2012 Indiana Turkey Forecast

Hoosier turkey hunters are accustomed to looking at the previous year's harvest as they prepare for the upcoming season. However, I'm not so sure that the spring harvest of 2011 will paint a pretty picture for 2012.

Consider that there were 11,669 wild turkeys taken in 88 of Indiana's 92 counties last spring. The previous season, Indiana hunters took 13,742 birds (15 percent more). Nevertheless, we should remember that a record harvest occurred in 2010, smashing the 2006 record harvest.

According to Wildlife Research Biologist Steve Backs, last spring's harvest decline was primarily caused by inclement weather and subsequent flooding. Of course, most hunters are aware of how bad weather affects hunter success. Nonetheless, we must consider "nesting and brood production," and how too much rain will affect future hunting opportunities.

Shortly after the spring hunting season closed last year, I talked with Backs about the severe April rains that affected much of the state. He was optimistic, and claimed that it might have positive results. Because the rains came early — before most hens nested — Backs suggested that many turkeys were probably forced to move into drier areas. Then, as the nesting got underway, the nests might not have been affected by the wet conditions.

Unfortunately, after speaking with Backs again at the time of this writing, it didn't appear that brood production was up in the summer and fall of 2011.

"We are in the process of tallying the brood observation cards, but the initial report is that we're just not seeing a lot of poults per hen," noted Backs.

Backs added that he had recently returned from a meeting where biologists from surrounding states reported problems with nesting hens from the heavy rains that occurred across the Midwest last spring and summer.

Many Hoosiers have already read about poor brood production in recent years, and how it affects upcoming harvests. Backs said that Indiana has had several years of below-normal production, but is still "holding his breath" for the 2011 production report.

"We've entered the era of post-restoration period where all states of the Midwest are starting to sense that we are going to be dependent on annual production as well as production that occurred 3 to 4 years prior; the reason being that past production will affect the total number of adult hens that are out there to produce, stated Backs.

To wrap up the bad news, Backs mentioned that Indiana is done with seeing the harvest go up, up and up. Instead we are in the phase where it could easily bounce up-and-down annually.

In 2008 and 2009, Hoosiers cashed in on 12,000-plus turkeys. Although last spring's harvest was a little down, it has followed the typical harvest trends we have experienced since 2002 — the first year that hunters took more than 10,000 birds in Indiana.

Many hunters complained last spring of hearing fewer gobbles than usual. And, of course, hearing fewer birds usually means lower hunter success. We can assume that bad weather contributed to less gobbling, or at least hunters hearing less than they did the previous season.

However, despite poor weather, it did not stop my son John Trout, III, from harvesting a mature gobbler with bow and arrow on opening morning. Even better, my grandson Luke tagged along with John to see the successful hunt unfold. The weather was favorable that day and they heard several birds gobbling.

Hunter success was 21 percent last spring, compared to 24 percent in 2010 when hunters set the harvest record. In 2008 and 2009, hunter success was 22 percent. The last time it was at 21 percent prior to last spring was in 2007. There have been several years since 2000 that hunter success topped 25 percent.

We could assume that hunting success could be governed in part by the number of new hunters. For instance, in 2000, 28,615 hunters pursued spring turkeys. In 2006, 50,000-plus hunters were afield. Last spring, more than 56,000 turkey hunters roamed the state. Who knows just how many of these hunters are experienced veterans? However, we do know that during the past decade, many new hunters have taken up the challenge of harvesting a spring gobbler.

Although the estimated number of hunters has grown tremendously since the spring season first debuted in 1970 (only 6 birds were harvested and only 62 hunters participated), hunter numbers have actually leveled off over the past five years. In fact, there were an estimated 2,000-plus fewer hunters last spring compared to the previous year.

Backs was unsure why there were fewer hunters last spring. He wondered if we've finally reached our satiated demand, or if the economy has played a role.

Also keep in mind, most of the success occurs during the first five days of the spring season. Last spring was no different, as 58 percent of the harvest occurred over the first five days.

Fewer birds gobbling last spring, and the fact that rainy weather occurred throughout much of the state, didn't stop Elaine Seger from bagging her first turkey ever. It was midway through the hunting season when she took a super longbeard in Spencer County, hunting alongside her husband, Larry.

TOP COUNTIES

Twenty-six counties in Indiana reported a harvest of 200-plus birds in 2011. Harrison County topped the best 10 with a reported harvest of 502 turkeys. The county also led the way in 2010, but declined considerably over the previous year's harvest. In 2010, Harrison County hunters took 607 birds.

Rounding up the Top 10 counties in 2011 were Jefferson (406), Switzerland (406), Dearborn (406), Perry (355), Clark (309), Warrick (298), Steuben (289), Crawford (280) and Spencer (277). Perhaps the biggest surprise was southern Indiana's Franklin County, which didn't make the Top 10. It has been there for many years. In 2010, it ranked 6th.

NORTH

"It's really been interesting to watch some of the top 10 or 15 counties. At one time, Warrick County was No. 1 and then it just seemed to fall down. Ripley, Jefferson, Switzerland, Ohio and the whole southeast have been traditionally pretty good, as well as those counties in the south-central area. They still make up about 50 percent of our harvest," explained Backs.

However, Backs said that the biggest news could be in north-central and northeastern Indiana. Many of these counties are becoming major turkey producers. The northern counties are also those where the last of the restoration work was done. Nevertheless, they are still in the "growth phase."

Backs suggested, though, that in time there will be some leveling off in the northern region, as it has in the southern counties. He reminded me that the top-producing southern counties that have seen declines in harvests must now compete with other counties, some of which have not been open to turkey hunting for many years. Finally, Backs turned back the clock to 20 years ago when Parke County was in the Top 10. Then, here came the flash floods of 2008 that occurred in the peak of the brooding season.

SOUTH

As usual, southern Indiana led the way last spring in harvest numbers. The south-central and southeastern regions accounted for 49 percent of the harvest, followed by north region at 22 percent. The west-central region made up 15 percent of the total harvest, while the east-central region accounted for only 0.7 percent of the harvest.

Interestingly, at least 69 counties showed harvest declines in 2011. Those declines ranged from a mere 1 to an astonishing 71 percent. However, keep in mind that some of these declines occurred in counties where very few birds are harvested. For instance, consider Shelby County, where the 71 percent decline occurred last year. Last spring, hunters took only 2 turkeys, compared to 7 turkeys the previous year. On the flipside, though, some major turkey-producing counties showed a significant decline. In Monroe County, hunters took 200-plus birds in 2010, but only 132 last spring; a 36 percent decline. You've already read about the Franklin county decline, but several other counties that usually produce 200-plus turkeys also suffered a decline of more than 20 percent last spring.

WHAT BIOLOGISTS ARE SEEING

Indiana biologists also have seen a reduction in the number of "jakes" (1-year-old birds), harvested in recent years. In 2011, 21 percent of the harvest consisted of jakes. Since 2006, the jake harvest has ranged from 14 to 23 percent. Nevertheless, from 1988 to 2005, jake harvests ranged 18 to 41 percent. Moreover, there were many years that we saw a jake harvest of 25 percent of more. According to Backs, low brood production has been to blame — well, partially to blame.

"I think the other thing that's going on out there is that we have good hunters. There's a high population of hunters who have a lot of experience under their belt. Lots of hunters are being selective in what they shoot. They also have better equipment and better camouflage than we had 30 years ago, said Backs.

Typically, 2-year-old gobblers account for most of the harvest, and they do much of the gobbling. Of no surprise, they also are the ones usually attracted to hen talk. Last spring, 48 percent of the harvest consisted of 2-year-olds, compared to 54 percent in 2010. In fact, over the past 10 years, 2-year-old gobblers have made up an average of 50 percent of the total harvest.

Biologists did see a larger percentage of 3-year-old toms and older taken in 2011. Thirty-one percent of the birds checked in were 3-plus-year-olds, compared to 28 percent in 2010. The average number of 3-plus-year-old birds for the past 10 years was 26 percent.

THE BIG PICTURE

Indiana turkey hunters now have more hunting lands than ever before. The increase in turkeys has led to both private and public land opportunities. No doubt, leased lands are now beginning to limit private-land possibilities, but Hoosier National Forest, found in portions of nine southern counties, continues to offer outstanding hunting. Additionally, there are several surrounding state forests. Combined, they total 400,000-plus acres.

Backs said that gobbler counts at Hoosier National Forest and state forests have suggested that there are a lot of birds there. "We're not seeing a decline on our public areas any more than we see on private lands," claimed Backs.

If you're hunting the northern portion of Indiana, Backs said that Pigeon River FWA is still one of the best. Additionally, Huntington FWA (previously Huntington Reservoir) could someday become one of the better areas. Backs added that they are downsizing some of the campgrounds and converting them back to habitat.

Backs suggested hunters consider Willow Slough FWA and Winamac FWA in northwestern Indiana. He said that Winamac lies directly in a block of superb turkey habitat. However, these FWAs and other top-producing northern FWAs are on a draw-only system.

In 2012, Indiana's 43rd turkey season, Hoosier hunters will again get 19 days to try and tag a gobbler in the state's 92 counties. Season dates are April 25 thru May 13. So will Backs go out on a limb and predict a record harvest? Or could it be that low brood production will result in a lower harvest than last spring?

"It's extremely difficult to make a forecast, given the poor brood production and the fact that we are in this transitional period. It's not as easy as when things were increasing and increasing. I'd like to think that we're going to be somewhere around 12,000 birds next spring, which puts us pretty much where we were," hinted Backs.

Backs did imply that the harvest could easily fluctuate up or down by 1,000. However, he reminded me of how great it was when we harvested 10,000-plus turkeys more than a decade ago. He said that nobody ever thought we could do that, yet we have surpassed that mark. And who knows, it could be that we might have harvested even more birds last spring had it not been for foul weather. Backs wrapped it up by saying that we might have stockpiled a few extra gobblers last year, simply because there were wet areas that hunters couldn't get to.

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