2012 Georgia Turkey Forecast

When the sun rises on the morning of March 24, the new dawn will bring illuminating rays through the forest and wild turkeys will also be sounding off their thunderous gobbles through the trees. A new turkey season will have begun again and Georgia hunters once again have their chance to call one in to harvest.

The Georgia turkey season lasts nearly two months till May 15 and hunters are allowed to harvest three toms. There are turkeys in every one of Georgia's 159 counties occupying over 38,138 square miles of forested habitat.

But some counties and regions provide better habitat and an increased opportunity to bag a tom. Where these prime areas are located, the biologist's assessment of the population, recent harvest statistics, and your prospects for the coming season are addressed in this article.

TOTAL HARVEST

The statewide turkey population is estimated at 340,000 birds. That translates to about 8.6 turkeys per square mile of forested habitat. They are, of course, not evenly distributed, as heavily wooded counties support more birds than areas near cities and development.

The most recent available statistics show that the 2010 season had 47,275 resident hunters taking 34,001 gobblers in Georgia. That works out to about 72 percent of hunters taking home some tasty turkey. While some experienced or lucky hunters may have taken two or even three gobblers, that is still a very high success rate.

There was an increase of 24.4 percent in gobbler harvest for 2010 and a 15.7 percent decrease in hunters from the 2009 season. For 2009, an estimated 56,112 hunters harvested 27,323 turkeys, a 49 percent success rate. That means that fewer hunters were killing more turkeys in 2010.

Weather conditions and hunter skills play a big part in that success. Weekends with good weather coupled with sportsmen that are increasing their call commands and woodsmanship have helped bring more toms to the gun.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division manages and monitors the statewide flock. Each year they conduct harvest surveys to obtain information from the hunters about their hunting season and harvests.

From these surveys, the WRD learned that the average hunter took 10.9 hunting trips last season that totaled 37.1 hours of hunting. This does not include time traveling, sitting around camp, or at the Waffle House.

The survey showed that the most gobbling activity — about 2.6 gobblers heard per trip — occurred during the first and third weeks. The greatest amount of gobbling activity was the first seven days, and the seven-day period after that. The data clearly points to the most activity early in the season. Toms are gobbling the most the first week, but there are also more hunters in the woods. Mid to late season may be a good time to avoid other hunters, but you may hear less gobbling.

Gobbling heard by hunters appeared to peak at certain weeks during the season. Anytime the toms are sounding off in the woods, the hunter has a much better chance of locating him and keying in on his location. This increases your opportunities to call one in when they are being vocal. Peaks of gobbling were categorized by region. The first week of the season in late March was tops in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont, and Lower Coastal Plain, It was the fourth weekend for the Ridge and Valley and the Upper Coastal Plain when hunters heard the most toms talking.

That also corresponds with the first seven days of the season accounting for 25 percent of the total statewide harvest. More gobbling and more hunter-trips to the woods means more birds being bagged. It is to the hunter's advantage to be in the turkey woods when they are gobbling the most, which is commonly opening week. It also means that there are typically more hunters in the woods providing competition and also trying to call to the same toms.

WMA HARVEST

While the majority of turkey hunting occurs on private lands, there are still quite a few hunters who hunt their toms on public land. Georgia has over 120 wildlife management areas totaling over one million acres. In 2011, 13,373 hunters were on the 87 WMAs that require hunter sign-in. In line with the statewide hunter numbers, there was a 5.5 percent decrease in the numbers of WMA hunters from 2010.

On all the public land hunts in Georgia in 2011, there were 942 gobblers taken on these WMAs, which is 3.3 percent higher than the 10-year average. Again, less hunters killed more turkeys. Gobblers were harvested at a rate of about 1.44 per square mile, which was a 42 percent increase over 2010. The overall WMA harvest rate of 7.1 percent was a 7 percent decline from 2010. Turkey harvests from Georgia WMAs have been and appear likely to remain steady.

With nearly 100 WMAs to choose from, how does a hunter decide which one to hunt? Which WMA have the best turkey populations and have the best chance of success? We asked WRD Wildlife Biologist Kevin Lowrey for the answers.

The state is divided into five geographical regions — the Ridge and Valley in the northwest, Blue Ridge Mountains in the northeast, the Piedmont in the central portion of the state, and the Upper and Lower Coastal Plains in South Georgia.

Lowrey picked Berry College and Crockford-Pigeon Mountain as the best WMAs in the Ridge and Valley region. Berry College is located near Rome and has 15,029 acres of rolling hardwoods. Crockford-Pigeon Mountain contains 19,951 acres near Lafayette and has some steep mountainous terrain. Both WMAs have open sign-in hunts lasting the entire season.

The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch across North Georgia from Chatsworth to Clayton and have steep terrain. Hunters can stand on one ridge and hear birds gobbling on the other. But it may be strenuous to reach that other ridge on foot.

Best bet WMAs in this region are Swallow Creek and Dukes Creek. Located north of Helen, Swallow Creek WMA has 19,000 acres and a regular sign-in hunt. Dukes Creek, on the other hand, has quota hunts that must be applied for in advance. They host three, three-day hunts for 20 selected hunters. Dukes Creek has 4,500 acres and is located west of Helen.

The Piedmont section of Georgia stretches across the center of the state from Columbus to Augusta and has mildly rolling hills, productive soils, and numerous WMAs. Biologist Lowrey said Cedar Creek, Dawson Forest, and Paulding Forest are his top picks for the Piedmont.

Cedar Creek has 37,820 acres stretching between Monticello and Eatonton. Dawson Forest has a regular sign-in hunt on its 25,000 acres near Dawsonville. Paulding Creek, in west-central Georgia near Dallas, also has a sign-in hunt on its 25,707 acres.

The Upper Coastal Plain is located south of the Piedmont from Albany to Statesboro. Turkey hunters should check out Di-Lane, Chickasawhatchee, Yuchi, and Ocmulgee WMAs in this region.

Chickasawhatchee and Di-Lane have quota hunts. Chickasawhatchee near Albany has two, seven-day quota hunts for 50 selected hunters, and then open hunting the remainder of the season on its 19,700 acres. Di-Lane also has two, seven-day quota hunts for 30 hunters each, and then an open season. Di-Lane has 8,100 acres near Waynesboro. Waynesboro is also the closest town to Yuchi WMA, which has a sign-in hunt on 7,800 acres. Ocmulgee, also a sign-in hunt, has 17,370 acres near Cochran.

Closest to the coast is the Lower Coastal Plain, which features Tuckahoe, Penholoway Swamp, and Little Satilla as its best turkey WMAs. All have open sign-in hunting.

Little Satilla has 18,920 acres near Patterson, Penholoway Swamp by Mount Pleasant contains 4,269 acres, and Tuckahoe is 15,100 acres close to Sylvania

Other public lands with good turkey hunting, but which are not WMAs, are the Chattahoochee and Oconee national forests, and the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, which has quota hunts.

REPRODUCTION

The key to a healthy turkey population is successful reproduction. The WRD monitors this through brood surveys by field observation of hens and their poults. The 2010 survey revealed better reproduction than the previous five-year average.

All regions were up except for the Ridge and Valley, while the coastal plains were up significantly. This points to a promising population for the upcoming season.

Many factors affect reproduction, including weather, habitat, and predators. While there is nothing that we can do about the weather, we can somewhat alter the habitat and control predators. Food plots have become popular over the years, but their benefit is limited with turkeys.

"Proper habitat composition and arrangement is much more important to wild turkeys than food plots," Lowrey said. "Food plots can be important brood rearing areas, but nutritionally they are kind of equal to ice cream in our diet. It is not necessary, but it can be good.

"Supplemental feeding can be detrimental to wild turkeys," he added. "Aflatoxins in feed can kill turkeys directly and the feeding sites can become ambush sites for predators like hawks, owls, and coyotes."

Reproduction of turkeys in Georgia has been inconsistent lately. It also fluctuates in localized areas as one portion of a county may produce better than an area a few miles away. If we could get a few years of good reproduction, the population could really take off. So far the prospects for the 2012 season are looking good.

FORECAST

Turkey Biologist Lowrey had a few comments on the 2012 turkey prospects.

"We have had mixed reproductive success in the last five years," he explained. "The years 2007 and 2009 were two of the worst years of reproduction recorded. In 2008, reproduction was the best it had been in seven years. For 2010 reproduction was 26 percent greater than the five-year average and 76 percent better than 2009. The 2011 brood data has not been summarized at this time, but preliminary looks appear to be positive.

"Much of the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Ridge and Valley had a good hatch," Lowery continued. "I am holding hope that the Upper and Lower Coastal Plain did as well as the rest of the state, despite the lack of rainfall. So we have managed to string together a few good years of reproduction lately. That should pay off in the spring of 2012 in terms of more gobblers seen and heard.

"Jakes and two-year old toms should make up the bulk of the birds available for harvest. With 2009 being such a poor reproductive year, older toms may be hard to come by in parts of the state," said Lowrey.

"The wild turkey population is pretty stable despite inconsistent reproductive success. The Blue Ridge physiographic area probably has experienced more decline over recent years due to a lack of available brood-rearing and nesting habitat on the national forest that make up so much of this region.

"More timber harvest and prescribed fire would benefit most game animals in this region," the biologist concluded.

SUMMARY

The turkey hunting prospects for 2012 is cautiously optimistic. Indicators such as increased reproduction give reason for hope.

Hunter numbers have been slightly down, though the harvest has been consistent, if not increasing slightly. That means that opportunities still abound for hunters, as there is less competition and still a decent number of birds to hunt.    o

Whether you're on private or public land, your experience varies based on local conditions including hunting pressure. If you hunt the first week of the season, your chance to hear gobbling, see a tom, and bag one is best. Different hunters have different opinions depending on how the gobbling was in their area.

When March 24 dawns this spring, a brand new turkey season will be open and the opportunity to bag a Georgia turkey is there for the taking.

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