Natural State 2010 Gobbler Outlook

So how is our spring turkey season shaping up? Maybe just a little better than you would think. (March 2010)

The author (left) and wife, Jill Easton, usually manage to bag a bird or two, no matter how the season is running. They say scouting and persistence pay off.
Photo by Jim Spencer.

I have no way of proving it, but I'm pretty sure the second Arkansas gobbler I killed last spring was one of a gang of seven I'd seen several times the previous winter along the shoreline of the East Pigeon Creek arm of Lake Norfork. They were a long way from my home, so when turkey season came, I didn't go back up there at first. But halfway through a season that had contained little action and lots of hunter interference, I got to thinking about that gang of seven longbeards. One morning I launched my boat at Cranfield and ran around to East Pigeon to see if I could find any of them.

As it happened, I did find one, pretty close to where I'd seen the flock back during the winter. He was henny and beat me the first morning, but then I went back to him in the middle hours of the following day and caught him by himself. Stop by my office and I'll show you his spurs.

That bird and the other one I'd tagged the second day of the season added up to a much better season for me than the seasons enjoyed by most of my fellow home-state hunters. Most folks had pretty unsatisfying seasons, which isn't too surprising. When you combine a too-lengthy spring season with a long string of substandard turkey hatches, the inevitable result is a downturn in both hunter success and hunter satisfaction. Translated into numbers, what Arkansas hunters have gotten from that combination is a total spring kill that's dwindled 44 percent in the past six years, since we set an all-time record of 19,823 birds in 2003.

The free-fall seems to have slowed, though, and possibly stopped. After a series of declining harvests (16,969 in 2004, 14,576 in 2005, and 13,598 in 2006), for the past three seasons the Arkansas spring tally has been remarkably consistent: 11,069 in 2007, 11,461 in 2008, and 11,121 in 2009. That's a change of less than 5 percent over the three years.

Of course, there are other adjectives besides "consistent" that could be used to describe this remarkably level three-year harvest. One of them is "flat-lined." And many hunters, accustomed to seeing record harvests almost every year until 2004, are calling the recent harvest statistics exactly that. No matter what you call it, there's no getting around the fact that the Arkansas turkey population is down substantially from the glory days of just a few years ago.

The thing is, though, this drastically reduced spring harvest over the past three years has been an intentional and desirable thing. Part of the reason for the reduced kill is the decreased turkey population, but also the much more conservative spring season structure that's been in effect since 2007 had a lot to do with it. It's not a desirable thing in the sense that Arkansas hunters want to harvest fewer turkeys, you understand, but it is desirable in the sense that a reduced gobbler harvest is the correct course of action in the face of this recent population downturn.

That's why we've had a short season and a later opening date for the past three years than we had during those high-harvest years at the beginning of the century. Wildlife managers realized we were hitting our turkeys too hard, too early and too long, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission finally did something about it. When we were shooting those high numbers of gobblers, the spring season was from 30 to 39 days long, counting the two-day youth hunt. Since 2007, the season has been 23 days counting the youth hunt, a reduction of 16 days, and the opening date is a week later.

Both those things have helped. The shorter season obviously lowers the harvest by decreasing hunter opportunity, and the delayed opening allows more hens to be bred by gobblers before the season opens, thereby leading to a higher percentage of fertile, nesting hens. As a result, even though the overall harvest was 340 fewer gobblers than the 2008 figure, 34 counties tallied higher totals than in 2008.

Still, for the short term, Arkansas hunters must face up to the cold, hard fact that we're coming into the 2010 spring season on the heels of eight, count 'em, eight, consecutive below-average hatches across most of the state. When you're dealing with a species that has a relatively short life and a high mortality rate, a low reproductive rate doesn't bode well.

Here's a region-by-region look and our season prospects for 2010.

DELTA
Although it consistently ranks last in total harvest, the Delta region of eastern Arkansas is the only one of Arkansas' four major physiographic regions that showed an increase in the spring turkey kill last year. Quite an increase it was, too, to the tune of 36 percent. Delta hunters tagged 1,295 turkeys last spring. That was 12 percent of the statewide total. Fifteen of the 18 Delta counties posted harvest gains in 2009, and two counties (Cross with 42 birds and Mississippi with 47) set new harvest records.

Desha, Arkansas and Lee counties were the biggest contributors to the Delta total and accounted for more than 70 percent of the region's increase from last year. Desha County, for example, went from an anemic total of 19 birds in 2008 to 194 last year. Arkansas County increased its harvest from 99 to 143, and Lee County went from 67 to 101.

Spring flooding was the biggest reason those three Delta counties had such low harvests in 2008 -- much of the public hunting land was closed by emergency proclamation, and much of the private turkey habitat was flooded and unhuntable. But an improved hatch for the past two years over much of the Delta is another reason. The 2008 hatch was a little less successful than desirable because of the high water in many areas, but there was a hatch. And my personal observations and those of hunting friends throughout the Delta indicated that the AGFC survey might have been on the light side. Also, AGFC brood survey reports indicated average to slightly above average in most of the Delta in 2007. Those birds will be 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds this spring.

White River National Wildlife Refuge, St. Francis Forest Wildlife Management Area, and Cache River NWR were the top-producing public areas in the Delta region last year. Barring flooding, they likely will repeat the performance in 2010. Bayou Meto WMA also may provide decent hunting.

As already mentioned, the Delta consistently brings up the rear in total turkey harvest for Arkansas, but the numbers are deceiving. Most of the acreage is devoted to farming and aquaculture, and turkey habitat is largely limited to the overflow areas along the major waterways. Within those bottomland har

dwood remnants, though, lies some of the most productive turkey habitat in the state. Give these birds two or three years of good nesting conditions, and they can blow out in a hurry.

OUACHITAS
Although this rocky, rough-country region led the state in turkey harvest through the late 1960s and all of the 1970s, it now consistently comes in third behind the Gulf Coastal Plain and the Ozarks. Last spring, though, thanks mostly to a 15 percent decline in the GCP tally, the Ouachitas almost regained second place in the standings. Hunters checked 2,444 turkeys in the Ouachita region in 2009, a decrease of only 2 percent from the previous year.

"Turkey populations in the Ouachitas haven't taken quite as big a hit in the past six years as other areas of the state," said Mike Widner, turkey program coordinator for the AGFC. "In 2006, the region's harvest was 2,718, and it's been holding its own at about that level."

The 2,444 turkeys taken in the Ouachitas in 2009 represented 22 percent of the state total, and a 2 percent decrease from the region's 2008 tally. Muddy Creek WMA, Mount Magazine WMA and Winona WMA were the top public areas in the region, but that's largely because they're so big; only 11 percent of the Ouachita region's turkey harvest came from public land. Montgomery County, with 284 birds checked, ranked eighth in the state and was the only county in the region to make the Top 10. Six other counties -- Logan, Saline, Garland, Scott, Perry and Yell -- broke the 200 mark, and Polk, Pike and Sebastian counties yielded 184, 157 and 123, respectively. The last-place county in the region, Pulaski, still managed 62 birds, despite being heavily urbanized.

Obviously, although the Ouachita region is following the statewide trend toward reduced turkey numbers, there still are a lot of birds. If you have an old favorite hunting spot in the Ouachitas, go check it out this spring. It probably will hold turkeys.

GULF COASTAL PLAIN
As mentioned, this region showed a 15 percent drop in harvest from 2008 to 2009, the largest decrease in the state, and GCP hunters checked 2,535 turkeys. Less than 100 of them came from public land -- largely because there is so little public land in the region. Felsenthal NWR, Cut-Off Creek WMA and Poison Springs WMA probably provide the best public hunting in the region, as do some parts of the checker-boarded Casey Jones WMA leased lands.

Union County (the largest in the state) was the only GCP county to make the Top 10 list, coming in 10th with 277 birds checked. However, as with the Ouacitas, the majority of counties within the region had totals above 100 birds: Clark, 186; Hot Springs, 178; Cleveland, 164; Dallas, 161; Ouachita, 154; Calhoun, 153; Grant, 150; Columbia, 149; Nevada, 128; Ashley, 123; Bradley, 123; Drew, 123; and Lincoln, 102. Only the southwest corner counties of Little River and Miller -- with 32 and 12 turkeys checked, respectively -- appear likely to provide consistently poor hunting prospects for 2010.

OZARKS
As usual, the Ozark region had no competition from the rest of the state as the top turkey producer. With 4,843 birds checked, the region produced 44 percent of the statewide harvest -- the same percentage as last year, and a 4 percent decrease from the region's total harvest in 2008.

The eastern counties (those lying between Black River and White River, as well as Baxter, Cleburne and Stone along the White) accounted for the lion's share of the Ozark harvest. The farther west you go in the Ozarks, the closer you come to running out of turkeys. Benton County, for example, the state's northwestern most county, yielded only 12 turkeys in 2009. Washington County wasn't much better with 40 tagged birds, and Crawford County was third lowest in the region with 79.

However, across the central and eastern Ozarks the numbers are better. Eight connecting counties in the eastern edge of the region took eight of the Top 10 spots in the harvest rankings in 2009. They were Sharp, with 421 turkeys; Fulton, 409; Baxter, 337; Cleburne, 335; Independence, 329; Izard, 304; Randolph, 303; and Marion, 278. Lawrence County had 152 birds checked, but only half that county is in the Ozarks. The eastern half, east of Black River and in the Delta, holds relatively poor turkey habitat.

Public lands yielded only 5 percent of the Ozark tally in 2009, but the region still contains some pretty good public hunting despite that statistic. Huge White Rock WMA, north of Ozark, is in a slump. Piney Creeks WMA north of Morrilton and Sylamore WMA north of Mountain View are in somewhat better shape, if still well below their 2003 and 2004 turkey levels. Harold E. Alexander WMA in Sharp County, Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake WMA in Lawrence County, and Camp Robinson WMA in Faulkner and Pulaski counties should have decent hunting.

Ozark region hunters on both public and private ground from Franklin and Madison counties eastward should find enough turkeys to make a hunting season. The 2007 hatch was about average in the eastern counties, which means there should be a decent population of 2-year-old gobblers in the eastern counties at least. East or west, those who do their pre-season scouting will have a leg up, but that's true regardless of whether turkey populations are high or low.

Even though there's no denying the fact that the Arkansas turkey flock and the annual spring harvest are both well below the historic high in 2003, it's important to keep all these numbers in perspective. A decline of 44 percent from 2003 to 2009 is a big drop, true enough, but even so, we've still checked more turkeys in Arkansas in each of the past three years than we did in any year before 1998. The Arkansas harvest total never broke the 5,000 mark until the late 1980s. We've had a setback lately, no question about it, but except for extreme northwest and extreme southwest Arkansas, we're a long, long way from running out of turkeys.

Turkey populations are cyclic, even under the best of conditions. Arkansas hunters who were out there chasing the gobblers when the state was suffering through six consecutive years of poor hatches from 1988 to 1993 remember those as pretty lean years. The Arkansas flock didn't fully recover for a decade; it's not going to happen overnight this time, either.

But we'll get there. The conservative season framework that's in place right now will keep our birds from dwindling to dangerous levels, and when we're finally able to string together a few good nesting years, things will improve in a hurry.

Meanwhile, don't fall into the trap of letting yourself believe turkey hunting in Arkansas isn't any good these days. It's not as good as it has been, nor as good as it will be again in the future, but compared with 20 years ago, it's not too shabby.

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