How many turkeys can we expect to harvest this spring? Before going there, first consider last year’s forecast made by Wildlife Research Biologist Steve Backs.
Just before the spring turkey-hunting season debuted in 2012, Backs predicted a harvest of 11,000, plus or minus 1,000. The prediction was about 6 percent less than the 2011 harvest, and 20 percent less than the 2010 harvest of 13,000-plus turkeys.
Backs’ prediction was based on two factors: The poor brood production in recent years and the progression of vegetation three to four weeks ahead of schedule due to record warm weather.
Hunters in 2012 can easily remember the “early spring.” Going into the season, many hunters wondered how it would affect their chances of tagging a turkey.
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“Everything was ahead of schedule. Birds were gobbling like crazy in February, and I saw toms breeding hens in late March,” said Tim Hilsmeyer, a Pike County hunter who remained optimistic throughout the hunting season.
Backs noted that the early green-up meant “a different year.” He said that when hunters hear a turkey gobbling, they could be more likely to overestimate the distance to the bird and may end up spooking the tom as they approach him.
My biggest concern last season was how gobblers would respond to calls. Early in the season, I immediately noticed less gobbles than I had heard while scouting weeks earlier. Fortunately, though, my wife Vikki and I somehow managed to tag Spencer County birds. Neither of the mature toms came easy, and both were somewhat reluctant to answer calls. Moreover, in past years we would typically hear three or more birds gobbling on a good morning. In 2012, we could count on hearing only one or two turkeys talking.
LAST SPRING’S HARVEST
Now for the good news of 2012: Despite warmer than normal temperatures, hunters bagged 12,655 turkeys. Youth hunters accounted for 1,592 birds of that total during the special two-day youth season. It was the fourth-highest harvest on record. In fact, only 2006, 2009 and 2010 spring seasons ranked higher. However, does this mean that hunters should expect a great season in 2013? Please read on.
Backs speculated that there could have been a “stockpile” of gobblers in some areas that were not harvested in 2011. He mentioned the extensive flooding and inclement weather that occurred in 2011. Due to the flooding, hunters could not access certain areas of some counties. This could mean that some adult birds were carried over into the 2012 season. In 2011, hunters took about 1,000 fewer birds.
Other factors could have contributed to the 2012 harvest. Backs added that the weather was good for hunters in most areas, and that rain was not running hunters out of the woods.
DECLINE OF JAKES
However, when you dig deeper into the 2012 harvest, it’s not all good news. For instance, jakes made up only 14 percent of the total harvest. Statistics indicate that this was the lowest jake harvest since 2006. That year, the jake harvest was again only 14 percent. Since 1988, jakes have typically accounted for more than 20 percent of the total harvest. During the past 25 years, the highest jake harvest was 45 percent. In the past 10 years, the jake harvest has averaged 22 percent.
Backs said that the harvest is usually around a 60-percent split. In other words, adult gobblers (2-year-olds and older) make up about 60 percent of the total harvest. This past season, adult toms accounted for more than 85 percent. Forty-two percent were 2 years old.
Because of Indiana’s excellent restoration efforts and booming turkey populations, some hunters have become selective and don’t want to shoot jakes. However, Backs doesn’t think that selective hunters contributed much to the low jake harvest. He suggests that poor brood production for several consecutive years has played a big role in fewer jakes harvested.
“It’s not a matter of jakes being passed up. They just weren’t out there. Quite a few hunters have said I haven’t seen a jake in years,” stated Backs.
That statement sounded familiar. As I think back to last spring’s hunting season, I can honestly say that I saw no jakes! Obviously, this could spell trouble for upcoming years.
BROOD PRODUCTION PAST AND PRESENT
Although there have been several years of poor brood production, Backs claims that 2011 was one of the worst, again due to the flooding that occurred. This is the primary reason why hunters saw fewer jakes in 2012. Unfortunately, this would also mean fewer 2-year-olds in 2013. And as most hunters know, it’s the 2-year-olds that do much of the gobbling.
On the flip-side, though, it appears that the drought and early green-up in 2012 assisted brood production. Tim Hilsmeyer, mentioned previously, reported seeing hens with poults before the spring turkey season closed in 2012. For him, that was a first. Backs also claimed that some state officials also had seen young turkeys in May, prior to the hunting season ending.
“I think the dry weather in 2012 may have had a positive effect on survivorship of the poults. Just because turkeys are an early nester/hatcher, relative to quail, the chicks were up and going before the real impacts of the drought took hold,” noted Backs.
Backs suggested that some cornfields, due to the lack of moisture, provided good brood habitat. It was a poor year for the farmers, but the short corn had a lot of weeds that worked out well for young turkeys. He added that he has received reports of extremely large gang broods of 30 or so turkeys early in the fall of 2012. Many areas have also experienced a large number of acorns and dogwood berries, which is good news for growing turkeys. Additionally, Backs said that there was a “ton of food out there” that provided assistance for the summer poults. He claims that this heavy mast reduces the size of the flocks in fall. Usually, flock sizes increase when food availability declines.
Although these words look promising for the future, Backs is really concerned about the jake/adult harvest. He can’t help but think that the adult harvest is going to drop, simply because the mature toms are not out there.
HUNTERS & HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES
Approximately 56,144 hunters participated during the 2012 season. However, Backs said that the resident turkey-hunting license sales have dropped a little in recent years. He suggested that hunter numbers were increased significantly as turkey populations moved forward. Now that turkeys have “leveled off,” so has the number of participants. Backs added that the recession, coupled with the price of gas, has probably affected the decisions of some to go hunting.
In 2012, turkeys were harvested in 89 of Indiana’s 92 counties. About 20 percent of the turkeys were checked in through the free online system. This was the first year hunters could use the online system and save a trip to a check station. It will be available again in 2013.
More than 26 counties reported a harvest in 2012 of 200-plus birds. Eighteen counties reported a harvest decline, while 67 counties showed a harvest increase. The increases ranged from a mere one percent to 250 percent. However, those that reported major increases were counties that have traditionally reported very few turkeys harvested. For instance, three birds were harvested in Clinton County in 2012, compared to one bird in 2011.
Many counties that had significant increases in 2012 are worth noting. Clay County increased by 48 percent with a harvest of 127 birds compared to 86 in 2011. Also, consider Elkhart County where 138 birds were taken in 2012, and 90 in 2011. Fountain County is another example where the harvest increased by nearly 50 percent, from 106 birds in 2011 to 157 in 2012. In fact, many counties in northern and north-central Indiana continue to show increased harvests in recent years.
“I don’t think the north and north-central portions of the state have had as many years of poor turkey production as southeastern and south-central Indiana,” said Backs. “Southwestern and west-central Indiana got hit pretty hard in 2008 and it seems they (turkeys) are still trying to recover there. They had phenomenal flooding in those areas that about wiped out turkey production.”
Backs also said that the turkey populations in northern Indiana are still showing some growth, although many areas are beginning to level off as they have done in the southern half of the state.
Northern state hunters should consider Pigeon River FWA, Willow Slough FWA and Winamac FWA. Please note; many of the FWAs are on a draw-only system.
Hunters also could consider the state’s newest FWA (draw-only hunts). Deer Creek FWA is located northeast of Terre Haute. This transfer of prime turkey habitat land came from the Putnamville Correctional Facility and includes 1,990 acres of mature woods interspersed with some agricultural lands.
In the southern half of Indiana, Hoosier National Forest and several of the state forests continue to attract turkey hunters, and rightfully so. Hoosier National Forest is located in portions of nine counties, intermixed with private lands and state forests. However, Backs said these areas still remain somewhat depressed due to poor turkey production the past few years. Nevertheless, combined, they are the most forested and largest areas of the state and continue to harbor turkeys.
THE TOP 10
For many years, Switzerland County, located in southeastern Indiana, ranked No. 1 in the turkey harvest. But times have changed. In 2011, nearby Jefferson County captured the No. 1 spot with a reported harvest of 406. Last spring, Harrison County, also located in southern Indiana, was No. 1 with a harvest of 512. Make no mistake, though; the other top counties were close. Switzerland County ranked No. 2 with a harvest of 437. Jefferson fell to the No. 4 spot with a harvest of 380. The No. 3 county was Dearborn (also ranked No. 3 in 2011) with a harvest of 405.
Rounding out the top 10 harvest counties in order were Perry (332), Franklin (326), Washington (308), Warrick (306), Greene (291) and Steuben (289).
To summarize these, let’s just say that there were a few surprises. For instance, the only northern county to make the top 10 was Steuben. Granted, it was there in 2011and ranked No. 8, but it seems to keep producing turkeys. Also consider Crawford County, which ranked No. 9 in 2011 with a harvest of 280 birds. It did not make the top 10 in 2012 after a harvest drop of 8 percent. Clark County ranked No. 5 in 2011 with a harvest of 309, but fell from the top 10 in 2012 after experiencing a harvest decline of 16 percent.
Keep in mind, fluctuations of the top 10 are nothing to be concerned with. Some counties come and go, but all from 2011 and 2012 are familiar faces. You can bet that several will return to the top 10 in 2013. And who knows, some from 2011 that failed to make the top 10 in 2012 could return during the next couple of years.
What does the 2013 season have in store for hunters? “I’m cautiously optimistic, simply from the standpoint that we finally had productive brood production this past year,” said Backs. “This could finally get us back on the road to recovery. I don’t think we are going to see any big, huge boom in the harvest of 2013 like we did in 2004, the year of the cicadas, but I do think we’ll see a bump up.”
As for the 2013 harvest forecast, Backs said he would like to think it will get close to 13,000. He said it’s really hard to predict, because we can only speculate as to how we have whittled down the supply of adult gobblers. We also know that if hunters are not hearing birds talk, the hunting gets tougher. Thus, Backs rested on a harvest of somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 turkeys in 2013.
So, could Hoosier hunters in 2013 see another early spring similar to 2012? Could another year of intense vegetation lead to another good hatch and exceptional brood production? “Anybody that’s been around turkey hunting realizes you can’t predict the weather, the timing of spring and how turkeys will respond,” said Backs.