As old man winter loosens his grip on the Peach State, hunters are setting sights on turkey season. Now is the time to scout out hunting areas and make plans for putting turkey on the table this spring.
Turkey hunting season opens statewide in Georgia on Saturday, March 23, 2013, and runs through May 15. The bag limit is three gobblers per season.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division estimates the turkey population at around 335,000. This number has held fairly steady since 2010, according to Kevin Lowrey, wildlife biologist and the wild turkey project coordinator with WRD.
This population is remarkable when you look at Georgia’s gobbler history. Until the 1900s, wild turkeys were plentiful in Georgia, but habitat changes and subsistence and market hunting extracted a heavy toll on the population. By 1973, fewer than 17,000 wild turkey roamed the state.
Things looked up in the 1950s when the state began releasing pen-reared birds in hopes of restoring populations. But, things didn’t go as planned. The pen-reared birds lacked survival skills, and they were either eaten by predators or just starved to death.
In 1973, DNR began a serious restocking program. During this time, more than 4,800 birds were relocated to 400 locations around the state. In 1996, the program was deemed a success and restocking ceased. Today, wild turkey can now be found in all 159 counties in Georgia.
Now, WRD focuses its resources on management activities that benefit wild turkey and other wildlife. DNR maintains and enhances habitat by thinning and burning pine stands, planting warm and cool season wildlife openings and other activities. Biologists also advise private landowners on how best to create and maintain healthy turkey habitat on their property.
In addition, WRD conduct three annual surveys to examine turkey trend. The turkey hunter phone survey gathers information on hunter demographics and harvest statistics. Secondly, the Spring Brood Survey measures turkey reproduction and helps wildlife biologists predict the spring season.
“The brood survey allows us to see when something is going wrong,” says Lowrey. “As long as we can explain why something went wrong with a turkey season then we’re good. It’s when we can’t explain it that it is bad.”
Finally, the Hunter Cooperative Survey collects data from hunters about hours hunted, number of turkey spotted, harvested, etc. DNR analyzes this data and uses it to predict the next season.
The National Wild Turkey Federation plays a big role in state turkey management. DNR and NWTF have a great partnership in Georgia.
“In recent years, we’ve been able to purchase lots of big equipment with Superfund money,” says Lowrey. “In the past two years, NWTF dollars have allowed us to fund one day laborer per regions for 17 weeks each year.”
This has been a huge help for turkey management and a big morale booster for staff exhausted by years of budget cuts.
So what does the spring turkey season have in store for Georgia hunters? According to Lowrey, the spring of 2012 had nice weather patterns and an early green up which generally lends itself to a better than average hatch, but that was not really the case last year. Therefore, the forecast for the 2013 season is somewhat mixed.
“The Piedmont and Ridge and Valley regions have had above average reproduction and are likely to have a good season,” says Lowrey.
There has also been fair to good reproduction in the mountains for a number of years though a mast failure in 2011 meant the birds did not expend a lot of effort on spring mating.
“I think there are a lot more birds in the mountains than were represented in the harvest survey,” Lowrey said.
The Coastal Plain region had a good hatch in 2010 followed by a terrible hatch in 2011. The 2012 season was pretty good, but since the hatch was low in 2011 there will be a lot fewer of the vocal two-year-old birds available.
The Piedmont is generally the most productive area of the state, says Lowrey. It’s been the ‘bread and butter’ for the turkey population for years with consistent production and good habitat. The area has undergone some transformations in recent years, however, that have negatively impacted the turkey. Turkey habitat has taken a hit from development and increasing number of pine stands. DNR has been working to educate private landowners on how to maintain good turkey populations in pine stands and agricultural lands with the goal of maintaining the turkey population in this region.
So where should you hunt this turkey season? Most sportsmen hunt on private land, either their own or with permission from a land owner, but the state also offers an array of good hunting opportunities in all regions.
Georgia has 90 huntable tracts on WMAs that encompass more than a million acres. Hunters can access these prime hunting lands for the cost of a WMA stamp. While WMAs make up a mere 3.7 percent of the state’s total wild turkey range, nearly 18 percent of Georgia’s turkey hunters reported using public lands during the 2012 turkey season. During last season, 12,906 turkey hunters signed in on 85 WMAs
Using the 2012 harvest statistics as an indicator for the 2013 season, let’s take a look at the various physiographic regions in Georgia to see where the best hunting spots are.
RIDGE AND VALLEY
Located in extreme northwestern Georgia, the Ridge and Valley region is dominated by a series of limestone-substrate parallel ridges forested with a mix of pine and oak/hickory. The soils are fairly productive for wildlife, but the steep ridges make hiking in and out challenging. The hunter success rate in this region for 2012 was 9.5 percent.
The 15,029-acre Berry Harvest WMA, near Rome, had the highest harvest per square mile with 2.13. All told, 224 hunters signed into the area and harvested a total of 50 birds on this ever-popular WMA. This adds up to a respectable 22 percent rate of success.
Pine Log came in with the second highest harvest per square mile at 1.64. The 371 hunters on this 14,054-acre tract harvested a total of 36 birds for a 10 percent rate of success. The 19,951-acre Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA had 386 hunters that harvested 31 birds. John’s Mountain WMA is another massive hunting tract in this area with 24,849 acres. All told, 261 hunters signed into John’s Mountain in 2012 bagging 21 birds for an 8 percent success rate. The first two weeks of hunting on John’s Mountain are quota only.
The DNR does not collect harvest data at the county level. However, Polk and Floyd counties had the highest turkey population estimates in recent surveys.
BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
Encompassing the state’s northernmost counties, the Blue Ridge Mountain region is characterized by less-fertile soils and steep terrain. The overall success rate for this area during the 2012 hunting season was 4.4 percent.
The WMA with the highest harvest per square mile was the 2,255-acre McGraw Ford, in Cherokee County, where 154 hunters harvested six birds with a total of 1.7 turkey harvested per square mile. Cohutta WMA had the highest total of birds harvested at 21 total birds harvested, which translates into a 7 percent success rate. Coopers Creek WMA and Chestatee WMA both had 11 total birds harvested. On Dukes Creek, 19 hunters harvested 3 birds for a 16 percent rate of success.
For hunters with access to private lands, Fannin and Gilmer counties had the highest number of turkey sighted in recent surveys.
Located in the state’s midsection, the Piedmont region has produced a lot of birds over the years, and is consistently among the most productive regions in the state. The region’s granite-clay soils are highly productive wildlife habitat. The forested areas are predominately an oak/hickory mix with large areas of pines as well. Hunter success for this region was 10.3 percent for 2012.
Looking strictly at harvest per square mile, some of the smaller WMAs such as the 800-acre Vaughter and the 2837-acre Wilson Shoals had the highest number of turkeys harvested per square mile at 4.8 and 4.7 respectively. However, the 37,820-acre Cedar Creek stands out with the highest total number of turkeys harvested at 78. The 729 hunters on this area had an 11 percent success rate. Paulding Forest’s 568 hunters killed a total of 65 birds, also an 11 percent success rate.
The 37,500 Redlands WMA is always a big time produces according to Lowrey. In 2012, a total of 533 hunters signed into this area harvesting 46 birds. Dawson Forest WMA and Lake Russell WMA are also consistently good. In 2012, there were 60 turkeys harvested on Dawson Forest and 45 on Lake Russell WMA. The 6,015-acre Rum Creek WMA is another good area to try. Located near Forsyth, 67 hunters harvest 20 birds for a nearly 30 percent success rate. Greene and Harris counties recorded the highest turkey populations in the Piedmont region.
UPPER COASTAL PLAIN
Characterized by mature forests interspersed with wildlife openings, the Upper Coastal Plain region has one of the more recently restored turkey population. This region had the highest success rate during the 2012 hunting season at 10.8 percent.
DiLane WMA was the highest producing area with 8.5 turkey harvested per square mile. A total of 130 hunters harvested 57 turkeys for a success rate of 44 percent. DiLane is an 8,100-acre WMA with a mixture of agricultural fields and forested areas. It is quota only for the first two weeks of the season and hunters need to submit applications for the quota hunt by Feb. 15, 2013.
The 19,700-acre Chickasawhatchee WMA had the second highest total of birds harvested at 36. The 295 sportsmen who hunted this area had a 22 percent success rate. There is a popular and highly successful quota hunt on this area each year. Located in Baker, Calhoun and Dougherty counties, this WMA sits adjacent to the old Seminole WMA and has lots of plantation style longleaf pine stands along with some slash pine stands that need to be converted, says Lowrey.
Yuchi WMA in Burke County had 21 birds harvested by 239 hunters for an 8 percent success rate, and the 161 sportsmen who hunted Beaverdam WMA harvested 18 birds for an 11 percent rate of success.
In the Upper Coastal Plain region, Burke and Washington counties had the highest number of turkey sighted during population surveys.
LOWER COASTAL PLAIN
The southeastern corner of Georgia, including the coastal counties, makes up the Lower Coastal Plain region. Flat and typified by wet, sandy soil that is low in fertility, the area is made up primarily of pine forests in the uplands and gum and shrub swamps in low lying area. Overall, this region had a 9 percent success rate.
Tuckahoe WMA is a 15,105-acre tract found in Screven County. A total of 40 turkeys were harvested from this area in 2012, the most in any of the Lower Coastal Plain Counties. The 232 hunters on this area had a 17 percent success rate and harvested 1.7 birds per square mile.
Moody Forest WMA had 70 hunters who harvested 11 birds for a 15 percent success rate. Sansavilla WMA had a 14 percent success rate with 137 hunters harvesting 19 birds. Big Hammock WMA has had lots of attention for turkey management, according to Lowrey, and there were 11 birds taken from this area for a 9.5 percent success rate.
Lowery also suggests Paulk’s Pasture WMA as a good bet.
Private land hunters may be interested to learn that Ware and Charlton counties were had the highest population estimates in this region.