Arkansas Turkeys: The Future Looks Very Bright

Over the last several decades, Arkansas gobblers have returned from the brink of extinction several times. Now, effective management and responsible hunting have the birds thriving as never before.

The first wild turkeys I ever saw were a longbeard and a jake lying dead in the bed of a muddy, well-used pickup truck brought to town by two proud, rough-hewn rivermen who'd called the birds in and killed them on that long-ago April morning.

The year, near as I can figure, was 1951. And if I'm right about the date, I was not quite 5 years old. And if that date is correct, then those of us gathered around the truck gawking at those two turkeys were looking at roughly 1 percent of the reported Arkansas harvest for that year -- which came to exactly 201 turkeys.

Fast-forward three decades. The first wild turkey I ever killed came within range on a sparkling April morning in 1981 on the rocky south slope of Mauldin Mountain in Montgomery County, northwest of Mt. Ida. He was the twin of the gobbler a friend of mine had killed that same morning. My friend and I were justifiably proud of those two birds. But nobody gathered around the truck to rubberneck at the birds when we took them to the check station. By then the sight of two dead turkeys in the bed of pickup trucks was old hat, at least in the Ouachitas.

The 30-year span between the days I first looked at a wild turkey and the day I first killed one almost precisely coincides with the recovery of this wonderful big-game bird in Arkansas. While the statewide harvest in 1951 was 201, the total had swelled to 4,096 by 1981. But even this figure paled in comparison to the 6,704 turkeys taken in 1980. The decline resulted from a severe drought that briefly set back Arkansas' turkey population expansion during the early 1980s.

FIRST THERE WERE MANY

During pre-settlement days, wild turkeys were unbelievably abundant in the vast hardwood forest that dominated the eastern United States. The early European explorers who came to Arkansas -- De Soto in 1540, La Salle in 1678, LaHarpe in 1722 -- all reported seeing multitudes of turkeys, often in flocks numbering 100 or more. The abundance was exploited throroughly, and gunpowder began to take a toll. But as only a few explorers, and even fewer settlers from east and north, inhabited the region then, the turkey population could withstand some overindulgence.

In the early 1800s, though, settlers began to enter the state in significant numbers. This influx, along with Arkansas splitting with Missouri and becoming a separate territory in 1819, led to increasing encroachment on what had been a healthy turkey population. The impact was particularly harsh near towns and along the navigable rivers.

However, due to the state's sheer size, turkeys continued to thrive. As late as 1852, the unwary multitudes observed by the first European visitors apparently persisted, at least in portions of the state. In February of that year, Arkansas' first outdoor writer, Charles Fenton Mercer ("Fent") Noland, boasted in a newspaper story of killing 54 turkeys in the first few days of a hunt near Batesville.

AND THEN THERE WERE FEW

The second onslaught on Arkansas' turkey population came in the early 1900s, with the completion of a network of railroads connecting Arkansas with the rest of the world. The railroads provided a way to get timber to market, resulting in a 15-year explosion of logging along Arkansas' still mostly virgin forests.

The railroads also provided a way to move wild game to market quickly and economically, and the birds became staples in large population centers like Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago.

This one-two punch of habitat destruction and the hunting of animals for market drastically reduced Arkansas' turkey population. In fact, by 1930, habitat loss and overhunting combined with the destruction from the onset of the Dust Bowl nearly finished them off.

Turkey populations languished for the next two decades, their totals going as low as perhaps 2,000 birds. The spring season was closed in 1946, 1947 and 1948.

SAVED BY HAPPY COINCIDENCE

It was about this time that several things began happening that acted to halt the dwindling turkey numbers. First, people started moving away from rural areas and into cities and towns as the post-World War II industrial boom created more and more jobs. This large-scale exodus to the cities resulted in a substantial and immediate decrease in year-round subsistence hunting.

Another factor serving to aid turkey populations was habitat improvement, albeit unintentional. The vast stretches of old-growth forest that had been cleared 30 years earlier were now alive with new growth, and these young forests provided good food and habitat for turkeys.

In February 1852, Arkansas' first outdoor writer, Charles Fenton Mercer ("Fent") Noland, boasted in a newspaper story of killing 54 turkeys in the first few days of a hunt near Batesville.

Also during this period, biologists began using the cannon net to capture wild turkeys, too. Use of the net paved the way for increased turkey trapping and restocking, both of which were key to the restoration effort. Additionally, a conservation ethic was taking root among hunters and non-hunters alike, with both groups frowning upon illegal activities such as poaching.

But perhaps the main factor fueling the turkey population expansion in the 1940s and 1950s was a rapid improvement in the burgeoning science of wildlife management. Wildlife agencies and wildlife biologists began actively managing wild turkey populations, mainly through improving habitat conditions and developing a framework of regulations that allowed seasonal hunting without damaging turkey population growth.

THE SLOW ROAD TO RECOVERY

Recovery of the Arkansas turkey flock started slowly after the three-year closure. In fact, for the first year or two, biologists were half-convinced that the closure had come too late to save Arkansas' turkeys. For example, in 1945, the year before the three-year closure of the season, the reported harvest was a paltry 299 birds. In 1949, the first year of legal hunting following the closure, the kill was only 195. In 1950, the harvest dropped to 145 -- the lowest turkey harvest ever recorded in Arkansas.

In 1955, though, the number rose to 317 from 201 in 1951. The population was going in the right direction, but the growth rate was painfully slow.

LEASING THE TURKEY FACTORY

In 1960, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission leased Brandywine Island, a hard-to-reach 8,000-acre island in the Mississippi River upstream from West Memphis. Because of its remoteness, Brandywine had a high turkey

population, and the scarcity of oak trees on the island made it very easy to take trap turkeys using bait -- always a prerequisite for successful trapping.

Turkey populations languished during the 1930s and 1940s, their totals going as low as perhaps 2,000 birds.

Over the next 15 years, AGFC biologists trapped an average of 150 turkeys per year on Brandywine, relocating them to suitable habitat elsewhere in the state. Most of these early relocation efforts were concentrated in the Ouachita Mountains. But Brandywine birds were also released in the Ozark, Gulf Coastal Plain and the Delta regions. During the same period, some turkeys were also trapped and relocated from White River National Wildlife Refuge, Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge and the St. Francis National Forest.

By 1972, the efforts were paying off. The estimated Arkansas turkey population was now at 20,000, and that year's total reported kill was 2,231 -- the first year more than 2,000 birds were taken in the state. Except for a blip during the drought in the early 1980s, the curve in both turkey population growth and annual reported turkey harvest has been steadily upward. Today, Arkansas' estimated turkey population is 175,000 to 200,000 birds -- maybe more. Last spring, Arkansas's official kill was 16,969 birds, which was down 15 percent from 2003. Turkeys are now legal game in at least part of every one of the state's 75 counties.

Today, Arkansas' estimated turkey population is 175,000 to 200,000 birds -- maybe more. Last spring, Arkansas's official kill was 16,969 birds, which was down 15 percent from 2003. Turkeys are now legal game in at least part of every one of the state's 75 counties.

FULL OCCUPANCY

In the early 1990s, the AGFC was able to cut back on trap-and-transplant operations, as all suitable turkey habitat was stocked with birds. But the efforts have continued since then and will continue in future years, largely because key turkey habitat is being created often.

Today, every place that will support turkeys now has turkeys. Additionally, as new areas of suitable habitat come into existence, birds will promptly be trapped and released there as well.

TWEAKING THE REGULATIONS

After several decades of agreement following the guidelines established by state biologists, a few years ago AGFC began tinkering with the season structure and harvest guidelines. A result of this tinkering was the so-called "jake rule." Basically, the regulation states that a hunter can take only one sub-adult gobbler per spring, even though the annual gobbler limit is two birds.

This feel-good regulation mirrors the thinking of most veteran turkey hunters, who generally pass up short-bearded gobblers anyway. Yet there's absolutely no research to back up the commissioner's claim that restricting the jake harvest will improve the quality of the hunt in future years.

From a biological standpoint, a gobbler is a gobbler is a gobbler, regardless of the age at which he's killed. The argument for the jake rule is that every jake removed from the population this spring is one less gobbling turkey that will be out there next spring. However, the same is also true for any gobbler removed from the population. Therefore, the jake rule is a case of meddling that, fortunately, doesn't amount to much harm.

Slightly less benign was the shift to an earlier opening day and a longer season, both of which took effect in 1999.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Arkansas hunters had a 37-day spring season. The season opened April 1 and went through May 7. But when research studies in the early '80s revealed that the peak breeding period for turkeys in Arkansas is the first week of April, the commission agreed to delay the opening of the season for a few days. The change, it was thought by the commission, would allow more time for nature to take its course before a mob of hunters entered the woods.

There's absolutely no research to back up the claim that restricting the jake harvest will improve the quality of the hunt in future years. From a biological standpoint, a gobbler is a gobbler is a gobbler, regardless of the age at which he's killed.

The measure worked -- something did, anyway -- and the second rapid increase of turkey numbers began in the late 1980s. But in 1999, with the season opening earlier and lasting longer, the upward momentum in turkey harvest numbers begin to taper off. In 2004, the Arkansas turkey harvest took a sharp dive, retreating 15 percent from the record harvest of 2003, when nearly 20,000 birds were taken. These figures marked the first decline since 1981.

Fortunately, the commissioners took note, and for 2005 the season the season opens April 9 in most parts of the state. The change in season structure will, everyone hopes, send things back in the right direction.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

If you're one of the many turkey hunters who have come into the sport during the past 10 years or so, you honestly don't know how good you've got it. Where turkey hunting is concerned, things aren't what they used to be -- and that's a very, very good thing.

If you're one of the many turkey hunters who have come into the sport during the past 10 years or so, you honestly don't know how good you've got it. Where turkey hunting is concerned, things aren't what they used to be -- and that's a very, very good thing.

When I started hunting turkeys in the late 1970s, I had to travel more than 125 miles to find decent public land on which to hunt the birds. Last spring, I killed two gobblers and watched three more die within five miles of where I sit writing these words. One was less than 300 yards from my back door.

There's still room for improvement in both our statewide turkey population and in the quality of the Arkansas turkey hunting experience. But there are now a thousand turkeys in the state right now for every one that was alive when that scrawny 5-year-old kid stared bug-eyed at the two gobblers in the back of that pickup truck more than 50 springs ago. That's a heck of an accomplishment for the state.

(Editor's Note: Autographed copies of Jim Spencer's 336-page book, Turkey Hunting Digest, are available for $24.95 plus $4 shipping from the author at P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.)

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