By Howard Meyerson
Upland bird and small game hunters may need to walk more this fall and look further
afield for their favorite quarry. Heavy spring rains produced plenty of fruiting plants and acorns. The woods and swales are full of natural foods.
“This is one of the best fruit years I have seen in some time,” said Al Stewart, the upland game bird specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “There is dogwood, crabapple and hawthorn all over, and given the moisture we had the vegetation is going to be thick.
“Last year we had a drought going and people couldn’t find birds because they look for those foods and there wasn’t any. This year the hunting will be pretty good. What could be a drawback is there is fruit and soft mast all over so squirrels and grouse won’t be concentrated in one spot. They are going to be spread out.”
Michigan’s small game hunting season opens September 15, a popular season for young and old hunters who will take to the woods over the next several months looking for grouse and woodcock, wild turkey and pheasant, rabbits, squirrels and snowshoe hares.
There were 265,093 hunters who bought small game licenses in 2012, a significant drop from the 1950’s when approximately 700,000 hunted small game. But state officials say the seasons continue to draw hunters who enjoy working their hunting dogs, parents who want to introduce sons and daughters to hunting, and those who enjoy putting unique, wild foods on the table.
“Squirrel meat is excellent,” said Stewart. “It’s sweet, white meat and rabbit is the same. There is lots of good food to be had off those animals.”
Hunters should have no problem finding rabbits or squirrels on the landscape this year. There is no shortage of either. Look for squirrels in mature stands of mixed hardwoods and conifers, or small, mature oak woodlots. Brushy fields are more typically home for rabbits.
“The cottontail rabbit population is doing great this year,” said Adam Bump, the DNR furbearer specialist. “Hunters will find them in agricultural fields where there are grasses and brushy hedgerows and woodlots or brush piles. It looks like rabbits did very well (producing young) this spring.
“For snowshoe hare we are talking the northern two-thirds of the state. Hunters will want to focus on high-quality habitat, lowland areas with conifer cover, areas where branches go right to the ground, the edges along aspen stands and other hardwood stands.”
Bird hunters should have a good season too. Here’s a quick look at what can be expected.
The statewide population is down 10 percent from 2012 which Stewart says is not likely to be significant. The grouse population peaked in 2010 when hunters killed 260,000 according to the DNR’s most recent harvest survey.
“We had a good grouse year last year and some folks in the U.P. said last year was one of the best seasons in a long time,” Stewart said. “Overall it will be down slightly this season, but not a lot different than 2012.”
Woodcock numbers continue to be high and Michigan continues to be the top state in the nation for woodcock hunting, according to Stewart.
Hunters killed approximately 74,100 woodcock in 2012, taking 2.9 woodcock per hunter on average, according to a 2013 migratory bird harvest report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That was down from 106,900 woodcock in 2011 and an average of 3.8 per hunter.
A 2013 FWS survey of singing males identified along 106 survey routes within the Great Lakes region found no significant changes from last year, Stewart said.
The season is open only in the eastern U.P. from Oct. 10-31. Hunters are required to have a special and free endorsement on their license to hunt them.
Sharptails are a cyclic breed, like ruffed grouse. Their population goes through highs and lows. Only 394 people hunted them in 2012. They shot a total of 156 birds.
DNR wildlife staffers are studying the possibility of opening the season west of I-75 where there is an abundance of state and federal land.
“We’re going to continue to survey hunters to see how many are interested,” Stewart said. “We had 3,200 hunters apply for the special endorsement last year.”
More ringneck pheasant are expected this year when the season opens in October. Annual surveys conducted by mail carriers along rural routes found more broods this year.
“The 2013 counts were the highest we have seen since 2004,” Stewart said. “Mail carriers found .19 broods per 10 carrier days compared to .13 in 2012 and .11 in 2011.
“It really is a bump up,” Stewart said. “We had a little increase last year and that put a few more roosters out there. We’re seeing more hunters who are seeing birds and people are seeing and hearing pheasant where they haven’t for years.”
Good spring production resulted in more birds on the landscape. Hunting is expected to be good this fall.
The fall season typically draws 20,000 hunters, who harvest between 4,000 and 6,000 wild turkeys. Fall turkey hunting is not as popular as spring. There are many other seasons open along with salmon and steelhead in the rivers. But for those who are looking to bag a bird for Thanksgiving, there will be plenty of opportunity to get one.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors