2006 Arkansas Turkey Forecast

With turkey season finally upon us, let's take a look at what hunters can expect this spring and explore some of the areas that promise to serve up the finest hunting. (March 2006)

When turkey season closed last May, a number of Arkansas hunters were still looking for that first opportunity to tag a gobbler -- and quite a number of others had already quit in disgust. In itself, that's not too unusual; across the spectrum of spring turkey hunters nationwide, many more are unsuccessful than otherwise, and the percentage of those sticking it out to the bitter end -- regardless of the outcome -- is small indeed.

But Arkansas, unlike many other states, has seen its percentage of unsuccessful hunters getting larger over the past two seasons, along with its complement of hunters who give up and walk away from the whole business a week or two into the season. And there's a reason for the increasing levels of failure and defeatism: Turkey populations across the state are on a downward trend.

This downturn is a recent development for Arkansas. In the spring of 2003, Natural State hunters capped an almost continuous string of record annual turkey harvests stretching back to the 1950s by hitting what has turned out to be the current high-water mark -- 19,947 bearded turkeys. Then, in 2004, the reported spring kill dropped to 16,969, or a decline of about 15 percent, and in 2005, the spring kill dropped to 14,576, another 12 percent off the 2003 record and 15 percent below the 2004 mark. When you consider that the number of turkey hunters is growing each year and express the falling-off in terms of success rates, the reduction is even steeper than it appears from the raw totals.

All of this sounds like a prelude to a doom-and-gloom forecast for this spring -- but it's not. Turkey hunting in Arkansas has lost some momentum during the last couple of springs, true, but this is still a pretty good place to be if you're a turkey hunter. For one thing, only 20 percent of last spring's total harvest figure consisted of jakes. That's below the 25 percent average of the past five years, during which the relatively new one-jake rule was in force, and significantly below the 35 percent average for the years before the one-jake rule was initiated. Biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission say that last year's reduction in jake harvest is due in part to the poor hatches of the past couple of years -- in other words, fewer jakes in the spring population translates into fewer jakes in the hunter harvest. However, part of the decrease in jake harvest is also due to the increasing selectivity of the hunters themselves in passing up jakes and waiting for longbeards.

Remember: The harvest last year was down only 15 percent from the year before, but the jake harvest was down 20 percent. Even with a smaller overall turkey population out there, that translates into a better carryover of jakes -- and more longbeards for us to hunt.

Looking at it from a regional perspective, the harvest in the Ouachitas suffered the least last year; with 3,360 birds reported, it was down only 3.7 percent from 2004's take. Next was the Gulf Coastal Plain, down 17.4 percent to 3,181. The Ozark Region showed a 20.6 percent decrease, to 6,591 birds, and the Delta had the dubious honor of posting the largest decline -- 24.1 percent, with 1,051 turkeys tallied on the checksheets.

REGION-BY-REGION

Delta

"The Delta's harvest decline is largely the result of four consecutive years of poor hatches," said the AGFC's Brad Carner, formerly a turkey biologist and now assistant chief of the Wildlife Division.

That lessening is troubling, but not devastating. Delta turkey populations have historically fluctuated much more than have populations in the state's other physiographic regions. Episodes of diminished populations have been due largely to heavy spring rains and/or high river levels along the Mississippi, Arkansas, White, Cache and other river-bottom systems in the region -- which is where almost all of the turkeys live in this heavily-farmed country.

The 2005 hatch, as mentioned, was substandard for the fourth consecutive year, with the spring and summer brood surveys revealing an average of 1.51 poults per hen -- well below the long-term average of 3.4 poults per hen, and virtually identical to last year's figure of 1.49. At .79 -- meaning that during the survey period, 79 gobblers were seen for every 100 hens -- the gobbler:hen ratio was much better than last year's. A ratio of .50 is the established minimum desirable figure.

Still, there's decent hunting to be had in the Arkansas delta. Areas that have segments of relatively high ground, such as St. Francis National Forest WMA near Helena and Bill Brewer/Scatter Creek WMA near Paragould, showed higher poult production than did areas lying lower on average, like White River National Wildlife Refuge and Bayou Meto WMA.

Don't be discouraged from hunting these above-mentioned areas this spring. The Delta Region consistently brings up the rear in the harvest figures primarily because there's more farmland than turkey habitat left there. But what's left is generally pretty good habitat; on an acre-for-acre basis, Delta Region turkey hunting is as good as it is anywhere else in the state.

Ozarks

You might remember the 10 inches of rain that fell on the Ozarks during a three-day period in mid-April 2004. That rain raised the Buffalo, White and other rivers in the region to near-record levels -- during the peak nesting time for turkeys. That event was the major contributor to the poor Ozark hatch in 2004, and birds in that shrunken cohort are this season's 2-year-olds.

Last year, despite the fact that there was no major flooding in the region, the poult-per-hen ratio was only 1.03 -- even worse than in the flood year of 2004. The gobbler:hen ratio is below the desired level of at least .50, too, coming in at only 42 gobblers per 100 hens sighted during the spring and summer brood surveys.

The result: a shortage of young, inexperienced gobblers in the Ozarks this spring. Ozark hunters will be dealing largely with older birds, which are not only scarcer (because of a turkey's naturally short life cycle) but also wiser (because of heavy hunting pressure).

Accordingly, this season's Ozark turkey hunting is going to be a little more challenging than is usual. But this is still the region with the highest harvest and the highest overall population of turkeys; indeed, 46.5 percent of the statewide 2005 harvest came from the Ozarks. There are still plenty of birds left to maintain a viable population sufficient to offer respectable action to persistent and skilled hunters, but bear in mind that conditions are well below the 2003 peak.

The top prospects for public hunting this season include: Piney Creeks WMA, north of Russellville; Harold E. Alexander W

MA, near Hardy; White Rock WMA, north of Ozark; and Madison County WMA, north of Huntsville. If you're up to it, plenty of remote, off-road parts of these areas beckon to the hunter who's willing to put in the extra effort in exchange for solitude and relatively unpressured gobblers.

In addition to these upland areas, the U.S. Corps of Engineers land around Bull Shoals, Norfork and Beaver reservoirs will be worthy of some attention. Hunt from a boat to maximize your chances of finding a workable gobbler around these lakes.

Gulf Coastal Plain

Last year, this pineywoods region rang up the worst poult-per-hen ratio in the state -- only 1.17 poults per hen observed during the spring and summer brood survey period. This year it had the best in the state, but the 1.64 poults-per-hen ratio posted for the GCP in spring/summer 2005 is still less than half of the 3.4 that is the long-term average for all regions of the state. Likewise, the gobbler:hen ratio was far below the desired level, at only .38.

As was the case with the Ozarks, these two years of brood survey data translate to a shortage of young birds in the GCP turkey population this spring -- in particular, a shortage of gullible 2-year-olds. Hunters here will be dealing mostly with sharp-spurred, sneaky and thoroughly paranoid old gobblers, with a smattering of jakes mixed in here and there.

Also as with the Ozarks situation, though, decent hunting may yet be found in this south-Arkansas region. Not many years ago, veteran hunters will recall, coastal plain turkeys were scarce as bald eagles, but that's not so any more -- even after several substandard hatch years in a row, and a significant slide in reported harvest. The 3,181 turkeys reported last year from the GCP stand as proof of that.

Public hunting areas are relatively scarce in this area of heavily-leased corporate timberlands, but many of these leases are primarily for deer and feel very light, if any, turkey hunting pressure from their members. If you belong to one of these leases, or can wangle an invitation to hunt one, it'll probably be worth your while.

As far as public hunting goes, look to Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge between Crossett and El Dorado, Poison Springs WMA near Camden and on the numerous acres of the Casey Jones Leased Lands WMA, scattered in checkerboard fashion across the coastal plain counties. A $20 permit is required for hunting Casey Jones lands, but with the permit comes a locator map that is more than worth the cost.

Ouachitas

Although things don't look particularly bright in the Ouachitas, either, this region showed the smallest decline in harvest from 2004. Last year's tally, as mentioned above, was 3,360 birds, down only 3.7 percent from 2004 -- a figure that's within the standard deviation and therefore not statistically significant. However, the other figures for the region this year aren't so easily dismissed: a poult-per-hen ratio of only 1.05 and a gobbler:hen ratio of .45, both well below desired levels. Although the 2004 poult-per-hen ratio was the highest in the state at 2.21 (those birds are this spring's 2-year-olds), the 2005 data indicate that many of those potential 2-year-olds left the woods last year as harvested jakes riding on the shoulders of successful hunters.

In the Ouachitas, as in the Ozarks, some rugged and relatively roadless areas that hold out the prospect of uncrowded hunting conditions and, potentially, slightly more workable gobblers await hunters with the desire and the ability to get "back in." Caney Creek WMA, south of Mena, is one such place, as is the Ouachita National Forest land along both the north and south slopes of Rich Mountain and Black Fork Mountain northwest of Mena near the Oklahoma line. Muddy Creek WMA, north of Mt. Ida is also a likely area, as is Winona WMA, west of Paron. However, since Winona is the nearest large public area to Little Rock, it receives heavy early-season and weekend pressure. Look to the west side of this large area for the least-crowded hunting conditions.

THE START OF THE SLIDE

Though the slightly gloomy tone of this piece so far might suggest that we're running out of turkeys in Arkansas, we're not. We are, however, allowing liberal hunting regulations to reduce both the number of available gobblers and the overall quality of the hunting experience -- at least, that's what the statistics indicate.

"Turkey brood survey data from 1992 through 2003 indicates that the peak breeding dates for turkeys in Arkansas lie between April 10-15," wrote then-turkey biologist Brad Carner in a handout for a public meeting in September 2004.

Carner went on to say that according to brood survey analysis, 85 percent of all hens successfully nesting during that 12-year period had been bred on or after April 10, and that little difference could be discerned in the timing between peak breeding dates in each of the four major physiographic regions reviewed above.

And that's why the opening day of Arkansas' spring turkey season was pushed farther into April in the mid-1980s. Biologists recommended the delay to give turkeys time to go about their reproductive business before hunting season arrived. It worked, and turkey populations -- not to mention annual turkey harvests -- increased dramatically from the late 1980s through 2003.

However, in 1999, the stage was set for an eventual retreat by the seven commissioners of the AGFC. That year, they decided to open the spring season earlier and lengthen it as well -- from 24 days in 1998 to 39 days in 2004 (counting the two-day youth hunt), thus putting hunters in the field before peak breeding. The decision made for excellent hunting, it but also affected both breeding activity and gobbler carryover from one year to the next. Granted, the earlier season opener didn't seem like a drastic measure, as it only averaged a week or so earlier than was the case before 1999. That particular week, unhappily, just happens to be very critical in the breeding cycle.

Carner and his fellow biologists have been careful not to assign specific blame for the downturn -- but that downturn is a cold, hard fact, and the logic is as simple as it is inescapable: Removing gobblers from the picture before most of the hens are ready to breed has a negative impact on the turkey population.

AT THE CROSSROADS

"We are at a crossroads in terms of turkey management in Arkansas with respect to conservative versus liberal spring seasons," the seven commissioners were told by staff biologists at last year's September meeting. "There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer. The AGFC and the public must realize there are benefits and consequences with each type of framework."

The liberal season framework's advantage is obvious: increased hunting opportunity. But two years of declining harvests would pointedly suggest that increased opportunity comes at a cost.

"Turkey hunters not only want to have lots of opportunity, but they also want quality hunting," opined Mike Cartwright, a veteran biologist for the AGFC, and an avid and effective turkey hunter. "Quality hunting, to most of us, means lots of gobblers, and lots of gobbling."

Cartwright and other staffers believe the recent season troubles stem from too heavy a gobbler harvest and too early a season. One biologist put it this way: "Many hunters have been saying for the past few seasons that there are too many hens, and the gobblers have hens with them throughout the entire season. It's true that the gobblers are increasingly henny all season long. But thinking that there are too many hens is looking at it backwards: The problem isn't that there are too many hens -- it's that there are too few gobblers."

KEEPING IT IN PERSPECTIVE

Either way, conservative or liberal, we're not going to run out of turkeys in Arkansas. This spring, and the next and the one after that, hunters are going to go forth in all regions of the state, and call up gobblers, and shoot them.

Overall, things are far better than they were when the graybeards among the turkey hunting fraternity took up the game. In 1960, the statewide turkey harvest was 566 gobblers, almost all of which came from the Delta; today, some counties have harvests almost that large, despite the recent decline.

The bottom line is a question not of how bad turkey hunting in Arkansas will become but, rather, of how good can we make it. Liberal seasons will keep us in the field longer but, it seems, at the cost of hunting quality. A return to more conservative seasons may or may not reverse that trend -- but many Arkansas hunters are ready to give it a try.

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