Finding Alabama Gobblers -- 2009

There's no better place in the country than right here in the Yellowhammer State for bagging a wild turkey. Here's an insider's look at some great areas for this season's hunts. (February 2009)

The gobble was so close that it seemed to shake the ground and the tiny little green leaves just starting to bud out from the trees. The gun was up on my knee, trained in the direction of the turkey. My pal Dan Myrick -- a longtime veteran of turkey hunting Alabama's wildlife management areas -- was 65 yards behind me, making soft talk with a Tom Gaskin scratch box.

The author's best-ever gobbler was taken just a stone's throw from Coosa WMA. Photo courtesy of Anthony Campbell.

The turkey was no more than 45 yards away, but he was just under the lip of a hill. He was close enough to hear his footfalls in the dry leaves. I had already eased the safety off, expecting to see the tom's red and white noggin any second -- but it was not to be: Some real hens fired up in the hollow and lured the old boy away.

Even though it didn't end with a dead turkey, it was still a fantastic hunt, considering that it was my first visit ever to the Choccolocco WMA near Anniston. Myrick lived for years in Jacksonville and has killed turkeys all over the WMA, so it wasn't like we'd gone in cold.

It turns out that just having an exciting hunt like that one was something of a feat last year. Turkey populations are cyclical, and Alabama was on a downward trend last year.

The state's turkey biologists conduct brood surveys in late summer every year to determine how turkeys are faring in Alabama's woodlands. Three years ago, they tallied 1.2 poults per hen, which is classified as poor, said Steve Barnett, one of the state's two lead turkey biologists. That meant there wasn't a strong class of 2-year-old gobblers last year. As nearly every dyed-in-the-wool turkey hunter will tell you, those 2-year-olds are the vocal ones, and they make up a big part of the bag in spring gobbler hunting.

The lower-than-normal trend was quite evident in the number of turkeys harvested on the state's WMAs. Hunters took 1,076 turkeys from those public lands in 2007. That number dropped to 771 in 2008, down nearly 30 percent. There was a little less hunting pressure in 2008, but that just goes with the season being off. Hunters who go a few times and don't hear much gobbling aren't going to waste the time and gas to go back. "The harvest wasn't just off from the year before," said Barnett. "It was the lowest it has been in 10 years."

Barnett looks for the situation to improve somewhat this spring, but it's still not expected to be a banner year. We're on the upswing from the bottom of the cycle, but we still haven't peaked out.

Still, it's a great time to be a turkey hunter in Alabama. Turkeys roam virtually every corner of the state now, and you can't really complain even if you don't have private woodlands to hunt. While the hunting is definitely better on private ground, chances are good that a WMA with a huntable population of turkeys lies within driving distance of home no matter where you live in the Cotton State.

Some exciting work also is under way to monitor the state's turkey population more closely. Once refined, it's expected to be a system that will let hunters know months, if not years, in advance as to whether they can expect a boom or bust year for the state's wild turkeys.

TECHNOLOGY & TURKEYS

The state's old method of tallying turkey numbers was somewhat of a random approach. Field crews out working with the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries tallied broods they encountered in the normal course of their work.

There were, of course, all kinds of problems with that method. It didn't take into account seeing the same brood over and over, particularly if they were using a highly visible location like a big field that DWFF crews passed by on a regular basis.

In 2006, Auburn graduate students and the state's biologists started work on a new method of inventorying the state's turkey population. It involves using multiple game cameras scattered throughout a property to get a good feel for recruitment -- how many poults made it through to become part of the fall population.

The work started on the Conecuh National Forest down in southeast Alabama. Dr. Berry Grand of Auburn was the key man in developing the methodology. In a nutshell, it involves putting out one camera for about every 160 acres. The cameras are situated in places that are considered good brood-rearing habitat such as wildlife openings, weedy roads or log landings.

"The idea is to put them in areas where hens and poults are likely to go to catch insects, which are a key source of protein for poults," Barnett explained.

The cameras are put in place in late July and August, when poults have made it through the critical early survival period and are about to enter the fall population. The camera stations are baited with cracked corn. According to Barnett, they would likely have good results in bugging areas like overgrown fields, but the corn just adds another element, the hope being that it helps to get the whole brood in the frame of the camera so that an accurate count can be made.

The people involved in the brood surveys continue to refine their methods. While the early work was confined to national forests and other public lands, the study took a quantum leap forward in 2008, expanding to include more public land and private tracts throughout Wildlife District 5, a nine-county region encompassing southwest Alabama

"The locations for the camera stations were generated at random by a computer," Steve Barnett noted. "We wanted to eliminate human bias." If a randomly generated site was the middle of a river or something like that, they simply moved it to the nearest likely turkey habitat.

Barnett looks for more private land managers interested in turkeys to adopt the methodology and conduct their own brood studies each year. "Landowners have been using this technology for years, but it's mostly been geared to deer," he said. "But there's no reason they can't use it in their turkey management. This is definitely something people can do on their own."

The biologist added that most wild turkey hens average about 11 eggs in a clutch; survival of three or four poults per hen is considered a positive outcome.

THE NWTF IN ALABAMA

The National Wild Turkey Federation continues to be very active in Alabama. Perhaps the best evidence of what they're doing is visible at Oakmulgee WMA in the central portion of the Cotton S

tate. Oakmulgee led the state's WMAs last season with 75 birds harvested, and was near the top the season before with 85 gobblers harvested.

"Public-land turkeys and private-land turkeys are two different animals." --DWFF turkey biologist Steve Barnett

"The enhancements that the NWTF is doing on Oakmulgee is a big part of why it's doing so well for turkeys," Barnett stated. "They have partnered with the U.S. Forest Service on a stewardship initiative that includes timber thinning, burning, enhancing wildlife openings and other things that are very beneficial to turkeys."

The project calls for more than $262,000 worth of habitat enhancement for the WMA, which is located on lands of the Talladega National Forest. Those improvements include: thinning 362 acres of longleaf pine; forest-canopy thinning to allow more sun light to reach the forest floor on 1,185 acres; controlling non-native invasive plants such as kudzu and cogongrass on 135 acres; maintaining 144 acres of wildlife openings; and installing four gates. It also calls for prescribed burns on 2,635 acres.

"This project is unique, because most of the work is being done with a stewardship contract," said Joe Koloski, the NWTF regional biologist for Alabama. "With the stewardship contract, the Forest Service can generate the money and put it directly back into conservation efforts on the ground."

The stewardship contract allows the revenue generated through the sale of timber from the 362-acre thinning to fund all project-related activities. This lets the USFS improve more acres than before.

"In the past, the forest service would have to go through a budget process at the federal level to get the money for these projects," Koloski pointed out. "Typically a project this size would take eight to 10 years, but with the stewardship contract it will be completed in two to three years."

In addition to helping turkeys and deer, the project also helps the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker, along with the Bachman's Sparrow and the bobwhite quail.

Other ongoing NWTF projects in Alabama are outreach and education programs for kids, women and first-time hunters. The NWTF also continues to donate funds for the acquisition of more places to hunt, including $34,000 toward the purchase of 1,038 acres on Lauderdale WMA in the northwest corner of the state. The Alabama State Chapter designates 20 percent of their funds for public hunting land purchases each year. They've helped with the purchase of 11 different tracts of land so far.

GOING PUBLIC FOR TURKEYS

Even if you have a private place or two to hunt turkeys, Barnett advised, hunters should try some of the public lands in the state. He has himself hunted numerous public areas throughout Alabama. "Public land turkeys and private land turkeys are two different animals," he asserted.

Because turkeys on public land encounter so much more hunting pressure, they're very difficult to fool. But hunting these wary birds makes you a much better turkey hunter in the long run, Barnett opined. "A public turkey may not gobble as much as a turkey on private ground," he said. "If he does gobble, you may find it much harder to close the deal."

Getting a public turkey to come that last little distance is very difficult. If it walks off gobbling, you have a chance of really putting your hunting skills to the test and trying to get in front of him. You may call softly or not at all if you know the other strutting ground where he's headed.

"You have to learn strategies and have a real game plan when hunting public turkeys," Barnett said. "But there's no question that it will make you a better hunter."

He added that hunters who have the luxury of hunting on weekdays should find more opportunity when it comes to going public. "Of course, we all hunt whenever we can," he said.

THE 2009 TURKEY OUTLOOK

"I think we will see improvements in turkey hunting in the spring of 2009 compared to what we experienced last year," Barnett offered by way of a forecast. "I don't think it will be super, but it will be an improvement."

And next season could be even better. "I haven't seen all the images from our brood survey last summer," he said. "But poult numbers looked pretty good in what I have seen."

The biologist also advised closely checking the accompanying chart when trying to find public lands to hunt. Don't just look at the overall harvest, but rather at the hunter-days per turkey harvested; the better WMAs come in at 10 or fewer. That said, here's an overview by region of some excellent places to try for turkeys in 2009. South Alabama

The southern third of the state has Alabama's longest traditions of turkey action. They were hunting turkeys here even when there were almost no turkeys anywhere else in the state.

Scotch WMA in Clarke County is one that Barnett recommends for visiting turkey hunters. A lot of timber management takes place on this WMA and much of it is beneficial for turkeys. "There were only 20 birds killed here last spring, but the effort it took was 12.5 hunter-days per bird," he noted. "That's very reasonable." The area doesn't get heavy hunting pressure and that helps make it a good place to go.

W.L. Holland WMA in this district shows an impressive 7.5 hunter-days per bird harvested. But a closer look reveals that only six birds were taken on the area. "The Delta is not the place you want to go turkey hunting, so the man-days per turkey harvested is misleading in this case," Barnett said.

Another good bet in the southern region is Barbour WMA. It's been a solid turkey producer for several seasons now, and 45 birds were taken on it last year. Hunting pressure there was also minimal. Central Alabama

As mentioned earlier, Oakmulgee is the real jewel in this part of the state, with the timber management and NWTF stewardship agreement making a difference in thousands of acres of habitat here. The area is made up of rolling terrain with a pine-hardwood mix and a good road network, its many gated roads allowing only foot access.

Coosa WMA has been a top producer for years; it was strong again last season, with 65 gobblers harvested. District biologist Rick Claybrook reported that the area is made up of pine plantations of different ages and can be tough to hunt.

A personal note: Coosa holds a special place in the heart of this old turkey hunter, because I took the biggest bird of my career from a tract of private land bordering the WMA. The gobbler had an 11'‚1/2-inch beard, weighed 22 pounds and had 1'‚1/4-inch spurs. It's the only turkey I've ever mounted. North Alabama

In the northern tier of counties, Choccolocco WMA has to get the nod for the best turkey w

ood around. It has steep hillsides, lakes, streams and pineywoods flats. A tremendous amount of habitat work has taken place here in recent years, similar to that ongoing at Oakmulgee; prescribed burns were still smoking when I visited the area in the spring of 2008.

I heard the gobbler mentioned earlier in the article and also saw hens cross the roads while driving the area. It's laid out for turkey hunting, with lots of pull-offs and logging roads into the woods. If someone's at the first pull-off you come to, just drive to the next. There's a tremendous amount of territory to explore.

On the downside, the area is popular with horseback riders and hikers, with developed trails for each. More of those outdoors folks than turkey hunters were there the day I visited. You don't want to hunt turkeys in the vicinity of the horse trails.

Last year, Choccolocco hunters bagged 40 birds, down from 110 the previous season. But it's a perennial producer that will likely bounce back to the top of the WMA harvest list soon.

Another North Alabama WMA that I hunt regularly is Skyline-Martin. I always hear birds there, but it's notoriously tough to close the deal. Skyline hunters bagged just 26 birds last season, down from 39 the previous year.

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