Our annual roundup of population trends, management changes, and public-land availability
Want to know where to go in the Midwest, get some insider intel along the way, plus details on the current state populations of turkeys and last season’s spring kill? Sure you do. Get your read on with our turkey hunting forecast for these dozen Midwestern states.
The Buckeye State has some excellent public hunting, with more than 651,000 acres available.
Huge tracts of ground, like the Wayne National Forest (200,000-plus acres) in southern Ohio, allow hunters to truly get off the beaten path and get away from the crowds.
Other areas of public land, such as the Grand River Wildlife Area (7,400 acres) in Ashtabula County, are also worth a try.
Michigan offers 7.4 million acres of forest land open to public hunting. The bulk of those acres are in the northern Lower Peninsula as well as the Upper Peninsula.
The northern Lower was once Michigan’s turkey hotbed, but southern Michigan has taken over that title. The middle part of the Lower Peninsula has the best turkey numbers. The Upper Peninsula has a growing population of turkeys and virtually no hunting pressure. Allegan, Jackson, Kent, Lapeer, Montcalm, Newaygo, Saginaw, St. Clair, and Tuscola counties lead the turkey tally annually. Michigan hunters still indicate a good level of satisfaction with their hunts every spring.
Special reserved turkey hunts are scheduled at select Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) fish and wildlife areas. These hunts also take place at Big Oaks and Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuges. Applications and drawings are managed through the reserved hunt system. For details and how to apply online, check out the IDNR website.
More than 97% of the land in Illinois is privately owned, making it one of the worst spots in the nation for public hunting opportunity. But the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has created the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP) by utilizing resources obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). IRAP is a public access program that allows semicontrolled, limited access to private property in Illinois for specific outdoor activities.
One downside to Wisconsin is limited public-land opportunities. Most are in the north, where turkeys are more spread out. Sources suggest many landowners will let you hunt their turkeys; just don’t ask about their deer. The western country (hilly and wooded with farmed ridges and valley bottoms) is prime, too. So is the east-central farm country (flatter, but still plenty of woods and fields). The southeast suburban landscape has birds as well.
Also, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, there were over 16,000 more turkey permit applicants for the spring 2021 drawing than for spring 2020. As a result there were more unsuccessful applicants than previous years.
Right now there are turkeys on the prairie and in the farmland. There are birds in the Twin Cities. And gobbles ring out practically within earshot of Duluth.
The southeast hill country has been the classic, longtime turkey range in Minnesota since birds were reintroduced here in the 1970s, but a new stronghold is developing: Minnesota’s extensive farmland-forest-prairie fringe country in the state’s central areas. Roughly, that’s a wide swath from the Twin Cities north and westward.
Private landowner permission rules here. And if you enjoy hunting agricultural farmland similar to places like Kentucky, northern Missouri is the place for you. In fact, Bluegrass State birds were originally trapped-and-transferred from Missouri.
For some reason, Missouri (and Kentucky) spring longbeards seem more intense than other turkeys as they work to the calls (at least to me). Beards are also typically thicker across and closer to the “paintbrush” moniker than say, Rios.
How did we hunt those Missouri Easterns? We often glassed flocks, carefully walking well-hidden creek bottoms below big greened-up fields to reposition — a technique that’s quite common here, as the terrain often makes it possible. We’d set up and cold-call. Sometimes a hot gobbler would break off and come running. Other times, they played tough, hung up, did what turkeys do.
South Dakota turkey hunting takes place in one of two regions. You have the famous Black Hills to the west, which cover over 2.3 million acres, three-quarters of which is public (mostly U.S. Forest Service land), and open for hunting.
Will you have competition? Maybe.
Basically, in the Black Hills, if it isn’t posted, it’s open for hunting. Of course this makes the area somewhat popular too, but there’s room to roam if you’re willing to work.
The other spring turkey hunting game in South Dakota is the prairie. These units are all lottery draw, with recent applications due mid-January through late February.
You’ll find Merriam’s in the west, and hybrids (usually some mix of Merriam’s, Rio, and Eastern) in much of the rest of the state, with some pure Easterns on the state’s far “right” side.
Nebraska is mostly private, but there is good public land to be found. Head west to the Pine Ridge complex, where you can hunt Merriam’s in the Nebraska National Forest and numerous wildlife management areas. Elsewhere in Nebraska, look to the river bottoms. Those waterways and the associated “breaks” habitat, where forest and prairie intertwine, are where the turkeys live.
Check out the Niobrara, North Platte, South Platte, Republican, Loup, and Elkhorn River systems. The Missouri River is excellent turkey country too. The Central Loess Hills, with pretty cedar habitat, is also good.
Nearly 1.5 million acres of walk-in hunting access. Get your mind around that number.
What’s Kansas habitat like? Expect prairie river bottoms to hill-country timber and farmland. And you’d better be in shape for a long walk to the truck with a dead gobbler in the back of your turkey vest.
Outfitters have some land tied up, but hunts are often affordable, and they make good options for the turkey hunter short on time. These guides will put you on birds.
Second, Kansas is as great a place as ever for knocking on doors and getting access. Much like Nebraska to the north, farmers here aren’t enamored with seed-eating turkeys.
Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.