It was the second day of the season in the South Zone when John set up behind me. The gobbler we worked did plenty of talking, but very little moving. I crawled up in front of John and stopped just before I would show up over a small knob that hid the gobbler from view. John clucked and yelped, and the bird gobbled consistently. I was watching out in front when I heard another gobble behind John. As the longbeard passed through a fence opening, John’s Illinois season came to an abrupt end.
Only two days later, we encountered a longbeard gobbling consistently before sunrise. Shortly after the turkey hit the ground, I heard an extremely vocal hen along with him. I enticed the pair with a string of gentle yelps, hoping to sound like a lonesome jenny and not a thieving hen out to steal the gobbler. It worked! To my amazement, the hen and longbeard walked within 15 yards of my Remington, ending my Illinois turkey season.
John and I felt fortunate to have ended our spring hunting early. At the time, we had no idea that state hunters would enjoy a super harvest. Illinois turkey hunters harvested 16,565 birds during the spring season of 2010. That nearly tied the record harvest set in 2006, when 16,605 gobblers were harvested. Of those 16,605 birds, 9,769 were harvested from the North Zone. The remaining 6,916 birds were harvested in the South Zone, and that includes 299 taken by youths.
In 2010, once again the North Zone led the way with 9,649 birds taken, which includes 438 taken by the youths. As you can see, that, too, nearly tied the record-breaker set in 2006. Of course, the North Zone has many large counties and offers more permits than the South Zone. What is really amazing is the fact that this increase follows several years of poor hatches and low brood production in both zones — due to inclement weather and predation.
Turkey season for the South Zone is divided into five smaller seasons. It debuted April 5 last spring. Each season ranges from five to eight days. Youths enjoyed two days of hunting — March 27-28 — but if they are unsuccessful, they could still hunt the regular season.
I have done some research about our youth hunting turkeys in the spring. It was shocking to see many counties in both the North and South Zone with numerous permits available, yet so few kids applying. For example, when I reviewed the top five South Zone harvest-producing counties, Pope County issued 31 of the 340 youth permits available, Jefferson County 71 of the 195, Union County 50 of the 190, Marion County 61 of the 163, and Randolph County 91 of the 180 available permits. In an effort to get more youngsters into the woods, Illinois has incurred one regulation change for the upcoming season and that is non-resident youth may apply for the youth hunts.
As of this writing, youths may obtain permits over-the-counter, unless applying for a special hunt area. Special hunt area permits for youths are available online at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Web site at this link: http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/Pages/LicenseInfo.aspx
The top five harvest-producing counties for the South Zone included Pope with 397, Jefferson with 396, Union with 356, Marion with 353 and Randolph with 351. Although Wayne County was included in the statistics of 2009, it lost out this year to Union County.
There were 1,700 permits available for Pope County and 1,700 permits were issued. Permits available in Jefferson County numbered 1,000 and 1,015 were issued. There are occasions a county will issue more permits than allocated since hunters will apply as a group. Union County, Marion County and Randolph County hunters received all of the permits allocated.
An interesting statistic comes from Hamilton County in the South Zone. All 400 allocated permits were issued and the harvest increased by 67 birds, as compared to the surrounding counties of Franklin and Gallatin that claimed small increases of 18 and 29 in harvest numbers. White County remained basically unchanged.
In spite of poor hatches and low brood production throughout the state, it is interesting that Jefferson, Marion, Pope and Randolph counties have all held their top-five ranking for the last several years.
Although Jackson and Johnson Counties did not make the top-five ranking, they were not far behind as hunters harvested 298 turkeys in each county.
Hunters in pursuit of the wild turkey in the North Zone had their opener on April 12 last spring. They, too, had five seasons in which to participate and each season ran between five and eight days. The North Zone youth hunt was April 3 and 4.
Youth spring hunting permits in the North Zone varied considerably. In the top five harvest counties, Jo Daviess issued 79 of the 530 available, Pike 75 of the 307, Fulton 88 of the 250 available, Adams 109 of the 280 and Schuyler only 44 of the 230 permits available. As mentioned earlier, we have many opportunities for our youth in both the North and South Zones. Even though I have only included permit statistics for the top five counties in each zone, keep in mind that almost every county in the state had plenty of youth permits that were never issued.
The top five harvest counties for the North Zone include Jo Daviess with 628, Pike with 527, Fulton with 455, Adams with 406 and Schuyler with 348.
Jo Daviess hunters applied for 2,429 of the 2,650 permits available, Pike County hunters 1,554 of the 1,535, Fulton County hunters 1,052 of the 1,300, Adams County and Schuyler County hunters received almost all of the allocated permits available.
A startling statistic is that the harvest decreased last spring in Calhoun County in the North Zone by 52 compared to the previous spring. Calhoun County hunters applied for 983 of the 1,000 permits available. Other surrounding counties include Greene, Pike and Scott and they, too, reported a harvest decrease. Over the last three years, Greene County has declined 48 birds, whereas Pike County dropped 25 and Scott County reported nine fewer birds taken.
Adams County in the North Zone has fluctuated up and down since 2006, however, they have reported decreases in both 2009 and 2010. A total 421 turkeys were taken in 2009, but that number dropped to 406 last year. Neighboring counties Brown and Pike also showed harvest decreases in 2008 and 2009. However, Schuyler County hunter’s reported an increase in 2010 when they reported 348 birds harvested, compared to 336 in 2009.
Thanks to the hard work and joint effort bet
ween state officials and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Illinois boasts a healthy number of birds throughout the state. Although state officials were somewhat reluctant to recommend one public area over another, there are a few locations worth mentioning. Consider Big Bend Fish and Wildlife Area, located on the Rock River off Interstate 88, near Sterling and Rock Falls in northwestern Illinois. I spoke with Steve Woodfall, site superintendant of the property, who shared with me that Big Bend offers turkey hunters a quality hunt. Seven permits are allocated for each of their five spring seasons.
Kankakee River State Park near Kankakee has 2,000 acres available to turkey hunters. It is conveniently located west of Interstate 57 on State Road 102 in northeastern Illinois.
At the time of this writing it was unknown as to how many special hunt permits will be allocated for 2011, but hunters will have to apply to obtain a permit.
Shawnee National Forest includes 280,000 acres, making it the largest tract of public hunting land in Illinois open to turkey hunters. It is located near the southern boundary of the state and expands into several counties. Nearby towns include Carbondale, Harrisburg and Marion. Although hunter interference isn’t out of the question, it is possible to escape over-crowding and find a spot to yourself.
For more information on all the aforementioned areas, you can go to the IDNR Web site at http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/Pages/Turkey.aspx
Illinois recently hired Paul Brewer as Wild Turkey Program manager. I had the pleasure of speaking with him and gained valuable information about our wild turkey population. Although Paul just began his role as project manager, he has been with the Department of Conservation as private land manager since 1986. Paul has had many years working with the wild turkey and feels fortunate to work with such a great bird. He has accompanied the NWTF during Illinois restoration efforts as birds were trapped and moved throughout the state.
"I was involved with the NWTF, trapping turkeys from northwestern and southern Illinois, then moving them late at night and in cold weather, since that is best for the turkeys," states Brewer.
I questioned Paul about young hens (jennies) since it seems that the mature hens have a much better success rate of rearing poults to maturity. He felt that while jennies play a part in the nesting process, lower harvest statistics seem to be more impacted by weather and land availability.
"Jennies are a lot more likely to abandon their nest when disturbed. Another project that we are working on is a statewide wildlife action plan. If turkeys have to re-nest, the poult survival is less," stated Brewer.
Of course, another concern for Illinois turkey hunters is access to hunting land. A lot of our land is leased by guides and outfitters, which greatly reduces places for residents to hunt.
"In the counties where there are access problems because of leased land, you can see the downward trend. If you look at counties that are not leased, the harvests are higher," explained Brewer.
I asked Brewer what his plans include for our Illinois turkeys, and he told me there are several ideas he is pondering. He made it very clear to me that his number-one priority is ensuring the wild turkey is here to flourish. He shared with me that he would like to see information about the wild turkey more readily available through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Web site, and forest restoration projects that aid in providing suitable habitat for wild turkeys. He has worked closely with Kent Adams, regional biologist with the NWTF, and continues to discuss habitat issues. This includes harvest and management strategies that enable more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which will increase the growth of vegetation and enhance the odds for poult survival.
Brewer has been looking at preliminary data from 2010 brood survey cards. He has reviewed approximately 20 percent of the cards they expect to receive. Thus far, there appears to be no change from last year (2.1 poults per hen). He did point out that these statistics are only preliminary. The weather was still a concern since there was quite a bit of rain. However, temperatures were not as cold as in previous years. Production may be up slightly over last year, but not as high as state officials had wished. Brewer hopes to see a brighter picture once all the numbers are calculated. He said an average of 2.1 poults per hen is not very good, and feels that three poults per hen would be a much better number. He did share with me that he recently attended a conference where biologists from other states claim their hens are averaging only one poult each.
So what can Illinois turkey hunters expect to find when they head to the woods this spring? I asked Paul his feelings about the upcoming spring season, which begins April 4 in the South Zone and April 11 in the North Zone. However, he was somewhat hesitant to share a forecast.
At the time of this writing, the brood survey is still incomplete. Moreover, Brewer feels that harvest numbers are greatly impacted by weather conditions during the hunting seasons as well. Again, the more hunters in the field, the higher the harvest rate that can be expected. Once the brood survey cards are tallied, he may be willing to share a forecast. For now, he doesn’t want to pull something out of his hat.
"We have had some bad reproduction, but that doesn’t always mean a low harvest," claims Brewer. He mentioned that as the "new guy," he is just starting to wade through all the information collected and may voice an opinion after he reviews the statistics available.
The bag limits will remain unchanged from last year. Hunters will still be allowed one gobbler or bearded hen per permit with a maximum of three permits. Youth are allowed one gobbler or bearded hen.
As for me, I can hardly wait to head back to the woods in pursuit of the elusive Eastern wild turkey. He is a magnificent bird and quite the challenge. I can’t say that I expect to have a repeat experience of last year, but then again, I can’t recall in all my years in the turkey woods that there have ever been two alike!