2008 Arkansas Turkey Guide

How does your turkey-hunting land stack up against the rest of the Natural State? And where will the birds be this spring? We've got the answers you need. (March 2008).

Photo by Michael Skinner.

If memory serves, I saw my first wild turkey back in the fall of 1967.

It was a cool October afternoon, and I was heading in to my deer stand, which was on a long bench deep within the Ozarks, to do some bowhunting. I must have just about stepped on the bird, which was hiding just within the edge of a small thicket, and the thunder of wings combined with the crashing of branches as it exited the brushpile certainly let me know that my heart was in good shape! It was a gobbler, and I stood there open-mouthed as he soared down the hillside, his beard clearly visible against the late-afternoon sky.

Until that day, I'd heard others talk about seeing the big birds, and I had even once or twice heard them calling in the distance, but that was my first up-close encounter with the bird that I'd chase for the rest of my life.

The heyday of gobbler hunting in the Natural State occurred in 2003, which saw 19,947 birds checked during the spring season, capping a run of consecutive record harvests dating back to the late 1950s. At the time, it was common to see large flocks feeding through the woods, and information provided by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission told us that turkeys had returned to and were increasing in about every part of the state. Numerous magazine and newspaper articles trumpeted Arkansas as becoming a new turkey hotspot, and several outdoors shows were shot here. Apparently, everything was rosy in the turkey world.

Fast-forward to the present, and something -- maybe a combination of things -- has changed that. The state turkey harvest fell in 2004 to 16,969 birds, dropped again in 2005 to 14,576, and declined yet again in 2006 to 13,598.

Taking notice of the alarming downward spiral, AGFC commissioners voted to alter the season structure substantially prior to 2007. The overall season was cut by one week and moved one week later in an effort to reduce hunting pressure on the flock. The two-bird limit stayed the same, with only one of those allowed to be a jake.

But all that came to naught as the 2007 total harvest fell yet again, this time to 11,069 birds. Perhaps even more illuminating, not one single Arkansas county established a new harvest record in 2007, and only 18 counties out of 75 reported higher kill figures than in the previous year.

Even by the AGFC's own admission, only a small part of that decline can be explained by the reduction in season length. Management staff expected the numbers to decline because turkeys have not reproduced well in the state since 2001. One or two bad hatches typically won't have a major impact on either numbers or harvest; five in a row can be catastrophic.

Weather also was an influence. It was unusually cold during the two-day youth hunt in 2007 (April 7-8), and on opening day the temperature was 15 degrees below average. Again according to AGFC figures, the overall harvest was down 10 percent for the youth hunt and 38 percent on opening day, indicating that the weather did have something to do with the final numbers.

Many veteran turkey hunters stated that the birds were "gobbled out" prior to the later opening day. The inference suggested that most of the breeding activity, which leads the gobblers to sound off, had already ended, with the result being that the males wouldn't respond to calling. Regardless of the validity of that theory, when a majority of hunters do not hear gobbling, they stay home. After the first few days of the 2007 season, a lot of them did just that.

Still, anyone can come up with reasons for the poor turkey hunting after the fact. The plain truth is that Arkansas turkey hunting is in a decline, and has been for four years. Why?

Bob McAnally was a career employee of the AGFC who recently retired as regional director for the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Bob has always had one passion, and that is turkey hunting. Since he was born and raised in Clarksville, where he has lived his entire life, he knows about as much when it comes to turkey management in the Ozarks as any man alive.

Before last season, he and I talked at length about what was happening with the declining turkey numbers not only in the mountains, but statewide as well. At the time, Arkansas was coming off two very mild winters, during which the mast crop in the uplands was as heavy as even the old-timers could remember. So at least from a food and comfort standpoint, turkeys should have been at a peak prior to the 2007 season, a statement that Bob agreed with.

"Yes, if you consider physical criteria, everything should be in place for a good season," Bob said. "We've had a mild winter and outstanding mast."

But then he shook his head.

"We had all of that last season too, and really the year before, and both of those showed declines in kill," he continued. "Our production numbers are also way down, again

. . . The plain fact is that no one knows if this season will be any better than last."

Certainly, increased depredation by predators, whose numbers are on the upswing because of a lack of bounties and low fur prices, is a factor, but it is not the whole answer. According to the U.S. Forest Service, annual spring burning does not affect nesting hens, but some hunters would disagree. We've also had some heavy rains and even hail during April in recent years, factors that could certainly have had a drastic effect.

All of those factors could be responsible, at least in part, for Arkansas' turkey woes, but none is the total answer. Also, many inside and outside the AGFC management division believe the state is paying a price for liberal limits and lengthy seasons in the past. This argument seems logical, as demand cannot continually outstrip supply.

Unfortunately, the bad news may not get better soon. Mike Widner, AGFC turkey program coordinator, stated in his presentation to the commissioners in October 2007 that "turkey reproduction was below average" for that year. Widner's report also stated that the "sub-par spring harvest will probably continue for at least a couple of years in Arkansas."

You can either dwell in doom and gloom or look for the upside. Things are bad; they could be worse. If the lengthy seasons in the past are the primary reason for the decline, then numbers should start to rebound in 2008. Using the same criteria, there should also be more

mature birds available because of the lower jake kill in 2007. Hunters are supreme optimists, and it looks like we'll need to be.

Of the top 20 Arkansas counties for 2007 turkey harvests, only Sharp County reported more than 400 birds, and just five counties posted harvests exceeding 300 kills.

Sharp County led the state with 419 turkeys checked, followed by Fulton with 392 and Baxter with 325. If you take a look at the list of top kill counties, you will note that Arkansas' northeastern counties have taken the place of southern Ozarks counties atop the harvest numbers. The reason is simple: lots of clear-cutting has taken place in that region as more and more people move in to retire. This new "edge" creates ideal feeding situations for turkey and deer as well.

Regionally, the Ozarks continues to lead the state in terms of overall harvest, but it is also the region that showed the biggest decline in raw harvest numbers in 2007. The Gulf Coastal Plain continued its run as the state's second-place turkey region. With a decrease of only 11 percent, this region stayed well ahead of the Ouachitas, where the annual harvest dropped by 20 percent.

Statistics aside, decent hunting opportunities exist in each of the state's regions. Here's a look at a few spots where your chances of bagging a longbeard are better.

THE DELTA

St. Francis National Forest WMA

A recent survey done by the AGFC showed that only 44 percent of delta gobbler hunters target the delta, with the other 56 percent presumably hunting other regions. Some of them may want to rethink their choice of hunting grounds.

The decrease in harvest numbers in this region was far less than that of any other area. Secondly, in a largely agricultural area, the availability of food sources is far less of a problem than in the uplands, where mast during the fall of 2007 was greatly reduced by the previous spring cold snap. While there is less public hunting land available in the delta, there is above-average habitat, and the flocks will be somewhat concentrated on those spots.

St. Francis National Forest Wildlife Management Area is a 21,201-acre area lying along the southern end of Crowley's Ridge and has long been a staple for mid-delta hunters. Since public hunting is at a premium in this region, it is hunted hard, particularly early in the season.

Also keep in mind that the entire delta region, traversed not only by the Mississippi River but also by the White, Cache and Arkansas rivers, is essentially a drainage. In years of heavy rain, much of the land is under water, and the St. Francis National Forest WMA, which is relatively elevated for this region, can attract birds looking for higher ground.

The topography here consists of fairly steep ridges and narrow hollows covered primarily with a variety of hardwoods. Access is obtained via a NFS road that runs virtually the entire length of the WMA, connecting to state Route 44 on the north end near Marianna and state Route 242 on the south end near Helena. Forest Service maps of the area can be helpful; they can be obtained by calling 1-877-734-4581.

THE OZARKS

Sylamore WMA

Great beauty and almost unlimited public hunting -- that pretty much sums up both the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. The downside is that hunting pressure is heavy in the more accessible spots, especially near Fort Smith and the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers triplex, both of which have high numbers of hunters.

Sylamore Wildlife Management Area actually lies farther east than better-known areas such as White Rock and Piney Creeks WMAs. Like those two areas, Sylamore is a big area, comprising 170,000 acres in Baxter, Marion, Stone and Searcy counties. It also contains several walk-in turkey areas, the most notable being Leatherwood, which lies along the western edge near the Buffalo River. Such areas, where all motorized traffic is prohibited, are exactly the type of spots that will attract an old gobbler, particularly during the latter parts of the season.

Like most mountain areas, Sylamore is rugged and rough in areas, so a note or two of caution is prudent. If you're overweight and out of shape, or if you have heart or respiratory problems, you probably need to choose another location. Also, you need to check and break in your equipment, particularly your boots, before setting out. It will save you a lot of blisters.

State Route 341 south from Norfork runs almost the entire length of the area, and numerous forest service access roads branch from it into rougher country. This will be one of the areas most affected by the forest service ban on ATVs. Information and maps are available by calling 1-877-297-4331.

THE OUACHITAS

Winona WMA

velers from both Little Rock and Hot Springs is 160,000-acre Winona WMA, in Garland, Prairie and Saline counties. It is perhaps better known for the quality of its bear hunting, but turkeys abound there, too.

If you've ever gone to the horse races at Oaklawn, at least from the direction of Russellville, Scenic Route 7 takes you along the western edge of Winona. Like most upland areas within Arkansas, the topography at Winona consists of steep ridges cut by deep hollows, so the same cautions that I mentioned earlier about health and equipment apply here. If you venture into the more remote areas, a GPS unit is desirable. Winona is also where a game camera belonging to Don Scott of Little Rock caught the image of a mountain lion in August 2006. Since the big cats demand seclusion, the picture speaks to the remoteness of this particular territory.

The Flatside Wilderness Area lies near the middle of the area, and along its eastern end hooks up with the Chinquapin Mountain Walk-In Turkey Hunting Area. Together, those two areas offer some 25,000 acres of unspoiled and largely underexploited territory within which the hunter looking for quiet and seclusion may well find both. Chinquapin is easily accessible from state Route 9 running south from Perryville. Turkey numbers throughout the entire area are not high, but flocks will be concentrated around the old fields in the spring. Information and maps are available by calling 1-877-525-8606.

GULF COASTAL PLAIN

Leased-Land WMAs

The Gulf Coastal Plain region is firmly entrenched as Arkansas' second-best turkey-producing area. The downside to this region is that virtually all of the better hunting land lies on timber company holdings that are leased to clubs. Public-land hunters may have tough sledding.

For that reason, probably the best option lies in purchasing a $20 leased-land permit, which entitles you to hunt on privately owned properties scattered throughout the region. Unfortunately from a pocket-book viewpoint, each leased-land area named below requires a separate permit.

Casey Jones WMA lies along the line separating Ashley and Drew counties, both known throughout the region for the quality of their turkey hunting. The land is actually owned by Plum Creek and consists of some 56,908 acres accessible by taking state Route 180 west from Fountain Hill. Big Timber WMA consists of 41,111 p

rivate acres lying in Clark County, southwest of Gurdon. Gum Flats WMA (16,661 acres) and Provo WMA (11,327 acres) both run along the Arkansas-Oklahoma line in Little River and Sevier counties. Gum Flats is east of Foreman, and Provo is north of Lockesburg. That leaves Lafayette County WMA (16,739 acres), which lies, naturally, in Lafayette County near the town of Bradley.

Most of these tracts are managed for pine and/or hardwood timber. Prescribed burning is employed on most, and the other timber management practices in effect typically result in good turkey habitat. Check the AGFC regulations booklet for information and contact numbers for each area.

LOOKING AHEAD

The lower jake kill last spring should signal more mature birds this time around. Likewise, fewer birds taken in 2007 should result in more birds available in 2008.

But in the end, it will be the draw of merely spending time afield that attracts most hunters. Whether it's putting off "honey-do" lists, response to the lack of football on television or merely wanting to be surrounded by the wonder of annual woodland rebirth, thousands of Natural State hunters will head afield that second weekend in April.

I'll be one of them. Hope you will too!

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

At their October meeting, the AGFC commissioners adopted the following season dates and bag limits for 2008, virtually mirroring 2007.

The Arkansas youth hunt is slated for April 5-6 in all zones except for Zone 17, where it will be held March 29-30.

The statewide season is scheduled for April 12-May 2 in zones 1, 2, 4B, 5, 5B, 7, 7A, 8, 9 and 10. Season dates will be April 12-25 for zones 1A, 4, 4A, 5A and 9A. Zone 17, which is inside the levees of the Mississippi River, is scheduled for an April 5-27 season.

Arkansas hunters may harvest two bearded turkeys, only one of which may be a jake. Only one turkey may be taken per day.

Find more about Arkansas

fishing and hunting at:

ArkansasSportsmanMag.com

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