Pelican State Gobbler Prospects

Pelican State Gobbler Prospects

From the Red River to the Mississippi and Shreveport to the Gulf of Mexico, our parishes are loaded with wild turkeys. Here's a look at the best places to down a tom this spring. (March 2010)

Poult counts are coming off a five-year period of declines, so gobblers may have to compete a bit more for hens this year.

Photo by Polly Dean.

Opening day of turkey season is almost a holy day for many Louisiana hunters. In most of the state, the toms have been gobbling, and savvy hunters already have their spots staked out. Almost nothing gets between those hunters and the turkey woods.

According to Larry Savage, turkey program coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, hunters this year may not hear as many gobblers as they have in recent years. This isn't the result of any serious problems with the turkey population, he stressed, but is partly because of the normal rise and fall of wildlife populations. Land use changes in some parts of the state also contribute to the situation.

Savage said that the LDWF has been doing turkey brood surveys for the past 15 years, which gives biologists a good picture of what's going on with turkeys both statewide and over time.

"We did a lot of re-stocking in the late 1980s and early 1990s in our piney woods in north and west Louisiana," he said. "Those birds did really well, and had an expanding population. The hens were averaging three and four poults per hen for the first 10 years."

The last five years, however, the trend has been down.

"It's probably just an innate population response," Savage said. "They did well and in suitable habitat they expanded."

In fact, this scenario is not uncommon where birds have been re-stocked. Biologists typically see a rapidly expanding population for several years that then declines somewhat and stabilizes at a healthy level.

Savage went on to say, however, that there have been a lot of variables recently that are affecting the turkey population.

"Within that five-year period, we have had a couple of very wet Mays," he said. "Also, we have intensive land use in some parts of the state, particularly in the Florida parishes east of the Mississippi River in the 'toe of the boot.' That part of the state has had our lowest average poult production for 15 years, and it has a much higher human population than other parts of the state."

In that same area, there was significant habitat damage by Hurricane Katrina.

"Then after Katrina, a lot of people moved out of New Orleans and up to higher ground," he explained. "So, residential development has accelerated in that area in the last three or four years. We're talking about areas that used to be dairy farms but are now subdivisions. That represents an irreversible loss of habitat."

In addition to all that, there's some intensive forestry going on that impacts turkey populations in the state.

"These long-term population trends are a combination of factors, and it's a complex situation," Savage said. "You can't point to any one thing and say that's the reason."

So what does all of this mean for hunters for the next couple of years? For one thing, it's going to be tougher hunting in some places.

"There are still plenty of turkeys where you have quality habitat," Savage pointed out. "However, where you have marginal habitat that's highly fragmented or there's intensive activity of some type, you're probably not going to see as many birds until we start having back-to-back good hatches again."

Where the most impact is visible is in the Western Longleaf and Northwest Loblolly regions of the state. Those are the areas where most of the restocking was done a decade and a half ago, and where the turkey populations had been expanding so fast.

"In some of those areas, hunters may see fewer birds and hear less gobbling than in the last few years, depending on the habitat quality," Savage said. "However, if your property has good core habitat, even at the lower numbers you'll still have plenty of birds. It's the distribution of turkeys that's going to be a little different."

All of this is true more for private land than for public land, Savage said.

"The public land -- the Kisatchie National Forest, which is 600,000 acres, our national wildlife refuges, primarily in bottomland hardwoods, and Louisiana's wildlife management areas -- all have fairly stable habitat," he said. As a result, they tend to have more stable turkey populations than private lands that are more subject to change than public land.

"However, those public areas still have population ups and downs because of the weather," Savage said. "And we had extremely high flooding last year that overlapped the nesting period. During that time, we recorded the lowest poult surveys we've ever found along the Mississippi River and the Atchafalaya River. However, that's strictly related to the turkeys that were on the unprotected sides of the levees. So there's going to be a gap in those areas for a couple of years because of the population age structure."

With all of that said, if you're fortunate enough to be hunting in an area with good, stable habitat, you may not see any difference in the turkeys at all. It just all depends on where you are, what the habitat is like, and how the weather has been.

The Turkey Plan Coordinator does have another message about the turkey populations as well.

Larry Savage wants hunters to understand this is not the start of a long-term downturn in turkey populations. He's not sounding an alarm. With the exception of the areas with major land use changes, better weather can quickly rebound the flock.

National Wild Turkey Federation

The LDWF and the National Wild Turkey Federation continue to cooperate on all kinds of projects to benefit turkeys in Louisiana.

"In the long-term future, we have a lot of Wetland Reserve Program and Conservation Reserve Program, Farm Bill programs in Louisiana," Savage said. "A lot of those Farm Bill projects are focused around the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in the North Mississippi Delta region. This area is a big bottomland hardwood forest of about 80,000 acres."

The federal Farm Bill projects are allowing land managers to focus on reforestation of marginal habitat in the area around the Tensas River NWR.

"So now we have a large area of very young forest that's going to become turkey habitat in the next 10 years," Savage said.

As far as turkey hunting is concerned, the best way to break up Louisiana into regions is by habitat type, Savage said. There are five regions, and we'll look at each one individually. Regardless, of where you go, however, one thing is true: It's hard to get onto private land.

"If you're talking about private land, we can sum that up pretty quickly," Savage said. "Most of the private lands are under lease or have locked gates. You're going to find it very difficult to find private property to hunt on in Louisiana unless you lease or have a friend who owns property."

Longleaf Pine Region

This area is south of Alexandria on the western side of the state and was historically covered by longleaf pines. It includes Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Evangeline, Grant, Jefferson Davis Natchitoches, Rapides, Sabine, Vernon and Winn parishes.

"This area had the highest poult production for 15 years," Savage noted.

This is one of two regions that have had a very high population of birds prior to the declining reproduction of the past few years.

"This region has a lot of the Kisatchie National Forest in it," Savage said. "There are several ranger districts here, including the Evangeline Ranger District. The Kisatchie NF totals more than 600,000 acres. Some of it has restrictions, but most is open to 23 days of turkey hunting. The season this year is going to be March 20 through April 11 on most of Kisatchie."

You can get more information about the Kisatchie NF by calling (318) 473-7160, or going online to www.fs.fed.us/r8/kisatchie.

There are several WMAs in this region, some of which have hunting seasons. One is the Fort Polk WMA, located about 10 miles southeast of Leesburg. This is a military installation, so access sometimes may be limited. For more information, contact the LDWF Lake Charles Office by telephone at (337) 491-2576, or at wsmith@wlf.louisiana.gov.

"We're talking industrial tracts of timber in the WMAs in this region, and I wouldn't say that any of these areas are hotspots," Savage said. "I still think Kisatchie is your best bet for public hunting in the region."

Northwest Loblolly Pine Region

This area is primarily piney woods, and is part of the coastal plains habitat in northwest Louisiana. It covers Bienville, Bossier, Caddo, Caldwell, Claiborne, DeSoto, Jackson, LaSalle, Lincoln, Red River, Union and Webster parishes.

This area had the second-best poult production for most of the last decade and half.

"The coastal plains habitats here are largely being converted to pine-dominant monoculture as opposed to mixed hardwoods," he said.

However, the area still had a lot of birds until the last five years, when poult production declined.

This region includes only one unit of the Kisatchie NF.

"It's a smaller unit, and only has a 16-day season as opposed to 23 days," Larry Savage said. "It's only open from March 20 to April 4."

One other tract that may be worth a look is the Jackson-Bienville WMA, located about 12 miles south of Ruston. For information about that area, contact the LDWF Minden Office at (318) 371-3050 or through e-mail at shebert@wlf.louisiana.gov.

Atchafalaya Delta Region

This is one of the two areas most affected by last year's floods. It comprises the parishes of Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Cameron, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lafourche, Orleans, Lafayette, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, Terrebonne, Vermilion and West Baton Rouge. A great deal of this area lies inside the Atchafalaya Basin.

"Here you have Sherburne WMA," Savage said. "It's a good-sized area with a lot of public hunting."

Next to Sherburne WMA is the Atchafalaya NWR, which also is open for hunting.

"This area is cooperatively owned by the LDWF, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Savage described. "It's all managed by the LDWF."

For more information about both these areas, contact the LDWF Opelousas Office at (337) 948-0255, or e-mail them at tvidrine@wlf.louisiana.gov.

Just west of the Sherburne complex is Indian Bayou.

"This is a Corps of Engineers property that we don't manage, but it's close to Sherburne," Savage said. "The whole area offers hunters a fairly unique opportunity to hunt the bottomland hardwood forest with a really good turkey population."

The area covers more than 28,000 acres, so it offers substantial opportunity for hunters.

For information about Indian Bayou, contact the COE Engineers, Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System Project Office at (337) 585-0853.

Mississippi Delta Region

This area also was affected by last year's floodwaters. It includes Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Tensas and West Carroll parishes.

"Here you have the Tensas River NWR and the Big Lake WMA," Savage said. "Those two areas are contiguous."

You can contact the Tensas River NWR office (318) 757-4571, or go online to www.fws.gov/tensasriver for more details.

South of those two areas are the Red River and Three Rivers WMAs.

"These are two state-owned wildlife management areas," Savage said. "They both have fairly high turkey populations and should offer some good public turkey hunting."

You can find out more about the Red River and Three Rivers WMAs from the LDWF Ferriday office (318) 757-4571 or e-mail them at lmoak@wlf.louisiana.gov.

Southeast Loblolly Region

In the Southeast Loblolly Region are the parishes of East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Washington and West Feliciana.

One place Savage suggested targeting for turkeys was Tunica Hills WMA.

"Tunica Hills is a small area, but it's really unique," he offered. "It's in the upland hardwoods, right in the 'ankle of the boot' where you turn and go north up the Mississippi River. It's very unique hardwood habitat. It's the tip of the hardwood habitat that comes down out of Mississippi along the river. It has a really good turkey population."

For more information about Tunica Hills WMA, contact the LDWF Baton Rouge office by telephone at (225) 765-2360, or e-mail them at cdavis@wlf.louisiana.gov.

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