Our Top Turkey Hunts

Turkeys can be found in all of Alabama's counties, and their numbers continue to trend upward. Does that bode well for this year's hunting? (February 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley

A sinus infection, an ear infection and bronchitis in one lung laid Tracy Phillips low, but it didn't knock him out of his favorite pursuit of hunting wild turkeys last spring.

He first started feeling bad when he was out hunting. It got worse later when he was at work and then at home.

"Three shots, a breathing treatment and five prescriptions later, I was sent home from the doctor to rest," Phillips recounted. "The doctor told me to take it easy for the next five to 10 days, and of course I agreed."

One day later, Phillips was back in the woods.

"The shots and drugs had given me a false sense of security that I was well enough to go hunting," he related. "My body failed me about a third of the way up the mountain. I toughed it out but didn't have anything to show for it except a fever."

He ran into his brother-in-law Chip Troy on the way out of the woods. Troy had seen some gobblers and suggested that he and Phillips try them a few days later.

When he went back to their farm in Jackson County that time, Phillips carried inhalers, antibiotics and cough suppressants, as well as his regular turkey hunting gear.

It was pouring rain.

"I'm talking buckets," Phillips said.

He and Troy had a long pre-dawn walk through a newly plowed and muddy field to get to where they were going.

"We finally got to the very back corner of the field at the base of the mountain where the turkeys were last spotted," Phillips said. "By this time, I was sweating profusely and hoping that all those drugs were going to do their job."

The hunters set up in a fencerow below where they thought the gobblers were roosted. Phillips put out a whole flock of decoys, three hens and two jakes. It was a new tactic for him. The turkeys he'd seen had been hush-mouthed and ganged up, so he figured putting out a flock might give him his best shot.

The paint had been peeling off his decoys, but he'd worked to repaint them the night before.

"It was going to be an April Fools' Day hunt, and I had told my wife I had a trick for those gobblers," he said with a grin.

The decoys were set up so they could be seen from an old 4-wheeler trail that came off the mountain.

Just a few minutes after getting them out, Phillips heard a gobbler about 100 yards up the hill. Then he heard some hens and two gobblers responding. Phillips made some calls on his Lynch Jet Slate, and the turkeys gobbled like thunder.

"The hens that were near the gobblers obviously didn't like the competition and pitched down in the direction of the gobblers," Phillips said. "Another gobble indicated that the hens had taken him in the opposite direction."

But then another gobbler sounded off a whole lot closer.

"His next gobble indicated that he was on his way," Phillips noted. "A few minutes later, I saw his black silhouette coming down the 4-wheeler trail."

The gobbler came in a hurry and quickly passed Chip Troy's line of fire before he was ready to shoot.

"This gobbler was ticked off to see two jakes with several hens," Phillips recalled. "His head was cocked and he looked ready to jump on the jakes the whole 30 to 40 yards across the field."

A few steps before he got to the first jake decoy, the gobbler "bowed up," and that's when Phillips let him have a 3 1/2-inch load of copper-plated No. 5 shot.

Phillips said he couldn't think of better medicine than outsmarting a nice gobbler on April Fools' Day.

The tom had a 10 3/4-inch beard and 1-inch spurs and weighed 19 pounds, 2 ounces.

"He's not the biggest bird I've ever taken, but due to all of the adversities, he ranks right up there as one of the best," he said.

Quieter-than-usual toms were reported across the entire Cotton State last year, but this Guntersville hunter's success demonstrates how flexibility and unusual tactics can pay off. Being a good woodsman and observing and understanding what the turkeys are doing is always important, but even more so in a tough season like the one last year.

THE TURKEY SEASON

Alabama continues to be one of the most blessed states in the nation when it comes to hunting spring gobblers. We've got a long month and a half season with a five-bird season limit.

There are thousands of acres of public land on which to pursue the sport if you don't have private ground to access. Even when the action is slow and the toms aren't gobbling their heads off, it's still pretty good.

"Alabama has never had a closed season," said Ron Eakes, one of the two biologists in charge of monitoring the state's turkey flock. "There aren't many states that can say that."

While the gobblers may not have been silent all across Alabama last year, it was a tough season in many quarters.

Eakes heard hunters discussing it too. Biologists aren't entirely sure what causes the birds to quit gobbling some years, but it's believed that the physical condition of turkeys plays a role in it.

"If it has been a tough year with not a lot to carry them through the winter, gobbling is often subdued," Eakes noted. Survival and packing on body fat becomes more important than expending a lot of energy during the breeding season.

That factor could bite Cotton State hunters again this spring. A severe drought gripped much of Alabama throughout the summer and into the early fall of 2006. Under such conditions, the mast crop often does very poorly. State biologists said they wouldn't be surprised if a lot of natural plants failed to produce much food this year.

"We saw some poults, so we know there was some production last spring," said Rick Claybrook, a central Alabama biologist.

But he added that there would

likely be some mast crop failure. Fortunately, red oaks and white oaks bear differently, and it is rare to have a total crop failure.

"Still, we'll just have to see how the turkeys came through the winter and how the spring season stacks up," he said with a shrug.

BIGGEST TURKEY THREAT

Ron Eakes noted that the biggest problem facing turkeys in Alabama is not years of poor hatches or poor mast crops. It's development and urban sprawl.

"We're really seeing a lot of it in north Alabama where I live," he said, "but it's happening all across the state. We're seeing it in north Alabama around Huntsville, Madison, Decatur, Florence and Guntersville. It's also happening around Birmingham and Shelby County."

He added that it's more important than ever for sportsmen to support the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups.

"A lot of these groups are working very closely with our Forever Wild program and buying land for future generations to have and enjoy," he pointed out.

As more and more private land is developed, the property held in public trust is going to become even more important to the future of turkeys and turkey hunting in Alabama.

"It's good and bad news for turkeys in Alabama," Eakes admitted. "Yes, our numbers overall are holding steady or even increasing in some areas. But we're losing an awful lot of habitat to development too. I'm 48 years old, and places near Huntsville where I used to small game hunt are housing developments and strip malls now."

TOP TURKEY AREAS

As more and more land becomes fragmented by development and lease prices continue to grow, public land hunting just may be the wave of the future for the average turkey hunter in the state.

The wildlife management areas get some pressure, but you can still have a quality hunt on public ground, Eakes said.

A quality hunt is setting up on a gobbling tom, whether or not you pull the trigger.

There are an estimated 67,000 turkey hunters in Alabama. The annual turkey harvest in the Cotton State is usually between 60,000 and 62,000 birds.

According to Eakes, there are some good WMAs for turkeys in every corner of the state. Here's a better look by region at what you can expect this season, and which public lands look most promising.

North

Historically, the northern third of Alabama has had fewer turkeys than the central and southern parts of the state. But the birds have expanded in this part of the state, and many of the top WMAs for turkey hunting statewide are actually in this region now.

"Northeast Alabama is just full of turkeys," said Keith McCutcheon, the state biologist in charge of Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, DeKalb, Etowah, Jackson, Marshall, Randolph, St. Clair and Talladega counties. "I don't think we've ever had it better for turkeys."

There are still places in Etowah and Marshall counties that don't have solid populations of birds, but turkeys have expanded into just about every available habitat elsewhere in the district.

There are even turkeys now on the waterfowl management areas in Jackson County.

"I don't know when we'll open the season on those units, but we probably will eventually," McCutcheon acknowledged.

The best part of the district, in McCutcheon's view, is right around Jacksonville. Calhoun, Clay and Talladega counties are his top private ground picks for gobblers.

The best WMA is without a doubt Choccolocco, a perennial producer of turkeys. It gets some hunting pressure, but it's a big area and a good bet for anyone looking for a place to go.

Other favorites in McCutcheon's view are Martin-Skyline WMA in Jackson County and Little River in DeKalb. Be warned that Skyline gets almost as much pressure as the most heavily hunted turkey WMA in the state.

In the northwestern corner of the state, where Ron Eakes is the biologist, there are plenty of choices for the public land turkey hunter. This district encompasses Colbert, Cullman, Fayette, Franklin, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Morgan, Walker and Winston counties.

The turkey population is still expanding in this portion of Bama, and a big chunk of this area has a shorter season than other parts of the state, generally not opening until April 1.

Black Warrior WMA is a good producer, but Eakes said it can be difficult to hunt. The terrain is rugged and the birds can be hush-mouthed at times.

"Don't expect to do a lot of running and gunning," Eakes said. "A lot of calling turns these turkeys off. We've never stocked turkeys on Black Warrior. It had turkeys back in the bad old days when no one else did. The turkeys we have today are descended from some real survivors."

He added that a lot of hunters head to the woods and call in turkeys in the pre-season.

"It's one of the worst things you can do," the biologist pointed out. "All you're doing is making him that much harder to hunt the next time. It's a natural tendency to want to make him gobble one more time when you're out scouting. It's the worst thing you can do. It might help another hunter to find that bird."

Another good choice in this district for public land hunters is Sam R. Murphy WMA in Lamar and Marion counties. It gets heavy pressure, but it also produces birds.

Central

Turkeys continue to thrive in the central part of the state, which includes the fabled Black Belt and its fertile soil.

Rick Claybrook is the biologist in charge of east-central Alabama and the counties of Autauga, Bullock, Chambers, Coosa, Elmore, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Montgomery, Russell and Tallapoosa.

Autauga Community Hunting Area in this region was the top public land in the state last year for man-days per bird killed. That's how many days on average hunters had to be in the woods to harvest a gobbler. The figure here jumps off the chart when you study WMA harvest totals.

"It's a small area, but it has been a good one for turkey hunting," Claybrook assured.

The future of the WMA is uncertain, however, due to a change in the ownership of the land.

"We have it on the schedule for now, but that is subject to change," Claybrook cautioned. "Since it's such a small area, it's easier to run into other hunters on it too.

"The WMAs in the northern part of the d

istrict are actually the better turkey areas," Claybrook added.

Hollins WMA is a scenic area with good numbers of birds, but Coosa WMA is probably the better producer.

"Coosa is made up of pine plantations of different ages, and it can be tough to hunt," Claybrook said. "It can be hard to get to a gobbling bird."

The central-western portion of the state is composed of Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties. Historically, Oakmulgee WMA has been a good public ground in this area.

South

The southeastern corner of the state -- made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston -- continues to be an excellent region for turkeys and turkey hunting.

"We've got a very bright situation," said biologist Bill Gray. "We only have three WMAs down here -- Covington, Blue Spring and Barbour -- and all three provide good turkey hunting."

He also said the best-kept secret for turkey hunters in his part of the state is Fort Rucker, a Department of Defense installation covering about 50,000 acres. It's open to public hunting, although hunters have to follow special rules on the area.

"All hunters on Fort Rucker, regardless of age, must have a hunter safety card," Gray noted.

The counties in the southwestern region are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia. Upper Delta WMA is an area that's coming on strong as a good turkey producer.

Biologist Steve Barnett said the WMA is prone to spring flooding, however, and hunters should talk with his staff in the district office to get an idea of conditions before planning a trip to Upper Delta.

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