South Carolina'™s Spring Turkey Outlook

A series of years with low poult survival has decreased the number of birds in the woods in South Carolina, but there's plenty of good hunting to be had if you work at it. (March 2008).

Photo by Terry Madewell.

It's a good thing that turkey hunters are passionate about the sport. It has been written many times that the pursuit of a gobbler is what tides those of us afflicted with "longbearditis" through difficult times when adult male turkeys are scarce.

Let's hope we have more than mere hope with us in the turkey woods in 2008 -- we might need it. Things were tough enough in the turkey woods in the spring of 2007 with two straight poor turkey recruitment seasons in 2005 and 2006. Unfortunately, the 2007 reproductive season may be the worst of the last three years, based on preliminary reports from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

However, there are still gobblers in the woods and turkey hunters will go turkey hunting. With two straight poor reproductive/recruitment years, we had a shortage of those beloved 2-year-old gobblers, as well as jakes, in the woods last season. It may not be any better this year for many areas of the state.

According to Charles Ruth, Turkey and Deer Project Supervisor for the SCDNR, the current turkey population is down from a high point in 2004. The current estimate of our statewide population is 90,000 birds, down from the record of 120,000 turkeys.

However, just as during last season when there were fewer 2-year-olds in the woods than normal, hunters who literally go the extra mile can find turkeys to hunt. And once you get to the turkeys, many of these birds will be older gobblers. That means they've been hunted two or three seasons and are wise to many of our tactics. But they can still be had.

A couple of keys to success are patience and taking advantage of an opportunity when offered. Even older gobblers will at times be going solo and you can turn a henned-up gobbler problem into a successful hunt very quickly.

A two-day hunt with my stepson, Drew Reeser, last spring is a case in point. Most of the gobblers in the woods we hunted were the older, smarter birds. It seemed there were about "zero" of those eager 2-year-olds, at least where we were hunting. The first day of hunting was chock-full of frustrating series of events of trying to work gobblers away from their clinging harem of hens. We were close a couple of times, but never quite pulled it off.

We did have birds gobbling to our calls but no serious investigations.

The second morning started slow. We heard only one far-off gobble from the roost. We had opted to hunt a different area, hoping to find a lonely gobbler, sans hens. We planned to just get in his way and be quiet if we had to. About an hour after daylight, things were way too quiet for our liking.

We started covering territory by quietly slipping down a woods road. We offered some moderate-to-soft yelps for any gobblers trolling the woods nearby. By covering enough territory, we hoped that by literally going the extra mile we'd find a willing gobbler. We'd also toned down the calling from our normally aggressive efforts because we figured most of the gobblers were wise veterans of previous seasons.

Finally, we had a gobbled response from a gobbler about 250 yards away; I'm always amazed at how far they can hear what I think is a soft call. The gobbler sounded as if he was on the same road with us, certainly on the same level. We had slipped forward about 30 yards when we simultaneously paused and agreed we'd better check this one out again. It was a good decision on our part. The bird cut off the call with an immediate gobble and had closed the gap significantly. We scrambled and set up in the woods just off the road, with Drew positioned about 30 yards in front of me. If the gobbler came in straight, Drew had a perfect position. If the gobbler circled and took the high ground, a favored old gobbler tactic, I figured I had the ideal setup.

The next calls were simple, soft clucks and purrs. The gobbler nearly hammered the new leaves off the trees with a thunderous double-gobble right in front of Drew. He was almost in range and within a few more seconds, Drew had the old gobbler flopping on the ground. It was a double-bearded bird with 10-inch and 6-inch beards, sporting 1 1/4-inch spurs.

So, turkey killing can happen, even in down years like 2007. And it will happen frequently in 2008. Actually, the 2007 season wasn't disastrous in terms of overall harvest, according to Charles Ruth.

"The 2007 total turkey harvest estimate was 19,289 gobblers," Ruth said. "That total was comprised of 16,565 adult gobblers and 2,724 jakes. Overall, this is a 4.2 percent decrease from the 2006 harvest. It also represents a 24.4 percent decrease from the record harvest established in 2002 when an estimated 25,487 birds were harvested, based on surveys."

So, despite the two consecutive poor recruitment seasons, the actual harvest was decent, Ruth said.

"For the 2008 season, I'd say the prediction would be for a moderate number of gobblers in the woods," Ruth said. "I think because we did have a third straight poor recruitment year, we can expect about another 5 percent decrease in harvest. But still, hunters will have reasonable opportunities to hear and hunt turkeys.

"The problem is compounded by the fact that reproduction in wild turkeys in South Carolina has been poor four of the last five years," Ruth said. "The spring harvest following each year of low recruitment has been down. Unlike deer, wild turkeys are much more susceptible to significant fluctuations in reproduction and recruitment and these measures of production have simply not been good recently."

Annually since the early 1980s, the SCDNR has conducted a Summer Turkey Brood Survey to estimate reproduction and recruitment of turkeys in South Carolina. The survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public.

"Lack of recruitment success is typically associated with bad weather, which is normally cold and wet weather for turkeys during nesting and brood-rearing season," he said. "Also, another factor is the wild land habitats are continually changing in South Carolina. Although timber management activities stimulated the growth in South Carolina's turkey population in the 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old. This is a habitat situation that does not support turkeys as we

ll.

"In fact, just when I thought we'd seen rock bottom in terms of recruitment ratio for turkey poults, we will probably hit an all-time low for the 2007 recruitment period," Ruth said. "While the complete assessment is not finished at this point, I have compiled the data as it comes in and have a strong overall assessment of the trend, which is not good at all. I think we can make a very accurate prediction at this point."

Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer. Thus, the survey statistics document poults (young turkeys) that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall.

"With two poor reproductive seasons in 2005 and 2006, we really needed a strong year in 2007," Ruth said. "No one is really sure what happened. Normally, we watch for lots of rain and late-season dips in temperature as the culprits for poor survival. However, this year, overall we were not too wet in general, although I think we may have had some ill-timed thunderstorms that may have hurt the population in some specific areas.

"Some hunters are concerned that the real cold snap in early April caused eggs to freeze," Ruth said. "I really do not believe that is a player in this scenario. First, I think it was way too early to have much of an impact on eggs. Studies have demonstrated that cold has very little influence on turkey eggs. If the hen is setting and incubating eggs, there's no problem anyway. But also, there are a lot of states that get much colder than we do and frequently have cold snaps during the nesting season. Typically, there are no real negative issues with that. Cold and wet on young poults can be disastrous, but during early April, it's way too early for that to be the problem.

"In the Southeast," Ruth said, "Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations with heavy rainfall or cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood-rearing season leading to poor reproductive success. However, that did not appear to be the case in 2007."

Comparing climatic data from this year with historic data indicates that temperatures were at or above normal and rainfall was below normal during the nesting and brood-rearing period. In other words, Ruth said environmental conditions were such that reproduction in turkeys should have been better.

"Perhaps we have reached a point in time where the relationship between the turkey population and habitat is simply not as good as it was when turkeys were expanding across the state", Ruth said.

What does poor reproduction by turkeys for three consecutive years mean for the spring turkey hunter?

"With poor reproduction the last three years, the number of mature gobblers (2 years and older) available during the spring of 2007 will likely be low across most of the state," Ruth said. "Reproduction was good in 2004, but birds produced then have been subjected to three hunting seasons in addition to other mortality factors. Not only is the number of adult gobblers expected to be down in 2008, the survey results indicate that the number of jakes (immature gobblers) will be low as well. This is significant because jakes can make up 25 percent of the spring harvest following years of good reproduction. But in 2007, 14.1 percent of the harvest was jakes.

"Even though many spring turkey hunters prefer to harvest only mature gobblers or longbeards, jakes typically make up a significant portion of the harvest following years of good reproduction," Ruth said. "Nonetheless, a decrease in the total turkey harvest is typically seen anytime there is poor reproduction the previous year. This decrease in harvest is typically the result of the low availability of jakes."

According to Ruth, the bottom line is that it will likely take a couple of years of better reproduction to overcome poor reproduction the last three years.

But turkeys are where you find them, according to one wise woodsman, so let's examine where gobblers were harvested in good numbers last season. This will help hunters predict the potential hotspots for the upcoming season as well.

In the past, most harvest comparisons have been made with simple total numbers on a county-by-county harvest basis. But now, Ruth and the SCDNR are compiling harvest data on the harvest Per Unit Area method as well as by county totals.

Ruth said that the SCDNR has begun tracking the turkey harvest just as they do deer.

"Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of the individual counties," Ruth said. "One measure of harvest rate is the number of turkeys taken per square mile (640 acres is one square mile). When considering turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2007 was 0.9 gobblers per square mile statewide.

"That's one bird for every 727 acres in the state," he said. "Of course, we don't have nearly as many turkey hunters as we do deer hunters, but this gives us a way to measure the harvest from year to year. Our estimate is that there are about 50,000 turkey hunters in South Carolina.

"Although the turkey harvest has been down the last few years, this harvest rate should be considered good and is similar to other Southeastern states," Ruth said.

The top 10 counties in South Carolina for harvest per unit area for the 2007 season are as follows.

Abbeville County was in first place with a whopping 1.8 turkeys per square mile harvest rate. That's double the statewide average.

The second and third counties were Union and Fairfield with a 1.6 turkeys per square mile harvest rage. York County was fourth with 1.5 turkeys harvested per square mile.

The fifth through seventh place counties were Hampton, Chester and McCormick with a 1.4 turkey harvest rate per square mile. The number eight and nine counties were Bamberg and Allendale with 1.3 turkeys harvested per square mile.

In the final spot in the top 10 was Lancaster County with a 1.2 turkeys per square mile harvest rate.

For hunters who like to compare straight numbers, despite the land acreage differences in counties, that information is available as well.

This listing begins with Fairfield County in the No. 1 slot with 962 turkeys harvested in 2007. In second was Orangeburg County with 886 gobblers taken. Close behind in third was Berkeley County with 877 turkeys taken.

The fourth slot belonged to Williamsburg County with 851 turkeys harvested. A distant fifth place was Colleton County with 791 turkeys harvested. In sixth place was Hampton County with 715 turkeys taken, followed by Chester County in seventh place with 660 turkeys.

The eighth most productive county was York County with a harvest of 658 turkeys. I

n ninth place was Union County with 652 birds taken and the final spot in the top 10 went to Abbeville County with 636 gobblers harvested.

Another way to use this data to better nail down turkey hotspots is to see which counties are included on both lists. Each list is indicative of potentially good areas. Counties that rank in the top 10 on each list have an overall high harvest and also a good harvest rate per square mile of land.

There are six counties that overlap on harvest data comparisons. Fairfield County certainly has to be considered a highly productive county by ranking third on turkeys harvested per unit area and first in total harvest. Abbeville was first in harvest per unit area and 10th on the total harvest. Hampton County was fifth on harvest per unit area and sixth on total harvest. Chester County was sixth on harvest per unit area and seventh on total harvest. York County was fourth on harvest per unit area and seventh in total harvest and Union County was second on harvest per unit area and ninth on total harvest.

You can make your own decisions on which combinations are best in terms of providing the best turkey-hunting opportunities. But the odds are good any of these six crossover counties are very good bets for turkey hunting in 2008.

Ruth also emphasized that there are localized hotspots that can be found throughout the state. Isolated areas where reproduction and recruitment were better than the rest of the areas are possible. Some large areas that are intensely managed with wildlife practices that favor wild turkeys can also have a significant influence. If you have access to these managed areas, there are really no bad places to hunt turkeys in South Carolina.

Use the above data to help you plan your turkey-hunting strategy this spring. Comparatively speaking, there will be plenty of 3-year-old and older gobblers in the woods in 2008. Some hunters may have to adapt their tactics to these wise old wizards of the spring woods.

But they will gobble; and we will hunt them.

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