Gobblers In The Heart Of Dixie

When the bronze barons are sounding off in the Alabama woodlands, will you be in the right place? These tips can take the guesswork out of where to hunt this year.

It's the day for which all turkey hunters have been waiting for the past 10 months -- opening day is approaching. There are a lot of places in the state to hunt, but when those bronze barons start sounding off, where should you be?

Steve Barnett, wildlife biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF), says the turkey population forecast for spring 2005 looks excellent.

"The current statewide population is estimated at 450,000 birds," he says. "We're experiencing expanding populations in some parts of the state, especially in northwest Alabama. We've been lucky for quite a few years with good nesting success and poult survival. We've also had really good mast production in the fall. Another thing you can attribute it to is that more landowners are getting familiar with what you need to do to improve your habitat for turkeys. I don't think you can point to any one thing as the reason for the good recruitment."

NWTF PARTNERSHIPS

One thing that has helped turkeys in the state is cooperative projects between the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and the DWFF. Ongoing projects include the following:

The Tuskegee Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service is planting 22 acres of wildlife openings in both cool-season and-warm season plantings, including oats, wheat, crimson clover and rye grass.

The Lauderdale County Cooperative received an ATV-mounted sprayer for use in the Lauderdale WMA and the Seven Mile Island WMA. Biologists are using the sprayer to apply herbicide to maintain road edges and other areas in an early successional stage, which comprise crucial bugging areas for young turkeys. The sprayer also is used during prescribed burns to assist with putting out fires that have jumped fire lines.

The Talladega Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service received lime and fertilizer for 30 acres of wildlife openings, to be applied prior to planting.

Photo by Mark & Sue Werner

The U.S. Forest Service and the DWFF are working on a joint project to improve turkey habitat on the Blue Springs WMA. Improvement activities including liming, fertilizing, planting of brown top millet and sorghum, planting up to 1.5 acres of chufa, installing gates to restrict access on seasonally closed roads, and purchasing and installing signs in the area to give credit to the partners working on the project.

The DWFF and the Alabama Chapter of the NWTF also have partnered on several land acquisition projects with land purchased and added to the WMA system. Currently, the DWFF and the NWTF have funded the purchase of about 7,000 acres that have been added to the WMA system statewide.

YOUTH TURKEY HUNTING

"One of the newest endeavors initiated by our Division is the establishment of the state's first Youth Turkey Hunting Area in 2004," Barnett says. "We partnered with a landowner in Mobile County -- the University of South Alabama Foundation -- to hold inaugural youth turkey hunts during the 2004 spring turkey season. These hunts are managed for youths under 16 years of age accompanied by a licensed non-hunting adult supervisor. Hunting is by reservation only and the number of hunters is limited for each scheduled hunt date. A total of 14 youths participated in the 2004 spring season, and we expect participation to increase in the 2005 spring turkey season."

WHERE TO GO TO GET YOUR BIRD

District I

Ron Eakes, supervising wildlife biologist in District I, says the turkey population there is good compared to previous years.

"I'd have to say the best counties are probably Fayette and Lamar counties and possibly Walker County," he says. "There's a lower human density there, and because there's a lower human density, there's more habitat." Eakes says the habitat in the area is a mix of agricultural land, timberland, old fields and pastures.

One wildlife management area that Eakes picks for 2005 is the Sam R. Murphy WMA.

"The turkey population at Sam R. Murphy has done extremely well over the past few years," he says. "That entire management area is timber company leases and private landowners, and they've been doing a lot of timber thinning, removing portions of the timber that's there and opening up stands so that they're getting more herbaceous-type vegetation. We're also manipulating openings for brood range and that kind of thing."

Another WMA Eakes likes is the Black Warrior WMA. He says the area is almost all under national forest ownership, with the exception of a small amount owned by the International Paper Company.

"It's a huge block of 97,600 and some odd acres," Eakes says. "It's mostly timbered. We had a great year last year and things are looking good for this year."

Other areas Eakes likes are the Freedom Hills WMA and the Lauderdale WMA.

One note about District I is that it has a great variation in season opening dates. Two counties open April 9, five open March 15, and several others open April 1, and Morgan County is closed entirely. Read the regulations before you go!

District II

Traditionally in District II, says supervising wildlife biologist Keith McCutcheon, the farther south you'd go, the higher the population density of the birds you'd encounter. However, that situation has changed in recent years.

"The turkey populations in some of the northern counties now have grown greatly," McCutcheon says. "Turkeys have been expanding all over the state, and in areas where there were no turkeys, they've moved in. They've increased in other areas as well. I don't know that we've ever had as many turkeys as we do right now."

In terms of private land, McCutcheon says, hunters should be looking for turkeys this spring in Clay, Randolph, Calhoun and Cleburn counties.

"Those counties are the areas that have had high densities of turkeys for the longest period of time," he says. "These areas, being the hub of where they started, tend to have the most turkeys all the time."

The habitat in the area is mostly forested Piedmont hills and valleys, McCutcheon says.

ALABAMA'S TOP LONGBEARDS
(according to the National Wild Turkey Federation as of 11/15/04)
RankHunterCountyYearBeard Length In Inches
1.Wayne CarverTuscaloosa200117 1/8
2.Kirk FilesHale198516 7/8
3.Paul MattocksElmore199115 3/8
4.Mac Hubbard--198214 2/8
5.Dale larsonGreene198812 4/8
6.Clyde JacksonColbert198012 2/8
7.Scotty JohnsonChambers200112 1/8
8.Dan BoookButler199212
8.Larry FoxPerry197812
8.Harold Lee., Jr.Pike198612
8.Stephen PauliDallas199712
9.Zane BurkheadEscambia199511 7/8
9.Claude Strother Jr.Dallas198711 7/8
10.Harry BolenDallas199311 6/8
10.Robert GatesLowndes199811 6/8
10.Clarence Hellums Jr.Bibb200311 6/8
10.Chris WarrenLee199711 6/8

"It's fairly steep terrain in the mountainous areas," he says. "But once you get out of the foothills of the Apalachians, there's a mixture of farmlands and other rural properties."

McCutcheon recommends the Choccolocco WMA as an excellent place in which to look for turkeys on public land.

"That area usually has one of the highest turkey harvests in the state," he says. "They've always had a high density of turkeys, and in recent years there have been a lot of management activities taking place on the Forest Service part of the WMA. They're doing a lot of thinning and burning of pine plantations, which provides diversified habitat for turkeys with a lot of different-aged stands of timber. There are better nesting areas as a result of those burnings, so nest success and poult survival are probably higher in those areas." The Choccolocco WMA is more than 46,400 acres in size, and the entire area is open for turkey hunting.

If you can't get to Choccolocco, McCutcheon says you can't go wrong hunting on any of the WMAs in the district.

"All of the areas in this district are pretty good choices for turkeys," he says.

District III

Supervising wildlife biologist Dave Nelson says turkey populations are fairly good throughout District III and hunters can look for turkeys on private land anywhere in the district.

"Populations have increased so much in all the counties that turkey hunting is pretty good anywhere you have reasonably good turkey habitat," he says.

Nelson says one of the better public areas in the district is the Oakmulgee WMA, which is around 44,500 acres.

"It's Forest Service land," he says. "They do some burning, and the area has some old-growth timber. The area has good turkey habitat, with fairly steep rolling hills, big pine stands and creek bottoms. It also has planted food plots interspersed through it." Many of the roads are closed to vehicles, Nelson says, so hunters who are willing to walk can get away from other hunters on the area.

The Cahaba River WMA is also around 40,000 acres and is primarily leased from a steel company.

"Histor

ically, this area was used for coal mining," Nelson says. "It's been held in industry since probably the 1800s. Areas that have been mined have grown back in various types of habitat; some areas are real thick. It has creek bottoms and open areas on some of the ridges. It has a lot of turkeys on it, but it's a hard area to hunt because it's so rugged because of the past mining operations."

Nelson says the Mulberry Fork WMA is similar to the Cahaba River WMA.

"A large part of Mulberry Fork is reclaimed mine areas that have come back in grassy openings and provide good areas for turkeys," he says. "It's just really rugged terrain. There are a lot of what they call rock high walls, which are like rock bluffs where coal was strip mined into the side of the mountain. Turkeys love to get on those kinds of places and gobble. You can hear them forever, but it's hard to get to them."

District IV

All of District IV has a good population of turkeys, says supervising wildlife biologist Rick Claybrook. If you're hunting on private land, Claybrook says, all the counties are good, but he particularly points to Bullock County and to the southern part Montgomery County as being good bets for birds.

"Bullock County has a lot of pastureland and weedy borders that contribute to a lot of good brooding and nesting habitat," he says. "Macon County is always a good county, too. But you can go just about anywhere in the district, and if you've got the habitat you're going to run into turkeys."

Claybrook says one area he'd recommend for turkeys is Hollins WMA.

"Hollins WMA isn't really in our district, but I supervise it," he says. "It's a combination of U.S. Forest Service land and land belonging to Kaul Lumber Company. It's managed basically for timber, and we've got a number of wildlife openings on it. We plant chufa and millet in the summertime, and in the winter we plant cool-season annuals like cereal grains and clovers."

Claybrook says the Hollins area is a mountainous WMA, with steep terrain.

"The area on the south side of Bull Gap Road is not as steep and is more rolling than the area north of Bull Gap Road, which is pretty rough country," he says. "It's really scenic, with a lot of mature forest. It's a pretty place to hunt, and it has a good turkey population." There are always some forestry-related activities going on somewhere on the area, such as timber cutting and prescribed burning. The area comprises 29,400 acres.

Another good area, Claybrook says, is the Coosa WMA.

"It's quite different from the Hollis area," he says. "It's leased from a couple of timber companies and from the Alabama Power Company, and a lot of it is pine of different age-classes. There are a lot of drainages associated with it, and it's really hilly terrain. A lot of folks avoid hunting it, but there are a lot of turkeys there. The main thing is to key on some of the hardwood drainages along the creeks." Coosa is a large area, at 37,000 acres.

Claybrook also recommends the 6,400-acre Autauga Community Hunting Area, located in Autauga County.

"It's more gently rolling hills, with quite a bit of pine habitat and some hardwoods," he says. "It has a good, stable turkey population."

District V

In District V, Barnett says, Clarke, Wilcox and Monroe counties would be his picks for private land hunting.

"The Alabama and Tombigbee river systems provide excellent bottomland hardwood habitat in this area, with a diversity of oaks and other mast producers," he says. "Most landowners in this area manage habitat for turkeys for themselves or through lease agreements with hunting clubs, which helps improve turkey habitat, especially the cooperators who are following management plans recommended by our wildlife biologists."

Nelson's WMA picks are Upper Delta and Scotch WMAs.

"Upper Delta is about 39,000 acres that are mostly bottomland hardwood," he says. "There's only probably 200 to 300 acres of upland hardwoods in the area. There are a lot of baygum ponds and cypress swamps, and several areas that have oaks." Because about 70 percent of Alabama's river systems drain through this area, upstream and upstate rains can greatly affect water levels in the WMA and flood the entire area except for some higher ridges.

"That can make hunting during spring turkey season a real challenge," Barnett says, "because most of the time in spring turkey season we have high water. Usually you have to access the area in a boat that time of year. I've checked hunters out there who have accessed the area by boat and are wearing their chest waders moving around to get in position."

Barnett says the Upper Delta WMA is easy to get lost in, and he strongly recommends that hunters who go onto the area take both a compass and a GPS with them so they can find their way back out.

Scotch WMA is an entirely different matter, with a lot of upland habitat and mixed pines and hardwoods.

"There are many more pine plantations than there used to be on the property," Barnett says. "There are lots of creeks and drainages on the property, and a lot of incredible turkey habitat that you can find if you get out on foot."

Barnett says 18,000-acre Scotch WMA is a somewhat underutilized area.

"Based on the participation and the harvest, I think there are a lot more turkeys than what we registered indicates," he says.

District VI

In District VI, the turkey population is at a 10-year high, says area wildlife biologist Thagard Colvin. In terms of public land, Colvin says, Conecuh National Forest is an excellent place for hunting turkeys.

"The Blue Springs Management Area has an excellent population of turkeys," he says. "The Covington WMA also has a good population of turkeys."

Colvin says the 85,000-acre Conecuh National Forest is primarily low rolling hills, with longleaf/wiregrass habitat of many ages on it.

Blue Springs WMA is about 23,000 acres inside the Conecuh National Forest, but the two areas are managed separately. The habitat there is essentially the same as in the rest of the national forest.

Covington WMA is about 20,000 acres, with a combination of young pines and mature longleaf pines.

"There are a lot of wildlife openings on the area, and along the stream corridors there's a fairly good number of hardwoods," he says. "We plant clover, wheat, rye, oats, vetch and chufas on both Covington and Blue Springs."

One other area Colvin suggests for turkeys is Barbour County WMA.

"It has a good population of turkeys on it, and it's managed pretty intensively, with a lot of

wildlife plantings," he says. "It has fertile soils, and it has a good prescribed burning program on it."

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