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It’s time to talk turkey in the Upper Peninsula

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 9:54 a.m. CDT

MUNISING, Mich. (MCT) — About 50,000 Michigan hunters will get turkey licenses this fall, but only about 1,500 of them will be able to hunt the Upper Peninsula. And the U.P. also has a smaller turkey population than the southern Lower Peninsula, where 90 percent of the fall turkey hunting will be done.

So why did Andy Muir figure that Alger County would be a great place to hunt turkeys this fall instead of turkey-rich Mason County, where he lives?

“I hunt for the joy of hunting, for a chance to get away from crowds of people, not just to kill something,” Muir said as he got breakfast in a local restaurant after four hours of scouting for roosting birds. “There’s hardly anyone out looking for turkeys here. I ran into a few people setting up for deer season, and just about all of them were glad to tell me where they’d seen turkeys.”

Muir likes that there’s plenty of public land to hunt.

“Most of the permits down below are for private land, and there are two problems with that. First, it’s tough to get access to private farms, and even if you get it, you’re limited to those few acres,” he said.

“In the U.P., if you don’t like the spot you’re hunting after a couple of days you can pick up and try somewhere else. That’s great for me, because my favorite way to hunt turkeys is to walk the ridge lines and stop to call every now and then, so I might walk three or four miles in a morning.”

The fall turkey hunt — when hunters can take birds of either sex — began Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 14, the day before the firearms deer season begins. Only 850 public land licenses were available for designated areas in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, but 46,700 private land licenses will be sold, 46,000 for farmlands in the Thumb where turkeys have become the latest crop depredation pest.

No fall licenses were issued for the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, where turkey numbers have been falling largely because limitations on feeding deer have made it harder to feed turkeys and help them survive the usually-harsh winters.

The irony is that the northern lower is where the wonderfully successful revival of Michigan’s wild turkey population began 30 years ago, but the birds eventually colonized the area below Bay City and their numbers grew quickly in the rich farmlands, following the pattern set by deer 20 years earlier.

Like Muir, I like to get away from the maddening crowds during the hunting seasons. Though I don’t have a permit to hunt turkeys in the U.P. this fall I spent a couple of days doing some scouting, mostly using the same walking and calling technique he did.

It took a few moves, but I did locate several clusters of birds on state land along some creek and river bottoms near Escanaba. Once I determined the area where they were feeding, I could drive the two tracks and roads around it in the evenings and use a dog whistle and crow call to get a fix on where they were roosting.

I picked up the dog whistle technique a few years ago. We can’t hear the high-pitched sounds, but turkey obviously can, because they answer as readily as they do to a natural sound like a crow call. But then I’ve had tom turkeys gobble from a roost at the sound of a car door slamming.

Scouting is one of the best parts of turkey hunting. And something else that makes this hunt so much fun is that people can take part even if they don’t draw a permit. Many years I’ve helped other people locate birds both before and after my season, or have called for hunters who weren’t confident in their own ability.

Hesitancy is a big mistake. Just as you don’t always have to match the hatch perfectly to catch a trout on a fly, you don’t have to be a champion caller to bring in a turkey.

I figure there has to be a few turkeys out there that are dumber than I am. When you get out and try, you’ll eventually fool one of them.

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