Gobbler Season Preview

Alabama's turkey flock continues to be one of the largest in the nation, so prospects for this season's hunting are positive. But let's ask the experts just how good it should be.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Mike Handley

Sure as I'm sitting here, clacking away at my keyboard about how the last couple of Alabama summers were wet, mild and "buggy" - ideal conditions for raising wild turkeys - some farmer will read these words and say "Hogwash!" If you've ever kicked back on the front porch and watched a Biblical rain in the distance, one that somehow misses your own little parched patch of paradise, you know what I mean.

Assessing what kind of spring turkey season Heart of Dixie sportsmen will have in 2004 is a lot like predicting the weather. It could be great in Prattville and lousy in Montgomery - separated only by the lazy Alabama River. Nevertheless, at the risk of elevating myself to the cursed status of weatherman, I must say that I've never seen such glowing signs of what should be a banner spring for gobbler hunters.

That lofty claim is based on both the weather we've had and actual sightings. This time last year, not much could be said about the phenomenal surge in the little fuzz balls we call turkey poults during the summer of 2002. After all, they were not going to be gobbling for another couple of springs.

They were but gangly jakes last spring, when thumb-sized beards and gear-toothed tail feathers were common sights across the state. Now, however, all those birds are full-blown 2-year-olds - ready, willing and able to answer and come to our calls.

Another good sign was all the gobbling birds last year - the most heard in the last five seasons. There should be a decent number of 3- and 4-year-old wily warriors as well.

Many hunters wondered last season what would result from the 10 additional days the state provided for hunting turkeys in March. As it turned out, Alabama's wildlife managers chose the perfect time - weather-wise - to expand the season.

Had they done so during an off year, production-wise we'd have cursed them for the "wholesale slaughter" of our most beloved bird, which we would have reasoned was the cause of a lack of toms. But thanks to optimum weather conditions, that was not a problem.

"Whenever you get hot, dry weather in the summer, it'll hit the quail and turkey populations really hard, especially the turkeys," says Keith Guyse, assistant chief of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Wildlife Section. "Drought conditions lead to a decline in bugs, which the 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.

The Cotton State suffered five straight summers with less-than-average rainfall in the late 1990s, which took a toll on our young turkeys. Though our declining numbers weren't nearly as bad as they were in other Southeastern states, it was certainly noticeable to hunters.

The summer of 2000 was perhaps the worst, at least for the southern half of Alabama. A severe drought decimated corn, cotton and peanut crops, and cattlemen even faced a shortage of hay. But the summers of 2001, 2002 and 2003 were almost perfect turkey-wise, and we're sure to reap the benefits in 2004.

So now that we all have something to look forward to, let's take a look at what hunting on public land for turkeys is like.

HUNTING TIPS
My best advice for talking to public land turkeys is to call sparingly. The best bird I ever shot required four mornings of too much calling, followed by one in which I actually tossed my slate call out of arm's reach and temptation's way!

I came close to silencing that confounding bird on the morning I found him. After an uneventful first couple of hours, I was walking back to my truck when I heard one of those "maybe" gobbles close to where I'd been sitting. When I backtracked to that very tree, there was indeed a gobbler within 100 yards. I called once lightly and set up facing him.

Rather than take the easy, most obvious route to me, however, that squirrelly bird chose to cut through some of the roughest cover out there. It was so thick with saplings and sawbriers that even Br'er Rabbit would avoid it. I was stunned and unable to respond when the longbeard suddenly emerged from the jungle on my left.

He began circling me warily. The fact I had been calling from that spot for more than an hour undoubtedly made him leery.

When the rascal was at 30 yards and in front of me, I somehow managed to levitate my beat-up Remington as he passed behind a young pine. But the tom spotted just enough movement to alert him before I could pull the trigger.

I worked that bird three more times after that, but he absolutely would not come back for a dose of buckshot.

After hearing him on the roost for the fifth straight morning, I finally overcame the impulse to act and instead thought about the situation. Based on what he'd done the very first time we met, I decided to "fly down," yelp urgently and then shut up for as long it took. After cutting a few times for good measure, I actually tossed my slate about five feet in front of me - wincing as it landed face down in the dew.

Forty-five minutes later, when I picked it back up, that wise old bird was slung over my shoulder.

Public land toms usually hear lots of turkey talk, and they quickly learn - if they live long enough - that not everything that glitters is gold. I often wish I were as quick a student.

Any turkey taken off public ground is a trophy. To bag one with 1 1/2-inch hooks and a paintbrush of a beard is like winning the Super Bowl. So just remember: Sometimes it's better to do more thinking and less calling!

OUR BEST WMAs
Alabama has 27 wildlife management areas (WMAs) open to turkey hunters who buy the extra $15 WMA license and have the proper season-long permit, which doubles as a map. As anyone might guess, the parcels receiving the most pressure are the ones with the most open woods. Conversely, these tracts sometimes yield twice - if not three times - as many gobblers.

In recent years, the Blue Spring, Black Warrior, Covington and Scotch WMAs have attra

cted the most hunters and given up the most birds. Choccolocco and Oakmulgee seem always to be in the mix as well.

The 23,370-acre Blue Spring WMA near Andalusia tops the list. Season permits can be obtained by writing to area biologist Thagard Colvin, 1100 S. 3-Notch St., Andalusia, AL 36420. Requests must include current hunting (state and WMA) license numbers and a large stamped, self-addressed envelope. Permits are also available at the check station inside the Conecuh National Forest.

Also in Covington County and spanning 22,490 acres near Florala, the Covington WMA is among the top destinations and producers of turkeys as well. Season permits can usually be found at the check station close to the Lawrence Fire Tower on Covington County Road (CR) 89. In addition, you can find them at Clem's Tackle Shop in Opp, at Lockhart Grocery in Florala, and at Revel's Grocery in the Samson community. To request one by mail, send a note, your license numbers and your SASE to area biologist John Powers, 1100 South 3-Notch Street, Andalusia, AL 36420.

The 97,953-acre Black Warrior WMA lies within the sprawling Bankhead National Forest, which could well be the largest and prettiest oak forest in this state. To further whet turkey hunters' appetites, a vast network of well-kept roads allows easy access, while there are plenty of food plots that can only be reached by foot. Simply park at the cables blocking the access roads, which shows others where you're likely hunting, and walk the 200 to 400 yards to the field.

Season-long permits are available at the check station or by writing to area biologist Ron Eakes, P.O. Box 775, Moulton, AL 35650 (enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope and current hunting license numbers).

Season permits are also available at numerous outlets in Moulton, Russellville, Mt. Hope, Haleyville and Double Springs.

It should come as no surprise that the 18,207-acre Scotch WMA, in Clarke County, is a leading producer of turkeys. The beauty of this mostly mature pine forest and its many hardwood drainages is stunning.

Turkey permits may be picked up at the WMA headquarters between Thomasville and Grove Hill, or through the mail by writing area manager John W. Reid, 790 Firetower Road, Coffeeville, AL 36524.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUTH
All of the top four WMAs have days set aside for youth-only turkey hunts. At Blue Spring, Covington and Scotch, the day is March 13 - two days before the regular statewide season opens. At Black Warrior, it is March 27, four days prior to the April 1-30 regular season on this tract. Special permits for the youth hunts must be picked up at the area check stations.

The youth hunts are gaining in popularity, but getting a jump on the birds is not a sure bet for bringing one to the gun. A dozen WMAs hosted the events last year, attracting 258 young hunters and their unarmed adult supervisors. Only seven gobblers were tagged.

Other public tracts that have traditionally hosted youth hunts are Autauga, Barbour, Escambia Creek, Boykin, Hollins, Kinterbish and Wolf Creek WMAs. Five of the seven birds shot during all the hunts came off Boykin.

The 18,185-acre Boykin WMA spans portions of Washington and Mobile counties in southwest Alabama. The birds on the tract are piney woods turkeys, and there are a bunch of them. Though you don't have to check your gobblers out at most other WMAs, you must do it here.

Season permits may be obtained from a self-service box at the check station or by writing the District V Office, P.O. Box 247, Daphne, AL 36526.

DARKHORSE WMAS
Two north Alabama tracts of public land that are personal favorites and offer good odds for bagging a tom are the West Jefferson WMA and Mulberry Fork WMA. On both, the hunter-to-turkey ratio is extremely comfortable.

Though the terrain is difficult on Mulberry Fork property, which was formerly strip-mined for coal, the number of mature birds will keep you going back. I have taken at least three gobbles off Mulberry Fork that sported 1 1/2-inch spurs and 11-inch-or-longer toe-tickling beards.

The 2004 season at these two WMAs runs March 15 through April 30.



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