G&F Forecast: Illinois Turkey Hunting 2013

G&F Forecast: Illinois Turkey Hunting 2013
The author took this Wayne County gobbler last spring even though the bird never gobbled to a call. Photo by John and Vikki Trout.

Illinois 2012 spring turkey season was eerily quiet. It seemed that gobbling had nearly ceased prior to the opener and the mouthy hens were silent. I was concerned the early spring would have a negative effect. However, several hours after first light, a silent gobbler walked into range of my Remington 870. As my husband, John, and I headed back to the truck, we conversed about the morning and wondered what other Illinois hunters (John included) were facing this year.

Surprisingly, Illinois spring turkey hunters increased the harvest by taking 15,941 birds (preliminary figure) in 2012, as compared to 15,121 in 2011.

It appears that the early spring we experienced in the south zone was typical statewide. Hunters were talking about the warm temperatures, but thrilled to experience a lot less rain than in 2011.

On the flipside, however, Illinois spring turkey hunters throughout the state were cursing the extremely thick foliage. Some hunters even reported seeing hens with poults during the latter turkey hunting seasons!

The NWTF offers a more detailed hunt guide with exclusive, member-only information prepared by NWTF biologists and field staff. To access this information please join the NWTF. Please check with your local wildlife agency to confirm seasonal information before planning your hunt, as information is subject to change.

I spoke with Paul Brewer, Wild Turkey Program manager about the early spring and how it affected nesting hens, hatching and brood production. He shared with me that, according to field reports received thus far, broods came very early in 2012. However, there was a decline in the number of young turkeys per hen.

"We did have a number of reports from the field of very early broods this year. We just finished tabulating the data from our normal annual June, July and August brood survey, which showed a slight decline in the number of young turkeys per hen that was observed (2.03 poults per hen compared with 2.19 last year). This decline conflicts with some reports we had from our field biologists, particularly in the northwest and southern part of the state. There were a few factors this summer that had a negative effect on brood visibility for our observers. Very early planting resulted in tall and well-developed crop fields during the normal brood observation period.

"In addition, extremely hot and dry weather may have kept hens and young turkeys closer to available water sources and in more shaded locations. Hot weather also reduced the amount of time many of our observers were in the outdoors to make observations," stated Brewer.

NORTH AND SOUTH ZONE COMPARISONS

North Zone spring turkey hunters led the harvest once again as hunters managed to take 8,935 as compared to 8,652 harvested in 2011.

South Zone hunters increased their harvest tally by 537 gobblers as they bagged 7,006 turkeys. The interesting part of this statistic is that North Zone spring turkey hunters usually lead South Zone hunters. Could it be that South Zone turkeys are increasing in number more than North Zone birds? Could the South Zone lead the way again in 2013?

Brewer suggested that you could not base an opinion on only one year of statistics.

"It is possible that someone may try and make that conclusion, but it is not wise to base any assumptions about big swings in turkey populations based on a single year of harvest information. Variations in weather, particularly on weekends, can have a big effect on annual harvest. There are some counties in south-central Illinois and other parts of Illinois that are developing much-improved populations, responding to some of the good habitat provided by agricultural conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program," said Brewer.

Statistics I found fascinating are the increase/decrease of the North and South Zones over the years. It appears that harvest statistics have fluctuated for spring turkey hunters in both zones. However, the North Zone harvest increased by 514 turkeys in 2010 compared to a total 9,135 bearded birds taken in 2009, yet the South Zone increase for 2010 was up 563 birds compared to 6353 birds taken in 2009.

In 2011, both North and South zones showed decreases in harvests. The North Zone decreased by 997, compared to a South Zone decrease of 447 birds. Then, we look at 2012 and see that the North Zone only increased by 283, compared to the larger increase in the South Zone.

TOP-PRODUCING NORTH ZONE COUNTIES

Preliminary figures in North Zone counties with the highest harvests include Jo Daviess hunters with 638 gobblers, Pike 452, Fulton 404, Adams 366 and Macoupin 314.

Jo Daviess County spring turkey hunters bagged 628 gobblers in 2010, dropped to 534 in 2011, but increased their harvest again this year. The county has been a member of the top-five county list for the last eleven years!

It is worth mentioning that in 2012, the top-five producing counties are the same as last year. However, Pike county hunters harvested 522 birds last year, 527 in 2010, but only 452 in 2012.

The Adams County harvest fluctuated from 406 gobblers in 2010 to 366 birds last year, whereas Macoupin County hunters decreased their harvest by 32 turkeys since 2010.

Many spring turkey hunters had concerns that the heavy rains we experienced in 2011 may negatively affect nesting hens. Fortunately, most of the rain fell prior to nesting and hens had to seek higher ground before laying eggs. I asked Brewer his opinion on the higher harvest rate in 2012. He agreed that weather combined with the early spring had a positive impact on the total number of turkeys.

"The mild winter that preceded the hunting season very likely improved the survival of wild turkeys. That, combined with excellent weather during the hunting season, likely contributed to the increased harvest," said Brewer.

South Zone counties that made the top-five producing counties in 2012 are Jefferson, Wayne, Pope, Randolph and Marion. These counties harvested 468, 386, 380, 332 and 331 respectively.

Jefferson County consistently makes the top-five county list. In 2011, Illinois had had the wettest spring in recorded history. Yet, Jefferson County actually increased its harvest by 6 birds, compared to 2010. This increase is not dramatic. However, taking into consideration the number of hunters in the field that decreased because of rain, this is good news for future Jefferson County spring turkey hunters.

Union County was included on the top-five list in 2011, with a preliminary figure of 314 harvested birds. The final statistic for 2011 was 324, whereas the preliminary result for this year dropped to 290, which removed it from the top-five counties.

While researching statistics for this story, I found some interesting facts for the North and South Zones. It seems that South Zone spring turkey hunters have increased their harvest each year since 2007 with the exception of 2011. They bagged 6,125 turkeys in 2007, 6,287 in 2008, 6,353 in 2009, and 6,916 in 2010, but decreased to 6,469 in 2011.

Many spring turkey hunters probably recall the harvest record-setter year of 2006, but it is worth mentioning that although South Zone hunters harvested 6,371 birds that year, it falls short of the 6,916 taken during the 2010 seasons. When compared to last years harvest of 7,006, it appears that South Zone numbers are definitely on the rise.

North Zone statistics have fluctuated more than the South Zone. In 2006, North Zone spring turkey hunters harvested a record 10,077 birds. That number dropped to 8,642 in 2007, 9,505 in 2008, 9,135 in 2009, 9,649 in 2010 and 8,652 last year.

Weather and several years of poor brood production are factors that have affected harvest statistics, and we know that rain and thunderstorms kept many spring turkey hunters out of the woods in 2011. Fortunately, this didn't occur in 2012, and hopefully won't in 2013.

During the course of my conversation with Brewer, he shared with me that many midwestern states are seeing wild turkey population numbers level off or even decline when weather is cold and wet for consecutive nesting seasons. He also mentioned that Illinois turkey hunters should anticipate fluctuations in the turkey population due to wet weather prior to 2012.

YOUTH SPRING TURKEY HUNTERS

I cannot write about spring turkey season without mentioning the youth. The youth-only season lasts for only two days each in the North and South Zones. In 2012, season dates were March 31 and April 1 for the South Zone and April 7 thru 8 in the North Zone.

In 2012, youth-season hunters harvested a record 1,300 turkeys in both zones. That compares to 748 in 2011 and 737 taken during the special youth-only spring seasons in 2010.

According to Brewer, several factors were responsible for the record youth harvest.

"Excellent hunting weather last year during both weekends was a very important reason for the record harvest. A wet spring in 2011 once again contributed to below-average turkey reproduction in many areas, but a good mast crop and a very mild winter were working in favor of late-spring broods," said Brewer.

Another interesting fact is the number of permits purchased for the special youth season. In 2010, youth permits were available over the counter. There were 3,442 youth permits sold for both the North and South Zones. Of that total, 88 permits were issued for Special Hunt Areas (public land sites) and 3,354 sold over the counter. In 2011, 131 permits were issued for Special Hunt Areas and 3,587 sold over the counter. Last year, spring youth season turkey permits totaled 4,100. It included 137 Special Hunt Areas, with 3,963 sold over the counter. These numbers are evidence that more youth are taking to the turkey woods.

Turkey Habitat & Areas

Habitat management is vital to turkey survival. As with many states, recession has played a key role in budget cuts, thus creating a shortage of field staff. However, Illinois is progressing thanks to the help it receives from the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).

"We are making progress in cooperation with our conservation partners in accomplishing goals set forth in the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan's Forest and Woodlands Campaign. The NWTF is working in conjunction with our district foresters and wildlife staff in forestry planning and habitat improvement on private lands, working where possible to improve habitat for wild turkeys and other woodland wildlife," explained Brewer.

Brewer suggested that three new projects have begun in 2012 as the result of Illinois Department Natural Resources (IDNR) wildlife biologists receiving NWTF Super Fund grants to do forest and woodland management and prescribed burning at many locations in Illinois.

He said that officials continue to work cooperatively with NWTF and U.S. Forest Service's Shawnee National Forest with Operation Pin Oak in and around the Oakwood Bottoms area (approximately 14,000 acres in the managed area). This project involves canopy-thinning to get needed sunlight to the ground for oak regeneration, prescribed fire to further help oak regeneration and to provide for improved nesting and brood rearing habitat, and planting of thousands of oak seedlings," shares Brewer.

Brewer also mentioned that thanks to the combined efforts of the NWTF, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other conservation groups, Lake Shelbyville boasts over 900 acres of woodland improvements.

EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013

Brewer and I wrapped up our conversation with his prediction for this upcoming season. He raised my hopes as he shared his forecast.

"While the brood observation information we collected this spring and summer indicates a somewhat lackluster brood production year [following a number of other bad production years] my hope, based on some early field reports, is that we may have slightly better production than our brood survey is indicating. I think our spring hunters can expect to see a season much like last years with perhaps some improvement," offered Brewer.

North Zone spring hunters can begin pursuing turkeys on April 15. South Zone hunters can debut on April 8. The youth-only spring turkey season is slated for April 6-7 in the North Zone, and March 30-31 in the South Zone.

Brewer also shared with me that the Illinois DNR sincerely appreciates the support of outdoorsmen and women out there enjoying all Illinois has to offer.

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