Get Your Gobbler In Georgia

The spring turkey season is fast approaching, so it is time to plan your ventures in search of a gobbler. Let's ask the experts where you should be hunting this year.

With the opening day of Georgia's wild turkey hunting season just around the corner, sportsmen are gearing up for the hunt and searching for locations where they can maximize their chances of taking a gobbler. The Peach State's 2005 turkey season begins a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday, March 26, and extends through a half-hour after sunset on May 15. Biologists say there is good news and bad news for hunters eager to take their limit of wild turkeys this season.

The good news is that Georgia had an excellent mast crop last year. "Mast" is the term wildlife mangers use to describe the acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts and other nuts that turkeys, deer and other wildlife use as a primary food source. There was also an abundance of soft mass, such as dogwoods, persimmons, muscadines, sweet gum seeds, pine seeds, blueberries and blackberries. This high-quality forage allowed turkeys to weather the cold winter months in relatively good physical condition.

According to Haven Barnhill, a senior wildlife biologist and Turkey Program coordinator for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, good physical condition often translates into good gobbling activity, which is a good sign for hunters!

The bad news is that biologists anticipate a slight decline in the number of gobblers harvested this season. The 2003 brood survey yielded disappointing results. The WRD began conducting annual brood surveys to monitor turkey reproduction back in 1978. Basically, field personnel record all sightings of turkey hens, with or without poults, between the months of June and August. In 2003, only 448 broods were observed, which was a 31 percent decline from 2002.

"Last year was the lowest brood production we've ever recorded," Barnhill said. "We've had relatively poor reproduction since 1996, and the population is a little depressed."

One reason for the poor results was heavy rains during the nesting season that flooded river bottoms and other nesting areas. This wet period was followed by an extremely dry spell that also impacted turkeys. In addition, long-term habitat degradation caused by extensive development in certain areas of the state and intensive agricultural and forestry practices in other locales continued to challenge the state's turkey populations.

Georgia's turkey population is currently estimated at 350,000 birds statewide. Wild turkeys are present in all 159 Georgia counties, and they occupy over 39,609 square miles of forested habitat. Biologists estimate that there are 8.9 turkeys per square mile of the state's occupied, forested habitat. This is pretty amazing considering there were fewer than 17,000 birds as recently as 1973.

Wild turkeys were abundant in the Peach State until the early 1900s, when habitat changes and subsistence and market hunting basically extirpated them from the landscape. There were a few small populations in remote mountain areas and river swamps, as well as a few in southwest Georgia's plantation country, but wild turkeys were a rare sight in most of the Peach State.

The WRD recognized the problem in the 1950s and began releasing pen-reared birds in an effort to restore populations. According to Barnhill, this was a complete disaster. Like quail and other domestically raised birds, these turkeys lacked both the skills and the instincts necessary to survive in the wild. The pen-reared turkeys quickly became food for predators or just plain starved to death.

Beginning in 1973, the WRD began a serious stocking program. There was good turkey habitat statewide, and wildlife managers began trapping wild turkeys from the Piedmont area of the state and relocating them to other areas. Since 1973, more than 4,800 birds have been relocated to 400-plus spots around the state. The stocking program ended in 1996.

With wild turkey populations now well established throughout the state, wildlife managers spend the bulk of their time on habitat management and improvement to ensure the future success of the species. Most of their efforts are focused on managing turkeys on the state's extensive wildlife management area system, but biologists also provide technical assistance to farmers, hunters and other landowners seeking to maximize turkey populations on their lands.

A varied habitat is essential to turkey survival. Wild turkeys need access to open areas for feeding, mating and habitat. They use forested areas as cover to protect themselves from predators and they roost in trees at night. Turkey poults eat insects, berries and seeds, while adult birds eat anything from acorns and berries to insects and small reptiles.

With this in mind, the WRD's management activities revolve around planting and managing wildlife openings throughout the WMA system. Managers also spend time improving timber stands and conducting prescribed burns to maximize turkey habitat.

"Prescribed burning is by far the most important management tool that we have for turkeys, and we encourage private landowners to use it as well," Barnhill noted. "Prescribed burning provides insects and nesting habitat for turkeys in all stages of life, from poult to adult."

Much of the funding for these activities comes from funds raised through the Pittman-Robertson Act. Passed in 1937, this act placed an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. Money raised from this tax is returned to the state to be used for wildlife management activities. Funding from license sales and private organizations is also used.

"We have been fortunate to have a good relationship with the National Wild Turkey Federation, and they have contributed over $2 million to turkey management in Georgia since 1987," Barnhill explained.

The NWTF has helped fund multiple habitat management projects on public lands. They have also funded turkey-oriented law enforcement activities and some land acquisition. The vast majority of this funding has been used to benefit public lands.

Today, turkey hunting is one of the few types of hunting that are drawing increased participation. Each year, a few more hunters sign in or out on WMAs, and this number has been stable or increasing over the past five years.

In telephone surveys of turkey hunters conducted at the end of the 2004 season, the WRD learned that 36,800 hunters pursued gobblers last year. The spring harvest was estimated at 24,000 birds, or .65 turkey per hunter. In Georgia, 68 percent of hunters reported that they hunted exclusively on private lands, while 32 percent hunted on public lands some of the time.

Las

t year, 14,928 hunters registered on the 78 WMAs that required either sign-in or sign-out. This represents a 3.3 percent increase in WMA turkey hunters from 2003 and is a record high. All told, these hunters harvested 1,113 turkeys. They had a 7.45 percent success rate and the harvest was .75 bird per square mile. Since 1988, WMA hunter numbers have increased by 180 percent and the harvest has increased by 248 percent.

WHERE TO HUNT

If you're planning to hunt turkeys on public land in Georgia this year, you are in luck! The Peach State has public tracts located all over the state.

There are five physiographic regions in the state -- Ridge and Valley; Blue Ridge Mountains; Piedmont; Upper Coastal Plain; and Lower Coastal Plain. Each of these habitats shares distinctive soil and habitat makeup.

Upper Coastal Plain

If you're looking to maximize your chance of harvesting the three-gobbler limit, Barnhill suggests you head for Georgia's Upper Coastal Plain region. This area experienced the highest harvest per square mile of any region of the state. The area is characterized by gently rolling terrain with sandy soils that can be very productive for wildlife. Hunters in this region can expect to encounter primarily pine or pine/hardwood mix, depending on the soil moisture.

According to Barnhill, the Upper Coastal Plain has one of the more recently restored turkey populations and it has continued to do well. Sportsmen hunting on any of the 17 WMAs in the Upper Coastal Plain generally encounter a mixture of mature forest with some wildlife openings. On private lands, agricultural fields with a little bit of pasture predominate.

Based on last year's harvest, Barnhill said, the best-bet WMAs on the Upper Coastal Plain are Di-Lane, Oaky Woods, Beaverdam and Chickasawhatchee.

Located just outside of Waynesboro, Di-Lane WMA consists of 8,100 acres of mixed agricultural fields and forested areas. Hunters on Di-Lane had an 18.54 percent success rate for last year's season. The 17,805-acre Oaky Woods WMA is located near Perry. Beaverdam WMA is a 5,534-acre area located near Dublin. During the 2004 season, Beaverdam's 171 hunters recorded a 12.87 percent success rate. Chickasawhatchee is a 19,700-acre WMA outside of Albany in the southwest region of the state. Forty-six birds were harvested at Chickasawhatchee last season.

Ridge And Valley

Located in the extreme northwestern corner of the state, the Ridge and Valley physiographic region consists of a limestone-derived series of parallel ridges with a pine or oak/hickory mix depending on soil moisture. The soils tend to be fairly productive for wildlife. When hunting in this area, sportsmen may encounter steep ridges, but the area has been good for turkey hunting and it is predicted to do well again this year, Barnhill said.

Three WMAs that had good harvests last year were the 20,500-acre Berry College WMA, near Rome; the 16,400-acre Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA, outside of LaFayette; and the 14,900-acre Pine Log WMA, north of Cartersville.

Piedmont

Another area of the state that has yielded a lot of turkeys over the years is the Piedmont region. The soils are typically clay with a granite origin that tends to be very productive for wildlife. The terrain can be steep and rocky, which makes erosion an ongoing problem in the Piedmont. Hunters usually encounter oak/hickory forests, but there can also be significant pine stands.

Biologists often divide the Piedmont region into eastern and western sections because it encompasses such a large geographic area of the state.

Located to the west of the metro Atlanta area, the Western Piedmont offers a good mixture of mature forest lands, including upland hardwoods, bottomland hardwoods, pine stands and some pasturelands. The 4,800-acre Blanton Creek WMA, near West Point, and the 10,000-acre West Point WMA, near LaGrange, both had good hunter success rates last year. In addition, the 3,700-acre Joe Kurz WMA, near Gay, saw three birds harvested per square mile during the last season. Finally, Big Lazer Creek WMA, near Talbotton, is a 5,900-acre tract that offers hunters a chance to bag a gobbler.

In the Eastern Piedmont region, biologists reported that turkey populations have declined in recent years because of the intensive development in this part of the state. In addition to habitat lost to suburban sprawl, the area has also seen a rise in intensive forestry practices like conversion to short-rotation pine plantations. The resulting monoculture has taken a toll on the turkey population, according to Barnhill.

Despite these setbacks, the 29,000-acre Cedar Creek WMA, located in the Oconee National Forest outside of Monticello, has consistently been a good turkey hunting location. Also located in the Oconee NF, the 37,500-acre Redlands WMA, near Greensboro, yielded a number of turkeys.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Ranking right behind the Piedmont in terms of harvest, the Blue Ridge Mountains physiographic region is located in the northernmost counties of the state. The area is characterized by less fertile soils and very steep terrain. Hunters generally encounter hardwood forests, with some white pines on drier sites and ridge tops. Hunting can be very good, but it can be harder to hunt in this region because of the steep terrain.

There are 12 WMAs located in this region. The most heavily hunted last year was the 38,900-acre Blue Ridge WMA, located in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Dahlonega. A total of 36 birds were harvested from this WMA last season. Other areas that were productive for hunters include the 25,000-acre Chattahoochee WMA, north of Helen; the 30,000-acre Coopers Creek WMA, west of Blairsville; and the 12,600-acre Lake Burton WMA, near Clarkesville.

Lower Coastal Plain

Finally, the Lower Coastal Plain region is located in the southeastern corner of the state and includes all of the coastal counties. The area is very flat and tends toward wetter, sandy soils that are low in fertility. Hunters encounter primarily pine forests in the uplands and gum or shrub swamps in the lower-lying areas.

The Lower Coastal plain had the highest rate of hunter success, at 10.57 percent, but it had the lowest harvest per square mile, at a rate of only 0.44 gobbler. According to Barnhill, one reason the harvest per square mile is low is that a lot of the island WMAs along the coast are big but hold very few turkeys.

There are 15 WMAs located in the Lower Coastal Plain. Tuckahoe WMA is a 15,100-acre parcel near Sylvania that had a high success rate. Last year, a total of 34 birds were taken from this area, with an average of 1.44 turkeys per square mile and a 14.05 percent success rate. Bullard Creek WMA, a 13,900-acre area north of Hazlehurst, also reported good harvest numbers. Hunters on Sansaville WMA, a 20,500-acre area located near Brunswick, had a 12.5 percent rate of success, which is very good for this area of the state.

TOP PEACH STATE PUBLIC TURKEY HUNTS FROM 2004
WMAACRESNUMBERS OF HUNTERSTURKEY'S HARVESTED
Chickasawhatchee19,70057646
Ocmulgee12,40048746
Dawson Forest25,05266045
Cedar Creek30,00072743
Lake Russell17,30060839
Blue Ridge39,00062836
Yuchi7,80021434
Tuckahoe15,10524234
Berry College15,70624434
Di-lane8,10017833
Crockford Pigeon Mountain16,38932333
Chattahoochee25,00024729
Cohutta96,00031027
Warwoman15,80017026
Bullard Creek13,88326626
Lake Burton12,60019625
Coopers Creek30,00048925
Pine Log13,99931024
Beaverdam5,53417122
Chestatee25,00031722
Sansaville20,46116821
Coosawattee13,92140021
Paulding Forest25,96157521
Allatoona7,34034220
Johns Mountain25,04937920
Blanton Creek4,75835519
West Point9,99935519
Oconee4,12216617
Joe Kurz3,62218617
B.F. Grant12,00029017
Redlands37,50044817
Big Lazer Creek5,96416815
Swallow Creek

19,00021415
Rum Creek6,0156914
Griffin Ridge5,6165313
Fishing Creek2,9009612
Rich Mountain22,09715512
Oaky Woods17,80528812
Dixon Memorial Forest36,1347311
Big Hammock6,9468911
Horse Creek8,39211010
Paulk's Pasture 16,83916010
The reminaing 36 WMAs reported nine or fewer gobblers harvested

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