Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but itâ€™s showing remarkable signs of improvement.
Surely it couldnâ€™t be that bad, could it? Oh, yeah. We went from a record high kill in 2003 to just barely enough to register a kill in 2012, but things are getting a little better. It might take turkey populations a long time to rebound to the record levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the 2013 spring turkey season should be pretty good compared to recent years.
Since 2003, when Arkansas hunters bagged 19,947 turkeys, spring kills have been on a sharp downward slide. We killed 11,461 in 2008, but we were down to 13,598 in 2006. The kill dropped to 11,069 in 2007, and by 2012 we were down to about 9,000.
To some extent, smaller turkey harvests are by design. To adjust for declining turkey population indices, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reduced hunting opportunities to improve carryover of mature gobblers. To that end, the AGFC shortened the spring season and opened the season later in the spring to make hens available to more gobblers. In 2003, for example, the spring season lasted 39 days. In 2012, it was 16 days. This year, the spring turkey season will open on April 21, a time when many hunters believe most breeding activity has concluded and that toms have stopped gobbling. That is a controversial topic that merits revisiting later.
The AGFC also eliminated the fall turkey season in 2009, most likely for good. That drastic move, ramrodded just three days before the 2009 fall season was to begin, prevented the harvest of about 500 turkeys per year. It was biologically insignificant, but it was symbolic in the sense that it suggested that hunters and sport hunting were major factors in the decline.
Bad weather was the biggest enemy of turkeys over the last decade. A string of cold, wet springs and prolonged periods of extreme flooding had a tremendous impact on turkey nesting activity. It had an even greater impact on turkey recruitment. The bad weather hit a lot of areas just as poults hatched, and significant portions of those year-classes were lost. The White River National Wildlife Refuge has been underwater in the spring for nearly 10 years, which means there hasnâ€™t been a turkey hatch worth mentioning in that area for nearly a decade.
Finally, we got breaks in 2010 and 2012. The springs of those years were dry and warm. Nesting conditions and brood rearing conditions were excellent. That allowed all of the adjustments that the AGFC instituted to bear fruit. One adjustment was passing a regulation that protects jakes. Gobblers that hatched in 2010 were off limits to hunters in 2011, and a percentage of those matured into 2-year-old birds in 2012. Likewise, 2012 produced a crop of birds in most parts of the state, and now the trend line appears to be inching upward.
The AGFC had not released its 2012 Arkansas Wild Turkey Population Summer Survey in time to be included in this article, so the 2011 Survey is the most recent roadmap to determine where we are in this journey. However, since the No-Jakes Rule is still in effect, the 2011 Survey is relevant because it indicates this yearâ€™s crop of 2-year-old birds.
Remember that 2011 was the big flood year, and so itâ€™s not surprising that brood survey indices suggest that reproduction was lower in 2011 than in 2010. That was, according to the Summer Survey, the 10th consecutive year of below-average statewide turkey production.
Statewide, the poult-to-hen index was 1.18. Thatâ€™s not even maintenance level, but itâ€™s not as bad as 2009, when the poult-to-hen index was a record low 1.03. The long-term average is 3.02 poults-per-hen. In 2011, AGFC personnel observed 1,528 poults, compared to 1,236 in 2009. Compare that to the glory years of the late 1990s and 2000s, when observers routinely observed 4,000 to 5,000 poults. Also, 33 percent of hens were observed with poults in 2011, down about 8 percent from 2010, when 41 percent of hens were observed with poults.
Hunters are more interested in gobbler numbers, of course, and those appeared to be slightly higher. Observers counted 586 gobblers in 2011, compared to 476 in 2010. That interrupted a downward trend that saw 624 gobblers in 2009, 703 gobblers in 2008 and 868 gobblers in 2007.
Did the No-Jakes Rule contribute? After the rule was implemented, the 2011 gobbler-to-hen index increased to 0.45 from 0.35 in 2010. It certainly didnâ€™t hurt.
The widespread flooding in the Mississippi River alluvial region skewed the survey. Very few turkeys were observed there, which affected the overall numbers. Chop off the Delta, and the statewide poult-to-hen index was 1.25, and the gobbler-to-hen index was 0.5. You might as well omit the Delta because it has very few turkeys right now. Even traditional turkey strongholds on the privately held islands between the levees along the Mississippi River finally saw their turkey numbers crash. All or parts of these islands lie within Mississippi jurisdiction, even though they are on the Arkansas side of the river, and so they retained fall hunting when Arkansas banned it. Some of those big clubs finally threw in the towel and voluntarily suspended fall turkey hunting for the 2012 season.
We know where turkey reproduction was poor in 2011. We want to know where it was good. Reproduction was good in Turkey Management Zone 9, which comprises the Gulf Coastal Plain of south Arkansas. Thatâ€™s nearly one-third of the state. This area includes Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, Beryl Anthony Lower Ouachita WMA, and Lafayette County WMA. However, most of this region is privately owned. A large percentage of it is timber company land that is leased by large hunting clubs that limit access with gates. Turkeys are abundant, but hunting pressure is fairly low.
Turkey reproduction was also good in Zone 6, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark foothills. Reproduction was above average in Zone 7 â€” the Ouachita Mountains. The same goes for Zone 1 â€” northwest Arkansas. Reproduction was average in Zone 2, the area that contains most of the Ozark National Forest. It was also average in Zone 8, the Ouachita piedmont.
Reproduction was below average in Zone 3 (the eastern Ozarks) and Zone 4, which is most of the Delta.
Gobbler carryover is another major factor that alludes to the projected abundance of mature gobblers for the next season. Zones 2 and 7 had good gobbler carryover in 2011, while gobbler carryover was above average in Zones 6 and 9. It was below average in Zone 3 and poor in Zones 4A, 5 and 10. Astonishingly, no gobblers were observed in the rest of the Delta!
Letâ€™s compare those projections to the modest 2012 spring turkey harvest. Of the 8,922 turkeys killed in the 2012 spring season, 1,050 were taken in Zone 7, and 995 were taken in Zone 2, both of which had good gobbler carryover from 2011. Thatâ€™s 23 percent of the total, but still a relatively small number. Therefore, since hunters killed such a small number of gobblers last year, itâ€™s reasonable to assume that those zones experienced a good carryover of 2-year-old birds that were hatched in 2011, and also a good number of jakes produced during the excellent nesting conditions of 2012.
A similar situation exists in Zone 6, where hunters killed just 802 gobblers in 2012, and in Zone 9 where they killed 2,047. Thatâ€™s 31 percent of the statewide total, but remember that gobbler carryover was above average in both zones, and reproduction was good. As big as it is, Zone 9 was pretty stingy with its gobblers last year, so itâ€™s reasonable to conclude that it will support healthy numbers of 3-year-old birds and jakes this year.
Itâ€™s also surprising that gobbler carryover is so poor in the eastern Ozarks because that area is regarded by many as having our best turkey habitat, and our best turkey hunting. Itâ€™s hard to be optimistic looking at the charts, but somehow this area always comes through with some of our most exciting turkey hunting stories.
Historically, our two main indices show different trends. Except for intermittent spikes, the poult/hen index has been trending downward in all regions since 1982.
In the Ozarks, the poult/hen index has essentially flatlined at around 1.5 since 2005, with a slight upward tick in 2006. The line has been trending downward in the Ouachitas, too, but at a higher level. Aside from two dips in 2005 and 2009, the index has been at or slightly under 2.
Besides a precipitous dip in 2009, the poult/hen index has hovered just under 2 since 2003. The Delta enjoyed a slight spike in 2006, and a smaller one in 2010 before flatlining to near zero in 2011.
However, the gobbler/hen index has been remarkably stable in recent years in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. The Gulf Coastal Plain has experienced some dramatic fluctuations, but the mean high has remained fairly stable since 2007. Gobbler carryover in the Delta was high until 2008, but the downward trend since then has been very steep.
The 2011 Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey has some interesting nuggets, as well. More hunts occurred in the Ozarks than in any other region in 2011, and that was probably true in 2012, too, Residents of the Ozarks, Ouachitas and Gulf Coastal Plain hunted in their home regions, but hunters who live in the Delta hunted mostly in the Ozarks.
A total of 212 hunters made 1,623 hunts in Arkansas in 2011 and spent 1,402 days afield. They reported hearing 1,806 turkeys gobble 19,963 times. That averages out to each hunter hearing 8.5 different gobblers, and 94.2 gobbles per hunter. Those same hunters killed 83 turkeys, or 0.39 per hunter.
Statewide, 47 percent of turkey hunts occurred on private land, and 36 percent were on public land. The rest were on hunting club land.
As many hunters suspect, most gobbling activity was reported in early April, long before the season starts. In 2010-11, gobbling peaked around April 10. In 2010, the spring season started April 10. In 2011, it started a week later, again by design to reduce the number of gobblers killed.
The AGFC gathered biological data from 84 gobblers killed in 2011. The average weight per gobbler was about 21 pounds, about 1/10 of a pound heavier than in 2010. Beard length averaged 9.93 inches for adult gobblers, about 2/10 of an inch longer than 2010.
The average distance at which a turkey was killed in 2011 was about 30 yards, ranging from 10 to 70 yards. The most popular shot size was No.Â 5 lead, which killed 33 gobblers, followed by No.Â 6 lead (18), No.Â 6 Hevi-Shot (10), No.Â 5 Hevi-Shot (6) and No.Â 4 lead (4). Hunters averaged 1.75 shots at turkeys in 2011.
Anecdotally, a significant number of hunters expressed greater satisfaction with turkey hunting in Arkansas last year than in recent years. They reported that birds gobbled well, and they felt like they had a chance because they were around birds.
Although I didnâ€™t kill a turkey in Arkansas last year, I had more opportunities than ever. Opening day in Zone 9 produced an exciting encounter with a gobbler that ended after a 45-minute standoff in which the bird gobbled lustily, but would not venture the five extra steps necessary to end its life.
Later in the season, I hunted for three days in the Boone County Ozarks on private land and was around gobblers every day. Gobblers were very aggressive at that point in the season and ran to calls. On the final day, I called a pair of mature gobblers down a steep hillside. They took their time until they saw a real hen walk in front of me, and one bird gave chase, breaking off only when it noticed me sitting next to a tree.
Mike Stanley of Highland also reported that aggressive gobblers made for some great hunting late in the season. He said it was almost as if he had to stick a foot out to trip birds that ran to calls with such reckless abandon.
Willie (The Barbecue Man) Johnston of Hamburg killed an impressive gobbler in the southern Coastal Plain that couldnâ€™t stay away from a logging machine. The noise seemed to attract the bird, but it also masked the sound of Johnstonâ€™s approach.
Also encouraging was the number of big turkey broods I and other hunters observed last summer. Some of the biggest were along rivers where public land is plentiful.
Given the excellent nesting and brood-rearing conditions we enjoyed around the state last year, and also from 2010, and combined with low harvests, turkeys should be plentiful and abundant in Arkansas this season. That applies even in regions where low harvest might have mitigated low reproduction and low gobbler carryover. The one sore spot will probably be the Delta, but even there, limited habitat, traditionally low overall turkey numbers, and mild hunting pressure more or less cancel each other out.
Every season is great if you kill a turkey, and that requires effort. As Alan Thomas, a well-known hunter from Russellville says, â€śIf you wanna know, ya gotta go.â€ť
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012â€”that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rateâ€”36 percentâ€”which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.