2012 Tennessee Turkey Forecast

It was a struggle to contain my excitement. Another great spring turkey season had begun here in Tennessee. My longtime hometown friends, Drew Turner and his father Andy Turner, had traveled from the backwoods of South Carolina's Piedmont to join my dad and me for a hunt in the Tennessee turkey woods.

I could think of no better way to introduce them to the awesome hunting opportunities in the state than on public land. As it turned out, by the end of the weekend, there were no regrets regarding that decision.

SAMPLING THE HUNTING

We began our morning in a small section of standing timber on part of the Percy Priest Wildlife Management Area near the lake. We strapped on our turkey vests, grabbed our guns, and set out into the dark morning.

Once in the woods, at least five mature toms answered our array of locator calls. We also heard the raspy yelp-like gobbling of a few jakes. At this point, we all realized this would be a good morning, whether or not we successfully bagged a bird.

After splitting into two groups, Drew and I made our way to the northernmost and most vocal tom as my father, Jay, and Andy locked in on a different tom. After crossing several ditches and small creeks, we reached the approximately 100-yard mark from the still roosted toms. It was as close as I felt we could safely approach the birds without spooking them in the open, early-spring woods. We quickly made our set up among the roots of two, century-old oaks.

It was a breathtaking scene. The sun's gleam reflecting from dew-covered new spring foliage made my eyes hurt. The glass-smooth lake in the background only made it better.

Taking the excitement up another notch, the tom in front of us was on a rant. In the distance, so were his flock mates that Jay and Andy were pursuing at the same moment. The sheer number of birds talking from the limbs was astounding. Five mature toms and at least 10 hens were making themselves known.

But, after the flock pitched down, there was not a gobble to be heard. Wise birds that value their lives stay quiet while on the ground. That's a result of the hunting pressure on this WMA. It's a common theme on public areas with lots of hunting pressure.

The sun continued to rise, and through the dense underbrush surrounding the lake, the turkeys appeared. Drew slowly twist himself into firing position. The birds meandered closer and the lead turkey stepped into clear view. It was a yearling jake, and I hoped Drew would realize the fact and wait for a longbeard. Instead, he fired. At the shot several other turkeys that we had not seen were appeared, as they sprinted for the next county.

Still, I was very pleased to have helped Drew fill his very first turkey tag. Over the next three days, our party killed three more gobblers on the WMA. The smallest of that trio of toms was a 23-pound bird with a 10-inch beard. It also was Drew's first mature gobbler.

Our hunt was just a sample of the many successful turkey seasons have begun this way here on the Volunteer State's turkey-rich public land.

LOOKING BACK

Reviewing the harvest information from last year may help guide you to your own longbeard this season, which runs from March 31 to May 13.

When long-time Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Executive Director Gary Myers retired, a lot of shuffling of positions began in the agency. Among those moving was Wild Turkey Project Leader Gray Anderson, who was appointed to Assistant Chief of Wildlife. That created a vacancy that was fill by Chris Hunter as the TWRA's new statewide turkey biologist. Let's see what he had to say regarding the past hunting season and what is to come.

STATEWIDE

The spring 2011 season harvest was right on track with the last half-decade average.

"The spring of 2011 was another successful year for Tennessee turkey hunters," Chris Hunter confirmed. "There were a total of 34,019 birds harvested during the spring Tennessee turkey season. This falls right in line with the average over the last five years. For the spring season, 86 percent of the harvest was gobblers."

Hunter said he believes the turkey population has leveled out. But, even with a stable population, actual hard numbers fluctuate from year to year.

"The harvest outlook for 2012 is right on target," Hunter offered. "The TWRA turkey program has moved from the restoration phase of stocking turkey to a management phase. We are expecting a statewide stable trend in the turkey population over the next few years."

So what is the TWRA goal for wild turkey management now?

"Our goal is to ensure that a vigorous, self-sustaining population is maintained in all suitable habitats of the state," Hunter said, and then added that the goal has basically been accomplished.

"We are optimistic that the population trend has moved from increasing to a stable self-sustaining population and should remain that way in the foreseeable future."

Keeping track of the success or failure of each spring's turkey hatch tells a lot about future potential harvest success.

"Because of the change over in the turkey coordinator position," Hunter pointed out regarding last year's hatch, "this data has not been analyzed for 2011. Over the last five years, the statewide spring hatch has averaged 2.4 poults per hen in August."

Hunter also addressed the question of whether fall hunting has an impact on spring success.

"Historically, very few birds have been harvested during the fall season, averaging approximately 1,500 birds per year over the last five years," he pointed out. "This is so few birds statewide — less than 1 percent of the overall turkey population — that there should not be an impact on the spring seasons and the overall turkey population.

"In 2011, the fall season was moved from December to October and a couple of extra days added," the biologist continued. "We are on track to harvest 2,500 birds for fall 2011, which is up over the previous fall season's averages. This is still less than 1 percent of the total population."

The estimated statewide population in Tennessee is 300,000 birds.

"This estimate has been taken from other state models, similar to our harvest models, in which the total male harvest for an individual year averages around 11 percent of the population," Hunter explained. "Since we harvest 30,000-plus males per year, this is where the estimate was obtained."

"Our goal is to ensure that a vigorous, self sustaining population is maintained in all suitable habitats of the state," Hunter added.

Judging by recent years' total harvests, the goal for the state has been met.

Another aspect of the harvest to consider is hunter participation, which equals hunting pressure. Has the ongoing economic woes had an impact on hunter numbers?

"Turkey hunter numbers have remained high even during the recession, indicating just how popular the sport is in the state," Hunter said "There has been a record spring harvest, in 2010, and several near-record spring harvests over the last five years, so there seems to be no impact on harvest. There are an estimated 100,000 turkey hunters and this falls in line with the overall average since 2007."

Of course, there's another aspect of the recession that plays out in the turkey woods. The TWRA budget for wild turkey management has taken hits.

"The TWRA turkey budget is (composed) personnel time, with a small supply budget," Hunter described. "There are no dedicated agency funds. Most on-the-ground work is done through the National Wild Turkey Federation Super Fund."

As TWRA Turkey Coordinator, Chris Hunter is on the NWTF Technical Committee.

WHAT'S AHEAD?

The top 10 counties statewide for the 2011 spring turkey harvest in descending order were Maury, Greene, Dickson, Montgomery, Sumner, Rutherford, Henry, Wilson, Hardin, and Hickman. But, even outside these counties there were an abundance of mature toms throughout Tennessee. A successful hunt can be found relatively anywhere across the Volunteer State.

The heavier than average rains during the poult maturation stage in 2011, however, did cause state biologists some concern about the coming spring seasons. That problem suggests there will be fewer jakes in the woods in 2012. Also, the 2 1/2-year-old toms that make up the bulk of each year's harvest will be scarcer in 2013.

A ground nesting bird like the turkey is vulnerable to many things, and especially rainfall. During the time between poults hatching being old enough to find protection beneath a hen's wings on the roost, the young birds are most at risk. A small flood can ruin nests and hypothermia kills sensitive poults.

While having a negative influence on turkey population numbers, last springs rains were only heavy enough to cause a short-term decline in flock growth.

REGION I

Region 1 Big Game Biologist Chad Hardin is in touch with the condition of his region's wild turkey flock.

"Some areas have been hit hard because of heavy spring rains and flooding in recent years," he agreed.

That is in line with the overall assessment for the state, but even at this regional level is should only have a nominal impact due to the rock solid population.

The county with the most impressive harvest data for Region 1 is Henry. The hunters of this county rounded out the spring season with a total harvest of 709 birds.

The Land Between The Lakes WMA on the state's northern border had the highest harvest numbers for any public land in this region. This particular WMA also was the second highest yielding public tract statewide. It gave up 93 total birds during the 2011 spring season. Expect the LBL WMA to again rank well in the coming season.

REGION II

The turkey biologist duties for the middle Tennessee region are split between Tabitha Lavacot and Russ Skoglund. Lavacot is the new biologist for the southern part of the region, while Skoglund manages the northern half.

These biologists also believe the spring hatch in their region was impacted by the heavy precipitation.

The top WMAs for harvest in 2011 in Region II were Cheatham WMA and Cheatham Lake WMA. Harvest records show 66 birds killed during the 2011 season on this pair of public tracts.

Maury County was the highest yielding county for the region, and also was the statewide leader. The county yielded 949 birds.

Expect the same WMAs and county to again lead the way in 2012.

REGION III

Region III in the east central portion of the state is also predicted to have an average harvest in 2012, consistent with the past five years.

Ben Layton, the TWRA biologist for the region, reported Overton County as the harvest leader for Region III in 2011. That was based on a harvest of 520 gobblers. That ranked Overton as No. 21 among last year's highest yielding counties here in Tennessee.

Layton's pick as the safest bet for success on public land within this region is the Catoosa WMA.

REGION IV

Region IV is in the eastern portion of the Volunteer State and contains a lot of mountainous high ground. While not offering the best turkey action in the state, the region provides a different style of hunt because of that terrain.

The public land centerpiece for Region IV is the Cherokee WMA, spanning more than 700,000 acres along the North Carolina border. The property is all within the Cherokee National Forest.  Turkeys can be hard to find here, but the sheer size of the area guarantees the presence of a viable number of toms.

While you can enjoy some of the most beautiful terrain in the state when hunting here, to find a bird requires investing in a good pair of hiking boots.

Due to the size of this WMA it is managed is split between the North and South Cherokee tracts. South Cherokee had the state's highest WMA harvest of 182 toms.

But there is a caveat.

"Cherokee has more birds harvested per year, but it covers seven counties," explained Dan Gibbs, the biologist managing wild turkeys for Region IV.

By comparison, Chuck Swan WMA is in one county, and has a higher harvest rate for the acres it cover.

Either of these WMAs could produce great success for turkey hunters next spring.

Greene County was the region leader and ranked No. 2 statewide with 888 toms tagged during the 2011 season.

This coming spring's turkey harvest is predicted to remain the same in the region as a whole.

SUMMING IT UP

With all of TWRA's biologists predicting the 2012 spring turkey harvest to maintain averages, hunters statewide can anticipate good action.

For and in-depth look at harvest data form last spring, go online to TWRA Web site a www.state.tn.us/twra and click the link for Hunter's Toolbox.

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