Alabama Turkey Forecast for 2016

Turkeys were pretty uncommon 40 years ago. Because of that, my brother and I didn't know much about pursuing them. However, my brother had a beat-up 1964 Ford Falcon that made an excellent hunting vehicle, since it was the only car available to us.

In that car, we frequently bounced over logging roads crisscrossing forests to look for game. That old Falcon squeaked and rattled terribly. However, it apparently emitted a squeak that turkeys liked, or at least found interesting. Whenever we drove the Falcon through hunting lands, turkeys appeared. When the car rattled up a bird, we would stop, grab our shotguns and run through the woods after the very surprised fowl. That, of course, never worked.

Today, it is a little bit easier for Alabama hunters. After decades of habitat restoration and turkey restocking efforts, turkeys now exist across the Cotton State.

"Overall, turkey numbers are good across the state," said Steve Barnett, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries wild turkey project leader in Spanish Fort. "We've seen a decline in reproduction in some areas. The 2015 season was good for some hunters, but a lot of folks did not hear much gobbling. We saw an increase in the number of jakes in 2015 compared to 2014, so this season should be better."

Turkeys can live up to about five years, but hunters typically kill 2-year-old birds. Therefore, hunter success in any given area largely depends upon the breeding success from two years earlier.

While most Alabama sportsmen hunt private lands, many public areas offer excellent opportunities. In the northwestern part of the state, Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area stands out, but Sam R Murphy WMA also ranks high.

Freedom Hills WMA covers 31,868 acres of Colbert County. The area consists mostly of mature upland hardwoods with mixed pine and hardwood forests. During the 2015 season, hunters bagged 50 turkeys on Freedom Hills. In each of the 2012-14 seasons, hunters killed more than 80 birds a year on the property; while in 2013, hunters brought in a 10-year high of 83 birds.

"Hunters have pretty good success each year on Freedom Hills WMA," said Matt Brock, technical assistance biologist. "The habitat diversity is good for turkeys. They did a lot of burning in 2014-15, so it has some pretty good turkey nesting habitat. I think the harvest was down in 2015 because of poor poult production in 2012-14. In the spring of 2015, we saw an increase in poult production compared to the previous two years."

With habitat similar to Freedom Hills, Sam R. Murphy WMA covers 17,625 acres in Lamar and Marion counties near Guin. Much of the habitat consists of loblolly pine in various growth stages. Some hardwoods grow on a few ridges. Hunters pulled about 40 gobblers off the property in 2015.

"We've seen a decline in the poult production statewide in the past few years, but in this district, it's been about average," Brock said. "In northwestern Alabama, the population is overall average, but it's high in some areas. Lamar and Marion counties and some portions of Walker and Fayette counties have high populations. Some places in Colbert County have good turkey populations. It's just spotty, depending upon habitat and land use."

Hunters might consider visiting Choccolocco WMA. Dating to 1940, Choccolocco covers 56,838 acres of Cleburne County. Very hilly, Choccolocco contains mostly restored longleaf pine forests with good ground cover. Some mature hardwood bottomlands dot parts of the property. Hunters bagged 80 gobblers on the property in 2015, up two from 2014. The area produced 129 birds in 2012.

"In general, the counties in District 2 have a good diversity of habitats with numerous new timber harvest scattered throughout," explained Steve Bryant, ADWFF District 2 supervising wildlife biologist. "These tend to make good nesting and brood rearing areas. We are continually doing habitat improvement on all of the WMAs. We also provide advice to private landowners on ways to improve the habitat on their properties."

In northern Alabama, James D. Martin-Skyline WMA covers 60,732 acres of mountainous terrain along the Tennessee line in Jackson County. The rugged area contains abundant hardwoods and some bottomlands, making it a very challenging place to hunt. Skyline produced a 12-year high of 57 gobblers in 2015, up three from the previous year.

Not nearly as mountainous as Skyline, Hollins WMA covers 28,802 acres of Clay and Talladega counties near Hollins. Hunters on Hollins shot 34 turkeys in 2015, down six from the previous year. The area produced as many as 81 turkeys in previous years.

"Skyline WMA has a lot of rugged mountains with abundant hardwoods and some pines," Bryant said. "It also has a reasonable percentage of area managed for early succession vegetation. Hollins is mixed pine and hardwood forest with adequate timber harvest to provide nesting and brood rearing areas."

Choccolocco WMA includes part of the Talladega National Forest, which covers about 392,567 acres east of Birmingham. Also part of the Talladega National Forest, Oakmulgee WMA includes 44,500 acres in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains southeast of Tuscaloosa.

"There are good numbers of turkeys throughout this part of the state," advised Chris Cook, state biologist from Northport. "All of the WMAs in this district have good to very good turkey hunting. People have plenty of options if they want to hunt in this part of the state. The best area in this part of the state, year in and year out, is Oakmulgee WMA."

One of the most scenic public properties in Alabama, Oakmulgee consists of longleaf pine forests on broad, sloping ridges interlaced with steams and floodplains. Hardwoods line several large creeks draining the land. The property only produced 35 turkeys in 2015, down by 20 compared to the previous year, but produced more than 80 gobblers in other recent years.

"Oakmulgee WMA had a really good turkey population for many years," Cook said. "It has a lot of big, open pine woods with a lot of hills. It's a really pretty place to hunt. It has a good mix of open areas, which are good bugging areas for poults as well as good areas for seed-producing plants that turkeys need for food all year long."

Known as one of the traditionally top turkey hunting properties in the state, Oakmulgee attracts a lot of attention. Many out-of-state hunters visit to hunt before the seasons open in their home states. To avoid crowds, hunters may want to hunt during the week or try to find out-of-the-way places.

"Because it has a history of being a really good turkey destination, it attracts a lot of hunters, especially early in the season," Cook said. "People can't hunt turkeys in the afternoon on Oakmulgee WMA, but they can hunt on the Forest Service lands outside the management area. Since most people hunt at first light, many people do better in the afternoon on the Forest Service land than they do in the morning on the WMA."

Also in that part of Alabama, Mulberry Fork and William R. Ireland, Sr.-Cahaba WMAs provide good turkey hunting. Mulberry Fork covers 35,260 acres of Tuscaloosa and Walker counties, producing 19 gobblers in 2015.

The Cahaba River property spreads across 39,859 acres of Bibb and Shelby counties near West Blocton. In 2015, hunters bagged 13 turkeys on it. In 2014, sportsmen knocked down 24 and 40 the previous season.

"Mulberry Fork and William R. Ireland, Sr.-Cahaba River areas are both very good turkey hunting destinations," Cook said. "Both have very similar habitat types with good turkey populations. They don't get the amount of pressure that Oakmulgee gets. The habitat is more pine plantation forests. Most of the hardwoods still there are on really steep slopes that are difficult to log. Portions of each of those areas are reclaimed strip mines."

Known for its rich soil, the Black Belt Region, a well-watered fertile swath, extends across 23 central Alabama counties. In the transition zone between the Black Belt Region and the coastal plain of southeastern Alabama, Barbour WMA covers 28,214 acres of Barbour and Bullock counties. The area consists of varied habitat types including mixed upland pine forests with some hardwood drains, swamps, hills and hollows. Forests of oak and hickory line several streams in the area.

"Barbour WMA has various habitat types with a lot of different age classes and landscape types," explained Adam Pritchett, ADWFF biologist. "People can hunt almost any type of habitat they want on Barbour. The area has some steep terrain, by southern Alabama standards, with mature hardwoods on it.

We have some older mixed pine and hardwood forests and areas that have been clearcut and replanted in the past few years. The northern part of the property has a lot of areas that was cut and replanted in longleaf pines. The habitat variation makes Barbour WMA a great place for turkeys. That provides the habitat and food turkeys need."

Barbour produced 50 gobblers in 2015, down slightly from the 55 that were bagged in 2014. The area produced 69 birds in 2013 and 65 each for 2011 and 2012. A good poult production in 2015 bodes well for future success on the property.

"Reproduction has held pretty steady over the last several years in this area," Pritchett said. "In 2015, we had a very long breeding cycle. We had pretty good poult production from what I saw early in the summer of 2015. In late summer, we saw poults that were almost full grown and some only two or three weeks old."

Further south, Blue Springs WMA covers 24,783 of Covington County near Andalusia. The property sits on part of the 83,000-acre Conecuh National Forest, which borders the northern Florida Panhandle line. Mostly older longleaf pines with some hardwood bottomlands along drains and a few bogs, the property produced 16 turkeys in 2015, compared to 30 in 2014. In some years, the property produced more than 120 turkeys.

These and many other properties across Alabama offer sportsmen abundant opportunities to fool gobblers — or be fooled by them. Either way, it's worth a try. Do a little scouting to get away from the crowds and see what happens.

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