Peach State Gobbler Roundup

Peach State Gobbler Roundup

Are you ready to take to the spring woods to match wits with a wily tom? Here's a look at where your odds of bagging a wild gobbler are best this year in Georgia.

Photo by Bruce Ingram

By Jeff Samsel

Clad in camouflage from head to toe, including his face, hands, boots and even his gunstock, a hunter stays still as a rock as he watches and listens. He lets out only an occasional yelp, which he makes with a mouth call, opting to err on the side of silence and stillness. Because it is in Georgia that he's turkey hunting, he believes his chances of having a gobbler roam his way are fairly high. He doesn't want to do anything to mess up that opportunity. Such scenes are becoming more and more common in the Peach State woodlands.

The heyday of Georgia wild turkey hunting is right now, according to Haven Barnhill, the senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), who heads up the agency's wild turkey program. The typical Georgia turkey hunter spends 10 days or so in the field, and close to two out of three of those hunters take at least one gobbler during the season.

The wild turkey population, which was once nearly wiped out throughout Georgia, is now excellent from the mountains to the coast. Every county in Georgia has a huntable turkey population, and turkeys pretty much fill the state's entire suitable habitat. However, that habitat is diminishing. Georgia is the sixth-fastest-growing state in the nation, Barnhill noted, and an increase in human population inevitably means a decrease in the amount of forested land. Turkeys use a large range, so fragmenting habitat significantly impacts them, Barnhill explained.

Georgia's wild turkey population currently numbers an estimated 350,000 birds, the biologist further noted. That number is below the all-time high of more than 400,000 birds, but it is up from a year ago. Turkey populations fluctuate annually based on reproductive success from a few years prior. Reproductive success is largely controlled by weather patterns during spring and early summer.

Analyzing the long-term outlook, Barnhill believes the total population will gradually decline for several years, especially in the northern half of the state, where human population growth is most pronounced. He noted, however, that even with considerable population reductions, Georgia would have higher turkey densities than most other places in the country.

Based on preliminary reports from last year, Barnhill suspected the total harvest was in the neighborhood of 27,000 to 28,000 birds, which would make it similar to the previous season's tally. He anticipates another good year in 2004.

Wild turkey reproduction was decent in 2001 and 2002, putting good numbers of 2- and 3-year-old birds in the population, Barnhill said. Since 2-year-old turkeys make up the biggest part of the annual harvest, prospects look good for the season ahead. Barnhill believes that reproductive success was probably somewhat down last year because of excessive rains that fell during late winter and spring. Average amounts of rainfall are generally best for turkey reproduction.

The WRD evaluates reproductive success based on observations made by biologists throughout the state during the summer. No direct counting efforts are made, but biologists keep records of all turkey broods and hens with or without broods that they see during the course of doing regular field work in June, July and August. That information is compiled to determine reproductive success and create a population index, both statewide and by region.

Public lands are immensely important for turkey hunting in Georgia, Barnhill pointed out. While wildlife management area (WMA) lands make up less than 4 percent of Georgia's turkey habitat, more than one-third of all turkey hunters use public lands for at least a portion of their days afield. Roughly 12 percent of all Georgia turkey hunters hunt public lands exclusively. In 2003, 14,518 hunters signed in on WMAs and harvested 1,057 gobblers, for a hunter success rate of 7.28 percent.

Last year's WMA hunter numbers and harvest were both down slightly from the 2002 season, probably due to wet weather that kept hunters from getting out quite as much, Barnhill surmised. However, the 2002 season marked record highs in both categories, and the general trend for several years has been an increase in the number of folks using WMA lands. Since 1988, when the WRD began conducting an annual survey of WMA use and harvests, the number of hunters has increased 172 percent, and the total harvest has increased 230 percent.

Hunter success on WMA lands was down only slightly from the 2001 season's success rate of 7.65 percent. Hunter success was highest in the Upper Coastal Plain for 2002, with an 8.32 percent success rate, followed by the Lower Coastal Plain at 7.79, the Ridge and Valley at 7.47 percent, the Piedmont at 6.95 percent, and the Blue Ridge Mountains at 6.84 percent.

Looking at harvest per square mile, we see that the heavily hunted Piedmont led the way, with 1.11 birds per square mile, followed by the Upper Coastal Plain, the Ridge and Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Lower Coastal Plain. Piedmont hunters killed more than three times as many birds per square mile as did turkey hunters in the Lower Coastal Plain.

The Upper Coastal Plain supports the best turkey populations in the state and a decent mix of public lands, Barnhill offered. The largely rural landscape includes a mix of forests and farmland, with river bottoms that are highly fertile.

The Lower Coastal Plain has lower populations than the Upper Coastal Plain overall. The barrier islands along the coast support very few turkeys, and the prevalent pine plantations of the region don't offer very good habitat. However, river bottoms throughout the Coastal Plain offer excellent turkey habitat, Barnhill added.

The Piedmont used to support Georgia's best turkey populations, and parts of this region still offer very good turkey hunting. The Piedmont has and continues to lose more habitat to development than any other part of the state. It also has suffered from changes in land-use patterns, even in rural areas. Dairy farming in the area has given way to pine tree production.

The Piedmont also gets more pressure than any other part of the state. Only 26.6 percent of the state's WMA land is in this region, but more than 43 percent of all public land turkey hunting was on Piedmont WMAs last season.

"Effort should be made to evaluate hunt quality on some WMAs. Regulation changes may eventually be needed to maintain quality hunting opportunities," Barnhill noted in the Annual Performance Report for WMAs from last season.

Turkey populations in the

Blue Ridge Mountains vary more from one year to the next than in other parts of the state because the birds are highly dependent on mast production and because winter conditions vary more significantly. The best thing about this region is that there is a tremendous amount of public land.

"There are always turkeys to be found in the mountains, but hunters sometimes have to work harder for them," he said.

The Ridge and Valley Region, in the northwestern part of the state, supports a good turkey population, with plenty of public-land opportunities. Seven WMAs in this relatively small physiographic region spread over a combined 89,995 acres.

Looking at last year's WMA harvest should provide good clues as to which areas offer the best prospects for the season ahead. We will look at top areas in each region based on harvest per square mile and hunter success.

UPPER COASTAL PLAIN
The Upper Coastal Plain has 16 WMAs on which hunters are required to sign in. Those areas cover a combined 121,672 acres and attracted 2,297 hunters last season. Six WMAs in the Upper Coastal Plain produced hunter success rates that exceeded the statewide average last year.

Albany Nursery was tops in that category, with a success rate of 33 percent, but that represented only two birds killed by six hunters. This 300-acre area is open only for special hunts for physically disabled individuals.

Yuchi and Di-Lane WMAs, both traditionally good areas, produced birds for 17.32 and 15.56 percent of all hunters, respectively. Other WMAs in this region that came in above the statewide average were Chickasawhatchee, Alexander Tract and Ocmulgee.

Looking at harvest per square mile, we see that top areas in the Upper Coastal Plain were Yuchi, Di-Lane and Alexander Tract. All three produced harvests of more than two birds per square mile, compared to a region-wide average of only one and a statewide average of .71 per square mile.

Yuchi, which covers 7,800 acres along the Savannah River, and Di-Lane, which covers 8,100 acres in the Ogeechee River watershed, stand out as the top areas overall based on last year's harvest. Both are open throughout turkey season with just a sign-in required.

RIDGE AND VALLEY
Moving to the Ridge and Valley Region, the top three areas for hunter success were Crockford-Pigeon Mountain, Otting Tract and Berry College, all with success rates of more than 10 percent. Otting Tract is another small area, covering just 700 acres, and the harvest was only two birds. It is, however, open to all hunters by sign-in during turkey season. Johns Mountain was next, coming in slightly over the statewide average by posting a success rate of 7.47 percent.

Otting Tract, Crockford-Pigeon Mountain and Pine Log WMAs took the top three spots for harvest per square mile at 1.83, 1.44 and 1.03, respectively.

Crockford-Pigeon Mountain provided the best overall opportunity in the Ridge and Valley last season, placing high in both categories and offering hunters 16,418 acres to roam. The harvest total on this area was up 15.67 from last season, despite 23 fewer hunters signing in. This rugged area is located in the far northwestern corner of the state, near LaFayette.

PIEDMONT
Twenty-seven different Piedmont WMAs that require sign-in are spread over a combined 253,419 acres. The largest of those is Redlands WMA, on the Oconee National Forest, at 37,500 acres. The smallest is J.L. Lester, at 477 acres.

Within the region, nine different areas yielded hunter success rates that exceeded the statewide average. Twenty produced higher harvests per square mile than the statewide average, partly because of the high number of hunters who use Piedmont WMAs. More than 6,300 hunters signed in to hunt turkeys on this region's WMAs last season.

Top areas for hunter success were Rum Creek, Clybel, Blanton Creek and Fishing Creek. Rum Creek produced a very impressive hunter success rate of 36.36 percent, and Clybel was not too far behind, at 20.37 percent. Blanton Creek and Fishing Creek both registered more than 10 percent hunter success.

Top areas for harvest per square mile in the Piedmont were Blanton Creek, Joe Kurz, Allatoona, Sheffield, Rum Creek and Chattahoochee River Park. Allatoona, the largest of those, at 9,300 acres, posted a 33 percent increase in its total harvest from two seasons ago. Only Blanton Creek, which spreads over 4,758 acres on the lower Chattahoochee River, showed up near the top of both lists. Blanton Creek is open for limited dates during the season, with a mix of quota and sign-in hunts.

BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
Public lands in the Blue Ridge Mountains are spread over 293,676 acres, primarily within the Chattahoochee National Forest. A dozen different WMAs range from 2,400 acres to 95,265 acres in size. Last year, 2,866 hunters signed in to hunt turkeys in the mountains. The harvest per square mile is generally low in the mountains simply because turkeys and turkey hunters alike have so much room to roam. To find the best opportunities, hunters sometimes have to get off the beaten trail.

Top areas for hunter success last year were McGraw Ford, Dukes Creek/Smithgall Woods and Warwoman WMAs, with success rates of 34.62, 18.6 and 16.92 percent, respectively. The same three WMAs also took the top three spots in terms of harvest per square mile. McGraw Ford was easily the best, with a harvest of 2.4 birds per square mile, followed by Dukes Creek/Smithgall Woods, at 1.14, and Warwoman, at .89.

McGraw Ford, the smallest WMA in the mountains, is located near Ball Ground on the Etowah River. Dukes Creek/Smithgall Woods, which is fairly small (4,500 acres) and specially managed, is open only limited days during turkey season. It offers a mix of quota and general sign-in hunts. Warwoman WMA, which is situated in the far northeastern corner of the state, is fairly large (15,800 acres) and extremely rugged. Last year's total harvest on Warwoman was up 120 percent from the previous year.

LOWER COASTAL PLAIN
Finally, the Lower Coastal Plain has 13 WMAs spread over 200,115 acres. Turkey hunting pressure is lighter in this region than in any other part of Georgia, with only 1,220 hunters having signed in last spring.

Top areas for hunter success were Dixon Forest, Altamaha, Tuckahoe and Bullard Creek WMAs, with Dixon having produced a hunter success rate of 14.1 percent and the other three all coming in with success rates of more than 10 percent. Top spots in this region for harvest per square mile were Bullard Creek, at 1.01; Tuckahoe, at .89; and Moody Forest, at .55.

Bullard Creek and Tuckahoe, which scored high in both categories, provide an abundance of opportunity. Bullard Creek covers 13,883 acres along the Altamaha River. Tuckahoe covers 15,105 acres along the Savannah. Both are open throughout turkey season.

WHAT ELSE?
Private land opportunities, to some extent, will mirror public land opportunities, in terms of comparisons among physiographic regions. Success rates are typically higher overall on private lands, where pressure tends to be less, but Georgia hunters enjoy fairly good prospects of at least seeing a bird pretty much anywhere in the state.

BEFORE YOU GO
Georgia's turkey season runs from March 15 to May 20, making it one of the longest in the country. The season limit is three birds. Open dates vary on some WMAs, and quotas limit hunter numbers for a few special hunts. Complete turkey hunting regulations, including open dates and directions to all WMA lands, are available through the WRD's Web site, located at www.gadnr.org.



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