Peach State Gobblers '˜08

Now's the time to start planning your turkey hunts for this season. And here are the places that you should be probing for the birds. (March 2008).

Photo by Kevin Dallmier.

The days are getting longer; another spring's coming to the Peach State. In this season of rebirth, the forests will soon reverberate with the gobbles of turkeys seeking a mate. Thousands of hunters then slip into the woods hoping to take advantage of a wily tom turkey's momentary slip in judgment and fool him into shooting range.

Always the wariest of creatures, the turkey's drive to reproduce only slightly evens the odds in the battle of wits between hunters and hunted. But for those hunters who have the necessary skills, there's nothing like locating a boss gobbler, determining his habits and then sweet-talking him into coming your way in search of what he thinks is a new girlfriend. It sounds easy, but a myriad of things can go wrong from start to finish. That makes turkey hunting one of the most challenging of outdoor pursuits.

Although Georgia hunters are blessed with strong turkey populations, it wasn't always so. In fact, a time not so long ago saw the noble bird that founding father Benjamin Franklin preferred to the bald eagle as our national symbol virtually unknown in Georgia. Until the beginning of 20th century, wild turkeys were abundant. But changes in habitat and over hunting both for the table and the commercial market took their toll. For much of the 1900s, wild turkeys were rare in Georgia. A few isolated pockets of birds held on in the most remote and hard to reach areas of the mountains and swamps, but the populations were not nearly enough to provide the level of hunting opportunity that we enjoy today with wild turkeys found in every county of the state.

Restoring the wild turkey's status from that of a bird that only a few lucky people had ever laid eyes on to that of a favorite big-game species of Georgia hunters from the mountains to the coast is one of the major success stories of the modern era of game management in the Peach State. Hit-and-miss restocking efforts using pen-reared birds had been tried over the years with little to no effect. In 1973, though, things began to change. The predecessor agency of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources began trapping and relocating wild turkeys to reestablish the species across its former range. By the time the statewide program was considered a completed success and discontinued, nearly 4,900 turkeys had been moved to new homes to provide the seed stock.

Along with restocking efforts came improvements in the habitat, the key to the program's success on public areas. Food plots, prescribed burning, and other habitat management practices were key to giving the birds what they needed in their new homes. The habitat management strategies developed on public lands like wildlife management areas and national forests were transplanted through technical assistance and outreach to private holdings where the owners had an interest in improving their land for wildlife.

To see what 2008 holds for turkey hunters, let's go to the experts of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. Wildlife biologist Chris Baumann chairs the state Wild Turkey Committee, which tracks the health of our turkey population. Let's take a look at the committee's latest report to see what the numbers tell us about wild turkeys in Georgia.

Statewide, the turkey population is currently estimated at 350,000 birds with an average of 8.9 turkeys per square mile of habitat. Population trends are monitored by hunter harvest and annual brood surveys. From 1997 to 2006 there was an average of 1.9 poults per hen. As a result, the statewide population has seen some fluctuations.

The 2006 brood survey showed 1.6 poults per hen statewide, a slight increase over the 2005 rate of 1.5 poults per hen. Loss of habitat from development, intensive agriculture and forestry, and short-term reproductive fluctuations caused by weather and other environmental factors all play a role in these figures. Overall, the statewide turkey population remains good.

"An estimated 48,459 hunters harvested 23,655 turkeys in 2007," Baumann said. "What we are seeing is a leveling off of the turkey population. The exponential growth we saw in previous decades is likely over since turkeys have already expanded to carrying capacity in any area with suitable habitat. What we will likely see for years to come is minor ups and downs in the population. In some areas, a decline in the habitat quality and the increased effects of predation as a result of poor habitat are already being noticed. Of course, habitat loss is a problem, too, as land-use patterns continue to change."

Interviews done with some o f the state's turkey hunters provided some interesting numbers on what can be expected in the upcoming season. The average hunter made 10.5 trips totaling 36.3 hours last season. The number of hours hunted per turkey seen averaged 1.6. The effort per gobbler heard was 2.1 hours. The lowest hunting effort per turkey seen occurred in the Ridge and Valley and Lower Coastal Plain physiographic regions. The effort per gobbler heard was least in Upper and Lower Coastal Plain and highest in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Statewide, the peak gobbling activity averaged 3.0 gobblers heard per trip and occurred during the first weekend of the season on March 24-25, 2007. The next highest period was the fifth weekend of April 21-22 with 1.9 gobblers heard per trip. All other periods averaged between 0.9 and 1.8 gobblers per trip, with the last weekend May 14-15 being the lowest of the season at 0.9 gobblers per trip. Overall, for most of the state, the greatest amount of gobbling activity was during the first 10 days of the season.

Not surprisingly, the statewide gobbler harvest during the first seven days of the season amounted to 36 percent of the entire season's harvest. Peak harvest was generally seen within the first week in all parts of the state. It pays to be in the woods when the turkeys are gobbling! Given the harvest numbers, it's also not surprising that the greatest number of hunter trips were made during the initial seven days of the season.

Hunter success decreased slightly in 2007 to 67.9 percent of surveyed hunters reporting taking or assisting in the taking at least one gobbler. That was up from 69.1 percent in 2006. Of successful hunters, 24.6 percent took or assisted in taking one bird, 18.6 percent two toms, and 24.6 percent three gobblers.

Hunters who concentrate their efforts on WMAs will also find that the survey reveals some interesting numbers. In 2007, 14,527 hunters signed in on the 90 tracts that required hunter sign-in and sign-out. These hunters harvested 927 gobblers. Jakes comprised 21 percent of the WMA harvest. Gobbler harvest averaged 0.63 per square mile.

Turkey harvest from Georgia WMAs has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years with minor fluctuations. Although tens of thousands of hunters spent a considerable time in the woods, only five turkey-hunting accidents occurred during that span and all were non-fatal. Two were "mistaken for game" incidents and three were "accidental shooting," when birds went between hunting partners. While safety should always remain first and foremost in all hunters' minds, the numbers show that the drive to and from the woods is much more dangerous than a day spent turkey hunting!

So now that we know a little bit of what the upcoming season may bring, let's look at some of the best public land hunting opportunities for 2008. For ease of discussion (and since there's a big difference between what a hunter should reasonably expect from the Blue Ridge Mountains and from the South Georgia swamps), the WMAs are sorted by physiographic region.

RIDGE AND VALLEY
Of the large tracts in the northwest corner of the state, Pine Log WMA at 13,999 acres produced a hunter success rate of 5.4 percent. Meanwhile, 15, 706-acre Berry College WMA was just a hair behind at 5.3 percent, and perennial favorite Johns Mountain WMA had a hunter success rate of 5.2 percent on its 25,049 acres. Overall, the eight WMAs in this part of the state had a hunter success ratio of 4.2 percent.

Proving that good things come in small packages, even the small 163-acre Zahnd Tract produced one public-land gobbler. Hunters looking for a real challenge might want to consider the Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area in Floyd County. Approximately 3,000 acres there are open to archery-only turkey hunting.

BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAIN
In the Blue Ridge, there was a virtual tie for first between 15,800-acre Warwoman WMA 15,800 and Swallow Creek's 19,000 acres at an 8.8 percent and 8.7 percent hunter success ratios respectively. Dukes Creek/Smithgall Woods Conservation Area at only 4,500 acres produced a very respectable 7.7 percent success rate.

As a whole, the 12 WMAs covering 293,986 acres in this part of the state had a hunter success ratio of 5.0 percent.

PIEDMONT
In the Piedmont region hunters have 27 WMAs covering 238,893 acres from which to choose. The Piedmont is more developed and doesn't have as many large WMAs as does North Georgia, but this area has excellent turkey habitat.

The 4,758-acre Blanton Creek WMA had an excellent hunter success rate of 18.8 percent followed closely by 6,015-acre Rum Creek at 17.7. Coming in third place, Clybel WMA's 6,400 acres produced a 12.5 percent success rate. Nearly all other Piedmont WMAs open to firearms hunting produced success ratios of 4 to 10 percent.

UPPER COASTAL PLAIN
In this region several WMAs exhibited somewhat skewed hunter success rates based on very few hunters utilizing the areas, but having at least some success. Ignoring those, Let's focus on the tracts that had plenty of participation. The top WMA in the Upper Coastal Plain was 8,100-acre Di-Lane WMA with an excellent hunter success ratio of 24.7 percent. Following Di-Lane was Yuchi WMA at 7,800 acres with 14.9 success ratio, and in third was Horse Creek WMA. This latter area covers 8,077 acres and hunters enjoyed an 11.2 percent success rate.

Overall, WMAs in this region posted a 9.0 percent hunter success ratio.

LOWER COASTAL PLAIN
Finishing up this look at the best public hunting tracts of the 2007 season, Dixon Memorial WMA's 36,134 acres produced a 18.9 percent success rate. The 5,616 acres of Griffin Ridge WMA placed next at 13.6 percent hunter success, and the 9,401 acres of the King Tract WMA produced a 12.1 percent figure for third.

Overall, WMAs in the Lower Coastal Plain produced a hunter success ratio of 8.0 percent.

Although only a select few WMAs have been highlighted for their quality hunting, there are many other WMAs that offer an excellent chance of harvesting a gobbler. The WMA system statewide had an average hunter success ratio of 6.4 percent in 2007.

THE FUTURE?
Now that we have had a look at the past, what about where we are headed in the coming years? Chris Baumann had some thoughts on that topic.

"It will be up to land managers and owners as to where the turkey population goes from here," Baumann emphasized. "The continued practice of intensive forestry will not have positive impacts on wild turkeys in Georgia."

Specifically, more conversion of hardwoods to pines, pine forestry practices with little thinning and burning and opening management, together with the housing development boom throughout the state are problems.

"That's the bad news," Baumann resumed. "The good news is several Farm Bill and other programs that are working toward better management of forests by cost sharing to implement prescribed burning and thinning to make the areas much more wildlife friendly. Similar programs that work with agricultural areas to restore early successional habitat also benefit wild turkeys. As always, landowners can contact WRD biologists for assistance with meeting their wildlife management goals.

"Overall, we still have a very good population in Georgia," Baumann concluded, "but we will almost certainly start to see fluctuations in population numbers and harvests in the coming years."

Despite the challenges of the future, wild turkeys are today plentiful all across the state, and in the WMA system alone there are nearly a million acres of hunting land open to the public to test your wits against a wily gobbler this spring.

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