblers and glass ’em. If you can locate an area that has a solid population of adult gobblers you are on the road to success when hunting season arrives. This strategy is deadly for finding those trophy birds sporting a 10-inch plus paintbrush-looking beard. After years of winter scouting I’ve found that if you locate one big ole gobbler often other trophy birds will also be in the area.
Yes, you can pattern wild turkeys just like deer or waterfowl. Scouting can uncover new birds that you never expected on your hunting grounds. More importantly, locating gobblers now can give you a starting point for spring hunts.
Wild turkeys are intelligent birds with keen eyesight, hearing and good instincts. Scouting birds without being spotted is difficult but savvy hunters understand the importance of not alarming adult gobblers. The trick is to observe them from far away using binoculars. If you are using your vehicle to locate birds in agricultural fields try not to disturb them. The same holds true for winter treks through the country, don’t alert turkeys and chase them from their home turf. Sometimes just one encounter with a human and a wary gobbler will pack his bags and find a new hiding location. Other times they ignore vehicles, people hiking and stick like glue to specific locations that offer food and shelter.
Winter is the best time of year to gain hunting permission. Farmers are not working fields, crops have long been harvested and they have time to chat with hunters. Most are willing to provide turkey hunting permission long before the first hint of spring arrives. Sure, that monster 12-inch beard may move come spring breakup but getting permission on a new farm can lead to successful outings in the future.
The outlook looks positive for spring turkey hunts. I recommend you concentrate scouting efforts in southern Michigan. Now is the time to begin, locate flocks of mature gobblers sporting impressive beards. Winter is a perfect time to talk to landowners, get hunting permission and zero-in on a hot spot long before other hunters discover your honey hole. Keep scouting because the key to gobbler success often hinges on how much knowledge you have regarding gobbler travel routes, roosting sites, travel patterns and flock dynamics. When spring arrives and you are set-up before dawn your pre-season scouting can pay big dividends and you will fill your tag at lightning speed.