2012 Illinois Turkey Forecast

Illinois spring turkey hunters harvested fewer birds in 2011! According to preliminary statistics, 15,121 birds were harvested last season. Hunters bagged 16,565 during the spring turkey season of 2010. The South Zone claimed 6,469 turkeys, compared to 6,916 in 2010. Meanwhile, the North Zone once again claimed the majority of the harvest with 8,652, compared to 9,649 last year. Both South and North Zone harvest totals include results of the youth turkey seasons.

Although several factors could be to blame for the harvest decrease, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) officials say the main cause for the decline was weather-related. The wettest April in recorded history occurred in 2011. According to IDNR officials, the average rainfall in Illinois was up 93 percent over previous years.

"This year's (2011) wild turkey season will probably be best remembered for being the wettest April in recorded history," states Paul Brewer, Forest Wildlife Program, Wild Turkey project manager.

Illinois has seen its share of bad hatches and poor brood production due to cold and wet weather during previous years. I questioned Brewer as to his opinion on how the extreme rainfall that caused flooding throughout much of the state would impact nesting hens and brood production for 2012.

"While analysis of our brood surveys are not yet complete, preliminary analysis did indicate decreased production early in spring and summer. However, with drier late-summer weather we received many reports of broods with good numbers of young birds, indicating a good recovery of reproduction in late summer," shared Brewer. He added that the floodwaters probably had some temporary impact on food sources, but more importantly it probably confined nesting in some counties to a smaller area.

"This (flooding) may have slightly increased nest predation, as the amount of area where turkey nests could be found by predators was compressed. Some areas of Illinois also had a large hatch of periodic cicadas, which some other Midwestern states have linked to improved wild turkey production," stated Brewer.

SOUTH ZONE

My husband, John, and I can attest to some pretty rough days in the turkey woods last year. I recall one occasion when John and I were working a bird in Wayne County, located in the South Zone. The gobbler sounded eager to find the "hen" that was so interested in him. The turkey was no more than 100 yards from us when we heard distant thunder roll across the sky. The thunder we kept hearing was on the move and heading in our direction.

Moments before the storm hit, the longbeard let out a loud gobble and was only 40 yards from our set-up position, but hidden by briars. Just when everything looked dismal, the bird stepped into an opening. At that moment, John's Winchester roared. We quickly loaded the turkey into John's vest, then ran to seek shelter from the storm now upon us. Thankfully, lighting never struck us — just torrential rain that soaked us to the bone. Little did we know at that time, many Illinois turkey hunters were struggling with similar issues and that the harvest would decrease for the first time since 2008.

According to preliminary harvest statistics, Illinois' South Zone top-five counties include Jefferson, Pope, Union, Randolph and Wayne. The Jefferson County harvest boasted a slight increase in 2011 when 402 birds were bagged, compared to 2010's total of 396. Pope County hunters took 356 in 2011, while Union County hunters harvested 324 birds. Randolph County checked in 321, as Wayne County hunters' took 314 turkeys.

When looking at these preliminary totals, it is clear to see that Jefferson County leads the way for consistency in making the top-five county list. In the last five years, it has been on the list each time. Despite all of the rain that fell in 2011, it still managed to show a harvest increase.

Other South Zone counties that did not make the top-five list but still had spring harvests worth mentioning are Fayette, Franklin and Saline County. They reported harvests of 213, 200 and 134, respectively. These were higher than the harvest totals of 2010, when Fayette hunters took 208, Franklin hunters 175 and Saline hunters 132.

The South Zone county of Johnson is worth mentioning because in 2008, spring turkey hunters took 213 birds, 237 in 2009, 298 in 2010 and 269 in 2011. The harvest remains fairly steady in spite of weather, poor hatches, brood production, etc.

NORTH ZONE

Turkey hunters in the North Zone counties of Illinois experience a plethora of weather conditions. Jo Daviess is located at the northwest corner of Illinois where snow is not uncommon. Also take into consideration Jo Daviess has been in the top-five counties the past 10 years. I questioned Brewer as to his opinion on why this county on the far northern edge of Illinois produces so many birds, year after year.

"The variety of forested and other habitats in unglaciated Jo Daviess provides almost a perfect mix of habitat types for wild turkeys," states Brewer.

Other top-producing counties in the North Zone included Pike, Fulton, Adams and Macoupin. Hunters in Jo Daviess County harvested 534 in 2011, compared to 628 in 2010. The Pike County preliminary total was 522, compared to 527 last year, while Fulton County took 449 birds, compared to 455 in 2010. Further down the list, Adams County took 415 birds, compared to 406 last spring, as Macoupin County hunters killed 343, slightly lower than the 346 turkeys they took in 2010. As you can see, these counties show very little fluctuation over the past two harvests.

Calhoun County (a small county located in central Illinois, on the western edge bordering Missouri) did not make the top-five county list. However, turkey hunters boasted an increase of 16 birds harvested when compared to 289 in 2010. In 2008, the Calhoun County harvest consisted of 377, and in 2009, 341 birds were taken during the spring season. This is another North Zone county that seems to be maintaining its harvest numbers in spite of Mother Nature.

Jo Daviess turkey hunters took the most birds in the North Zone. However, they also show the biggest decrease of all top-five North Zone counties. I questioned Brewer as to whether he felt that poor hatches, brood production, predators and rainfall may be negatively impacting Jo Daviess turkeys, and if we can expect to see Jo Daviess remain in the top five.

"While production has been somewhat lower recently due to wet spring weather, heavy rainfall during the hunting season seems to be the biggest factor that reduced the harvest last year. Harvest improved markedly in most counties on days when the weather was dry, but wet weather made turkey hunting more challenging, and the harvest fell off on days with high rainfall," shared Brewer.

Surprisingly, several counties that produce fewer birds in the North Zone managed to increase their harvest statistics as compared to 2010. Macon County, located just east of Springfield, increased its harvest from 17 to 26. McLean County, located northeast of Springfield, took 69 birds in 2011 and 63 last year. In Shelby County, located southeast of Springfield and on the edge of the North/South Zone, turkey hunters harvested 70 as compared to 66 in 2010.

While researching spring turkey harvests for Illinois, I learned that although the harvest declined in 2011, many counties maintained their averages. For instance, counties such as Rock Island have had minor variations in spring turkey hunting success rates. Its harvest rate has ranged from 195 birds taken in 2009 to 221 birds in 2010, and 191 in 2011. Rock Island is located on the northwest edge of Illinois, next to the Iowa border.

Stark County is a small county located north of Peoria. Turkey hunters there claimed only 4 birds as compared to 15 in 2010, 13 in 2009 and 11 turkeys in 2008. When Illinois set a statewide record harvest in 2006, Stark county hunters claimed 9 turkeys. It appears that Stark county turkeys are losing ground. I questioned Brewer as to why this small county seems to be dropping harvest statistics annually.

"It is a small county with relatively few turkey hunters. Again, it is very likely that heavy rain during last spring's hunting season was the main factor limiting wild turkey harvest," shared Brewer.

PUBLIC LANDS

There are many public hunting lands throughout the state of Illinois that provide opportunity for spring turkey hunters. Brewer offered his thoughts on those public areas in the North and South Zones that seem to produce several turkeys annually.

"In the north, Jim Edgar Panther Creek and Sand Ridge State Forest have been good state areas, while in the south, Rend Lake and Kaskaskia River Fish and Wildlife Area have also shown good harvest numbers. Of course, the Shawnee National Forest and Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge are large and popular hunting spots in the South Zone," said Brewer.

Jim Edgar Panther Creek is located in the west-central region of Illinois, 25 miles northwest of Springfield, off State Illinois Route 125. The 16,550 acres sprawl across Cass County.

Sand Ridge State Forest, located in Mason County, near Forest City, contains 7,500 acres (6,488 wooded and 1,012 acres in open fields and sand prairies).

Rend Lake, in Jefferson and Franklin counties, includes more than 20,000 acres of land. Located in the South Zone of Illinois, it is easily accessible between Mt. Vernon and Benton, just off Interstate 57.

Kaskaskia River Fish & Wildlife Area is one of the largest state-owned and managed sites in Illinois. Containing more than 20,000 acres, this vast site stretches across St. Clair, Monroe and Randolph counties. It is located only 35 miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri.

Shawnee National Forest, located in southern Illinois, is divided into two ranger districts. They are Hidden Springs, located in Vienna, and Mississippi Bluffs, located in Jonesboro.

Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge is located 5 miles west of Marion and 5 miles south of Herrin, Illinois. The 44,000 acres of land and water can be found on Illinois State Route 148.

EXPECTATIONS

So, what can turkey hunters expect for 2012? I asked Brewer if spring turkey hunters would see regulation changes due to the harvest decline last spring. He shared that there would be none, since most of the reduction seems to be associated with bad weather during the hunting period.

The South and North Zone season dates will include 5 seasons plus the youth season. Each season ranges 5-8 days, except the youth hunts that last two days. Dates for 2012 South Zone youth hunt are March 31-April 1, while the North Zone youth hunt will fall on April 7-8. The South Zone regular season will make its debut April 9 and end May 10. The North Zone regular season-opener begins April 16 and wraps up May 17. For more information on hunting regulations and season dates, please visit the Illinois DNR Web site at www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/Documents/HuntTrapDigest.pdf

As far as a guesstimate for spring turkey hunters in 2012, Brewer seemed optimistic.

"Brood production has been somewhat reduced for several years, so populations may be slightly reduced. Heavy rains last spring kept many hunters inside for several days of the season, so there may be some additional carryover of adults (gobblers) into the coming spring. Late, but successful broods will certainly help the upcoming spring season. Weather during the hunting season is always a very big factor affecting harvest," shared Brewer.

Brewer ended our conversation discussing next year's weather.

"Let's hope for a dryer spring next year. Turkeys have a remarkable ability to recover given some reasonable weather during nesting season along with good nesting and brood rearing habitat," said Brewer.

Although I never got a bird last year, just being out in the turkey woods enjoying God's creation was so fulfilling. However, I won't complain if 2012 is drier and less windy. It seemed that last year's weather was anything but nice. If it wasn't raining, the wind was blowing and you couldn't hear a gobbler unless he was sitting on your shoulder. One thing I do know — no matter what Mother Nature throws our way, the turkeys will be out there. You just never know when that longbeard may suddenly appear.

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