Through the darkness and the cool crisp air, I can hear a brown thrasher searching for breakfast on the forest floor. A chorus of redbirds greets the new day with chirping as they fly through barely lit woods. Off in the distance, I hear the sound that has caused me to get up before daylight and hike through the darkness to listen for the first love songs of the wild turkey. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, the tomâ€™s gobble lures many Alabama sportsmen out from under their covers.
This year promises plenty of 2-year-old gobblers to hunt in the Cotton State, but an unusually low number of jakes. Thatâ€™s according to Steve Barnett, District V wildlife supervisor and the wild turkey project leader for Alabamaâ€™s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. He also provided other information about the Alabamaâ€™s turkey flock and the best places to hunt on Alabamaâ€™s public lands.
â€śI think the overall condition of wild turkeys statewide is good,â€ť Barnett reports. â€śWe have had unusual weather patterns this past spring and summer. Spring came late in 2013, and we saw a lack of gobbling, even in areas that held a lot of turkeys. Based on anecdotal information we received this year and preliminary reports from my brood survey, we believe turkeys nested later than normal in the spring. Too, the state experienced significant rain events that might have negatively impacted nesting, brood rearing and the survival of young poults.â€ť
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These unusual weather trends not only had a negative impact on Alabamaâ€™s wild turkey population, but also all across the Southeast.
â€śAt a group meeting of biologists in Texas, we got the same report from all the states in the Southeast that there was a lack of gobbling,â€ť Barnett says. â€śApparently the late spring negatively affected turkey hunting region wide, not just in Alabama.â€ť
Barnett also believes the rain late last spring and early summer had a negative effect on the number of turkey poults that survived. This research indicates we should have plenty of turkeys gobbling this spring, if the weather patterns are normal. But the number of 2-year-old birds may be decreased significantly next year in 2015.
Preliminary reports from the brood surveys indicated that in some sections of the state there only were two poults per hen. This survey factored in hens seen with no poults. In an average year, generally three or more poults would be seen with a hen.
â€śWhen we see less than two poults per hen, we assume thereâ€™s been a poor hatch,â€ť Barnett explains. â€śIf we have a normal spring in 2014, there should be plenty 2-year-old or older gobblers available for harvest this year.â€ť
Next Barnett addressed where the chances are best for hearing and taking gobbling turkeys this season on WMA lands. The annual harvest report shows it takes about 10 man-days â€” one individual hunting for one day â€” to harvest a turkey gobbler. Barnett looks for WMAs averaging 10 man-days or less to harvest a turkey to pick the top WMAs.
Barnett picks the Sam R. Murphy WMA in northwest Alabama â€” 17,625 acres located in Lamar and Marion counties near Guin â€” as the best turkey WMA in the region. This WMA historically has had a high turkey harvest and includes mixed pine and hardwood stands.
â€śIf you drive through the area and look at the property, you think a turkey canâ€™t live in these pine plantations, but at Sam R. Murphy WMA, there are numbers of hardwood drainages and broad hardwood bottoms between the pine plantations,â€ť Barnett reports.
Timber has been harvested from some of these pine sites, opening up the forest floor and providing new growth in the clear cuts, excellent habitat for nesting and brood rearing. Gobblers are attracted to these clear cuts, because hens are there. Tom turkeys gobble, display and try to attract the hens.
â€śEven though Sam R. Murphy doesnâ€™t look like a great place to hunt turkeys at first glance, it really is,â€ť Barnett emphasizes.
Choccolocco WMA is in northeast Alabama in Cleburne County near Heflin and has 56,858 acres. Choccolocco is one of my favorite areas to hunt, because most turkey hunters are not willing to cross the mountains there and go to remote areas where gobbling turkeys often hold during the season. This WMA has mixed pines and hardwoods and is one of the WMAs trying to restore the longleaf pine. There is intensive wildlife habitat management taking place at Choccolocco.
â€śThis WMA has a good hardwood component that produces a lot of acorns, and historically it has been a productive WMA for turkey hunters,â€ť Barnett explains. â€śChoccolocco WMA requires 10 days of hunting or less to harvest a gobbler there.â€ť
The National Wild Turkey Federation and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have helped manage this WMA for turkeys, and other wildlife for several years. Longleaf pine plantings are good for wildlife, because the canopy of the longleaf pine allows sunlight to reach the ground and provides more spacing between the trees than loblolly pine plantings provide. The longleaf pine flourishes with a controlled burn about every three years, creating a more fertile site and allowing for increased production of grasses and shrubs many species depend on, including wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail and non-game birds and animals.
â€śWhen you provide good habitat like we see at Choccolocco WMA, the turkeys are there,â€ť Barnett says.
Oakmulgee WMA, located in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties in east-central Alabama, homes 44,500 acres. It almost is a twin to the Choccolocco WMA, minus the mountains. The management scheme on this WMA also includes longleaf pine restoration.
â€śRemember wild turkey habitat management also benefits all other game species,â€ť Barnett reports.
Because we have become so aware of the destruction of wildfires, we often forget wildfires once occurred naturally all over the United States. After these fires, the wildlife and habitat flourished.
Today, controlled burns in the Southeast are producing the same effects, even with such dense human populations and smaller plots of land. The wildfires clean up the litter on the forest floor and allow more sunlight to reach native grasses and shrubs, which helps them grow.
â€śLandowners who donâ€™t consider the entire landscape of the properties they own really miss the boat,â€ť Barnett emphasizes. â€śIf you can manage your lands so as to have plenty of places for nesting and brood rearing, you can have numbers of wild turkeys on these properties. Another important ingredient for raising turkeys is predator control. Because all of Choccolocco and Oakmulgee are being managed this way, I put them at the top of my list.â€ť
A simple formula for having more deer, turkeys and wildlife on your property is to plant more and smaller green fields and create more openings for wildlife, instead of planting one or two big green fields.
District IV in southeast Alabama includes Barbour WMA. Not surprisingly, Barnett picks this 28,199-acre tract in Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton as a top turkey destination.
â€śBarbour WMA has a lot of state-owned land there, so weâ€™ve been able to manage some substantial tracts of land on this WMA,â€ť Barnett explains. â€śThanks to the Alabama chapter of the NWTF, this WMA has longleaf pine restoration sites, numerous wildlife openings and a burning regime â€“ the elements needed to make wild turkeys happy and productive. Barbour is another one of the WMAs where we manage the entire property for wildlife, and where hunters use less than 10 man-days to bag a gobbler.â€ť
Scotch WMA is a standout turkey spot in southwest Alabama, located in Clarke County near Coffeeville and containing 19,480 acres. Scotch has some mixed hardwood/pine habitat.
â€śThis WMA has some productive creek bottoms that are predominantly hardwoods,â€ť Barnett explains. â€śThe habitat in the upland portion of Scotch has changed over time from older, mixed pine and hardwood forests to a patchwork of clear cuts, early succession pines and mature pines. This arrangement creates good nesting and brood-rearing areas. Turkeys choose to stay in these pine plantations, especially in the clear cuts when the pines are young.â€ť
Many years ago, longtime turkey hunter and champion caller Eddie Salter of Evergreen taught me how to hunt in planted pines.
â€śWhen hunting pressure builds up like it does on many WMAs, the safest place for a gobbler to be is in a pine plantation,â€ť Salter noted. â€śIf turkeys could choose where they wanted to be, they would be in fields and hardwood stands. But the No. 1 thing an older gobbler is concerned with is staying alive. Pine plantations often are the best places a turkey can be to survive hunting pressure.â€ť
Iâ€™ve found this statement to be true over the years, especially in the late season when turkeys get hush-mouthed.
â€śIf you hear a turkey gobble in a pine plantation like those at Scotch WMA, you have a really good chance of taking him,â€ť Barnett explains. â€śThe bird usually come in silently, and you must be ready to take the shot as soon as you see him. Timber managers thin an actively managed pine stand as it grows, allowing more sunlight to hit the ground. Also, this WMA has a fire regime on a regular basis in these pine stands, again creating more habitat for wild turkeys. If you are hunting an actively managed pine plantation, and there are several-different stands of pine being replanted, burned and thinned, these areas can support a good population of turkeys.â€ť
Barnett was hunting at Scotch WMA several years ago and had to cross a creek to reach the place where a turkey was gobbling
â€śWhen I got close to the turkey, I could tell he was inside a loblolly pine stand in thick cover, where you never would expect a turkey to be. But when I got inside that stand of pines, I found an open area where a turkey could walk without encountering brush. Once I set up to call him, the gobbler came in cautiously.
â€śThat was not prime turkey habitat, but often you could find fairly good openings where a turkey can move inside pine stands. As long as the stand wasnâ€™t so thick with brush that a turkey couldnâ€™t walk through it, you often could see a turkey holding in those pines.
â€śSo, you have two different kinds of habitat at Scotch. I think most people like to hunt those pretty hardwoods, but people who go to the upland areas and into the pine plantation also find gobblers, especially late in the season.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ll see limited numbers of young turkeys this season, because of the crazy weather weâ€™ve had last spring and early summer, but there still be really good opportunities to take 2-year old gobblers and older,â€ť Barnett says.
Expect to hear plenty of turkey gobblers talking to the timber and singing their coarse broken songs to the hens in the forests and fields of Alabama, if spring arrives on time this year, and the weather is warm. Whether Alabama has good weather or bad weather this spring, you canâ€™t bag a bird by staying in the bed, except in your dreams.
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