2012 South Carolina Turkey Forecast

After several consecutive years of having to hunt turkeys on a lengthy down cycle in their population, gobbler chasers in South Carolina will finally have more turkeys to hunt in 2012 than in several years.

According to Charles Ruth, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor, the turkey population has finally been given the boost it needed, with two consecutive years of good recruitment of turkeys into the population. Ruth says this bodes well for hunters in this 2012 season and even in to 2013.

Ruth notes that overall recruitment numbers from poults born last spring were up in 2011 and were almost as good as the numbers in 2010, which were the best numbers in several years.

"This is the first time since 2001 and 2002 that we've had positive recruitment numbers for consecutive years," Ruth said. "This certainly enhances the outlook for a good harvest in the 2012 turkey season. We already have a good number of birds that were jakes in the 2011 season in the population and now we have a good crop of young birds in 2011. That should also translate into potentially good hunting for 2013 as well."

Ruth said that the overall record harvest for turkeys was in 2002 when the population was flourishing, but habitat conditions since that time have changed.

"Having two good years after several poor ones will not likely translate into a super-sized harvest in 2012," Ruth said. "There are other habitat and total number of turkeys reproducing that are factors now. Some key things are different than nine or ten years ago. However, I'd say the number of jakes and gobblers in the woods should be up for the next couple of years.

"We're not predicting a record harvest by any means — too much habitat change has occurred and the overall population of turkeys is down considerably, so even with two good years, we're not back where we were," he added. "But on the positive side we'll have a lot of 2-year-old gobblers in the woods this season and typically when we have a good recruitment year, a lot of the harvest the following year is of juvenile birds, or jakes. That will likely be the case in 2012. Combine the two and with decent weather for the hunters, we should have a very good season in terms of harvest. Hunters should definitely encounter more gobblers in the woods this spring."

Ruth said that annually since the early 1980's the SCDNR conducts a Summer Turkey Survey to estimate reproduction and recruitment of turkeys in South Carolina. The survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public.

He said that although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer, because that way the survey documents only the poults that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall.

"Reproduction in 2010 was the best in a number of years and although indicators were not quite as strong in 2011, the indicators remained good this year," said Ruth. "The average brood size of 4.2 poults and the total recruitment ratio (TRR) of 2.3 were down only slightly from last year, which was the best year since 2004. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. These solid figures were driven by the second lowest percentage of hens that had no poults (46 percent) in 6 years. At the regional level it appears that reproduction was generally good in most of the state, with the lower coastal plain being an exception. For reasons I cannot explain, the lower coastal plain did not have as good a year. The best recruitment by far was in the Piedmont portion of the state with a TRR of 2.7. The Midlands had a TRR of 2.1, the Northern Coastal Plains a 2.0 TRR and the Southern Coastal Plains a 1.6 TRR."

Ruth said he is unsure why reproduction in turkeys improved the past two years.

"In the Southeast Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations, with heavy rainfall coupled with cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood rearing season leading to poor reproductive success," he said. "Reproduction was generally poor between 2005 and 2009, however, it has been much better the last two years. Is difficult to say that there was anything related to the weather that contributed to the previous decline or recent improvement in reproductive success.

"Harvest trends have followed the trends in reproduction in recent years and we saw a slight increase in harvest in the 2011 spring season, which coincided with the better reproduction in 2010," he said. "With two successive years of better reproduction the number of turkeys available during the spring of 2012 season should the best in a number of years. More importantly, the number of mature gobblers, 2 year old birds, should be the highest we have seen for a while."

Another positive note, says Ruth, is the gobbler-to-hen ratio remained good with a statewide average of 0.76 — the highest in 5 years. Many experts believe that when gobbler to hen ratios get below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be impacted because the number of real hens available to gobblers is so that it affects both gobbling and the gobblers' responsiveness to calling by hunters.

"The bottom line," Ruth said, "is the type of reproduction we have had the last two years is exactly what we need to overcome less-than-desirable reproduction in previous years. That is the nice thing about turkeys: given the right conditions they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time."

The issue most hunters now face is exactly where to hunt the birds. Many hunters have access to good private land via club memberships or owning large tracts of land. But according to Ruth, some of the better hunting in the state actually comes from a number of the Wildlife Management Areas (WMA's) across the state.

"The Wildlife Management Areas offer hunters throughout the state access to some excellent turkey hunting opportunities," Ruth said. "The key for many is to not dismiss them simply because of the fact others will be hunting them. If hunters get off the beaten path in those large WMA's they can find secluded areas where they can enjoy very good hunting.

"When you look at the large WMA's, for example, the Francis Marion National Forest, which consists of 250,000 acres, and the Sumer National Forest, which is broken into three very large segments in the piedmont and upstate, you have some outstanding turkey hunting opportunities. I've looked at the data on turkey harvest for last year and previous years. While we do not keep records on how many turkeys are harvested specifically on these large WMA's, you can look at the counties where they are located and see a lot of turkeys are harvested in those counties. It's almost as simple as how the hunting on these large WMA's goes, that's how the county will stack up. A lot of those birds killed in those counties come from these WMA's.

"A perfect example is Berkeley County," Ruth said. "A lot of this county is encompassed by the Francis Marion National Forest. Berkeley County had a good harvest year in 2011 and the simple fact is many of those turkeys were harvested from the Francis Marion National Forest. The Forest simply comprises a huge portion of this county. While the entire Francis Marion Forest suffered with poor turkey habitat for a long time after Hurricane Hugo, for the past few years, the habitat has responded well and the turkey hunting success is up and increasing. The hunting is good once again."

Ruth says that local hunters certainly take advantage of it, but many outside the local area don't realize the quality of hunting available there now.

Ruth believes the key is to get familiar with a certain section of the forest and hunt it. He notes that finding the right habitat is the key on the Francis Marion area. Some of the management practices employed in recent years such as burning, thinning pine forests and clearing thick areas have enhanced turkey habitat. The best way to find these areas is to get out in the woods and look.

Another key to success is learning the roosting areas, which revolve around the swampy bottoms scattered through the forest. That's the area to begin the morning and try to hook up with a gobbler early. As the day progresses, the birds will roam more and will often get into the open fields, food plots and even in the pine stands. Beware of other hunters and don't intrude into areas they are hunting, but do stay mobile. By covering enough territory, you can enjoy excellent hunting in this big public tract of land in 2012.

The same is true for any of the open access large WMA's such as the Sumter National Forest.

The areas where this public hunting land is located are among the best recruitment areas of the year in 2011 and they were also excellent in 2010. The combination of consecutive very good years means here's a lot of turkeys in those areas.

According to the SCDNR data, the piedmont and mountain areas where these tracts of lands are located were actually by far the most productive in 2011 for turkey recruitment. that means a lot more legal birds in 2012 and likely many more long-bearded 2-year-old gobblers in 2013.

Hunters in these area should be in excellent shape for the next couple of years at least, probably longer. Of course that high recruitment in 2011goes for private land as well, but it is particularly important on public lands for hunters who take advantage of WMA opportunities.

There is another area of excellent turkey hunting located in the lowcountry — three tracts of land located close to one another and that open for hunting on April 1. The combination of the Webb Center, Palachucola WMA and the Hamilton Ridge WMA make one of the better turkey-hunting opportunities for public-land hunters in the state. These WMA properties are located in Hampton County, which is generally prime turkey habitat anyway, especially near the Savannah River where these properties are located.

The size of the three adjacent properties is another factor that Charles Ruth said is excellent for hunters. The Hamilton Ridge area covers 13,281 acres; Palachucola covers 6,757 acres and the Webb Center has a total of 5,866 acres of land. The total land available in the three areas totals 25,904 acres, making it a sizable WMA for turkey hunters.

"In addition, on the Webb Center, we have full time staff that actively manages the land," he said. "Thus, there are food plots, controlled burns conducted and other management techniques that create excellent habitat."

In addition to these county areas, there are also a few WMA's that need to be noted as worthwhile. You find information on these and many more potentially good WMA's in the SCDNR Rules and Regulations. Check regulations closely and you can call the numbers listed for more information. Sizeable areas that should produce quality hunting in 2012 include the Oak Lee WMA, a 2,000 area in Clarendon County; the 10,470 area Crackerneck WMA in Aiken County and the 8,048 acre Donnelly WMA in Colleton County.

These locations can add to your already targeted areas for turkey hunting success, or they can simply provide you with a change of scenery and opportunity located in good turkey woods. But from the lowcountry to the coast, to the midlands and mountains, South Carolina once again has more gobblers than in recent years.

That certainly doesn't mean they're easy to harvest. Turkeys are still turkeys and provide plenty of challenges even when abundant. While they are more numerous than in recent years, they are not as abundant as long-time hunters will remember around the 2000 to 2002 timeframe, when record harvests were recorded.

But it is good to have the birds making a good comeback. Finally.

With new or old favorite places, there's still no substitute for scouting prior to the hunt. If possible, work scouting new areas into your schedule, even if you have to do some mid-day scouting after a early morning hunt. By expanding the areas you have access to hunt and increasing your knowledge of those lands in terms of turkey habitat, you can add more opportunities to your potential success.

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