Indiana Turkey Roundup

Here are the counties and regions around our state that continue to produce great gobbler hunting. Will you be in one of these prime pick areas come opening day? (March 2007)

Warrick County hunter Matthew Byers wrapped up his season last year on opening day. That's when he harvested this hefty tom.
Photo by John Trout Jr.

Hoosier turkey hunters have become masters of breaking records. Just consider last spring. According to check station results, hunters harvested 13,193 wild turkeys in 79 of the state's 88 counties open to hunting. Amazingly, this statistic became the highest harvest on record, and topped the 2005 harvest by 18 percent when hunters killed 11,159 birds. Of course, if you have followed Indiana's turkey-hunting success stories in recent years, you know it's no big secret that records are made to be broken. More about record harvests in just a moment, and whether or not we can do it again in 2007.

It's also no surprise that most turkeys are shot on opening day, and that the bulk of the harvest occurs during the first five days of the season.

Let's turn back the clock to last year's debut. I saw dawn break while standing along a wooded draw in Spencer County. One gobbler made his presence known less than 200 yards away. Within moments, I was set up and working the bird. I won't go into the scrupulous details that followed, except to say that he was accompanied by two hens, which almost cost me his long beard. It took 45 minutes before the birds finally walked by at 15 yards. As I packed the gobbler out, I knew my season had ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

I discovered later that morning that another Spencer County hunter enjoyed success. Thirty-year-old Angie Waters took her first gobbler ever. It seems the 21-pound bird almost pulled a fast one as he sneaked to within 30 yards of the lady hunter without her knowing he was there. Though the turkey gobbled and startled Waters, she still managed to get a shot off through a small 6-inch clearing. Her bird sported a 10-inch beard and 1 1/8-inch spurs.

Meanwhile, some 40 miles away in Warrick County, Matthew Byers discovered the rewards of opening day. He heard two turkeys gobble that morning. One finally came walking into gun range. A single cluck stopped the bird and allowed Byers to make the killing shot.

Make no mistake, many hunters enjoyed success last year on opening day. In fact, nearly 3,500 turkeys were taken. Moreover, 61 percent of the total harvest occurred during the first five days. However, that's typically the case. In 2005, hunters accounted for 57 percent of the total harvest during the first five days.

Nevertheless, that's not to say that the late season isn't productive for die-hard hunters. After all, fewer hunters are out there. It's also true that many hens are nesting by that time, and some of the breeding gobblers become more vulnerable. Such was the case last year when my wife, Vikki, took her gobbler. Like many late-season turkeys, he was at first reluctant to come to the call. In fact, it took nearly an hour of coaxing before the bird finally decided to investigate the calls of the excited hen. Surprisingly, he, too, was a 3-year-old bird.

Hunter success was exceptional last year, but weather was cooperative in many portions of the state. We also could credit last season's success on Indiana's myriad hunting opportunities -- as well as one other major factor we'll discuss in a moment.

First, let's get back to the record-harvest trends

that have been the rule in recent years. Since the harvest of 2003, which was slightly less than the 2002 harvest, harvests in Indiana have steadily increased. Nevertheless, the 2006 harvest increase of 18 percent was exceptional. In 2004, the harvest was at an all-time high and increased by 4 percent over the previous year. In 2005, the harvest became another all-time high, also increasing by 4 percent. So why is it that in 2006 the harvest suddenly exploded?

According to Steve Backs, Indiana's forest wildlife biologist, it was the bountiful hatch of 2004 that contributed most to the exceptional harvest of 2006.

"When we look at the age structure of the harvest, we see that adult gobblers accounted for about 86 percent of the harvest," Backs noted. "Part of what played into the adult harvest was that we recorded our highest production in 2004. Then we turned around and recorded our lowest production in 2005, which kind of skewed down the jake harvest of 2006."

Jakes made up only 14 percent of the total harvest in 2006, while 2-year-old birds accounted for 67 percent. Three-year-old and older gobblers made up 19 percent. When compared with recent years, we see that jakes accounted for a whopping 33 percent of the harvest in 2005, because of the excellent hatch of 2004. In 2004, jakes accounted for 24 percent of the total harvest.

However, Backs said that we can't read too much into the harvest statistics of 3-year-old and older turkeys, simply because 2-year-old gobblers are the ones that typically make up the bulk of the harvest. We also know they do much of the gobbling and become the most vulnerable. It's also true that hunters can seldom be selective when an adult bird comes to the call. If he carries a long beard, he's considered an adult bird.

Of course, hunter selection is a factor when it comes to jakes versus adult birds. Biologist Backs claims that in many regions of the state, particularly those in the southern half where you'll find a larger number of veteran hunters, jakes are often passed on. Whereas, in the northern half of the state, there are newer hunters who are perfectly willing to shoot a jake.

Backs stated that statistics have shown jakes often make up about 50 percent of the harvest in the north, but a far smaller percentage of the harvest in the south. Because productivity of broods is usually no lower in the northern regions, we can assume that jake harvests are higher, primarily because some hunters don't choose to wait for adult gobblers.

Nevertheless, that's not to say we shouldn't shoot jakes. On the contrary, they provide hunting opportunities and often make the difference of harvesting a turkey or coming home empty-handed. It's also true that northern hunters don't have the number of turkeys that we find in the south, nor will they hear as many gobbles.

Because the hatch is vital toward future success, and because the 2004 hatch contributed most to the record harvest of 2006, hunters are wondering what lies ahead. Backs said that early indications of 2006 show many turkeys have been seen.

"Reports are still coming in, so we don't know for sure. But those hens that were born in 2004 were adu

lts in the spring of 2006. We might not have had as high of a poult-per-hen ratio, just because of all the wet weather that occurred. Some of the weather stations reported rain 3 or more inches above normal," Backs explained.

However, Backs still believes that because of the large number of adult hens that the hatch will be good. He also believes that late summer and early fall rains of 2006 will have an effect. The wet weather delays the harvest of crops and could result in more waste grain available to turkeys, which could lead to a higher survival rate of poults, and a higher harvest of juvenile birds in the spring of 2007.

"I've had reports of guys seeing birds where they have never seen turkeys before," Backs said. "This leads me to believe that populations have expanded into new areas. I think overall our turkey population is the highest it has ever been."

Backs hopes the trend will continue, but continues to worry about habitat. In the summer of 2006, he traveled to areas of the state where turkeys were once released. Surprisingly, he found a phenomenal jump in human encroachment into the rural areas, noting that we are eating up landscape at a rapid pace.

As far as Indiana's top five harvest counties in 2006, there appears to be little change when compared with recent years. Switzerland County again led the way with 562 birds, while Dearborn County came through with 489. Perry County finished third with a harvest of 470, while Jefferson reported 461, and Parke 444. In 2005, the state's top five counties were Switzerland (478), Perry (445), Jefferson (415), Harrison (406) and Parke (376).

Although you see a couple of changes in the top five over the two-year-period, rest assured this isn't unusual. For instance, Dearborn wasn't in the top five in 2005, but they were close with a harvest of 368. In addition, while you see Harrison there in 2005, you don't see it in 2006, yet it was right there with a reported harvest of 431.

"You commonly see these fluctuations. You get a couple of counties that jump up, and then settle back down. I think part of this occurs due to the maturation of the population in individual areas. We've seen this in most of the southeastern counties. They have up-and-down years. You look at Switzerland and Jefferson counties and you see they really jumped up in 2006, yet I wouldn't be surprised if the harvest drops down in them over the next couple of years because they reach their saturation point," Backs explained.

As for public lands, Backs reported that Hoosier National Forest and others have come on strong in recent years. "We are well blessed right now," Backs said. "Our bag limits are pretty conservative, so we are not burning the birds on public land. I tell most of the folks who call that they will usually find plenty of birds to hunt on public land in the southern part of the state. There are often weekend and opening-day crowds, but during the week they will find turkeys."

Backs added that he hunts both public and private lands, and typically finds as many birds on public ground as he does private land. He said that he is still concerned about some of the management problems on some national forest lands, but at present the hunting is as good as it is on adjacent private lands.

Now let's get back to the future and what it holds. In years past, state officials have conducted roadside gobbling counts in April throughout several counties at various listening stops. And while Backs doesn't believe that the counts are accurate indications of annual trends in turkey populations, they do help the state to detect long-term trends for specific areas.

In 2006, gobbling counts were exceptional. The average number of gobblers heard was 1.45 per listening stop, while more than two were heard along some routes. In 2005, the average number of birds heard was .90, compared with .98 in 2004.

We can assume that the great hatch of 2004 contributed to the high average of birds heard in 2006. However, Backs said that gobbling activity is extremely changeable.

"We had a lot of local 2-year-old birds in 2006. You can run one of those routes one day and hear maybe 20 birds, and then run it the next day when weather conditions are about the same and you'll drop down to 10 birds," Backs noted. He said the reason is there are many variables to consider.

Most turkey hunters are aware that all-day hunting became a reality a few years ago. Some continue to worry if this will affect future harvests. However, Backs claims the extension of hunting hours has not influenced the daily harvest of the 19-day season. A previous report indicates that daily harvests of adult birds were slightly greater during all-day hunting, yet it also shows that almost 80 percent of the total harvest occurs before noon.

"The only thing I saw is that the afternoon hunters have been taking a slightly higher proportion of adult gobblers. Part of this could be because they are avid, dedicated hunters still out there looking for adult birds. I don't think it (report) shows that adult birds are more vulnerable in the afternoon. The bulk of the kill still occurs before midday. It gets awful hot after noon, and there's not going to be a lot of activity," Backs said.

However, the afternoon hunting has opened a window of opportunity for many. Backs said that it gives some individuals a chance to hunt when they get off work. Even better, he said it allows the kids to go hunting after school. In fact, Backs believes that the real positive side of afternoon hunting is that it provides youngsters with more time afield. He added that their chances of success might not be that great, but at least they could get into the woods and hunt.

Interestingly, Hoosier hunters will have more areas to hunt in the spring of 2007 than ever before. Over the past few decades, hunters have waited patiently to see new areas open. At one time, there were only a handful of counties open in the southern half of Indiana. Then came more, and eventually portions of a few counties in the north. Backs said that in 2007 all areas of every county in the state would open to turkey hunting, with the exception of Henry County.

Unfortunately, Henry County will remain closed, primarily because of officers and biologists reporting a number of birds killed soon after releases occurred. These were not illegal kills but road kills. The turkey/vehicle collisions took place in the better habitat along the Blue River corridor that intercepts with highways. Officials hope that Henry County will open to turkey hunting in 2009. However, either way, the opening of almost all the state has become a major tribute to Indiana's turkey restoration program.

Hunters should also check regulations for the youth season in 2007. At the time of this writing, it was not yet carved in stone, but the possibility existed that youngsters might get to hunt the weekend before the opening of Indiana's normal turkey season, which is slated to begin on April 25.

So will Indiana's record-breaking harvests continue for yet another season? Should Hoosiers expect to find more gobblers than ever

before, and can it get any better than it already has?

"I'm going to hang in there and say that we will harvest somewhere around 13,000 birds, plus or minus 1,000," Backs noted. "It's really hard to tell. Going into the fall of 2006, there was a good mast crop. So I think we are looking at a good survival rate, if we don't have a radical winter."

Backs' ending comments sounded quite familiar. He reminded me that at some point the harvests would level off. In fact, we've already seen some indication of this occurring. He said that all we have to do is look back five or six years before the high harvest of 2006. In black and white, it clearly showed the harvest trend had tapered. For this reason, Backs suggests that we don't get too excited over last year, and that we should not think about expanding seasons and bag limits.

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