Georgia's Top Turkey Hunts

Turkey season is fast approaching. Do you have your hunts planned? If not, focus in on the regional details offered here -- they may help in the effort! (March 2007)

Almost 36,000 gobblers were harvested by Peach State hunters during the 2006 season.
Photo courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Spring's in the air, the dogwoods are blooming and hunters' minds are turning to turkey hunting. And this year's season, report biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Divisions, is shaping up to be one to remember.

According to senior WRD wildlife biologist Chris Baumann, the current turkey population is estimated at 350,000 birds. The turkey population has remained fairly stable over the past few years, and Baumann anticipates at least an average hunting season for 2007

"In 2005 our harvest estimates reflected the fact that a lot of bad weather occurred on the weekends, which was when most of our hunters could get out and hunt," he pointed out. "In 2006, the weather cooperated, and our hunters had much better success. If the weather cooperates this year, hunters should continue to have good success rates."

Statewide harvest estimates from the 2006 season were right on the five-year average for birds harvested per hunter. An estimated 56,939 hunters bagged 35,879 turkeys -- 0.63 birds per hunter. The 2006 bird per hunter harvest was a 12.5 percent increase over 2005.

Georgia turkey hunting has come a long way in the past 100 years. As recently as 1973, fewer than 17,000 wild turkeys roamed our woods and fields. Until the 1900s, wild turkeys had abounded in the Peach State; then, habitat changes, along with subsistence and market hunting, took their toll on the wild birds, and by midcentury wild turkeys were essentially gone from Georgia's landscape. A few small populations existed in remote mountain areas and river swamps, and a few additional birds could be found in plantation country, but it was a rare occurrence to see a wild turkey in Georgia.

In the 1950s, the state began releasing pen-reared birds in hopes of restoring the turkey population -- and it was a total flop. Like quail and other pen-raised birds, these animals had neither the skills nor the instincts necessary to survive in the wild. The pen-reared turkeys were quickly devoured by predators, or just out-and-out starved to death.

The DNR introduced a serious stocking program in 1973. At this point, most areas of the state still retained appropriate turkey habitat, so wildlife managers began trapping turkeys from the Piedmont region and relocating them to other areas. From 1973 until 1996, when, deemed a success, the stocking program was wrapped up, more than 4,800 birds were relocated to more than 400 locations around the state. Today, wild turkeys are well established in the Peach State and can be found in all 159 Georgia counties -- good news for turkey hunters!

With turkey populations well established, wildlife management efforts now focus on maintaining and improving habitat, primarily at the state's wildlife management areas. The WRD employs a myriad of management activities to enhance turkey habitat, including planting wildlife openings throughout the WMA system. The department also manages native vegetation and weeds to produce insects as forage for the turkeys, improves timber stands that provide essential turkey habitat, and protects hardwood bottoms that produce mast-crop forage.

A critical component of wild turkey management is prescribed burning. This management technique opens up the understory and produces insects and nesting habitat for turkeys in all of their life stages from poult to adult.

Wild turkeys need a variety of habitats in order to survive and to thrive. According to Baumann, the best turkey conditions consist of a mixture of mature mast-producing hardwoods and pines with relatively open understories mixed with numerous 1- to 5-acre weedy, grassy openings. Ideally, these openings should constitute at least 5 percent and up to 40 percent of the habitat.

Turkeys rely heavily on natural hard and soft mast crops such as acorns, beechnuts, dogwood fruit, blackberries, black gum fruit, sweetgum seeds and pine seeds. Bugs are also a big part of a turkey's diet, with grasshoppers and beetles constituting a large part of the birds' food intake.

"Turkeys have an extremely varied diet. If they can catch it and put it in their mouths, they'll probably eat it," Baumann noted.

The birds rely heavily on hardwood mast and greenery in the winter and need openings in the spring and summer for strutting, mating and raising their broods. Turkeys use forested areas to protect themselves from inclement weather, and for nighttime roosting areas.

"One habitat type is not enough," stated Baumann. "They need a combination of the forests and open areas to prosper."

Many of these management activities are funded through the Pittman-Robertson Act. Passed in 1937, the act placed an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition sales. Money raised from this tax is returned to each state annually for wildlife management activities. It's a hunter-funded program that helps fund wildlife management activities aimed at improving habitat and maintaining populations of game animals.

The National Wild Turkey Federation also provides major funding for turkey management. All local NWTF chapters contribute to one "Superfund" account. Any agency in charge of managing public hunting lands can apply for funding to purchase equipment, seed, fertilizer and other items that can be used to improve or maintain turkey populations in Georgia. According to Baumann, the NWTF has contributed more than $3 million to the state of Georgia alone since 1987.

Recently, the NWTF contributed $17,000 to support the WRD's annual wild turkey surveys. The brood survey measures wild turkey reproduction rates, while the harvest survey estimates how many gobblers were taken during the previous season and how many will be available the next season. Both of these surveys are extremely useful tools for biologists tracking population growth, predicting success rates for the upcoming season and pinpointing areas whose lower turkey populations indicate that they need added attention.

Besides public land management, WRD biologists provide technical assistance to farmers, hunters and other landowners wishing to improve turkey habitat on private lands. At the request of landowners, the biologists will come out to your property and draw up a management plan.

"A lot of landowners don't realize we're here to help them free of charge," Baumann explai

ned. "It's something they ought to take advantage of!"

When it comes to turkey season, one factor is totally out of the managers' control: rainfall. Spring and summer weather patterns are major influences on the turkey population.

"Generally what we find is that any deviation from the average rainfall will have a negative impact," Baumann said. "If there's too much rain, there is a higher mortality of hens on the nest and more poults die from moisture exposure. If there is not enough rain, then the number of insects available and brood range are negatively affected. As soon as we figure out how to control the weather, we can control a lot of wildlife issues!"

Regardless of the weather, however, turkey hunters flock to the woods in March with hopes of bagging a gobbler or three. While most turkey hunters pursue birds on private land -- 69.6 percent, according to WRD surveys -- the state's WMA system also offers some great hunting for those without access to private lands. In last year's survey, 9.3 percent of turkey hunters reported hunting exclusively on public lands and 20.4 percent reported hunting on both public and private property.

During the 2006 season, 13,938 hunted on Georgia WMAs, harvesting a total of 1,042 birds that translates into a 7.48 percent success rate. The total turkey harvest was 0.70 birds per square mile of land open for hunting.

So which places are best for maximizing the chances of taking a gobbler? Let's take a look.

WHERE TO HUNT

The Peach State is broken down into five general physiographic regions -- Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont, Upper Coastal Plain, and Lower Coastal Plain -- each of which is distinct in terms of soil and habitat makeup.

The most productive areas of the state for turkey hunters in terms of harvest are in the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain, according to Baumann. The habitat is much better in these two areas at this point in time, though Baumann reported that suburban development is threatening much of the Piedmont area. The Upper Coastal Plain is still a largely agricultural area, making it a prime turkey region.

However, since all hunters don't have access to this area of the state, let's examine the top WMAs in each physiographic region.

The Ridge and Valley physiographic region in the extreme northwestern tip of the state is dominated by a series of limestone-derived parallel ridges with a pine or oak/ hickory mix, depending on soil moisture. The soils are fairly productive for wildlife, but sportsmen there must tackle steep ridges that can make hiking in and out of hunting spots challenging. Overall hunter success in this region was 6.5 percent.

Three regional WMAs that generated particularly bountiful harvests last year were Crockford-Pigeon Mountain, Berry College, and Coosawattee. Hunter success was highest on the 15,706-acre Berry College WMA with a 12.1 percent success rate -- a total of 19 birds, or 0.77 birds per square mile. Hunters on the 16,386 Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA had a 10.5 percent success rate, with 296 hunters harvesting 31 birds, 1.21 birds per mile. The 398 hunters at Coosawattee WMA harvested 21 birds, or 0.97 per square mile.

Occupying Georgia's northernmost counties, the Blue Ridge Mountain physiographic region features less-fertile soils and very steep terrain. Hardwood forests with white pines on drier sites and ridgetops are typical of the region. As in the Ridge and Valley zone, hunting here can be difficult because of steep terrain. The region's hunter success rate was 7.12 percent last season.

Among the 12 WMAs in the Blue Ridge Mountain region, the highest hunter success rate was attained on the 4,500 acres of Smithgall Woods/ Dukes Creek Conservation Area, where hunters harvested 23 birds for a 60.5 percent success rate. Lake Burton WMA, covering 12,600 acres, had a 13.7 percent success rate. Another productive area: 96,000-acre Cohutta WMA, where hunters bagged 35 birds last year.

Moving south, the Piedmont area of the state has produced a lot of turkeys over the years, though development is beginning to threaten its habitat. The region's clay soils with granite origins are very productive for wildlife. The steep, rocky terrain makes erosion an ongoing problem. The forested areas are predominately an oak/hickory mix, but large swaths of pine are present also. Because the Piedmont region is so large, the area is often divided into eastern and western zones. The hunter success rate for the combined region last year was 6.7 percent.

Just west of the metro Atlanta area lies the western Piedmont, which contains a mixture of mature forestlands, including upland hardwoods, bottomland hardwoods and some pine stands mixed with pastureland. Hunters at 4,758-acre Blanton Creek WMA, near West Point, and the 3,700-acre Joe Kurz WMA, in Meriwether County, tallied creditable success rates: 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Hunters at Blanton Creek WMA harvested just over three birds per square mile.

Turkey habitat in the eastern Piedmont region is being hit particularly hard by development. Metro Atlanta's urban sprawl and a rise in intensive forestry practices involving conversion to short-rotation pine forests are taking a toll on this region. Nonetheless, some good WMAs can still be found in the eastern Piedmont. Hunters at 6,400-acre Clybell WMA had a remarkable 40 percent rate of success, with 50 hunters harvesting 20 birds, or two birds per square mile, while 12,703-acre Clarks Hill WMA was also a hotspot, with an 11.7 percent hunter success rate. A lot of turkeys were taken at Cedar Creek WMA and Lake Russell WMA, but the hunter success rates weren't quite as high.

The Upper Coastal Plain physiographic region harbors one of the more recently restored turkey populations, and has been a good bet for turkey hunters over the past several years. Last year, it boasted the highest overall success rate, 9.4 percent. A mixture of mature forests interspersed with wildlife openings characterizes this area of the state. Hunters on private lands often encounter agricultural lands mixed with pasture.

Overall success rates are very good in this area of the state -- and 23 WMAs lie in the region. The 13 sportsmen who hunted the 1,500-acre Phinizy Swamp topped the charts with a 38.4 percent success rate. Oaky Woods WMA, an 18,875-acre tract near Perry, yielded 1.05 turkeys per square mile with a 14.7 percent success rate. Composed of 8,100 acres of mixed agricultural fields and forested areas, Di-Lane WMA enabled hunters to achieve a 15.7 percent success rate. Ocmulgee WMA hosted the largest number of hunters, with 431 bagging 42 birds for a success rate of 9.7 percent. Finally, 7,800-acre Yuchi WMA was also a productive area with a total harvest of 35 birds and a success rate of just over 15 percent.

In the southeastern corner of Georgia, the Lower Coastal Plain includes all of the oceanfront counties. The area is flat and contains wet, sandy soil that is low in fertility. The region is made up primarily of pine forests in the uplands and gum and shrub swamps in lower lying areas.

The Lower Coastal p

lain's overall success rate is 8.7 percent, which sounds good -- but it also has the lowest harvest per square mile, coming in at only 0.39 birds. This region has a large amount of acreage composed of barrier islands that have virtually no turkeys. Ossabaw and Sapelo islands are hotspots for deer but have few if any turkeys. Fifteen hunters tried their luck at Sapelo Island WMA last year; none bagged a gobbler.

There are 18 WMAs in the Lower Coastal Plain. The 15,105-acre Tuckahoe WMA near Sylvania had a 17 percent success rate, with a total of 40 birds harvested last year. The highest success rate for this region was at Grand Bay WMA with 23 percent, but only three birds were harvested there. The Altamaha, Dixon Memorial and Clayhole WMAs also posted reasonable numbers for this region of the state.

Regardless of where you hunt in the state, it's statistically likely that you'll at least enjoy the hunt! Seventy percent of turkey hunters surveyed by the WRD last year rated the quality of turkey hunting in Georgia as "excellent" or "good." Only 12 percent gave Peach State turkey hunting a "poor" rating.

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