Photo by John Trout Jr.
The new fall turkey season in Indiana seems like a dream come true. Many Hoosier hunters have anxiously awaited the arrival of such a season, and for good reasons.
Spring turkey harvests have boomed in recent years. Restoration efforts have been nothing less than spectacular for decades. We’ve seen great hatches and better-than-average numbers of poults per hen. Flocks have now expanded into regions we never expected them to be.
Many avid hunters are fully aware that officials have worked on getting us a fall hunting season since 1994. Now it’s officially carved in stone. The season will debut this month and offer opportunities for both archers and gunners. However, there’s more to the story. For instance, is the fall turkey season a “given” for years to come? Will it impact spring harvests? How will the harvest of hens affect flock growth? Can even veteran hunters adjust to the different tactics often used to harvest fall turkeys?
Before going there, let’s first hear how the fall season came to be.
According to a report issued by Indiana’s wild turkey biologist Steve Backs, a proposal was developed to initiate a fall hunting season after monitoring fall season results of other states, examining published research, and consulting with department officials from various agencies.
No doubt, fall hunting in areas of established and growing flocks increases hunter recreation and utilizes surplus hens. Like other states, Indiana will allow the harvest of only one wild turkey of either sex in the fall, regardless of the weapon used. However, the question on many hunters’ minds concerns the harvest of hens and its influence on spring hunting.
“A lot of the poults that survive the summer are still going to undergo some mortality as sub-adults during winter,” Backs noted, claiming that at least 30 percent of the juvenile birds suffer mortality before the breeding season. “The only time that the fall season tends to go toward what we call ‘additive mortality’ — where it’s removing potential breeders — is when we have low production (poor hatch in spring). Then the hunters are focusing on more adults in the harvest.”
Backs added that in most normal years of production, about 60 to 65 percent of the fall harvest consists of juvenile birds. He added that a percentage of these birds would have faced mortality anyway.
There is a good reason that juveniles make up the largest percentage of the fall harvest. These birds are more susceptible to come in to calling than adult birds. The strong desire to socialize and regroup makes the young birds much more vulnerable.
Backs recalls one state that tried a “gobblers-only” fall season. He believes that it was probably more of a political than a biological decision. Although hens were illegal, officials in the state had radio-collared several birds and noted that they lost as many hens during the fall with a gobbler-only season as they had when either sex was allowed.
Indiana’s fall archery season begins Oct. 1 and continues through Oct. 23, while the fall firearm season runs Oct. 19-23. The archery deer season will be open during the fall archery turkey season, but Backs does not believe it will play a big role in the harvest. He said that although there will be some “incidental” killing of turkeys with bow and arrow, such as by those hunting deer that also purchased a turkey tag, the overall harvest by archers should be minimal.
Although a report provided by Backs indicates it is possible that fall hunting seasons have the potential to negatively affect population levels of wild turkeys, and could reduce subsequent spring harvests and hunter success, it isn’t likely that archery hunters will be responsible. It showed that archery hunting has a negligible impact on wild turkey populations compared to gun hunting, and that fall gun hunting success rates are five to 20 times greater than archery success. Archery success typically averages about 2 percent. Thus, officials look at many avenues to reduce the possibility of impacting turkey populations, such as length of the firearms season (limited to five days in Indiana), the amount of hunting range open in fall and bag limits.
At the time of this writing, the precise range open to fall hunting had not yet been determined. Officials claim that 2005 spring harvests play a role, as do other factors. Make sure to check regulations before hunting fall turkeys and do not assume that the same area where you hunted spring turkeys will be open this fall.
Typically, the southern portion of the state has produced the highest harvests in spring. In 2004, Perry, Warrick, Jefferson, Switzerland, Crawford, Dearborn, Franklin, Parke, Spencer, Orange and Harrison counties each reported a harvest of 300-plus birds. Several others enjoyed harvests of 200-plus birds.
Backs said approximately 50 counties will qualify for archery-only turkey hunting, and about 25 will open to both bow and gun hunting this fall. During the spring 2004 season, all or portions of 90 counties were open.
The report shows considerable criterion for determining what range will open in fall to gun hunting. Here’s what you can consider about your favorite county and whether it will be open to gun hunting: A county must have at least 25 percent forest cover. At least 75 percent of the county has to have been open to spring hunting the previous five years. The county’s spring harvest has to be equal to or greater than 200 birds, or equal to or greater than a half-bird harvested per square mile for two prior consecutive years. Finally, counties must exist in a cluster of at least three counties meeting the previous criteria.
Backs added that this criterion is the starting point for opening fall turkey seasons, and provides this example: “Parke and Vermillion counties equal the decisive factors as far as total birds harvested in spring, but because they exist as isolated entities in the west-central part of the state, we won’t open those because they don’t fall into the cluster of at least three counties meeting the criterion.”
As for public lands, Backs said that almost all the south-central and southeastern counties would be open to gun hunting, many of which will include public-land hunting opportunities in Hoosier Nat
ional Forest. He noted that in the southwest, some counties, such as Daviess, Knox and Gibson, haven’t produced the higher harvests yet, while others remain questionable.
As for the future of fall turkey hunting in Indiana, nothing is certain. Backs claims that fall hunting seasons will be closely monitored.
Fall turkey hunting licenses will be available over the counter. If you have an unfilled spring tag, you still must purchase a fall license/tag.
After deciding upon the county you will hunt, you should think about fall hunting tactics. That’s a new role, even for veteran spring hunters. Most of us remember the early days when gobblers were few and far between. In fact, it took a trip through the “School of Hard Knocks” to get us where we are today.
Backs said it best: “It would be better not to visualize walking out of the woods with a 22-pound adult gobbler over your shoulder in the fall. Most successful hunters will probably be packing out a 6- to 8-pound juvenile bird. Table quality will be superior to a spring gobbler, but you’re probably not going to have the bragging rights.”
In fall, it comes down to focusing on areas where turkeys roost and feed, and in most cases, where hens and their broods hang out. Consider, too, that food sources — both mast and agricultural fields — can change without a moment’s notice in the fall.
Two methods are favorable for pursuing fall turkeys. One is to scatter the flock, sit tight for a while and then call in an attempt to regroup the birds. Juvenile birds are the most vulnerable to this tactic. The other method is to learn the habits of the turkeys by scouting intensely to find scratchings, feathers and droppings, or to make visual sightings of where flocks spend their time, and then wait for the birds to show. Regardless of your method, remember that patience is a virtue.
As for the future of fall turkey hunting in Indiana, nothing is certain. Backs claims that fall hunting seasons will be closely monitored. “What it gets down to is this,” Backs said. “Any time you introduce a new season, you have several variables within the state, and you have traditions of other hunting seasons. We are trying to have a fall season without impacting the spring season.”