Cotton State Gobbler Prospects

Alabama boasts one of the strongest wild turkey flocks in the nation, so the hunting should be rewarding this year -- if you know where to hunt. These tips should help you identify likely sites. (March 2006)

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Two dudes were standing in the field listening at the base of "my hill," following their pre-dawn march into the inky woods. I had worked a gobbler on the hill -- and come within a shade of killing him -- on my two previous hunts. So it was mighty disappointing to have to turn around and trek back out. I got in the truck and drove another mile down the road to a hollow I hadn't seen since the end of deer season two months before.

It was a half-hearted effort at best. The turkeys were all on the other end of the farm, it seemed. But I was there, so why not give it a shot?

It was getting gray in the east and I hadn't gotten to where I wanted to be, when a tom sounded off high on the ridge across the hollow. I covered part of the distance and stopped to listen once again. The gobbler thundered once more. Just getting to him would be a feat. He was at the top of a "heart-attack" hill.

It was still the first week of the season and the woods hadn't leafed out yet. There was the very real possibility that the turkey might spy me on the approach. But he was the only gobbler going in my neck of the woods, so what else could I do?

I eased up the ridge as stealthily as I could, stepping from rock to rock when possible to cut down on any noise in the dry leaves. The gobbler sounded off a few more times as I eased into position. He was just on the other side of a little point.

The perspiration was flowing by the time I got to the top, but I'd made it without keeling over from a coronary, so the first part of my mission was accomplished. Now I just had to ease into a little better shooting position.

I called once to get a bearing on the tom's whereabouts, and he cut me off with a gobble. I slipped forward to gain a position by a big oak and called once more. Nothing but silence answered the effort.

A second call also failed to elicit a response. It appeared I'd been seen and gotten busted on that last move.

But I'd made it to the point and I wasn't about to turn around and head elsewhere. I slipped about 60 yards around a corner of an ancient and dim logging road and went to the lip of the ridge.

I was now on the other side of the craggy point. After settling in against a tree, I threw a call down into the ravine. It got an instant response. Then a pair of jet-black bodies came into view. It was two toms, not one!

They looked like twin brothers, identical in every way. They came up the hill a few yards, then split apart. I had to wait a minute for them to come out from behind a small tree. The one to the right crumpled and flopped at the shot.

That hunt last spring was over by 6:30 in the morning, and I made it to the office on time for work. It was my first-ever gobbler in my home county of Marshall.

More importantly, it bears out what biologists across the state are saying. Turkey numbers are up to a modern high statewide, and gobblers are now showing up in places that never had them just a few years before. A mere decade or so earlier, there were no turkeys on the farm where that one fell for me last spring.

"The turkey expansion is continuing, especially in the northern part of the state," said Keith McCutcheon, the district biologist for northeastern Alabama. "That hunt you had last spring in a place that didn't have turkeys before is the kind of thing a lot of people are experiencing now."

Seeing the expansion firsthand has been particularly pleasing for McCutcheon.

"One of the first wildlife jobs I had was restocking turkeys in the Skyline area of Jackson County back in 1980," he reminisced. "I believe that some kind of disease had gone through the flock at that point, because we didn't have any turkeys to speak of in Jackson County then."

McCutcheon helped to bring in turkeys from the Stimpson Preserve in South Alabama. The turkeys took in a big way.

"Shortly before I left Jackson County a few years ago, I counted 76 turkeys in a 40-acre picked cornfield one day," he said. "The turkeys have flourished."

Jackson County isn't the only place where this has happened. The scenario has been repeated in too many counties to name.

Even in northwest Alabama where the gobbler population has traditionally lagged, the birds are doing better, and on some WMAs there, seasons are expanding this year. The more southern reaches of the state have had abundant turkeys for years, and flocks in those areas continue to thrive as well.

All in all, it's a good time to be a turkey hunter in the Heart of Dixie.

WEATHER & TURKEYS

Ron Eakes is the District 1 biologist in northwestern Alabama. He and Steve Barnett in District 5 serve as the turkey specialists for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Even though Alabama has solid turkey numbers, ups and downs in the population cycle can have a profound impact on the quality of the hunting.

"How well our turkeys do depends a lot on the weather," Eakes said.

The kiss of death is a lot of wet weather in the late spring or early summertime.

"It directly affects the survival rate of the poults," Eakes explained. "They're covered with fine down and they can't regulate their body temperature for the first two or three weeks of their lives."

If they get wet, a lot of them die of exposure.

The effects of a wet spring like that aren't immediately noticed by hunters. Since 2-year-old turkeys do a lot of the gobbling and make up a big part of the harvest, the impact of a wet spring is usually felt two years after it happened.

We had just such a wet spring last year, so the 2007 spring gobbler season may suffer

"I can't remember what the weather was like two years ago," Eakes admitted with a laugh.

Other environmenta

l factors also play a direct role in how the turkey population fares. Just as it can be too wet, it can also be too dry, particularly if that drought hits late in the growing season, drying out the ground-level vegetation and causing a mast failure. Such a lack of foodstuffs has dire consequences for turkeys.

The survivors come through the winter in poor condition, and the ensuing breeding season is somewhat subdued.

"We had just such a year back in 2000," the biologist said. "It was the worst year I've seen in 49 seasons. At the checking stations, we saw 3- and 4-year-old birds brought in that weighed just 15 pounds apiece."

He also said turkeys under tremendous physical stress like that aren't as interested in breeding.

When there are such dry years, good places to look for turkeys are around water sources where the mast producing trees and other vegetation should have fared better than in the uplands.

GOBBLING PEAKS

Alabama is blessed with a long season that runs basically a month and a half -- March 15 to April 30, in most localities.

The first two or three weeks of the season are arguably the best time to be afield, providing that the weather cooperates.

"Turkeys come out of the winter and start gobbling," Eakes noted. "They gobble a little more each day, it seems. The gobbling intensity is something of a bell-shaped curve."

Those gobbling birds are perhaps at their most vulnerable to hunters right at the start of the season.

"Then you have a lot of people in the woods, calling to the birds and creating a general disturbance," Eakes continued. "The turkeys get educated in a hurry."

The gobbling activity tails off somewhat after a week or two of hunting. But as the season wears on, the hunting pressure drops off too.

"The gobbling picks back up," Eakes suggested. "You get a second peak of gobbling later in the season."

It pays, he added, to tailor your calling routine to the land and the birds you're hunting and the pressure they've been exposed to.

Eakes was the biologist for years on the Black Warrior WMA. The "running-and-gunning" techniques you see on outdoor television won't work for birds on the Warrior, so don't lay on the calling too heavy.

"Black Warrior has had turkeys for a very long time," he said. "There were still turkeys there when they weren't anywhere else. These turkeys are descendants of the survivors. I think that means the loud ones were probably killed out. If you overcall these birds, they'll go the other way."

On a farm that doesn't get hunted a lot, just the opposite may be true. You might call loudly and have to shoo off a gullible tom so you can shoot him.

TO KILL A PUBLIC TURKEY

If you live in Alabama, you can't complain that you have no places to turkey hunt. You might not have a private honeyhole all to yourself, but you can find a place to chase turkeys.

The state has 27 wildlife management areas encompassing roughly 750,000 acres that are open to turkey hunting. All you need to tap this resource is a regular hunting license, a $16 WMA license and a map-permit for the area.

"It's a blessing to have this much land available for turkey hunting," Eakes offered.

"The areas in the northern half of the state may actually be better than those in the south," he continued, while adding that scouting is critical to success on the WMAs. "Get yourself some good topographic maps or aerial photographs to start with. Pick out some likely spots on the topo map and then start looking.

"Leave your calls at home in the preseason. If you call, all you're doing is educating birds. If you call one up before the season starts, he's just going to be that much harder to call up next time. Just go and listen at a lot of different places."

Eakes also suggested that hunters cover a lot of ground looking for tracks, feathers and scratching.

"The WMAs get some hunting pressure, but it's still possible to have a quality hunt."

A "quality hunt" in Eakes' book is sitting down to a gobbling turkey, whether you pull the trigger or not Many of the WMAs close roads to vehicle access during the turkey season. A long walk behind the gates can help get you in the proximity of undisturbed gobbling birds.

There are an estimated 67,000 turkey hunters in Alabama, a far fewer number than the 235,000 or so who hunt deer. The annual turkey harvest in the Cotton State is usually between 60,000 and 62,000 birds.

According to Eakes, there are good WMAs for turkeys in every corner of the state. Statewide, the better producers include Covington and Blue Spring in the south; Choccolocco, Black Warrior and Sam R. Murphy in the north; and Hollins and Oakmulgee in the central part of the state.

Here's a better look by region at what you can expect this season.

NORTH

In northeastern Alabama, Choccolocco WMA has long been considered the region's premier public tract. It's still the top pick for district biologist Keith McCutcheon.

"Choccolocco is good, but the whole district is full of turkeys right now," he added. "It's as good as it has ever been. Even some of our Tennessee Valley counties that haven't traditionally had a lot of birds have them now."

There is quite a bit of pressure on the WMAs, especially Choccolocco, so expect company if you go.

A lot of pine-thinning and prescribed burning has been going on at Choccolocco and that work is helping to improve the habitat even more for turkeys.

This district's "sleeper" area for turkeys is the Little River WMA in DeKalb County. It has huntable numbers of turkeys and doesn't get near the pressure that Choccolocco or Skyline do.

In the northwest corner of the state where Eakes is the district biologist, Black Warrior is the premier public hunting area. It's a rugged area and you've got to be willing to expend some boot leather to access it.

But there are other good areas elsewhere in this corner of the state, too. Lauderdale WMA is one that is coming on strong. The season had traditionally lasted for just a week or so on this WMA, but runs for the full month of April this year.

CENTRAL

The central part of the state includes the fabled Black Belt with its fertile soil, and in this part of Bama it's hard to find an area that doesn't have turkeys.

"All the co

unties in this part of the state are pretty good," biologist Rick Claybrook said.

His favorites for private-land hunting are Macon, south Montgomery and Lowndes counties. But his picks for public-land hunting are another story.

He said the WMAs in the hillier terrain tend to be a little better for turkeys.

"Hollins is a good one," he offered. "So is Coosa. Coosa is mostly made up of pine plantations, but the turkeys are in there."

Oakmulgee, as Eakes pointed out earlier, is another good bet in central Alabama. It has a good road network and a good mix of pines and hardwoods.

SOUTH

In the far southern end of the state, sister WMAs Blue Spring and Covington consistently rank at the top in the state in terms of the number of turkeys harvested.

The areas are part of the Conecuh National Forest. Blue Springs covers about 23,000 acres, while Covington spans about 20,000 acres.

The areas are intensively managed for timber production and a good strategy is to hunt near pine stands that have recently been thinned. Thinning opens up the canopy, allowing sunlight to get to the ground and produce turkey food and cover. It also opens up the visibility in the woods, creating prime strutting grounds for gobblers.

Another good bet in this part of the state is Barbour WMA, although it doesn't produce quite the number of turkeys that either Covington or Blue Spring does.

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