Natural State Fall Gobbler Guide

Mention autumn turkeys to most hunters and their thoughts will likely turn to Thanksgiving dinner and football, but Arkansas' fall turkey season is a fantastic time to bag a gobbler. (September 2008)

Arkansas' fall firearms turkey season runs from Oct. 1-17 in zones 3, 5B, 6 and 17 only. Bowhunters enjoy a longer fall turkey season in the remaining zones.
Photo by Ralph Hensley.

A friend of mine once uttered a pronouncement to the effect that the final step in becoming what he calls a T.O.I. -- "total outdoor idiot" -- is taking up turkey hunting. But one rung on the T.O.I. ladder is even higher (lower?) than that: For the folks who just can't get enough of hunting turkeys in the spring, there's fall turkey season.

Most turkey hunters are familiar with the ins, outs, ups and downs of what it takes to find a tom turkey in the spring. But chasing these birds through the fall and winter months is a practice that comes with its own unique rules, regulations and mindset.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS
This fall, firearms turkey hunting will be open in Arkansas zones 3, 5B, 6 and 17. Those zones are found in the eastern Ozark Plateaus (3); at the southern end of Crowley's Ridge and mainly in the St Francis unit of the Ozark-St Francis National Forest (5B); the Ozarks and the north side of the Arkansas River Valley (6) and the lands on the Mississippi River (17).

The season will run from Oct. 11-17. Meanwhile, all other zones are closed to firearms turkey hunting.

That does not mean, however, that there is no other opportunity to take a shot at one of these birds in autumn. Instead, the remainder of the zones allow archery and crossbow hunting for fall turkeys.

Zones 1, 1A, 2, 4, 4A, 4B, 5, 5A, 7, 7A, 8, 9, 9A and 10 are included in this archery/crossbow-only area. The season, though, also includes the other zones where the brief firearms season is allowed. Dates are Oct. 1, 2008, through Feb. 28, 2009.

For each of the seasons, there is a limit of one bird per hunter. Departing from the rules of the spring season, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission allows hunters to take hens. In fact, hens account for much of the fall turkey harvest in our state. (Cont.)

So, how does the state agency charged with the stewardship of wildlife arrive at these regulations?

The reasoning behind the season dates and bag limits relates to data obtained by the AGFC on turkey populations and harvests in each zone and each of Arkansas' 75 counties.

"The Harvest Management Section of the Strategic Wild Turkey Management Plan, which was approved by the commission in 2001, guides turkey harvest management in Arkansas," explained Mike Widner, the AGFC's turkey program leader. "The SWTMP treats fall firearms and fall archery/crossbow differently." He went on to note that this is so because of the enhanced ability of a hunter using a firearm to harvest a bird, and added, "Fall firearms hunting could have a significant impact on turkey numbers if harvests are excessive."

Therefore, the AGFC eyes available information from employee observations, hunter harvests and other sources to rein in the fall turkey harvest to an acceptable level. Widner observed that level as being anything under 5 percent of the estimated fall turkey population in a given area.

"The primary criteria is that fall firearms hunting should be allowed in counties that have a spring turkey harvest (from the previous year) in excess of 0.5 birds per square mile of commercial forest," he continued.

With that criteria driving the decision-making process, the AGFC opened one turkey zone for fall firearms hunting and closed three others as part of its activities at the board's meeting in March.

A HEALTHY FLOCK?
For years, the Ozark Plateaus have laid claim to some of the best turkey hunting destinations in Arkansas. Before the Ozarks took over that top spot, however, it was the Ouachitas that were considered the prime spot for Arkansas turkey hunters.

That physiographic region of the state, though, has seen two downturns in turkey populations -- in the late 1970s and in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. In fact, the Ouachita Mountains have yet to consistently produce the harvests seen before drought conditions and poor hatches took their toll.

Currently, Widner said, "The eastern Ozarks and the Mississippi River batture lands (the land between the river and the levees that border it) rank first in turkey densities in the state."

So, geographically speaking, we know where the most birds are. But, what about other important numbers? Where is the gobbler-to-hen ratio the best? Where are the most poults being seen? Where are the harvest numbers showing an improvement over the previous season?

Taking a tour of the Commission's Web site (www.agfc.com) will allow you to find, peruse and even print out the 2006-07 Turkey Season Summary. This publication provides the most up-to-date information available with regard to Natural State turkeys.

A spring harvest of 11,069 turkeys in 2007 was a decrease of more than 3,500 birds from the previous year. It was also 44.5 percent lower than the record harvest of 2003.

The physiographic region that took the biggest hit in 2007 versus 2006 was the Ozarks, which fell by 22 percent. Still, the area accounted for roughly 45 percent of Arkansas' total turkey harvest.

All other physiographic regions saw a decrease in harvest, with the Ouachitas falling by 20 percent, the Gulf Coastal Plain dropping by 11 percent and the Delta taking a 4 percent dip.

These numbers, the AGFC has asserted, are proof of the below-average brood production that has followed on the heels of five good years (1997-2001) and the resulting liberalization of seasons.

The upside in spring 2007 harvest numbers came in the form of 18 counties showing harvests greater than or equal to 2006 reports. The Delta shined again in this statistical category, with every county touching the Mississippi River showing a positive trend. Other counties in this elite group included some along the corridor of the White and Cache rivers and their tributaries, one in the extreme eastern Ozarks and a handful in the Ouachitas and Gulf Coastal Plain.

Eyeing brood survey numbers from 2007, we find that the poult/hen index (a measure of the average number of poults reported with

each hen) was 1.78. That's just under two poults per hen, down marginally from 2006. Furthermore, total poult numbers also fell, going from 3,056 in 2006 to 2,769 in 2007.

The AGFC said that these numbers, coupled together, "indicate that statewide turkey reproduction was below average for the sixth consecutive year."

On a brighter note, however, the gobbler/hen index was up for 2007. In 2006, only 668 gobblers were reported. That number climbed to 868 in 2007. That index had fallen steadily since spring seasons were liberalized in 2001.

According to these criteria, when broken down by physiographic region, hunters are more likely to see a gobbler in the Ozarks or the Delta based on bird density, but in the Ouachitas or the Delta based on number of gobblers reported per every hen reported.

WHERE TO GO?
"Just about any public or private lands in the fall firearms (turkey) zones have the potential for some good fall firearms hunting," Widner advised. Here again, he said, the numbers show the way for those wanting to bag a bird.

"The 2007 fall turkey harvest figures are not available at present. In fall 2006, Izard County led the state with 28 turkeys checked with firearms, followed by Sharp with 24, Randolph with 23, Fulton with 20 and Garland with 14. Most of these counties are in the eastern Ozarks, which normally leads the state in spring kill," explained Widner.

As for spots that provide some archery/crossbow action on fall turkeys, he listed Sharp County as the 2006 winner with 12 turkeys harvested. Cleburne County checked in with 10 birds, while Pope tallied nine, and Fulton and Randolph accounted for seven each.

As far as public grounds go, the already familiar zone numbers of 3, 5B, 6 and 17 are home to many of them.

The most recent harvest figures for public hunting areas are from spring 2007, but, as Widner explained, they do provide a good assessment of what fall turkey hunters could expect.

The top turkey-taker was the Ozark National Forest Wildlife Management Area. The area provided hunters with 91 birds. Ozark stretches across 12 northwest Arkansas counties, from Washington to Searcy.

Next up were the western and north-central Arkansas destinations of White Rock WMA and Sylamore WMA, with 71 and 68 birds checked, respectively. The former encompasses 280,000 acres and is found in Madison, Franklin, Johnson and Crawford counties, roughly 25 miles southeast of Fayetteville and 13 miles north of Ozark. The latter is sandwiched between Mountain Home and Mountain View, 12 miles south of the first community, six miles north of the second. Marion, Searcy, Stone and Baxter counties are all touched by Sylamore's reach.

From there, the next four WMAs were in a logjam with 58 turkeys noted at Winona and Piney Creeks and 56 each from Mount Magazine and Muddy Creek. Winona, as the highest rated public area in the Ouachitas, covers 160,000 acres in Saline, Perry and Garland counties about four miles south of Perryville.

Piney Creeks adds another Ozarks hot spot in Newton, Pope and Johnson counties. It is 16 miles north of Russellville, 15 miles northeast of Clarksville.

Both Mount Magazine and Muddy Creek are found in the Ouachitas. Mount Magazine is across the river from Russellville near Dardanelle. The WMA covers ground in both Logan and Yell counties. Meanwhile, Muddy Creek also is found partly in Yell County, as well as in Montgomery and Scott counties. Its 150,000 acres lie about 10 miles northwest of Mt. Ida.

Finally, with the eighth slot, a physiographic region east of the state's capital city of Little Rock slips into the list. White River National Wildlife Refuge hunters tallied 45 birds during the spring 2007 hunt. Also in eastern Arkansas, St. Francis National Forest WMA chimed in just one behind that at 44.

White River NWR calls 90 miles of the lower White River its home. Covering parts of Desha, Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties, it totals 160,000 acres running in a north-south corridor along the river from the Clarendon area nearly to the Arkansas and Mississippi confluences.

In Lee and Phillips counties, between Marianna and Helena-West Helena, St. Francis National Forest WMA provides 20,946 acres of outdoor recreational opportunities.

Moving back to the west, the former turkey stronghold of the Ouachitas provided the tenth public area in terms of number of birds harvested. Lake Greeson WMA had 19 birds. Four miles northwest of Murfreesboro, Lake Greeson WMA covers 35,000 acres in Pike and Howard counties.

FALLING FOR TURKEYS
While hunting for turkeys in the spring is all about the gobblers, going after these birds in the fall season is not relegated just to the male of the species. In fact, hens usually make up the majority of the fall harvest.

"The fall turkey-hunting setting may be quite similar to that of spring," Widner began. "The primary difference is usually not the setting, but the behavior of the birds," he continued, noting that the birds do not have mating on their minds at this time of year.

"In the fall, turkey behavior is governed by natural food abundance. Find the food, and you'll normally find the turkeys. . . . Finding turkeys and patterning their movements is a big part of fall hunting.

"Once they are found, the hunter has to deal with the reality that fall turkeys are not in a breeding mode like springtime. While some gobbling may be heard, it is usually not abundant. The main attribute the fall hunter must take advantage of is that turkeys are flocking birds this time of year."

The birds, explained the biologist, are usually found divided into groups by sex and age. Herein lies one of the keys to how outdoorsmen can approach fall turkey hunting.

Noting that these flocks develop strong bonds, Widner said, "Bust them up, and they'll get back together as soon as they can. So, busting up a flock, whether mature gobblers or hens with their poults, and calling up individuals seeking to reform flocks is one of the primary hunting techniques."

Another maneuver fall turkey hunters may employ is finding vocal birds and trying to move ahead of the group to cut them off at some likely ambush point.

This can also be done effectively when flocks are broken up and birds are soon heard calling in a given direction. Of course, caution must be taken not to stray too far -- usually not more than 50 to 100 yards -- from where the flock was broken apart. Otherwise, you might just chase the birds right out of the area you're hunting.

"Archery or crossbow hunters are usually more patient," Widner added, "using ground blinds or decoys, along with calling, to lure birds to food plots or other areas they have been frequenting."

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