Northwest Fall Toms

If you want to bag your own Thanksgiving dinner in northwestern Arkansas, here's where and how to do it. (September 2009)

I'm not sure if I agree with the slant of the now-famous turkey legend surrounding one of our founding fathers. Supposedly, and there's said to be some documentation to back this up, Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey to the bald eagle as the national symbol of our United States.

Thankfully, Franklin didn't get his way in that alleged line of thinking. Otherwise, we might be dining on eagles every Thanksgiving and holding up turkeys as the regal standard bearer of our nation. Besides, I'm not so sure just how eagle would taste on the dinner table.

While history has a way of changing with time, Arkansas' turkey hunting picture has changed little in recent years. In fact, only two changes were implemented for this fall's turkey seasons.

First, the fall gun season for these birds was shifted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. And second, Turkey Zone 1A was closed to archery/crossbow hunting.

Otherwise, the song being sung is a familiar tune for Arkansas outdoorsmen. It is one that involves poor reproduction, spring cold spells and heavy rain from storm systems that ravaged the state during nesting seasons in recent years. There are also problems involving predation and habitat destruction by other species, such as feral hogs.

But there is hope for those wanting to bag a big bird this fall, according to Mike Widner, the turkey program coordinator for the AGFC. Much of that hope resides in the Ozark Plateaus of northern and western Arkansas.

WHERE TO GO?

"Currently, Zone 17 along the Mississippi has the densest population." Widner began. "But a great deal of that land is tied up in private farming operations, meaning there is little public access there."

Next on the list of geographic regions, though, are the eastern and central Ozarks. And the Arkansas River Valley that separates the Ozarks from the Ouachita Mountains to the south also ranks high in turkey population density.

Unlike Zone 17, the opportunities for hunting public ground abound in the Ozarks. There are several AGFC wildlife management areas, with many of those being surrounded or touched by some parcel of the Ozark National Forest's 1.2 million acres.

"The eastern Ozarks have some of the best turkey numbers in upland areas of Arkansas because habitat conditions are better there than in many other areas," Widner said. "It has a good mix of large-block areas of mature hardwoods -- and some mixed-in pine, open areas for broods, old fields and brushy areas for nesting and some agricultural crops in bottomland areas. Many other areas in the rest of the state are either too heavily wooded -- both national forests and south Arkansas -- or too open -- agricultural areas in the Delta or the Arkansas River Valley."

Widner noted that only zones 3 and 6 will be open to fall gun turkey hunting this year in the Ozarks, with the remaining open zones -- zones 1, 2 and 7A -- allowing only archery and crossbow hunting for the birds.

Regarding gun hunting in those former two zones, he said, "Of the two, private and public lands in Zone 3 should have greater opportunities than most areas in Zone 6, although there may be exceptions. With regard to the public lands, Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA, Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake WMA and Norfork Lake WMA should present good opportunities for fall turkey harvest."

Taking a closer look at those areas, we find Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA in Sharp County, about six miles south of Hardy and five miles east of Highland. The WMA is on the eastern edge of the Ozarks and encompasses more than 13,000 acres.

I'm not sure if I agree with the slant of the now-famous turkey legend surrounding one of our founding fathers. Supposedly, and there's said to be some documentation to back this up, Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey to the bald eagle as the national symbol of our United States.

Thankfully, Franklin didn't get his way in that alleged line of thinking. Otherwise, we might be dining on eagles every Thanksgiving and holding up turkeys as the regal standard bearer of our nation. Besides, I'm not so sure just how eagle would taste on the dinner table.

While history has a way of changing with time, Arkansas' turkey hunting picture has changed little in recent years. In fact, only two changes were implemented for this fall's turkey seasons.

First, the fall gun season for these birds was shifted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. And second, Turkey Zone 1A was closed to archery/crossbow hunting.

Otherwise, the song being sung is a familiar tune for Arkansas outdoorsmen. It is one that involves poor reproduction, spring cold spells and heavy rain from storm systems that ravaged the state during nesting seasons in recent years. There are also problems involving predation and habitat destruction by other species, such as feral hogs.

But there is hope for those wanting to bag a big bird this fall, according to Mike Widner, the turkey program coordinator for the AGFC. Much of that hope resides in the Ozark Plateaus of northern and western Arkansas.

WHERE TO GO?

"Currently, Zone 17 along the Mississippi has the densest population." Widner began. "But a great deal of that land is tied up in private farming operations, meaning there is little public access there."

Next on the list of geographic regions, though, are the eastern and central Ozarks. And the Arkansas River Valley that separates the Ozarks from the Ouachita Mountains to the south also ranks high in turkey population density.

Unlike Zone 17, the opportunities for hunting public ground abound in the Ozarks. There are several AGFC wildlife management areas, with many of those being surrounded or touched by some parcel of the Ozark National Forest's 1.2 million acres.

"The eastern Ozarks have some of the best turkey numbers in upland areas of Arkansas because habitat conditions are better there than in many other areas," Widner said. "It has a good mix of large-block areas of mature hardwoods -- and some mixed-in pine, open areas for broods, old fields and brushy areas for nesting and some agricultural crops in bottomland areas. Many other areas in the rest of the state are either too heavily wooded -- both national forests and south Arkansas -- or too open -- agricultural areas in the Delta or the Arkansas River Valley."

Widner noted that only

zones 3 and 6 will be open to fall gun turkey hunting this year in the Ozarks, with the remaining open zones -- zones 1, 2 and 7A -- allowing only archery and crossbow hunting for the birds.

Regarding gun hunting in those former two zones, he said, "Of the two, private and public lands in Zone 3 should have greater opportunities than most areas in Zone 6, although there may be exceptions. With regard to the public lands, Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA, Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake WMA and Norfork Lake WMA should present good opportunities for fall turkey harvest."

Taking a closer look at those areas, we find Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA in Sharp County, about six miles south of Hardy and five miles east of Highland. The WMA is on the eastern edge of the Ozarks and encompasses more than 13,000 acres.

Sylamore WMA

Covering four north-central Arkansas counties, Searcy, Marion, Stone and Baxter, this WMA lies south of Mountain Home by about 12 miles and is roughly six miles north of Mountain View. As with the previous two WMAs, much of the land involved here is utilized through an agreement between the AGFC and the U.S. Forest Service.

White Rock WMA

One of the westernmost AGFC holdings, this WMA is also found inside the Ozark National Forest boundaries. At 280,000 acres, White Rock provides ample hunting land for the hunters along the U.S. 71/I-540 corridor of northwest Arkansas. Found in Franklin, Johnson, Crawford, Madison and Washington counties, White Rock is about 13 miles north of Ozark and 25 miles southeast of Fayetteville.

Information on Ozark National Forest, Piney Creeks and White Rock WMA can be obtained by calling the AGFC's Russellville office at (877) 967-7577. Meanwhile, the AGFC's Calico Rock office has the 411 on Sylamore WMA and can be reached at (877) 297-4331.

Some of the WMAs in northwest and north-central Arkansas may not be open to firearms turkey hunting, but that does not mean that hunters willing to pick up a bow won't have an opportunity to harvest a fall bird. Before heading out the door, just remember to check the WMA-specific regulations in the AGFC's 2009 hunting guidebook.

CHANGES

"The fall gun turkey season was moved to a later date in 2009 because it had been squeezed out of the traditional late-October framework when muzzleloader deer season was shifted back a week in fall 2008, but the gun deer season was not shifted back," said the AGFC's turkey program coordinator.

The result of that previous shift was a reduction in the number of weekends between the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons for deer from two to one. Furthermore, the youth gun hunt took out a weekend in 2008, meaning turkey season was pushed up two weeks earlier than usual.

"Most hunters prefer the later season, so that juvenile turkeys will be larger, and perhaps more wary," Widner continued. "So, the season was shifted back to the traditional late-October dates."

While Zone 1A was already closed with regard to the fall gun hunt for turkeys, it will be closed for archery/crossbow hunters in 2009.

As Widner explained, "All turkey seasons, both spring and fall, have been closed in Zone 1A because of a precipitous drop in turkey numbers in this zone over the past decade. Numerous stockings were done here in the mid to late 1990s and turkey numbers appeared to increase in the zone. A record kill of 100 birds occurred in Benton County in 2002, but only 11 were checked in 2008."

Widner points to checked harvest, gobble count and fall deer hunter observation data collected at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area that show a decline of more than 80 percent from a decade ago.

"The drop in bird numbers in this and most other areas of Arkansas can be most closely tied to poor reproduction for a number of years in a row," he concluded.

PROBLEMS

The state saw a gradual rise in turkey populations, both in densities and distribution, during the 1970s through the 1990s, with the Ouachitas and today's Zone 17, along with the St. Francis National Forest and White River National Wildlife Refuge, holding the majority of birds at the beginning of that time frame.

"The western Ozarks came on strong during the 1980s, and the eastern Ozarks and Gulf Coastal Plain came on strong during the 1990s," Widner said. "Five good turkey hatches in a row from 1997 to 2001 resulted in a steep rise in turkey numbers and better distribution during the early 2000 years."

Then came a series of seven consecutive poor hatches beginning in 2002. As a result, both harvest and turkey population numbers have declined considerably. Eyeing some of the data, the numbers tell the story.

"The statewide poult/hen index of 1.35 (1.35 poults per hen observed) was the lowest on record, slightly lower than the 1.39 recorded in 2005," Widner stated of the most recent figures, those of 2008.

Other indices that fell in 2008 included gobbler carryover, with notable exceptions being the Delta and Zone 17. Widner hailed the spring flooding in 2008 that closed turkey seasons in some portions of these areas as a factor that boosted numbers in those regions.

Also, as Widner already emphasized, good turkey habitat is in short supply in Arkansas, with the eastern Ozarks serving as a prime example of what turkeys need to survive and thrive.

As if poor reproduction and habitat issues weren't enough, the turkeys also must deal with predation.

"Feral hogs are very detrimental to turkeys in my opinion, both because they break up turkey nests and because they damage habitat," Widner said. "Nest predators, primarily raccoons, also can and do have a major impact on turkey numbers. Abnormally high predator numbers in many areas would appear to be a major cause of poor nesting success in recent years."

AUTUMN AFTERTHOUGHTS

Ask a turkey hunter in the capital city of Little Rock or the northwestern metropolitan areas of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Fort Smith along the U.S. 71/I-540 corridor for the image they conjure in their heads for an autumn turkey hunt. In the majority of those cases, I'm willing to bet that the scene involves a bird topping a ridge, strolling into a meadow or easing along a dim forest road in the Ozarks.

That fantasy can easily become reality with myriad WMAs in the Ozarks turkey zones located within one to three hours of either population hub. For more information on fall turkey seasons, including those WMAs featured here, consult your AGFC guidebook or visit www.agfc. com.

In the meanwhile, here are some quick tips on how to hunt these birds in the fall:

Widner notes that the setting for fall turkey hunts and hunters can be like or unlike a spring scene. This, he says, depends on whether hunters are pursuing hens and young jakes or they are after adult gobblers. Hens a

nd younger birds usually are in the open areas looking for food, while the mature males may be holding in tighter cover, or less likely to be out in the wide-open spaces.

Gobblers can be pursued by finding flocks and breaking the birds up, then calling them back in or by "dry calling" to the birds as one would in the spring months. "Busting up a gobbler flock can work, but most are probably called in without that happening," said the AGFC's turkey program coordinator, adding that a gobbling bird can sometimes be found in the fall.

That method of breaking up a flock can also work well for hens and jakes, while scouting the birds to know their movements can provide a shot at birds of either sex.

Patience and coarse gobbler calls are good when pursuing tom turkeys in the fall.

Turkeys are not in a breeding mode as in the spring. Instead, the birds are more mindful of where the food is, Widner explained.

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