There was a point in the history of Ohio and Michigan when the mere suggestion of a wild turkey hunting season would have been scoffed at and labeled absurd.
After all, you couldn’t hunt something that did not exist.
Wild turkeys were native to the region that today makes up both states, but once the territory was settled, the land cleared for farming, and the existing wild game harvested without regulation, the turkeys were gone. By around the turn of the 20th century, the populations of North America’s largest game bird had been wiped out in Ohio and Michigan.
Michigan records indicate the last wild turkey in the state was harvested in 1897 in Van Buren County, west of Kalamazoo and bordering on Lake Michigan. Ohio wildlife biologists think the wild turkey was eliminated from the Buckeye state around 1904.
In Michigan, restoration efforts started as early as 1919, and eventually wild birds were brought in from Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Missouri and released in Michigan to establish new flocks. About 60 years ago, the Michigan Department of Conservation, now known as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, became involved in the restoration push. Later, progress was greatly enhanced by the assistance of groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation.
As restoration efforts succeeded and wild turkey populations in the southern part of Michigan became stronger, some of those birds were trapped and moved to northern locations in the state. Today, wild turkeys are found in every county in the Lower Peninsula and several in the Upper Peninsula.
In Ohio, early attempts to restore turkey populations using birds that had been raised in pens on game farms failed. But late in the 1950s and into the early part of the 1960s, wild turkeys were trapped in states that held established populations of birds and these turkeys were then transplanted into forested areas in southeastern Ohio.
These efforts were successful, and as those wild turkey populations expanded, biologists were able to trap some of these birds and move them to other locations around the state. Today, wild turkeys are found in all 88 of Ohio’s counties, with the population continuing to expand into new habitat, especially along river and stream corridors.
With re-established populations of wild turkeys in both states, limited hunting seasons returned in the mid-1960s. Michigan conduct its first wild turkey hunting season of the 20th century in 1965, and Ohio’s first modern-day hunt was the next year. Ohio hunters harvested 12 birds in that first season, which was open in just nine counties.
Fast forward to today, and Michigan ranks in the top 10 turkey hunting states in the nation in most hunting journals, with an estimated 225,000-plus wild turkeys and close to 4,000,000 acres of public land for hunters to access. Ohio, with much less public land available for hunters, still boasts a wild turkey population close to 200,000 birds.
Across the country, that national coalition of conservationists, many of them hunters, has pushed for the restoration of habitat and effective management of wild turkey populations, and those efforts have resulted in an estimated 7,000,000 wild turkeys in the U.S. The National Wild Turkey Federation has been at the forefront of that work and during the past three decades has spent almost $500 million on science-based wildlife conservation projects creating and conserving wildlife habitat and preserving the hunting heritage.
The habitat is the key element for wild turkeys, according to David Hart of the NWTF. “Nothing matters more to the survival of individual birds and long-term turkey population trends than habitat,” Hart writes. “Good habitat can help hens have better nest success and it can result in higher poult [young turkey] survival. Research has shown that hens in good nesting cover — large areas of early-successional habitat and other thick cover — have higher nest success and lower predation rates.”
Despite the growing numbers of wild turkeys in Ohio and Michigan, the birds still present one of the tougher challenges in the woods. Bob Eriksen, a retired regional biologist for the NWTF, said wild turkeys have considerable sensory advantages.
“Wild turkeys have the ability to detect movement and assimilate detail very quickly,” Eriksen said, assessing the bird’s early-warning system. “Vision and hearing are the ways wild turkeys communicate with each other and how they detect possible threats to their well-being as a prey species, making them their most important senses. They use exceptional vision and hearing in order to thrive in a landscape with lots of predators.”
Spring wild turkey hunting in Ohio and Michigan is managed by region or zone, based on the available numbers of birds. Ohio is divided into two zones for spring turkey hunting, with a Northeast Zone which includes Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, and Trumbull counties. Wild turkey hunting in that zone runs from April 30-May 27, but the legal hunting hours change midway through that period. Consult the wild turkey hunting map and regulations at wildohio.gov for the detailed information.
This can be a bit geographically confusing, but the remainder of the state outside of those five northeast counties is considered the “South Zone” on the Ohio wild turkey hunting map. The South Zone spring season runs from Monday through May 20, but the legal hunting hours change midway through that period. Again, check with wildohio.gov or the Ohio Hunting & Trapping Regulations handbook, available at all licensing agents.
During the Ohio spring season, the Lake La Su An Wildlife Area is open only to youth wild turkey controlled permit holders.
In Michigan, the state is carved up into 14 turkey hunting units, each with specific season dates and maximum license sale quotas. In some zones, the spring season opens as early as Monday, and closes as late as May 31, but the dates and hunt numbers vary. Consult the 2018 Spring Turkey Hunting Digest for a map and an explanation of the hunting zones. The information is also available at michigan.gov.
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