Hoosier State Spring Turkey Outlook

Hoosier State Spring Turkey Outlook

Poor hatches the last several seasons didn't seem to put a damper on turkey harvests in Hoosierland. Will this trend continue for this spring? Here's the latest! (March 2010)

It's no big news. For the past few years, Hoosier turkey hunters have heard about poor hatches and brood production. In fact, 2005 was one of the worst years. Yet, despite low turkey production, somehow hunters enjoyed their second highest harvest in 40 years last spring, cashing in on nearly 13,000 birds. According to Indiana's wildlife research biologist Steve Backs, the high harvest was somewhat of a surprise.

"To be honest, it was kind of a mystery to me. We do know that our hunter numbers are still going up, but if you look at the percentage of juveniles to adults in the harvest, we were skewed really heavy to adult birds," explained Backs.

The low percentage of jakes harvested last season does indicate that the poor hatch of 2008 probably meant fewer juvenile birds out there. I say more about that in a moment.

Backs also claims that many hunters complained last season that they were not hearing much gobbling. Hunters also said that many birds were not responding to calls. Others informed officials that they were not seeing jakes. Then, it was reported that two weeks into the season, many hens were still with gobblers. Backs said you know when this stuff is going on, something isn't adding up.

If you compare turkey harvest statistics, it appears promising for the upcoming 2010 season. Turn the clock back 10 years and you'll see a harvest of only 7,822 birds. At that time, Hoosiers were keeping their noses to the grindstone and making it a point to set harvest records. The harvest surpassed 10,000 birds in 2002, with Indiana's best spring harvest occurring in 2006 as hunters took 13,193 turkeys. Then the bottom fell out. In 2007, hunters took only 11,163 birds. The statistics rebounded considerably in 2008 when check-in stations reported a harvest of 12,204 turkeys and, of course, the amazing harvest last season of 12,993 birds.

My good friend Tim Hilsmeyer of Pike County certainly did not find it difficult to get his bird last spring. He took one of the "early birds," nicknamed Bronson for the partially gold-colored feathers it sported. Tim shot the gobbler on opening day with a bow while set up in a blind along a field.

It's not unusual for opening day to produce a large number of birds, but last year it was exceptional. In fact, 19 percent of the harvest occurred on the first day of the spring season. Backs said that some areas of the state had rain on opening day, but many portions had great weather, which led to more hunters in the woods. It's also true that many hunters make it a point to take time off work to be out there at the beginning of the season.

Backs says that the state has seen a big jump in both turkey and deer hunting license sales. He suggests that some of the increase is related to folks who are unemployed. The recession and unemployment rates are no big news, but they could very well have contributed to the number of hunters in the field.

"I think we have seen a surge in hunter numbers due to guys who are looking for something to do. Many of these guys were in a position to go out and scout, and then hunt those first five days of the season. Some of our staff claimed they never saw as many hunters on public lands as they did this past season," said Backs.

Typically, more turkeys are harvested during the first week of the season. Last spring, 54 percent of the harvest occurred during the first five days. My wife, Vikki, was one of those fortunate hunters. She took her gobbler on the third day after a slow start in Spencer County. It seems the birds were not gobbling. Nonetheless, the turkey came in silently and within easy range. For me, it took several more days of hard hunting in Spencer County to capitalize. The turkey gobbled briefly on the roost, but did not say a word as it came in a short distance behind a hen.

Last spring was Indiana's 40th turkey hunting season. Several southern counties reported a harvest of 350-plus birds, including Switzerland (530), Harrison (511), Jefferson (447), Dearborn (397), Franklin (355) and Perry (352). Although we see these six leading counties mentioned consistently in annual turkey harvest reports, some have interesting stories to tell.

For instance, No. 2 Harrison County's harvest increased 19 percent over 2008 when hunters shot 428 birds. Dearborn County increased 12 percent over 2008, while Franklin County increased 20 percent. Other southern counties that ranked in the top 10 include Pike (up 18 percent) and Spencer (up 13 percent).

Backs believes that Pike and Spencer counties are somewhat blessed with great habitat. He said they have plenty of strip-mined areas and reclaimed coal mine grounds that wild turkeys have adapted to very well. Backs also mentioned neighboring Warrick County, suggesting that it was once in the top few counties of the state. Harvests there dropped in 2008, but rebounded again in 2009 with a reported harvest of 347. However, some portions of Warrick County do have floodplain areas that have affected brood production, whereas Pike and Spencer counties are not as likely to flood.

Other top counties that barely fell short of the 350-bird harvest include Warrick County (347), Greene County (343), Jennings County (326), Steuben County (323) and Pike County (322). All are located in the southern half of the state with the exception of Steuben County, which is located in the northeastern corner of the state.

In fact, most of the "surprise" counties seem to be found in the northern half of Indiana. The 2009 Lagrange County harvest increased by 56 percent over 2008, reporting 139 turkeys checked in. Elkhart County hunters took 92 birds in 2009, compared with 56 in 2008, an increase of 64 percent. Three other northern counties, Fulton, Kosciusko and White also showed significant harvest increases in 2009 of more than 30 percent.

Backs said the growth of Indiana's turkey population has occurred primarily in some of the northern portion of the state in recent years. These counties are also where the last restoration efforts occurred. It's also true that some northern areas have not had the rainfall and cool temperatures that have occurred in many southern areas of the state. Backs noted that hunters are still killing more than half of the birds in the southern regions, but the northern counties are not far behind.

Several other counties that I failed to mention showed significant increases, but most reported only a small number of birds taken. For example, the 2009 harvest was up by 80 percent in Adams County, but hunters took only nine turkeys. Lake County reported a harvest increase of 50 percent, yet hunters took only 15 birds in 2009.

Nevertheless, there are always some counties that seem to have the bottom fall out. Again, I'll mention those that reported a significant numbers of birds taken. Both Clay and Brown counties fell by 15 percent last spring. Sullivan County dropped by 13 percent, while Vermillion County fell by 22 percent. Fortunately, the stats don't show many counties that had the bottom fall out last spring.

Backs said that some counties in the south have been down for years, but these fluctuations were not unusual. He recalls Switzerland County that had rising harvests. It still leads the way, yet the harvest did not top 600 as he once believed it would.

If you look at the overall harvest by regions, you'll see the bigger picture. For example, the West-Central Region showed a harvest decrease. According to Backs, there has been severe flooding in this region the past few springs and summers. It's also true that the 2008 floods were major, which affected local turkey populations.

"When we have flooding in some regions, at least the turkeys have uplands to get to. Unfortunately, when you get into west-central Indiana, all the habitats and drainages are in the floodplain. When they (turkeys) get flooded out, they are pushed into open country where they are really exposed. I think in 2008, west-central Indiana took a really big hit and it wasn't just brood production, claims Backs, stating that mortality played a role in that region simply because the birds had no choice but to get into the open areas where they were vulnerable.

The South-Central and Southeast regions accounted for 51 percent of the harvest. Surprisingly, the North Region accounted for 20 percent of the total harvest. Although the North Region is the largest, I'm sure there was a day when northern hunters could never imagine taking one-fifth of the state's turkeys. However, it did happen. Backs said that an increase in both turkeys and hunters has made the difference.

Last year's amazing harvest occurred in 88 of Indiana's 92 counties. Hunter success was about 22 percent, with 978 (7.5 percent of the statewide harvest) taken during the youth-only weekend season held before the regular 19-day hunting season. Indiana allows all-day hunting, but reports show that only 16 percent of the harvest occurred from 3 p.m. to sunset. Officials reported an estimated 59,000 spring turkey hunters in the state.

Based on spur measurements at check stations, jakes accounted for only 19 percent of the harvest. Surprisingly, adult birds made up 81 percent of the harvest. Fifty-one percent were 2-year-old birds, while 30 percent were 3-years-old and older. However, in past years, juvenile birds have often accounted for a much larger percentage of the harvest. Adult birds usually make up about 70 percent of the harvest, but in recent years, the adult harvest has continued to increase. The last time a low jake harvest occurred was in 2006. That year, only 14 percent of the harvest was jakes. The 2005 hatch was poor, which led to the low jake harvest. However, that year there were plenty of 2-year-old birds running around, thanks to the better hatch of 2004.

One could suspect that the poor hatch in 2008 was responsible for the low jake harvest, but according to Backs, there's more to the story. It's also possible that hunter selectivity played a small role in the low percentage of jakes harvested last spring. Hence, Backs is not stressed over the number of jakes we took in 2009. True, production in 2008 was down. There simply were not a lot of jakes out there for the taking.

Nevertheless, consider that many Indiana hunters are seasoned veterans that prefer not to shoot a jake. They wait for a longbeard, or nothing, or at least put off the opportunity to take a jake until the season is about to close. Of course, it's easier to wait on a longbeard if there are plenty of birds gobbling. Backs said that was counteracted last year, however. Birds were not gobbling as much, and because few hunters were seeing jakes, some hunters were ready to take a jake if opportunity allowed.

Backs said that in 2009, we didn't have a large number of 2-year-old birds. Of course, we know that they do much of the gobbling, and they are the ones that often come into calls. Backs added that with the one-bird limit, Indiana might be buffering the state from feeling the effects of the poor turkey production that has occurred in recent years.

"I just have this gut feeling that we might be running out of that stockpile of adult gobblers we had for a few years since the phenomenal hatch of 2004," said Backs, explaining that it resulted in the remarkable record harvest of 2006.

However, there could be a bit of good news to that story. Backs explained that the wonderful production of 2004 also supplied the state with an abundance of adult hens in the years ahead, which kept our harvests up. Here's how it works: The numerous adult hens might have produced only one or two poults in recent years as we experienced poor hatches. However, there was an abundance of hens because of the large number of birds from 2004, which compensated the poor hatches that followed.

Now here's the bad news. Backs said that if you do the math, you would see that by 2009, a large number of hens from 2004 are on the way out. Given the life span of a wild turkey hen, we are probably running out of those "extra hens" that have carried us through the poor hatches in recent years. And, as you've already read, Indiana has not had any great hatches since 2004 to replace those hens.

As for the 2009 hatch, which will play a role in the 2010 and 2011 harvests, Backs claims that it is still uncertain. Data cards supplied by officials that track brood production were not completed yet. However, he does believe that there will be plenty of variation throughout the state, because of the untypical weather in the summer of 2009.

"Most places in the better part of the turkey range have had excessive moisture and cool weather. But then you get into other parts of the state that complained about a lack of rain. So, it's hard to project what our actual production is going to be," noted Backs.

Backs did suggest that we might be getting out on the end of the rope, so to speak. He's concerned about 2010 and what lies ahead. Early reports did indicate that field staff was seeing more bachelor groups of gobblers than hens and poults. Hopefully, though, the hatch and brood production of 2009 will be better than anticipated, and will not have been severely affected by the wet and cool weather of last spring and summer.

"I'm a little anxious to see what happens in 2010, and hoping we are going to see a harvest of around 12,000. But with our hunter numbers growing, you would almost expect the harvest to be even higher if turkey production was doing better," predicted Backs.

Backs added that even if the harvest dropped to around 10,000, hunters would be disappointed, but he wouldn't be surprised. He said he hates to be pessimistic, but he has to be realistic. Backs suggested that there is not an "endless well out there." Poor brood production could mean harvesting fewer birds if things don't change.

Personally, I don't have a problem with whatever the harvest is in 2010. I feel fortunate that it's been good the past few years. It seems that gobblers have been more difficult to come by. Nonetheless, I remember the old days when I began turkey hunting. Birds were far and few between and there were very few areas of the state open to hunting. Yep, it's sure to be great in 2010, even if the hunting is a little tough.

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