2018 Illinois Turkey Hunting Outlook

IL Turkey Hunting Outlook Feature

Starting with the April 10, 2018, North Zone season opener, turkey hunting will be officially under way throughout Illinois. As in the past, hunting began a week earlier (April 3) in the South Zone. 

   Illinois now has wild turkeys throughout the state where habitat is suitable. Harvests by hunters are now reaching their peak numbers, and habitat improvement projects are underway to continue to ensure the long-term survival of this proud symbol of Illinois' forests and woodlands.

The remarkable return of the wild turkey in Illinois during these last 60 years has been accompanied by renewed interest in this incredible bird. Each year new turkey hunters enter the woodlands and fields with hope of bagging one of the most prized North American game birds.

Veteran hunters continue to participate in the challenge and tradition of turkey hunting while introducing new hunters to this exciting recreational opportunity.

THE 2018 SPRING SEASON

The South Zone's 2018 first season runs April 9-13. The second segment in this zone begins April 14, while the third segment starts April 20. The fourth segment is slated for April 26-May 2 and the fifth and final segment runs from May 3-10.

As a general rule, each of the North Zone's five separate 2018 spring turkey hunts occur a week later than those in the South Zone. The first season is April 16-20, followed by the second season on April 21-26, then the third season April 27-May 2, fourth season May 3-9 and fifth season May 10-17. The South Zone includes Crawford, Jasper, Effingham, Fayette, Bond, Madison and all counties to the south.

The spring turkey season actually kicks off with the special youth hunts. This four-day hunt (two weekends) is when hunters get their first real feel regarding the hunting success that lies ahead.

Like last year, young hunters in both zones will have the same season on two weekends March 31-April 1 and April 7-8.

The spring youth turkey hunt is open only to hunters who have not reached their 18th birthday prior to the opening date of the youth season. Hunters must have an apprentice or youth hunting license, or they must have completed a State Approved Hunter Education course and have a hunting license, unless exempt. In addition hunters must have a Habitat Stamp, unless exempt. 

Youth hunters are limited to one Youth Spring Turkey permit, either a Special Hunt Area Permit or County Permit. And, permits issued for the Spring Youth Turkey Hunt will be counted in the number of permits a person can be issued (no more than three) for the regular Spring Wild Turkey Season. 

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Watch The Video Above For Great Turkey Calling Tips

Spring Youth Wild Turkey Hunting Permits will only be valid for the dates and county (counties) or Special Hunt Area listed on the permit. A Spring Youth Wild Turkey Permit allows the holder to hunt with either a shotgun or bow and arrow. 

Each Illinois Spring Youth Wild Turkey Hunt permit holder using an apprentice or youth hunting license is required to be accompanied by a parent/guardian or grandparent who possesses a valid Firearm Owners Identification (F.O.I.D) Card.

All other hunters using other types of licenses or license exempt may be accompanied by a responsible adult in lieu of a parent, guardian or grandparent. The accompanying adult must be present for the permit holder (youth) to hunt. The adult and/or adult caller is not allowed to hunt, but may accompany the youth hunter as a caller or observer.

LAST SEASON'S SUCCESS

Last year's unofficial harvest totals show the special youth hunt resulted in 1,045 birds compared to 896 the previous year. This year's youth season is again expanded to two weekends and will again likely include another large harvest of wild turkeys.

As with several of the recent spring hunts, Illinois' 2017 spring wild turkey hunt was significantly influenced by the early spring weather. This time, however, it was cooler and wet weather in the later days of the hunt that may have impacted hunter success rates.

Following the nearly five-week 2017 season that concluded May 11 in the North Zone and May 4 in the South Zone, Illinois hunters bagged an unofficial total of 15,719 wild turkeys.

The record spring season harvest occurred in 2006 with a total of 16,605 birds. During this record year, harvests were 6,530 in the South Zone and 10,075 in the North Zone.

Turkey hunters this spring took a preliminary total of 6,842 wild turkeys during all 2017 season segments in the South Zone, a slight increase over the harvest of 6,694 the previous year in the south. The North Zone preliminary harvest total of 8,877 wild turkeys was only slightly higher than the 2016 total of 8,790 in the north.

During 2017, spring turkey hunting was open in 100 of Illinois' 102 counties. The 2017 seasons were April 3-May 4 in the South Zone and April 10-May 11 in the North Zone.

The top counties for spring wild turkey harvest in the South Zone in 2017 were Jefferson (412), Jackson (359), Union (359), Randolph (349), and Pope (348). The top five North Zone counties for spring turkey harvest this year were Jo Daviess (610), Pike (404), Adams (395), Fulton (378), and Hancock (325).

IRAP HUNTING

One newer and particularly popular IDNR turkey hunting program is IRAP — the Illinois Recreational Access Program. In fact, this program has grown substantially in recent years.

IRAP has leased turkey hunting sites from private landowners in 35 Illinois counties.The majority of the sites are at least 40 acres and all have been evaluated for turkey activity to provide the highest possibility for a good hunting experience.

The IRAP locations are hunter-specific and IRAP allows three groups of hunters at these sites. These include Youth (under age 18), First-Time Adult (not have hunted turkey in past five years) and Adult (any qualified hunter).

Youth applicationsareaccepted from November up until 30 days prior to spring season.For youth season, the young hunter will receive confirmation from IRAP within 3 weeks of the hunting dates. Once IRAP has confirmed a site, then the youth hunter can purchase an over-the counter youth turkey permit.

For spring season 3 and 4, the applicant must first obtain a county specific turkey permit through the IDNR permit system (lottery). Be advised that only certain county sites allow youth and/or adult hunting.Once the applicant receives his or her turkey permit, they must immediately fill out the IRAP First-Time Adult Turkey applicationand liability waiver and mail to IDNR - IRAP Turkey Application, Attn: Tammy Miller, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702.

In addition, hunting sites for seasons 3 and 4 are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, when a complete application is received from the applicant with a county specific permit number. Successful applicants will receive a packet of information, including an IRAP parking and site permit, a map and directions to the site approximately three weeks before the start of the season applying for.

Applicants may apply and hunt up to three seasons/sites per year on IRAP property. The hunter's and the landowner's identity are kept private from one another and the hunter should not come in contact with the landowner, unless necessary.

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THIS YEAR'S OUTLOOK 

While Illinois official wild turkey population numbers are rarely, if ever, released, a 2001 estimation sets the number at about 102,000. 

Since then, however, the numbers have declined for a variety of reasons. According to the NWTF, four basic reasons impact turkey numbers.

They say it is production, not predation, driving turkey numbers. And, a significant number of hens won't access quality nesting habitat resulting in poor reproductive success, particularly in periods and areas with high population densities.

This means carrying capacity is an issue, particularly when hens begin nesting in suboptimal habitat. And, vegetation measurements contribute to the success or failure of nesting sites. Little vegetation means little chance at poult survival.

When the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, there were approximately 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. After 40 years of effort, that national number reached a historic high of about 6.7 million turkeys.

Unfortunately, national turkey numbers are down and are estimated at between 6 and 6.2 million birds.

Illinois, too, has seen varying wild turkey populations. However, things are not all that gloomy for hunters this spring. In 2016, the population in many areas enjoyed good reproduction. While the production in 2017 appears to be down a bit, this is also only a situation in localized areas. It is entirely likely that wild turkey numbers will be good in your own favorite hunting grounds.

When it comes to predicting hunting success, most folks typically use either the results from the most recent fall season, or results from the previous spring hunt as a guideline. Each way has its own positive and negative points.

For instance, the most recent fall season does reflect the latest trends in population. However, it also uses the results from very few hunters.

Results from the previous spring hunt are from many more hunters but do not include the nesting success of that year. 

Using a combination of both is probably the most accurate method of predicting hunter success. Currently, the outlook remains bright throughout the entire state. Even if reproductive success was limited in your own personal hunting site, most of the younger birds from 2016 will now reach the two to two-and-one-half age mark. This is the age that most hunters prefer. The birds are adults and readily come to a call.

Recent trends show something of a change in the better locations for hunting turkeys. While there have been no recent changes in Illinois' finest turkey county, Jo Daviess County continues and is expected to reign supreme among Illinois top spots for this bird. It likely comes as no big surprise that this county finished well at the top during the fall season with 43 birds. This county also finished well on top in the spring with an unofficial 610 birds. 

The second-best location is likely where some folks might disagree with us. We now name Jefferson County as the second-best location in Illinois. Here hunters bagged a total of 23 birds last fall. And, the spring hunt resulted in an unofficial 412 birds.

Though much of the land in our third best county, Pike, is tied up in deer hunting leases, it still offers plenty of promise. The two birds harvested last fall do not really reflect the actual population. As mentioned most of the land in this county is in deer leases, and few hunters and clubs are willing to ruin their day of deer hunting by harvesting a turkey. The unofficial spring turkey results of 404 harvested birds reflect the population much better.

Our fourth selection goes to a county that is basically nothing more than a smaller version of the third selection. Adams County finished quite low during the fall hunt for the same basic reasons as Pike. Though hunters bagged only about five birds in the fall, spring hunters recording 395 bearded birds during their season.

Several counties are in the running for our fifth spot. However, we have given our nod to Williamson County. Here, hunters bagged a total of 21 birds during the fall season. Hunters did much better in the spring, as they brought home 308 birds.

While these are our top five general choices for turkey hunting this spring, location within these or other counties likely means even more. In fact, if a big gobbler struts in front of you during your season, that particular spot is likely as good as any.

Though harvest numbers are usually a bit lower in the eastern part of the state, this area can also provide excellent hunting. Winnebago, Iroquois, Vermilion, Clark, Edgar and Effingham counties are among the best spots.

The time is drawing near, and now is the time to stake out your hunting area and begin scouting.

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