2012 Arkansas Turkey Forecast

The lyrics of a Vern Gosdin song from the 1980s, more recently popularized by country outlaw Jamey Johnson, ask for B24 to be played on the jukebox again and again. "Set 'Em Up Joe" is a tribute to Ernest Tubb, as B24 was his country classic "Walkin' the Floor Over You." Well, turkey hunters and officials at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have definitely been walkin' the floor while trying to devise solutions to our state's declining turkey population.

Unfortunately, the turkey outlook is a story of same song, second — or third — verse for this spring. That doesn't mean, however, there are no hotspots for you to bag a big bird.

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

A combination of factors has led to the recent downward trend in turkey numbers in The Natural State. Now charged with understanding and counteracting those effects is Jason Honey, who took over the role of turkey program coordinator late in 2011 after the retirement of Mike Widner in December 2010.

Honey has been quickly moving up the ladder at AGFC, beginning his career there as a part-time wildlife technician on Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek WMA in White County in the early 2000s. He then graduated from Arkansas Tech University in 2004 and later that year became the WMA manager at Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek. From there, he shifted to the private lands biologist program. All that experience, he asserted, has readied him for heading the turkey program at the agency.

"My time in central Arkansas as a private lands biologist has allowed me to grow into a more mature professional wildlife biologist. I have had my hand in planting more than 1,000 acres of native, warm-season grasses, administering the various Farm Bill programs on the ground to provide quality habitat, specifically for ground-nesting birds, and helping hundreds of landowners reach their habitat goals."

LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS

So, what has Honey been doing since sliding into the turkey program coordinator spot?

"I have been analyzing the brood survey information, reviewing the upcoming turkey season regulations for 2012 and 2013, writing the 2011 turkey harvest report and being brought up to speed about our ongoing turkey research projects in the state," Honey said.

Looking over that paperwork, he said, revealed both good and bad for the turkeys — and the hunters.

"Due to the implementation of the no-jake harvest, gobbler carryover has improved," Honey noted. "In 2010, there were more poults observed. Hopefully, these birds were recruited into the population as well as the jakes from 2011, thus projecting a harvest similar to the 2011 season. Depending on weather, somewhere around 6,000 to 7,000 turkeys should be harvested."

While good gobbler carryover will likely mean similar harvest totals, the weather has been a hindrance.

"Due to another year of poor weather conditions, reproduction was generally poor across the state, according to our 2011 brood survey. Periods of extreme weather, such as droughts and rainy, cold days have negative impacts on nesting success and the number of poults that survive."

That, he said, coupled with the "poor physical condition of hens" has resulted in "late nesting and poor nesting effort in most cases."

In that regard, Honey then turned the conversation specifically to the Arkansas Delta.

"The recent major flooding that occurred during the nesting season along the Mississippi River and several other river systems in the Arkansas Delta region will have a major impact on future turkey harvests, especially in 2013. Very few broods were observed in the Delta during the 2011 brood survey."

In the brood survey, south-central Arkansas' Zone 9 and Zone 6 from the Ozark foothills westward through the Arkansas River Valley both showed good success in regard to reproduction. Both Zone 1 in the northwest and north-central part of the state and Zone 7 in the northern reaches of the Ouachitas, meanwhile, noted above-average reproduction. All other zones registered average to poor reproduction based on reported sightings.

Regarding gobbler carryover, Zone 2 in the Ozarks and Zone 7 both showed good numbers, while Zones 6 and 9 came in at above average. The remainder of the state, particularly much of eastern Arkansas, did not fare nearly as well.

Another statistic among the various indices that are revealed in the brood survey is the poult-to-hen ratio. After peaking in the 1987 survey at greater than 5 poults per hen, observations in 2010 had dropped precipitously to 1.4:1. From there, the index slid further to 1.1:1 in 2011.

So, what do the findings of the brood survey mean for our 2012 turkey season?

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

"The poor reproduction since 2002, the close relationship of reproduction to harvest and the evidence for overexploitation of gobblers in recent years all point to the need for conservative spring turkey seasons — similar to those in place for much of the 1980s and 1990s. We (at the AGFC) believe there are various biological data that back up the decision for both later and shorter seasons."

The reasoning for the chosen turkey season framework is partly rooted in how the AGFC determines population numbers for the birds.

"Springtime estimates of turkey population levels are based on checked harvest in Arkansas," Honey began. "These estimates result from the assumption that spring turkey hunting removes approximately 10 percent of the total population. Currently, the springtime Arkansas turkey population is estimated at 80,000 to 90,000 birds. The current population estimate represents a decline of more than 100,000 turkeys (approximately 65 percent) in recent years, based on the 2003 spring harvest of 19,947. Various data from northwest Arkansas suggest that populations there have declined more than 75 percent in certain areas since 2000."

Another factor in the AGFC decision of when and how much we get to chase Old Tom is the collection of observations that comprise the brood survey to which we've been referring.

"Arkansas Game and Fish Commission field employees, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers, timber company biologists, selected Arkansas State Park rangers and other personnel record all turkeys seen during June, July and August, serving as the basis for determining the success of turkey reproduction each year," Honey continued. "These data have been collected in the (AGFC) Annual Wild Turkey Brood Survey since 1982. Survey results provide information on turkey recruitment and population trends and are highly correlated to turkey harvest in subsequent turkey seasons."

With these things and other biological data in mind, the AGFC voted in their November 2011 meeting to reduce the 2012 turkey season by two days — from 18 days to 16. That season includes dates of April 14-29 in Zones 1, 2, 3, 4B, 5, 5B, 6, 7, 7A, 8, 9, 10 and 17 and April 14-24 in Zones 4, 4A, 5A and 9A. Zone 1A is closed. Two bearded turkeys will be the bag limit in the former list, while one bearded bird is the set limit for the latter zones. The harvest of jakes is prohibited with the exception of youth hunters. The 2012 youth turkey season is April 7-8.

Until the cycle of boom-and-bust returns robust numbers to Arkansas' turkey flocks, Honey said there are some things we can do to help turn the trend in an upward direction.

"Providing quality nesting, brood-rearing and foraging habitat on both private and public ground will lay the groundwork for when we have a few springs of good weather," he stated. "Quality habitat plays a major role in poult survival. The bottom line is we have to hatch turkeys to have turkeys."

WHERE TO GO

Honey, rather than pointing to specific locations where turkey hunters might have a better chance to bag a bird, said the numbers from the brood survey should be a good guide. Following that formula, Zones 1, 2, 6, 7 and 9 might be your best bets.

In Zones 1, 2 and 6 of the Ozark Plateau, both Buffalo River National WMA and Sylamore WMA are worth consideration. Other wildlife management areas to eye include Scott Henderson Gulf Mountain, Jim Kress and Gene Rush.

South of the Arkansas River in western Arkansas, Zone 7 and the southern portion of Zone 6 offer Mount Magazine, Petit Jean River, Fort Chaffee and Muddy Creek WMAs.

Dropping from the higher elevations into the pine-dominated lowlands of south Arkansas' Zone 9, possible public-ground destinations include Moro Big Pine Natural Area, Dr. Lester Sitzes III Bois D'Arc and Casey Jones WMAs along with Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

Note that some of these areas allow turkey hunting by permit only, or only with archery equipment. For more information on these WMAs, visit the Arkansas Game and Fish Commision's Web site (www.agfc.com), scroll over Hunting and choose Where to Hunt by clicking on it with your mouse. The linked page will reveal a map of Arkansas that allows the user to click on any of the state's 75 counties to see what WMAs are located in each one. Clicking on the WMA name then reveals a plethora of information about the WMA you are scouting.

THE HUNTER'S PERSPECTIVE

Stephen Saranie, an assistant principal at Stuttgart High School, and David "Mountain Man" Mitchell, a longtime hunting and fishing guide who lives in the Searcy area, are avid turkey hunters who combined have more than a half-century experience walking the woods in search of Old Tom. They are both in agreement with Honey regarding the negative effects that cold, rainy springs have had on turkey reproduction. However, they also think there is another problem knocking down turkey numbers.

"I think predators take out a lot of our game," Mitchell stressed, lamenting the fact there is not a good market for hides and currently no bounty on predators such as coyotes. "We have a heavy number of predators. Many of our game have no other enemies except for man. Packs of coyotes are taking a large toll with their pack hunting at night. Raccoons are really bad too. They will find a turkey nest and eat every egg. Also, the hogs are bad in southern Arkansas. I'm betting that you are losing 35 to 40 percent of the young to predators."

Saranie concurred, adding that a loss of habitat has also negatively affected the birds in our state.

Neither hunter, though, said that they believed our turkeys are in real trouble. Instead, they said that our current dilemma is just part of a natural process. "I think it is part of a cycle," Saranie said. "Turkeys were in real trouble in the 1930s and 1940s when there were not many around. I think we are in a valley; they will make a comeback."

The two hunters further echoed one another with regard to hunting tactics while facing our current situation.

"If you're in the hills, the main thing is going to be the spot. Get up there high in the morning to where you can hear a lot of them getting with their hens," Mitchell said. "You can do the same thing in the afternoons by scouting from old roads, looking for tracks, listening for birds and trying to find the spot where the turkeys like to hang out and roost."

Furthermore, Mitchell suggested that hunters familiarize themselves with an area by locating turkey food sources in or near old fields, cutovers or burned areas adjacent to stands of old hardwoods. It's important, he said, to remember that the turkeys strut around these open areas, but that the birds don't like tall grass. Instead, they look for a high point where they can see virtually everything in all directions because, "everything is trying to eat a turkey."

Mitchell, who has guided everywhere from North Dakota to New Mexico and Florida to Colorado, also pointed out that turkeys will shy away from areas where easy access translates into high traffic. So, finding a place off the beaten path is important.

The key, Mitchell concluded, is "Scouting, scouting, scouting. These are the three best things to do. Then, in the morning, you can know where the gobblers are."

While Saranie may not be a guide, he has chased turkeys across Arkansas and other states. "Well, I don't know how expert this advice is" he joked, "but the only thing I know to do is go and hang in there when things get tough. The longer you are in the field, the more the chance that something good is going to happen. You never know that old bird is going to gobble, and when he does you are back in the ball game. Just be patient.

"Scouting, knowing the area and hunting as long and often as you can are tactics that you can use when birds are scarce. I like to 'run and gun' and make something happen if turkeys are not gobbling. If you hear a turkey gobble and he is the only turkey you hear, hang in there with him. He may eventually come to your calls. Patience is the biggest thing going for you in this situation."

Both Saranie and Mitchell also noted the importance of being a good turkey caller. "Be able to use a variety of calls, but have one that is your 'go-to' call," Saranie suggested. Then, he added that reading about turkey hunting and listening to the advice of more experienced hunters can help you to "have a few tricks up your sleeve" for Old Tom.

Mitchell, meanwhile, said that he regularly packs four or five diaphragm calls, a box call, a paddle call and a couple of slate calls. That way, you're more likely to find a sound that will get your bird to talk back.

As for where they would go to bag a bird, Saranie said that he would head to Bayou Meto WMA or White River NWR because of their close proximity to where he lives and his familiarity with the birds that call those two areas home.

Mitchell was a homer as well, listing Muddy Creek and Sylamore WMAs as two nearby choices. Some hunters, though, may not be able to take the terrain, so the previously listed WMAs of south Arkansas are among his possible destinations.

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