Cotton State Gobbler Prospects

By now, Yellowhammer turkey hunters are anticipating the contest of wits with wary old gobblers during the coming season. Where are the odds best for encountering the bronze barons? (February 2008).

Photo courtesy of John J. Woods.

To hear Keith Guyse tell it, Alabama has more wild turkeys than Carter had pills.

That dying expression was born of the observation that it was practically impossible to count the number of tiny tablets contained in a bottle of Carter's Little Liver Pills. Depression-era labels proclaimed that they combated "headaches, biliousness, torpid liver, constipation and indigestion" -- or at least did, until federal drug gurus pointed out that the supposed hepatic remedy had no effect whatsoever on one's liver, after which bottles of the patent medicine (also touted for "keen eye, clean tongue, clear complexion and perfect health") were relabeled post-debunking; today, they're marketed as a laxative under the name "Carter's Little Pills." The catchphrase, however, hasn't been forgotten.

The point is that roughly half a million turkeys run loose in the Heart of Dixie, inducing headaches, biliousness, torpid livers, constipation, indigestion and general fatigue among those who dare chase them. Only two states have more birds.

Guyse, an assistant chief with the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, admits that determining an exact turkey head count isn't possible, particularly since the wary birds won't stand still. But he's more confident than ever that the DWFF has settled on a more sensible formula of estimating the size of Alabama's flock.

"Steven Barnett has come up with a great way to assess the turkey population," Guyse said. "We've always put the number at around 400,000. But Steven took another look at things and spoke with conservation officers to put together a chart of the available habitat per zone. By his count -- and I believe he's right -- we have more birds than we thought."

Barnett, who is a DWFF wildlife biologist in Daphne, insists that the good old days of turkey hunting are today. Alabama's turkey population is second only to numbers of birds to Missouri's 900,000 and the 600,000 in Texas. Accordingly, the annual harvest in the Cotton State has soared to about 60,000, also one of the highest reported in the nation.

"To better understand factors that influence wild turkey reproduction and survival, as well as the sustainability of current harvest levels, the Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is partnering with the Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Auburn University and the Alabama chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation to employ scientific methods to determine survival of wild turkeys into the fall population," Barnett explained.

"The objective is to develop a method that is suitable in providing a survival index in three geographic regions of Alabama," he continued. "By gleaning the results of this pilot study and developing a gobbler population harvest index, we will be better equipped to make biologically sound and responsible decisions regarding seasons and bag limits." (Continued)

Barnett's conclusions indicate that there should be no shortage of gobbling turkeys this spring, though the same might not hold true for 2009 -- due to last summer's severe drought, the effects of which won't be noticeable until then. And make no mistake: It was a long and very dry summer here. According to the U.S. drought monitor, Alabama was among the hardest hit in the Southeast, with most of the state still at the "exceptional" drought level as late as mid-September.

WEATHER

"Whenever you get hot, dry weather in the summer, it'll hit the quail and turkey populations really hard, especially the turkeys," said Guyse. "Drought conditions lead to a decline in bugs, which the young poults need to eat in order to survive. A drought also leads to poor seed production and less or stunted cover."

Cover is important in the first couple of weeks of a poult's life, because the hatchlings cannot fly. Until they can, they're walking bull's eyes for a host of predators.

So why won't the drought affect next spring's turkeys?

"This year's reproduction is not important to this year's hunters," Guyse explained. "You have to look back at the two or three previous years to determine whether there will be a lot of gobbling birds."

In other words, last summer's poults will be jakes this spring. The jakes need one more year to become willing and eager participants in the gobbling and breeding rituals. Fewer poults in any given summer won't be obvious until two springs later.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

With a record number of gobbling turkeys waiting for the dogwoods to bloom in 2008, hunters should have a better-than-average chance at collecting their five-bird limits. They also stand a better chance of being cited for a wildlife violation, if they don't heed a brand new regulation.

CARRY THE PAPER!

Unlike many of their neighbors, Alabamians haven't had to deal with a tagging system when turkey hunting. We still don't have to affix a tag to our birds' legs, but the state has imposed a new regulation designed to help make the five-bird limit more enforceable.

Those who buy licenses from year to year might notice the change first, since it's supposed to be printed on the backside of the annual statewide hunting license. Thus, holders of lifetime licenses, as well as those persons exempt from buying them, are more apt to be caught in violation.

This year, hunters are required to note the date of every antlered buck and gobbler harvest before moving or transporting the animal. In the case of deer, you're supposed to complete the form even before field-dressing it. If you don't have an annual license, you'd better print from the Internet and carry the mandatory "hunter harvest record."

You can even design one yourself, but it must have the following information: name, license number (if applicable) and the full date of harvest for up to five turkeys all on the same piece of paper.

"Just as important," Guyse noted, "you'd better have a pen that'll write or a sharpened pencil with you. Because if you can't fill out the form, you're in violation."

Another aspect of the new regulation is the transfer of a turkey (or buck) to someone else. Not only must the actual hunter record his harvest, but he must also complete

a transfer form if he gives the animal to someone else -- so that the recipient cannot be fined for possession without the required harvest record.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS IN ALABAMA

There's no shortage of public land in the Heart of Dixie, at least if you're a morning person. That's because the turkey hunting within Alabama's 28 wildlife management areas -- encompassing a whopping 768,000 acres -- is limited to the hours between sunrise and noon.

The short days, however, don't appear to be discouraging traffic to on those public areas.

"Hunters are becoming increasingly aware that outstanding turkey hunting opportunities exist on our wildlife management areas," Steven Barnett said.

There are more than enough birds to go around, even if they're a bit more challenging to hunt. The reason wild turkeys are flourishing within WMAs is because routine timber management -- prescribed burning, selective logging and vegetation control. Also, extra efforts by area biologists have created the perfect habitat. The state is keen on disking, mowing and planting forage in wildlife openings. Plus, they've added food plots and, in some cases, planted mast-bearing trees.

"The cumulative effect of turkey restoration efforts, protection, intensive habitat management, partnerships with landowners and contributions from hunters and the National Wild Turkey Federation, is impressive hunting opportunities," Barnett added.

And all you have to do is pay $16 for a WMA license and acquire a free, season-long permit, which doubles as a map and regulation checklist for the place you want to hunt.

The season at most WMAs runs from March 15 through April 30, and the majority give youngsters who have not yet turned 16 a jumpstart -- either March 8 or 29, the latter for the Black Warrior and Lauderdale WMAs where the seasons don't open until April 1. All kids must be accompanied by a properly licensed adult during those youth hunts.

These hunts are gaining in popularity, but getting a jump on the birds is not a sure bet for bringing one to the gun. One year, for example, only seven gobblers were taken by the 260 youngsters who took advantage of the chance to make the first yelps to eager toms.

Of course, nobody said it would be easy. And, it does not mean that there are fewer turkeys on WMAs.

"Hunting pressure is more of a limiting factor on public lands than it is on private tracts," Barnett pointed out. "To illustrate the point: The same lovesick gobbler that runs to a poorly scratched out yelp on private land may balk at your sweetest pleas for romance on public land because it has encountered many hen calls from hunters."

Our Best WMAs

Detailed here: the six WMAs that yielded the most gobblers in 2007.

Choccolocco WMA covers 46,550 acres in Cleburne County and gave up 110 gobblers last year. Permits for Choccolocco are available at the self-serve boxes at two checking stations -- at the intersection of Forest Service Roads 500 and 553, and at the junction of Joseph Springs Road (FS 522) and State Route 9. They may also be obtained by writing Area Biologist Randle Liles, 796 Chosea Springs Road, Anniston, AL 36207 or the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Office, 4101 State Route 21 North, Jacksonville, AL 36265. Send your current state hunting and WMA license numbers along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Season permits also are available locally where licenses are sold.

The 25,150-acre Sam R. Murphy WMA straddles Lamar and Marion counties in northwest Alabama. This tract produced 90 wild turkeys for hunters last season.

The check station is a half-mile east of Pikeville and four miles north of Guin on Marion County Road 2. Area biologist Kevin Pugh will stuff the season permits in SASEs if you write him at 827 Cooner Road, Jasper, AL 35501 and include your license numbers.

The permits are also available at numerous outlets in Guin, Hamilton, Winfield and Sulligent, or at the Marion County Public Fishing Lake.

Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties all claim a portion of the 44,500-acre Oakmulgee WMA. Last year this WMA gave up 85 toms to hunters. Here, all turkey harvests must be reported by completing a self-service form at the checking station or by contacting area biologist Jeff Makemson. His phone number is (205) 371-6375.

Permits are available at the self-service box at the checking station at the Elliott Creek Work Center on Hale CR 50, 11 miles east of Moundville. They're also available through license vendors in Tuscaloosa and Duncanville and at the Pleasant Valley Store on Hale CR 25. Requests by mail should be sent to Jeff Makemson, 11481 Colonial Drive, Duncanville, AL 35456.

Coosa WMA spans 37,291 acres in the county of the same name. In 2007, the area yielded 80 gobblers to hunters.

Permits for the tract may be obtained by writing to the DWFF's District IV Office, Wildlife Section, 1820-C Glynwood Drive, Prattville, AL 36066. Or you can usually pick up one at Kelley's Cross Roads Grocery on SR 22, Sylacauga Outdoors on U.S. Highway 280 or at Toodlum's off U.S. 231 in Hanover. The checking station is located at Mount Moriah Church, approximately seven miles south of Weogufka off of CR 29.

Blue Spring WMA takes in 23,370 acres of land in the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County. Last season, sportsmen harvested 65 birds from the property.

Permits for Blue Spring can be obtained by writing area biologist Thagard Colvin, 1100 South 3-Notch Street, Andalusia, AL 36420. Requests must include current state and WMA hunting license numbers and a large stamped, self-addressed envelope. Permits are also available at the check station inside Conecuh NF.

Black Warrior WMA's 98,000 acres lie within sprawling Bankhead NF, which could well be the largest and prettiest oak forest in this state. And to whet turkey hunters' appetites further, a vast network of well-kept roads allows easy access, and there are plenty of food plots that can only be reached by foot. Simply park at the cable, blocking the approach road and walk the 200 to 400 yards to the field. Such hunts yielded 65 gobblers on the WMA in 2007.

Season-long permits are available at the check station or by writing area biologist Ron Eakes, P.O. Box 775, Moulton, AL 35650. They're also available at numerous outlets in Moulton, Russellville, Mt. Hope, Haleyville and Double Springs.

Minus Two, Plus One

It's important to note that two public tracts previously open to turkey hunters are off limits this year, the state having lost its leases on both Escambia Creek WMA and the West Jefferson Public Hunting Area.

But some good news is on tap also: A brand-new public tract, 18,000-acre Perdido River WMA, has come on line. Paralleling the Perdido River where

that stream serves as the Alabama-Florida border in Baldwin County, the parcel lies north of State Route 112.

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