South Carolina'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

Consecutive poor recruitment years will put the premium on good hunting skills in 2007. Here's a look at the areas of the state that are apt to have the best hunting. (March 2007)

This Laurens County bird is one of the reasons this has traditionally been a solid turkey-hunting spot in South Carolina.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

While most veteran South Carolina turkey hunters will usually decide not to shoot jakes, it's looking like that won't be a decision many of us will have to make in the 2007 season. That's because for the second straight year we've had a poor recruitment season.

Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Turkey Project supervisor, put it in proper perspective.

"We had an excellent recruitment season in 2004 and it showed well in the 2005 season. In 2005, we had the second highest turkey harvest ever in South Carolina. For the 2006 season, we're down a couple thousand turkeys harvested. But there were still plenty of 2-year-olds in the population from the 2004 recruitment season," he said.

"However," he added, "with the poor recruitment in 2006, we'll be entering the 2007 season with two consecutive poor years for adding gobblers to the population. What that translates to hunters is, first, there will be fewer jakes whether they want to shoot jakes or not. Second, and this is the big picture for most hunters, I think, there will also be fewer 2-year-olds because of the poor recruitment in 2005. The birds remaining from the excellent 2004 recruitment will now be 3 years old. Not only will these birds be tougher to harvest because they are older, but they have now been hunted for two years.

"I hate to make a forecast that hunting success will be more difficult in 2007, but based on the above with poor recruitment and wise older gobblers in the woods, it is certainly fair to say it could be challenging," Ruth summarized.

Ruth added that it doesn't mean hunters won't be successful or that hunters should not hunt. It's simply that the population dynamics are in a down phase right now. Hunters will hunt and gobblers will gobble and there will be successful hunts for sure. But it may require tactics that are a bit different from the typical ones that work well on aggressive 2-year-old gobblers.

Ruth did note, that for the second straight year, the survival of poults did have one bright spot in the state, and it's the same place for the second consecutive season.

"The area in the Berkeley, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties sector seemed to have higher reproduction and survival success both in 2005 as well as in 2006. So, for this area, which will probably overlap a bit into surrounding counties, I will say the prognosis for the 2007 season is good. But on a statewide basis, the numbers are definitely down," he added.

According to Ruth, the problem seems to be linked to the number of hens seen during the summer reporting season that have no poults.

"The average number of poults seen with hens on a statewide basis in 2006 was about 3.39, which is very close to the 2005 figure. So the average brood size is actually a pretty good figure. However, in both 2005 and 2006 poult surveys, a very high number of hens, right at 50 percent, did not have any poults. This brings the overall recruitment ratio, the key index for the population, to about 1.7 for the 2006 season. The recruitment ratio was about 1.6 for the 2005 poult count. Both years are considered poor," Ruth said.

As always, Ruth noted, whether discussing deer or turkeys, there will usually be some isolated areas (hotspots) where the population will be somewhat better in an area that overall is down. And, of course, there will still be some 2-year-olds and jakes in the huntable population in 2007. But the overall prognosis is there won't be as many as we're used to. It may take more planning and pre-season scouting than normal to find the better populations or areas where gobblers are concentrated.

From that standpoint, we'll also take a look at the areas that have been producing some of the better hunting over the past couple of seasons. Because of a major change in how the harvest numbers are handled, the 2006 harvest figures were not available when this issue went to press, so we'll have to rely on data from the 2004 and 2005 season harvests. However, since 2004 was the last excellent recruitment year, this will likely help point you in the right directions for finding gobbler hotspots. This guide will be in addition to the three-county area noted earlier (Berkeley, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties) that should provide outstanding hunting. If you live in that neck of the South Carolina woods, staying close to home might be the best advice we can give you for 2007.

To begin our search for the top potential turkey-hunting areas for 2007, let's examine the top producing counties. We've researched the 2004 and 2005 harvest figures and we'll identify the counties that made the top 10 harvest list for both years.

We're looking at total harvest figures in this data. However, in 2005, SCDNR began measuring turkey harvest in terms of the number of acres-per-turkey-harvested category as well. Ruth said this might be a better indicator of the turkey population as seen by a hunter on the ground than would the overall county harvest. An acres-per-turkey-harvested also gives wildlife biologists a better "apple-to-apple" comparison of the harvest across county boundaries.

It's not difficult to figure out the top spot for total harvest figures: That would be Williamsburg County. Williamsburg County has led the state in total harvest in every year since 2003. Plus, the recruitment in that county has been good for the past two years. It is one of the three-county block that fared somewhat better than the remainder of the state in that department.

Williamsburg County is a large county in land size, but it also supports a relatively dense turkey population: in terms of acres-per-turkey-harvested, it was ranked eighth in 2005. That's a high figure. The acres per gobbler harvested were not computed in previous years, so we can't make further comparisons. But suffice to say, Williamsburg has plenty going for it.

Colleton County has been the No. 2 county in both 2004 and 2005 in terms of total harvest. Colleton County's harvest rose from 643 gobblers to 686 in 2005. Despite the fact that recruitment was down in 2005, the harvest was still up and that is a positive indicator. In the 2005 acres-per-turkey-harvested category, Colleton was in 16th place on a statewide basis.

Union and Chester counties flipped in the 2004 and 2005 total harvest numbers. We'll look at

Union County first. Union was ranked No. 4 in total harvest in 2004 and climbed to No. 3 in 2005. The harvest increased from 537 in 2004 to 612 in 2005. And in 2005, Union County was No. 2 in the acres-per-turkey-harvested category, a strong indicator of the health of the population in this area.

Chester County was the No. 3 county in 2004 with 565 turkeys harvested. In 2005, there were 604 turkeys harvested. Not only that, it was the No. 3 county in the state in the 2005 acres-per-turkey-harvested category. Because of its annual harvest ranking and the 2005 acres-per-turkey-harvested ranking, this region should be an excellent area for the 2007 season.

Fairfield County is a traditionally productive turkey area and in 2004, the harvest was 515 turkeys, putting it at fifth on the total harvest list. In 2005, the harvest was 582 turkeys, making it sixth on the 2005 list. This beautiful, rolling hill county was 11th overall in the 2005 harvest by acres-per-turkey-harvested category. Overall, this county has been and should remain a prime area to consider any season and certainly for 2007.

Continuing to look at counties that make the top 10 list in both years, we'll check out Orangeburg County next. Orangeburg was sixth in total harvest in 2004 with 466 gobblers harvested, and in the 2005 hunting season, the harvest was 548 turkeys. In the acres-per-turkey-harvested category, Orangeburg County was 21st in 2005. Orangeburg is a huge county, so this is likely one of those areas where hunters who do some advance scouting and preparation can expect to do well in the 2007 season.

Newberry County sits in a general area known to be excellent turkey habitat. Newberry was No. 8 in total harvest in 2004 with 399 turkeys harvested. In 2005, Newberry County was seventh with 493 turkeys harvested. Plus, the 2005 acres-per-turkey-harvested data show this county to be No. 10 in the state.

Bamberg County was No. 10 total harvest in 2004 with an amount of 390 turkeys harvested. In 2005, the county was also No. 10 but with a harvest of 490 turkeys. Note that this is a significant harvest increase in a single season.

But the most striking statistic that hunters should focus on is that for the 2005 hunting season, Bamberg County was the No. 1 county in the state in the acres-per-turkey-harvested category. Since we don't have that figure prior to the 2005 season, we cannot make comparison further back, but on an acre-to-acre comparison for turkey harvest, Bamberg County turns out as the top county. This is certainly an area to strongly consider for the 2007 season. As with most of the state, however, Bamberg County had low recruitment in 2005 and 2006.

There are other areas that made the top 10 lists in one of the two years but did not make it in both years. These can also be high-percentage areas to scout this spring.

Laurens County is traditionally an excellent area for turkey hunting. Laurens was seventh in the 2004 harvest with 425 turkeys harvested and was 11th in 2005 with a total of 459 turkeys harvested. Laurens was also a very respectable 13th in the 2005 acres-per-turkey-harvested category. There are some excellent wildlife management areas (WMA) in this county, so there will be potentially good public hunting areas as well as on private lands.

While we only have the acres-per-turkey-harvested data available in 2005, this is an excellent way to look at the turkey harvest on a comparative basis. There are still four counties in that top 10 list for 2005 that we have not mentioned yet.

Anderson County was ranked No. 4 in 2005 in this acres-per-turkey-harvested category. There were 430 turkeys harvested there in 2005. In 2004, there were 381 birds harvested.

The No. 5 county in 2005 on this list was York County. York had a total of 478 turkeys harvested in 2005 compared with 297 in 2004, a big jump in harvest. Plus, York just missed making the 2005 top 10 list in total harvest, finishing in a strong 11th place.

McCormick County has long been a favored turkey hunting spot for me; the terrain seems so ideal for turkeys. This county finished in sixth place in the "acres per turkey" category in 2005, with a total harvest of 352 turkeys. In 2004, the total harvest was 289 turkeys. In addition, there is a considerable amount of public land in this county that will provide excellent hunting for turkeys. Again, early scouting and planning is the key to hunting the public lands here.

Abbeville County finished in the No. 9 spot in the acres-per-turkey-harvested top 10 list. There were 347 turkeys taken in this county in 2005, compared with 384 birds harvested in 2004.

We noted in a few places where there is typically good public land available, most of that has been in the Piedmont or Upstate. However, in the Lowcountry, there are two sizable public areas that are prime turkey-hunting hotspots. One is the Webb WMA. This is a 5,866-acre WMA in Hampton County, and it contains some of the most prime turkey habitat in the Lowcountry, according to several excellent turkey hunters I've talked with who've hunted there.

The second is the Palachucola WMA. This is a 6,757-acre WMA located in both Hampton and Jasper counties. Again, the habitat here in much of this land is ideal for gobbler chasing.

Despite the poor recruitment into the turkey population for the past couple of years, there are still a lot of turkeys out there in the woods. Granted, Charles Ruth is most likely correct in his assessment that there will be fewer 2-year-olds and certainly fewer jakes to hunt in most areas of the state. Plus, he's dead on target with the more difficult prospects of hunting wizened 3-year-old birds.

But turkeys will be hunted and South Carolina hunters will harvest a bunch of them. My biggest suggestion and a potential key for success will be to do more than your usual scouting in preparation for hunting. Do more "roosting" of birds before you go to the woods. You may have to hunt longer and more often (I see no downside to that part) to bag your bird or limit of birds if that's your goal.

However, for die-hard turkey hunters, the bottom line is being in the woods and playing the game with a gobbler. Do your homework and that part will take care of itself.

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