Fall Turkey Preview In Our State

Despite declining harvest numbers, there's still good hunting for wild turkeys in select areas of Illinois. Here are several choices. (October 2009)

After months of summer heat and humidity, cool, crisp autumn mornings beckon outdoorsmen, particularly hunters, to the woods. By mid-October, most Illinois hunters may be found perched in a deer stand or hunkering down in a duck blind, but a handful will be pursuing one of the wiliest game birds of all -- fall turkeys.

Fall turkeys are a different bird altogether -- forget everything you thought you knew -- this is a whole new show. Unlike spring hunting where sex is the common denominator and the language of love is spoken in clucks, yelps and gobbles, food is the primary motivator in the fall and hunters seldom hear vocal birds. This means the fall hunters must know intimately the areas they are hunting and the habits of local birds.

While turkeys are usually found in the same neck of the woods as they are in spring, calling doesn't often work. In order to increase the odds of success, fall hunters must devote pre-season time scouting for droppings, feathers, tracks or signs of scratching. Because preparing for winter is so important, turkeys spend late summer and early autumn gorging on insects -- poults depend heavily on them for the high protein count -- and open fields are one of the most reliable places to find grasshoppers, crickets and other bugs. After the first hard frost kills most insect life, the birds will head into the forests and search for its supply of mast.

Fall turkeys move in flocks numbering anywhere from several dozen to 100 or more, usually made up of hens and their yearling offspring or small flocks of gobblers, most commonly of the same age. Remember, hens and jakes are fair game in the fall.

Although a few fall birds may be taken by calling, most hunters prefer to use the scatter or the ambush methods. The scatter method is by far the most exciting, but it can be very physically demanding, so you should be in reasonably good shape and able to cover lots of ground.

After locating a flock, the hunter moves in close, then charges the flock shouting and screaming and making as much noise as possible to scare and confuse the birds and send them flying in all directions. The hunter then waits until the woods settle down and begins calling to lure individual birds back into range. Two very effective calls are the kee-kee run, which simulates a lost poult or jake looking to rejoin its flock -- jakes aren't used to being alone and when separated from the flock, they frantically begin calling for the others -- and the lost hen, a series of yelps mimicking the sounds of a hen looking for her brood.

The ambush method is exactly what it sounds like. Hunters scout to pinpoint movement patterns -- regular feeding patterns or a route between a roost and feeding locations -- then conceal themselves until a turkey comes within range.

After a decade of increasing bird numbers, Illinois hunters harvested only 1,613 birds in the fall of 2008, compared with a near-record 2,165 longbeards in 2004.

Ray Berens of Elgin is concerned about what he's seeing. He spent the last 10 autumns hunting wild turkeys on his Jo Daviess County property, and he says turkey numbers are declining.

"I bought that property back in 1998," he said. "We would see large groups -- up to 75 or more in a flock -- along fence lines and in the fields. Now it seems that farmers are doing more clear-cutting and road crews are cutting back the road edges. Combine that loss of habitat with the wet, cold springs we've been having and the turkey numbers seem to be declining quickly. Now we've reached a point where I hear nothing and see nothing -- no droppings, no feathers, nothing!"

Berens said he hasn't taken a turkey in the last three autumns, from historically one of the most productive counties in Illinois. And he is not optimistic for 2009.

"Reproduction during the past couple of years has been poor, primarily because of cold, rainy weather around hatch time," explained Paul Shelton, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forest wildlife manager. "This probably had an effect on last year's fall gun harvest, since young-of-the-year birds are a significant component of fall harvests and a major determinant of season success. In short, young birds are gullible. As a result, predicting the quality of the upcoming fall season prior to this year's reproductive season is not possible. Our turkey population is strong, and if we have good reproduction this spring, it will be a good fall season. Otherwise, the season will likely be comparable to what we've seen during the past few years."

Weather plays an important role in spring poult survival, which eventually determines the fall population. It's a weather-related tightrope for these fine game birds. While a rainy, cold spring makes chick survival more difficult, some moisture is needed.

According to Shelton, nesting success is primarily dependent upon weather conditions in late May and early June. The young poults are extremely susceptible to extended periods of cool and wet weather. Below average temperatures, coupled with extremely wet weather, nearly always results in poor reproductive success for ground-nesting birds like wild turkeys.

The fall shotgun turkey season runs nine days from Oct. 24 through Nov. 11. Eighty-one of Illinois' 102 counties are open for fall hunting, depending on the size of the turkey population. Permits are required for each county and are allotted on a random lottery basis and hunters are allowed a maximum of two permits for the season with one bird of either sex allowed per permit.

The bowhunting season runs from Oct. 1 through Jan. 17, 2010. Two archery turkey permits may be purchased over the counter at license retailers or at any DNR regional office and they are valid statewide. Each permit allows taking one turkey. The fall archery season coincides with the deer archery season and closes only during the shotgun portions of the deer hunt. You can check for available shotgun permits and purchase archery permits online at www.dnr.state.il.us.

In addition to a shotgun or archery fall turkey-hunting permit, all hunters must have a valid Illinois hunting license, a State Habitat Stamp and, if born after Jan. 1, 1980, proof they have successfully completed the DNR's Hunter Education course or possess a previous year's hunting license. Illinois residents must also be in possession of a valid Firearms Owner ID card.

In order to better manage the wild turkey population, DNR biologists must know how many birds are harvested each season from each county. To help in this research, all successful hunters are required to report their kills to a toll-free number, 1-86

6-ILCHECK, before 10 p.m. of the night of the hunt.

Public-hunting areas are scattered across the Prairie State. Region 1, in the northwest part of the state, allows shotgun hunting at 15 sites and 32 sites permit archery hunting. Region 3, in the east-central counties, doesn't allow shotgun hunting, but provides six bowhunting sites. In west-central Region 4, hunters can choose from 27 shotgun sites and 32 archery sites for fall turkeys, while Region 5 in southern Illinois offers 20 shotgun areas and 35 archery sites, including the sprawling Shawnee National Forest that covers parts of six counties.

The Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations, a free publication available from license retailers or any DNR office, provides current information about the fall turkey-hunting season, as well as maps and phone numbers for each of the public areas that allow fall hunting.

The top 10 fall counties in 2008 were: Jo Daviess, Marion, Jefferson, Wayne, Macoupin, Fulton, Johnson, Pope, Adams and Knox.

Despite a decline in the number of fall birds harvested last year, Jo Daviess County again led the pack with one of the most successful fall harvests. Hunters shot 99 birds in Jo Daviess last fall, a significant decline from the 122 birds bagged in 2007 and 107 in 2006. Five public access areas allow fall turkey hunting, but regulations for each area differ, so call the Region 1 DNR office at (815) 625-2968 for up-to-date information.

All 1,069 acres of the Witkowsky State Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) are open to fall turkey hunting, but there is a quota of 10 firearms hunters per season. Hunters must display a site-specific permit, distributed by a lottery system, and an Apple River Canyon windshield permit.

There are no quotas at Tapley Woods, Falling Down Prairie and Hanover Bluff State Natural Areas; however, firearms hunters at Falling Down Prairie and Hanover Bluff must have a valid county permit. Hunters must sign in and out at Tapley Woods and Falling Down Prairie and a site-specific permit is required for all three areas.

Jo Daviess County is in the northwestern corner of the state near the Iowa border. For information on local accommodations, call Go-Galena at (815) 464-2536.

Marion County, in Region 5, was second last year with 77 birds harvested in the fall compared with 68 turkeys taken in 2007 and 79 in 2006. Marion has traditionally been good for fall hunting and that should again hold true for 2009.

The Stephen A. Forbes State Recreation Area (SRA) is open only to bowhunters. A site permit is required and must be displayed in the windshield of your vehicle while on the property.

Located off state Route (SR) 37, the Forbes SRA is seven miles southeast of Kinmundy. For more hunting information, call the Region 5 office or contact the site superintendent at (618) 547-3381. Traveling hunters requiring accommodations should contact the Marion County Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6311 or toll-free at (800) 699-1760.

Jefferson County, also in Region 5, yielded 70 turkeys last fall, the same number harvested in 2007, but a noticeable decline from the 93 birds taken in 2006.

Rend Lake State FWA, eight miles south of Mt. Vernon, is the most popular public-hunting spot with more than 12,000 acres open to fall turkey hunting except in designated waterfowl refuge areas and campgrounds.

For more information about hunting at Rend, call the site office at (618) 279-3110; or contact the DNR Region 5 office at (618) 435-8138. For travel and lodging information, contact the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce in Mt. Vernon at (618) 242-5725.

Wayne County fell from second place to fourth with 56 birds being taken last fall. This occurred after steady increases in harvests over the last three autumns with 85 birds taken in 2007 and 65 in 2006. Wayne's public hunting areas aren't open to fall firearms hunting; however, bowhunters may hunt turkeys at the Sam Dale Lake State FWA.

For hunting information at Sam Dale Lake, contact the site superintendent at (618) 835-2292, or the DNR Region 5 office at (618) 435-8138. The nearest town is Johnsonville located on SR 161 northeast of Mt. Vernon and other accommodations may be found in Flora, Salem, Fairfield or Mt. Vernon.

Macoupin County, located in the southwestern portion of the state, was the fifth most productive county last fall, registering 51 birds compared with 58 in 2007 and 51 in 2006.

Fulton County in west-central Illinois yielded 47 fall turkeys, most taken on private property. There are few public hunting opportunities in Fulton.

Johnson County's 43 birds earned seventh place, many of them taken off the Cedar/Draper Bluff Hunting Area and Cypress Pond and Deer Pond state natural areas within the 2,430-acre Ferne Clyffe State Park, 12 miles south of Marion on SR 37. For hunting information at any of these areas, please call the park office at (618) 995-2411. For information regarding local accommodations, please call the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce at (618) 658-2063.

Pope County, in the southeastern portion of Illinois, borders the Ohio River and the Kentucky line. Forty-two turkeys were taken last fall, a slight decline from the 44 birds bagged in 2007. The year before, 39 fall birds were taken. Fall firearms hunting for turkeys is not allowed at Dixon Spring State Park; however, bowhunters have 265 acres open for fall archery hunts. Hunters must check in and out and may only hunt in designated areas. More information is available at the Region 5 office at (618) 949-3304. Dixon Spring is west of Golconda and 1.5 miles east of the intersection of SRs 145 and 146.

Dog Island FWA, 18 miles south of Golconda, offers 220 acres for fall turkey hunting for bow and firearms hunters. For more information, contact the numbers listed for the Dixon Springs SP. For more information about local accommodations, contact the Pope County Chamber of Commerce at (618) 683-9702.

Adams County, located in Region 4, surrendered 40 turkeys in 2007 and 2008.

Siloam Spring State Park offers bow and firearms hunting for fall turkeys. A site permit is required and gun hunting is by quota, plus firearms hunters must possess an Adams County permit. For more hunting information, contact the park office at (217) 894-6205.

Turkey hunting is also allowed at the Mississippi River Pool No. 21 FWA, although much of the area is accessible only by boat. For more information about Pool No. 21 and Siloam Springs SP, contact the Region 4 office at (618) 462-1181. For more information for traveling hunters, call the Quincy Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 222-7980.

Rounding out the top 10 fall harvest counties is Region 1's Knox County with 39 longbeards. Public hunting sites may be found at the Snakeden Hollow Complex within Spoon River State Forest. For more hunting information, call the Spoon River site offi

ce at (309) 879-2607. For lodging accommodations, call the Kewanee Chamber of Commerce at (309) 852-2175.

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