Mississippi'™s Top Turkey Hunts

Mississippi'™s Top Turkey Hunts

Turkeys have seemed to be scarce across the Magnolia State in recent seasons. Will that be the case this year? Let's have a closer look. (March 2007)

Photo By Phillip Jordan

Some say that turkey hunting in the Magnolia State is at its lowest ebb. Talk to me about the 2005 season and I might agree: It was terrible where I hunted. However, the situation turned around in a 2006 season marked by increased gobbling activity and bird sightings, reminding us that the sport often runs in cycles driven by previous years' nesting success. Bottom line: Turkey hunting's always in flux.

PAST SEASON RECAPS

Each season I participate in the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, keeping log sheets of what I encounter in the turkey woods. Such records can tell you lot from year to year.

In 2005 I conducted 18 separate hunts -- six in the morning, 12 in the afternoon. The number of hours spent on the hunts totaled a considerable 62. In late April, three days from the end of the season, I finally called in my only gobbler of the whole season.

During those days afield, I had several encounters with gobbling birds, but nothing up close and personal. Most disheartening: the scant number of hens observed. Also depressingly deficient: jakes, only one of which I saw in all my time in the woods. That, I assumed, meant that the next season would bring slim pickings, too -- but that assessment would prove to have been wide of the mark, as the situation in fact turned in my favor. Whatever the reason(s) for the reversal, I ended up harvesting two quite respectable birds this past season. (And missing a third -- although on that particular hunt, I did kill a nice sapling! Those trees just don't always know when to duck.)

Unlike the prior year, 2006 featured birds doing a lot of gobbling, and often. Too, I spotted and heard many more hens milling around in distant pine thickets than had been the case in '05. Even so, I still only saw one jake -- which, like most young birds, wasn't very sophisticated: I'd set up decoys, and it took only one call for it to come running right to my blind.

My hunts in 2006 numbered 16 -- six in the morning, 10 in the afternoon: a total of 49.75 hours in the blind. So I hunted less last year than I had in '05, but killed more turkeys. Overall, the '06 hunting experience was much more rewarding, as I saw and heard more turkey activity, which is at the heart of keeping interest levels up and maintaining the desire to keep heading back to the woods.

As it turned out, my own results for those two seasons mirrored what was going on throughout most of the Magnolia State during the period.

FLOCK STATUS UPDATE

As hinted above, the pivotal factor in the success or failure of every turkey season is the condition of the hatch in prior years. While hunting and natural mortality take a significant number of birds out of the population annually, neither of those rivals in importance the level of replacement of lost flock members with young poults; that's what makes or breaks future seasons. Having plenty of jakes that can ultimately mature into boss gobblers all begins with nesting success.

To go back a few years: Harvest data for 2003 and 2004 suggest that those were two of the best turkey seasons in a long, long time. Extremely high levels of gobbling activity may have been a result of the number of toms strutting around the woods in search of a limited supply of hens. More competition induced more gobbling, which in turn made the toms more vulnerable to hunters.

Unfortunately, the '03 and '04 seasons also saw the worst hatches in some time. MDWFP turkey biologists rated 2003 as the worst brooding period in 10 years, and the 2004 season, worse yet, came along to undercut the previous season still further, setting the table for some very poor future seasons.

Few jakes roamed the woods in 2004, so the next year offered few 2-year-old gobblers and, again, minimal numbers of jakes. Little wonder, then, that my 2005 season turned out so abysmally!

And I wasn't alone. The season throughout Mississippi proved an almost silent one. What few gobblers were out there had little trouble finding hens, and so didn't need to sound off much. When the season ended and the MDWFP tallied the numbers, harvest rates were way down.

This set the stage for another down season. The toms that had carried over had gained a year of woodland experience, so along with the added weight, beard length and longer spurs that made them better trophies they also acquired greater savvy. Having survived one season without needing to gobble much, they entered their third year in the woods with even less reason to sound off. Poor reproduction left these boss birds with few jakes and 2-year-olds with which to compete, so they ignored hen calls and were darned hard to hunt.

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES

On the upside, information collected following both the 2005 and '06 seasons indicated that hatches were pretty good, and definitely on the upturn. The hatch was especially solid in the Delta region, and positive reports also came in from the historically turkey-rich southwest sector of the state; even the Hurricane Katrina-battered southeast could boast an upswing in the hatch. Only in the north-central area of the state did poor nesting outcomes persist.

With the exception of those north-central counties, prospects for the 2007 season look promising. The number of older birds in the population should be relatively high, as fewer of them were harvested the last two seasons, but now they should find themselves sharing the woods with more 2-year-olds and jakes. Those young birds will be avidly pursuing hens, so the boss gobblers will have to put out a bit more effort to amass their harems in 2007 -- will, ideally, have to gobble more.

What does all this portend for turkey hunting in the coming months? In the following, we'll analyze the outlook by region, as conditions can differ considerably depending on the whereabouts of your Mississippi hunt site. It's also worth noting that the MDWFP tracks turkeys a bit differently than it does other game: The state is divided into six regions for purposes of managing most species, but is treated as comprising only five in the case of wild turkeys.

Here, then, is what's afoot for turkeys and the folks that pursue them in each of these regions this year.

STATEWIDE PROSPECTS

Region 1

Lying basically in the north-central and northeast part of the state, this region largely forested in oak-hickory or oak-pine woodlands gets oddly mixed reviews. Turkey nu

mbers here have been observed to be among the highest in the state, and some 49 percent of the gobblers harvested here last year were 3 years old or older. On the other hand, the north-central counties within this region had, as noted earlier, rather poor hatches in the last two years. You might want to concentrate your efforts in this region more to the northeast along the Tenn-Tom Waterway corridor.

The Chickasaw Wildlife Management Area -- 27,259 acres off state highways 15 and 32 near Houston in Chickasaw County -- remains a top Region 1 site for public turkey hunting.

Region 2

This region takes in the 10 counties of the Mississippi Delta in the northwest corner of the state. The highly diverse ecology of the area has historically produced worthwhile turkey hunting. Woodland areas interspersed with agricultural cropland and possessing a wealth of water make for optimal turkey habitat.

The Delta has reported good hatches in recent years, which bodes well for 2007 hunting. The Delta has the highest harvest rate of 3-year-old gobblers harvested in the state.

Three of the top WMAs in this region are Mahannah, Twin Oaks and Sunflower, a trio of tracts containing more than 70,000 acres of land in Issaquena and Sharkey counties. Their proximity to each other enables a hunter to check out more than one in a single day. The habitat here is composed of some of the last remaining bottomland hardwood forest in the country. It's wet, and can be thick, and harbors some fine gobblers.

Region 3

In this region stretching across the middle and eastern sections of the state, strong hatches have been reported the past couple of seasons, so turkey reproduction here is on an upward trend. At the same time, however, hunters were reporting that turkey sightings were down, reinforcing the data on poor hatches in previous years. But that phenomenon should be waning now.

Gobbler harvest rates have been on the increase over the past couple of seasons, but these turkeys are reported to be hardened veteran birds tough to bring to the call.

Both Bienville and Caney Creek WMAs in Scott County are promising public lands for turkey hunts. The terrain's thick with pine stands, but creek bottoms lined with hardwoods form corridors along the drainages that should be the focus of the most attention.

Easy access attracts a lot of hunters to both of these WMAs; to avoid the crowds, hunt on weekdays if possible.

Region 4

Region 4 in southwest Mississippi is simply the end of the rainbow with regard to pursuing gobblers in the Magnolia State, its habitat mix being ideal for wild turkeys to propagate in. On top of that, the region supports bounteous harvests, as it ordinarily reports the highest gobbling frequency in the state. I can recall that during one morning hunt in this zone, eight gobblers were sounding off at the same time.

Franklin County is home to Caston Creek WMA, previously called Homochitto WMA. Regardless of the name, the 30,000-acre tract near the towns of Meadville and Bude off U.S. Highway 84 lies on lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service and incorporated into the Homochitto National Forest.

Considering the WMA's location in southern Mississippi, the terrain here features surprisingly high ridgetops, which provide for some the bottoms to be deep and heavily shaded. The gobblers roost high on the ridges, but pitch off to sail into the bottoms, so find a good ridgecrest before daylight -- once the toms hit those bottoms, a bird can be tough to find.

Region 5

This is the region whacked by hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and it's on the mend, but turkey hunting may be a bit tough, owing to the amount of downed timber still around; it's difficult to move through the woods, and you have to call the toms across a lot of debris. If you can locate flocks of hens or gobblers feeding in the clearings that remain, their roosts are also likely to be nearby.

Data collected in this region indicate a low number of poults hatched per hen; thus, fewer new birds are being added to the population -- a problem for coming seasons. For now, however, the outlook is better. Gobbler observations have been increasing over the past couple of seasons, and hunters have reported an increase in gobbling activity throughout the region. Success rates have also been on the rise.

Eleven wildlife management areas are within the 18-county region, so the acreage available to hunt is immense. Probably the best among these is the massive Chickasawhay WMA in Wayne County. Once on the 122,000-plus-acre WMA, look for drainages lined with towering pines that make for typical roost sites. Gobblers like to hang out overnight in the lower branches and then pitch off in the morning near water.

State Route 15 to the south of Laurel offers the best access to the western edge of this gargantuan area.

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