3 Fall Public-Land Turkey Picks In Our State

With expanded areas and more days to hunt, Kentucky sportsmen are warming to the idea of bagging a fall turkey for Thanksgiving dinner!

Photo by John R. Ford

There is something about running right into the middle of a flock of wild turkeys, screaming like a madman, that just doesn't seem natural, I thought to myself as I watched the group of 20-some hens and jakes fly off the ridge in all directions. For a guy whose turkey hunting experiences had been limited to the spring months, the whole idea of "busting up a flock" didn't seem to make a lot of sense. However, I had been assured that when chasing birds in the fall, it was a perfectly acceptable practice.

After watching the birds drop out of sight, I eased my way down from where they had been, stuck out my lone hen decoy, and sat against the most comfortable cedar I could find. Several minutes of silence had passed and I began to question why any turkey would return after the commotion I had created. That thought quickly faded with the first sounds of yelping to my right. Those yelps were immediately answered by some kee-kees down the ridge and to my left. Maybe this crazy scheme would work after all!

I pulled the double reed diaphragm call from my shirt pocket and joined the mix with a few kee-kees of my own. One after another the birds called back and forth in an obvious attempt to regroup. It wasn't long before I began to hear the light crunching of leaves as the flock began to make their way in my direction. A flash of movement to my right caught my attention. It was the bobbing head of a hen coming over the ridge. As she slipped behind a big red oak, I eased my 12-gauge around and got it pointed in the right direction. When the hen stepped out from behind the oak at 32 yards, I squeezed the trigger and watched my first fall turkey hit the ground.

That one hunt was all it took to sell me on the merits of fall turkey hunting. While it may not contain the heart-pounding gobbling and run-and-gun action of the spring season, it has an excitement all its own and fills an important void for any diehard turkey hunter. Not to mention the fact that it is a great opportunity to put a tasty bird on the Thanksgiving table.

I'm not the only one who has found fall turkey hunting to his liking. A quick look at the numbers show the popularity of the fall season has grown tremendously over the past few years. In fact, the number of hunters holding fall firearm turkey tags has gone from 8,941 in 2001 to 25,342 in 2004. Part of that increase is likely due to the inclusion of fall turkey tags with the sportsman's license, which more hunters are opting to buy because of the savings it provides. It also doesn't hurt that the Commonwealth, with an estimated population of nearly 250,000 birds, offers some of the finest turkey hunting in the nation.

The dramatic increase in hunter numbers, combined with the new two-bird limit and four extra days of hunting, brought last year's fall firearms turkey harvest to 5,716 birds. That was a very impressive 153 percent increase over 2003! Yet even with the steep climb in harvest, there is still plenty of room for growth. The harvest could double and still not exceed the target harvest of 6 to 8 percent of the fall turkey population.

So with all this great opportunity for fall turkey hunting, where should a hunter turn to put a bird in the freezer? Here are my top three public land picks for this fall.

PEABODY WMA

When it comes to public-land turkey hunting, it is hard to deny that the 60,000-acre Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA) rules the roost. Last year, fall gun hunters harvested 111 birds on the WMA, nearly 25 percent of the total 500 birds taken on public land during the 2004 season.

Located in Muhlenberg and Ohio counties, which incidentally are Kentucky's top two counties for fall turkey harvest, the Peabody WMA consists of reclaimed coal-mined land. The terrain is rough and varies from swampland to high ridges and deep pits. There has been a lot of habitat work done on the WMA over the last several years, which has helped to create an ideal mixture of open grasslands and timbered wood lots.

Peabody WMA is located along the Western Kentucky Parkway and has numerous access points from state routes (SR) 70, 369 and U.S. Route 62. There is an intricate system of gravel "haul" roads throughout the area as well, so be sure and obtain an area map before heading out.

Also, be aware that the WMA requires a $12.50 user permit that can be purchased wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Portions of the WMA are closed as a waterfowl refuge from Oct. 15 until March 15, so be sure and check the fall hunting guide for additional information. Questions regarding the WMA can be directed to the local Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) office at (270) 273-3568.

BEAVER CREEK WMA

The heavily forested hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky provide an ideal environment for eastern wild turkeys. Bluegrass State hunters are blessed with almost 700,000 acres of public land in this region in the form of the Daniel Boone National Forest (DBNF). Last year, 151 turkeys were harvested on the DBNF during the fall firearms season, and while that may not seem like a whole lot for such a large tract of land, the figure is more a product of light hunting pressure than it is a lack of birds.

Hunters who wish to take advantage of this vast public hunting land should make sure they get plenty of exercise before the season. The terrain is mountainous with many sections quite steep and rugged. It is this same ruggedness combined with the remoteness of many areas that keeps the pressure light on the DBNF, especially for those who are willing to put in a little legwork.

Spanning from the Tennessee line in McCreary County, all the way north to Fleming and Lewis counties, finding a starting point can be pretty intimidating. Several counties in the southern portion of the forest posted excellent harvest numbers for the 2004 firearms season, including McCreary County with 99 birds checked in, Pulaski County with 96 birds, and Rockcastle County with 86 birds.


Hunters who wish to take advantage of this vast public hunting land should make sure they get plenty of exercise before the season.
 

Within two of those counties, McCreary and Pulaski, you can find an excellent turkey hunting opportunity in the form of Beaver Creek WMA. Thirty-five of the nearly 200 birds taken in those two counties came from the 17,347-acre area.

Like the DBNF that encompasses it, Beaver Creek WMA consists of steep, mountainou

s terrain covered in mixed hardwoods, with approximately 150 acres of open fields. Access is by a gravel road that transects the area, as well as several ridge and valley dirt trails inside the WMA. Within the center of the WMA lies the Beaver Creek Wilderness Area. This area is closed to all motorized vehicles, and hence, with a little legwork, provides an opportunity to get away from any potential crowding.

For more information on Beaver Creek WMA, contact the KDFWR regional office at (606) 376-8083.

GRAYSON LAKE WMA

In the northeast portion of the state, just east of the Daniel Boone National Forest, lies another good public turkey hunting opportunity, Grayson Lake WMA. The 14,763-acre area, in Carter and Elliot counties, had a combined harvest of 114 birds during the fall firearms season. Fourteen of those birds were taken from the WMA.

The terrain surrounding Grayson Lake is hilly and steep with some gently sloping upland areas and flat creek bottoms, and the habitat is primarily in hardwoods, with some openings located in the bottoms and upland flats.

The WMA can be accessed from SRs 7 and 1496. Hunters with access to a boat should consider using that to their advantage by getting into more remote areas of the WMA. Camping is available at nearby Grayson Lake State Park. For more information on hunting Grayson Lake WMA, contact the local KDFWR office at (606) 474-8535.

CONCLUSION

With nearly 250,000 birds spread from one end of the state to the other, and over 75 public hunting areas, there are sure to be some excellent fall turkey hunting opportunities near you.

The three areas discussed above are my top public-land picks for this fall season, but there are plenty of other good opportunities to be found. So if you've put off giving fall turkey hunting a try, head out to one of these areas this fall and discover a whole new season of excitement.

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