G&F Forecast: Mississippi Turkey Hunting in 2013

G&F Forecast: Mississippi Turkey Hunting in 2013
Trevor Nalan (left) bagged a gobbler on the last day of his last youth season thanks to persistence and some help from his uncle, Ken Schuler. Photo by Tim Ackarman.

Many Magnolia State wild turkey enthusiasts are comparing the present condition of Mississippi's turkey flock to the ones seen in the late 1980s when the state's turkey population exploded to phenomenal levels. And while some areas have faced setbacks due to poor reproduction resulting from flooding and/or cold, wet spring weather in recent years, even these regions are seeing much improvement. Then there are areas like southwest and east central Mississippi that consistently churn out incredible turkey numbers year after year.

Each year, wildlife biologists with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks utilize numerous data sets to aid them in estimating what the turkey numbers will be during the upcoming season. Due to the fact that jakes are off limits to adult hunters during Mississippi's spring turkey season, the brood survey data from 2011 and jake observations per hour from the 2012 season are paramount in determining the potential success that awaits turkey hunters in each of the state's five turkey regions in 2013. And while carryover of older gobblers is an important factor, it is the overall number of 2-year-old gobblers that hold the key to our hunting success each spring.

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.

Nesting conditions for most of the Magnolia State in 2011 were not up to par with those experienced in 2010. This reduced hatch will likely result in a decrease in the number of 2-year-old birds that hunters encounter during the 2013 season. However, the carryover of older gobblers not harvested in 2012 should help balance everything out. Just keep in mind that these seasoned gobblers won't be as susceptible to being lured into shotgun range as their younger inexperienced counterparts.

"The decrease in 2011 reproduction was not experienced in every region of the state," said Adam Butler, MDWFP Wild Turkey Program Biologist. "This means that many areas of Mississippi should provide the state's turkey hunters with another productive season."

Butler also noted that the 2012 hatch was the best the state has seen in over a decade. More poults on the ground in 2012 mean more 2-year-old gobblers for hunters to chase in 2014. And that is great news for turkey hunters across the Magnolia State.

TURKEY HUNTING TACTICS

Turkey hunters in Mississippi, or anywhere in the Deep South for that matter, can attest to the fact that Eastern gobblers are the toughest species of turkey out there to hunt. That's not to say that the other species aren't challenging; they simply don't receive the hunting pressure our Eastern birds experience as a result of liberal bag limits, extremely long seasons, and huge numbers of turkey hunters. In order to bag one of these shrewd old birds, a turkey hunter must be willing to put in the extra effort and dig deep into his bag of tricks.

My good friend, "Cuz" Strickland of Mossy Oak fame and a legend in the Mississippi turkey woods, once described these high-pressured gobblers as politicians. When I asked him how he could compare such a fine game bird to a politician, he responded, "Because they promise you a lot and give you very little!"

Once the hordes of hunters take to the woods in mid-March, owling and calling at first light, the old gobblers that were so talkative only a few weeks earlier become hush-mouthed and extremely hard to locate. The few birds that remain vocal, survive by flying off the roost in the opposite direction of the early morning callers, causing great frustration for the hunters.

For most turkey hunters, the ideal Southern turkey hunt consists of setting up near a roosted bird, making a few seductive calls at daybreak, and having a logger-headed longbeard come strutting, drumming, and gobbling into shotgun range. The problem is that this scenario is a rare occurrence in the Mississippi turkey woods. Instead, most turkey hunts end shortly after they begin, with a dejected hunter heading back to his truck having been outwitted once again by a wily old longbeard. But for those few die-hard hunters that have learned the ways of the wild turkey, they know that the best hunting is yet to come.

While midday turkey hunting is not a traditional method, it can be very productive if you apply the proper tactics. The first thing to remember about turkey hunting in the middle of the day is to take your time and be patient. There is an old adage among midday turkey hunters that says, "If you're sweating, then you're moving too fast."

You may be surprised at how much ground you can cover and how much more game you encounter by moving along at a slow, cautious pace.

Each time you approach a likely looking spot, just sit down and call for a while. Give each set up at least 30 minutes before moving on to a new location. And whether you get a reply from a gobbler or not, stay alert and keep your gun at the ready. Just because a turkey refuses to answer doesn't mean he isn't on his way. On the other hand, if a gobbler does respond to your calls at this time of day, you can bet it won't be long before he makes his grand appearance.

Although I love to call to turkeys as much as anyone, sometimes the most deadly lure a hunter can have in his arsenal is silence. At times an old gobbler's curiosity can lead to his demise. For example, if you get an old tom responding to your calling and then you shut up, the gobbler occasionally just marches right over to see if the hen really had the audacity to leave in the middle of their conversation.

I first implemented the "silent treatment" on an old boss gobbler years ago at the suggestion of my mentor and turkey-hunting partner, Bruce Brady. I had been in pursuit of the same old longbeard for 28 straight days with no success. Having tried every call, every setup, and every technique that I had ever heard or read about, I was on the verge of admitting defeat. That's when Mr. Bruce told me about the "silent treatment". It was a tactic as yet untried, so I agreed.

When I hooted at dawn, the old tom gobbled right on schedule, and we moved in and set up. We made no calls until the gobbler flew down from his roost. At the sound of his wing beats, Mr. Bruce began a series of loud cackles on his box, and I followed suit on my slate. We were attempting to sound like several hens that were excited by the gobbler's arrival.

The old gobbler blasted back with a booming gobble. We cackled again, and he double-gobbled. Mr. Bruce grinned and whispered, "Now, let's see how he likes a little silence." The tom raged and gobbled for most of an hour, but we made no reply. And then the old gobbler hushed.

"Get ready! He's on his way!" Mr. Bruce excitedly whispered.

Cautiously, I slipped the safety off and eased the gun to my shoulder. It seemed an eternity had passed before he suddenly appeared like a ghost 30 steps away. As he passed behind the trunk of a large pine, I moved the barrel of my shotgun into position. When he reappeared, I killed him cleanly with a headshot.

That hunt taught me an important lesson about hunting longbeards that I have never forgotten. Almost every successful hunt for one of these wise old birds begins and ends with patience. The hunt basically boils down to which has the most patience — you or the gobbler.

There are two trains of thought when it comes to calling techniques. One is to call loud and aggressively, while the other is to call soft and cautiously. The heavily hunted birds that call the Magnolia State home have heard it all and are, frankly, tired of hearing it. And even though cutting, cackling, loud yelping and other types of aggressive calling has a place in turkey hunting, a more subtle approach seems to work better for our wary gobblers. In many cases, these birds have had bad experiences with their fair share of loudmouthed "hens". A few soft yelps and a couple of seductive purrs might be just what a shell-shocked longbeard wants to hear.

Another tactic that I have found to be productive is gobbling. However, the utmost caution should be used when applying this technique, especially on public land. This tactic should only be used as a last resort, and only if you believe there are no other hunters in the area. This tactic seems to work best on birds that respond readily to your calling, but refuse to come in close enough for a clean shot. Whether it's a matter of jealousy or being territorial, this tactic often results in an otherwise wary gobbler losing his cool and rushing in on a dead run to show the intruder who is the boss of the woods. Either way, gobbling is a good way to bring in an old tom when nothing else seems to work.

The key to success when hunting Mississippi longbeards is to be both patient and persistent. You must accept the fact that your hunt most likely will not begin and end on the same day. And even though getting hung up on a single boss gobbler for the entire season is a good possibility, I can't think of any better challenge for a turkey hunter.

TURKEY HUNTING HOTSPOTS

The Magnolia State boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning. Here are a few of the better public land options in the state for hunting wild turkeys.

When it comes to the top Wildlife Management Areas for hunting wild turkeys, the guys at MDWFP tend to shy away from highlighting specific WMAs. They understandably don't want to place any undue hunting pressure on a particular WMA. However, hunters that study the data in the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey can easily identify the better turkey WMAs in the state. And if Mississippi turkey hunters want more details about a specific WMA or the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey, they can find everything they need by visiting the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Web site at www.mdwfp.com.

Based on data from the 2012 Mississippi Wild Turkey Report, the top-producing WMAs in Turkey Region 1 in the northeast are Upper Sardis and Chickasaw WMAs.

Upper Sardis WMA is a 42,274-acre area located within the Holly Springs National Forest near Oxford in Lafayette County. The first two weeks of the regular spring season are permit-only hunts on this WMA.

Chickasaw WMA offers 28,000 acres of quality turkey habitat nestled within the Tombigbee National Forest near Houston in Chickasaw County.

Due to the impacts of flooding on the turkey population in Turkey Region 2 in the Mississippi Delta, hunter success is expected to be lower than other regions in the state. However, of all the public tracts in the Delta, the 60,000-acre Sunflower WMA located entirely in the Delta National Forest near Rolling Fork in Sharkey County shows the most promise. Turkey season on Sunflower runs from April 9 through May 1 with the first week allowing hunting by special permit only.

Turkey Region 3 in the east central\ part of the state offers a trio of excellent turkey-hunting opportunities in Bienville, Caney Creek and Tallahala WMAs. All three of these WMAs, totaling over 82,000 acres, are located in the Bienville National Forest and are scattered across Scott, Smith, Jasper, and Newton Counties.

In order to reduce hunting pressure during the early season, the first several days of the season are limited to permitted hunters who applied for the special draw period and were randomly selected.

Unfortunately the majority of Turkey Region 4 in the southwest is comprised of private property. Sandy Creek WMA with its 16,407 acres located near Natchez in Adams and Franklin counties and surrounded by the Homochitto National Forest is the top pick for this region. Hunting during the first two weeks of the season on this WMA is limited to permitted hunters through a draw process.

Recently acquired Canemount WMA in Claiborne County offers hunters a unique opportunity to experience 3,500 acres of the finest public lands turkey hunting to be found in the country. However, turkey hunting on Canemount WMA is by special permit only. And these limited permits are sure to be in high demand.

Turkey Zone 5 in the southeast is home to two excellent wild turkey WMAs in Chickasawhay and Leaf River. The DeSoto National Forest encompasses both of these WMAs.

The 35,000-acre Chickasawhay WMA is located in Jones County, while Leaf River and its 41,411 acres lies farther to the south in Perry County.

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