South Carolina's Spring Turkey Outlook

South Carolina's Spring Turkey Outlook

Despite poor recruitment in recent years, South Carolina's gobblers are still numerous enough to provide some good hunting. (March 2009)

The turkey harvest in South Carolina was down again for the 2008 hunting season. While hunter success was still good, according to harvest data, the downward trend is certainly not unexpected, according to Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

South Carolina hunter Bubba Geddings slings a gobbler over his shoulder at the end of a successful turkey hunt. Photo by Terry Madewell.

Ruth said that during the 2008 spring season it is estimated that a total of 15,118 adult gobblers and 2,186 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 17,303 turkeys.

"This figure represents an 8.9 percent decrease in harvest from 2007 when 19,289 turkeys were harvested," Ruth said. "Plus, it is a 32.2 percent decrease from the record harvest established in 2002 when a survey estimated 25,487 turkeys were harvested. The reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one primary factor: poor reproduction. This lower harvest number is certainly not surprising to our staff here at the agency. With the poor reproduction, I doubt we could have expected anything different.

"Reproduction in wild turkeys has been poor five of the last six years," Ruth said. "Not surprisingly, 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. Lack of success is typically associated with bad weather, such as cold and wet, during nesting and brood-rearing season."

Ruth added that another factor in the overall issue for poor reproduction and less harvest in many parts of the state is the drought conditions for the last two years.

"Although dry conditions are typically good for turkey reproduction, there is likely a limit to what constitutes dry in terms of being beneficial to turkeys," Ruth said. "Under the conditions that much of the state experienced during the last two summers, the production of food in the form of seeds and insects could have been limited, as could the vegetative growth that is important brood-rearing cover. Finally, 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, a situation that does not support turkeys as well."

While the poult survival for the 2008 summer season survey is not disastrous, it is not what the turkey population needed to really bounce back.

"Our annual survey showed a little better result than recent years with the 2008 recruitment," Ruth said. "It appears that wild turkey reproduction increased in 2008, but this increase was only slight. Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer. Therefore, the survey statistics document poults that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall. Although average brood size was good, with hens averaging 4.2 poults, 49 percent of hens observed had no poults at all by late summer leading to a total recruitment ratio of 2.1. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. Both of these statistics were lower than biologists would like to see and represent what could be considered a "break-even" situation.

"In the Southeast, Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations with heavy rainfall coupled with cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood-rearing season leading to poor reproductive success," Ruth said. "However, that does not appear to be the case in 2008, because those types of events were not widespread across the state. Clearly there may have been broods lost due to strong thunderstorms at the local level; however, this does not explain what can be considered only fair reproduction at the statewide level.

"At the regional level it appears that reproduction was poorest in the Piedmont and mountains and increased slightly moving toward the lower Coastal Plain," he said. "Perhaps this is related to the pattern of drought that the state is currently experiencing."

Ruth said that perhaps South Carolina has reached a point 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 noted that there are certain conditions that could help the turkey population get back to a higher level.

"I think we need at least one, probably two, real good years of recruitment," Ruth said. "If the recruitment ratio gets up around 3.0 for a couple of years, I think that will make a very noticeable difference for hunters. If we could get three to five years of moderate-to-good reproduction and survival, we could get back close to our record years. However, this may be difficult because of overall habitat issues."

Ruth said the forecast for 2009 is likely to be a similar to slightly lower harvest than the 2008 season.

"Although reproduction was a little better this year following recent years of poor reproduction, the number of mature gobblers, 2 years and older, available during the spring of 2009 will be about the same if not lower across most of the state," Ruth said. "The number of jakes should also be somewhat lower than hunters like to see. This is significant because jakes can make up 25 percent of the spring harvest following years of good reproduction."

Ruth said that on a positive note, the gobbler-to-hen ratio remains good, with a statewide average of 0.71 gobblers to each hen. The only exception was in the Piedmont, where the gobbler-to-hen ratio was only 0.37. Ruth said that many experts believe that when gobbler-to-hen ratios gets below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be affected because hens are extremely available, which in turn affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.

"The bottom line is that it will likely take a couple of years of better reproduction to overcome less than desirable reproduction the last four years," Ruth said. "That is the nice thing about turkeys, though -- given the right conditions, they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time."

Ruth also addressed the potential for a fall turkey-hunting season, a question frequently discussed by turkey hunters.

Ruth said t

hat there are a number of considerations biologists think about when making recommendations on limits and seasons. One consideration includes poor reproduction.

"Bear in mind that hunting turkeys in the fall differs drastically from spring gobbler hunting, which is familiar to most hunters," Ruth said. "Not only do hunting and calling techniques differ, fall seasons typically allow hunters to take hens or gobblers.

Although the SCDNR monitors turkey reproduction annually, the information is not available until about the same time a fall turkey season would be underway, so it is too late to schedule a fall season based on reproductive success or sound biology. The SCDNR could simply schedule a fall season without regard to reproductive data, but harvesting hens following a summer with poor reproduction would further depress the number of hens, potentially leading to a rapid decline in turkeys."

The 2008 turkey harvest is tracked by the SCDNR on a county-by-county level. This information can be highly useful for hunters to know where the best hunting was in 2008. Since the outlook is for a similar season in 2009, this data can help you plan your hunt for the best opportunity to tag a gobbler or two.

Ruth said that reasonable comparisons can be made between turkey harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established.

"Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties," Ruth said. "One measure of harvest rate is the number of turkeys taken per square mile, which equates to 640 acres. When considering the estimated turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2008 was 0.8 gobblers per square mile statewide. 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."

Using the harvest per unit area, Bamberg County was by far the top county in the state for the 2008 turkey-hunting season. There were 1.9 turkeys harvested per square mile, which is more than double the statewide average. There were 520 longbeards and 50 jakes harvested for a total of 570 turkeys.

While the lower part of the state was number one, the northern counties claimed the next three spots. Pickens County was second overall with a harvest rate of 1.6 turkeys per square mile. There were 462 gobblers and 75 jakes harvested for a total of 538 turkeys. The third spot belonged to York County with a harvest rate of 1.3 turkeys per square mile. In York County, there were 520 gobblers and 38 jakes harvested for a total of 558 turkeys.

The fourth spot belonged to Cherokee County with a harvest rate of 1.2 turkeys per square mile. There were 253 adult gobblers and 50 jakes for a total harvest of 303 turkeys. When looking at the harvest rate, the next two counties had the same rate of harvest per square mile with 1.2. However, when broken down further into the number of acres per turkeys harvested, the county ranking order was accurately established. Cherokee County had a turkey harvested for every 517 acres.

McCormick County was next with a 1.2 harvest rate per square mile. Broken down further, this is 549.5 acres per turkey harvested. There were 323 gobblers and 63 jakes harvested for a total of 386 birds.

Chester County was in sixth place with a rate of 1.2 turkeys harvested per square mile and a turkey harvested for every 549.8 acres, very close to the McCormick County total. There were 421 gobblers and 125 jakes harvested for a total of 546 turkeys.

In the seventh spot was Laurens County with a 1.1 turkey per square mile harvest rate. There was a turkey harvested here for every 566.4 acres. The total number of gobblers taken was 437 and there were 124 jakes for a total harvest of 561 turkeys. In the eighth position was Marion County with 1.1 turkeys per square mile ratio and 566.6 acres per turkey harvested. There were 295 gobblers and 88 jakes harvested for a total of 383 turkeys in 2008.

In the ninth spot was Jasper County with a 1.1 harvest rate per square mile. This was broken down into a 568.7 acres per turkey harvested. In Jasper County, there were 520 gobblers and only 25 jakes harvested in 2008 for a total of 545 turkeys.

The final spot in the top 10 went to Berkeley County with a 1.1 turkey per square mile harvest rate. There was a turkey harvested every 575.9 acres in this county in 2008. There were 885 gobblers and 100 jakes harvested for a total of 985 turkeys in 2008.

Ruth said that during a good reproduction year, as much as 25 percent of the harvest the following year is typically jakes. The statewide average in 2008 was 12.6. There is another way to look at the data when planning a 2009 hunt. The counties with the highest harvest of jakes in 2008 may well have had more jakes available during that season, which would possibly mean more 2-year-old gobblers for 2009.

There were 10 counties in 2008 where the harvest of jakes was 20 percent or more of the total harvest. In alphabetical order, we'll list those 10 counties. Some are repeats from the above, but most are not.

The counties include Laurens, Chester, Chesterfield, Newberry, Marion, Clarendon, Richland, Lancaster, Greenville and Calhoun.

Ruth said that the harvest information is also kept for simple overall total turkey harvest. However, since land mass size will vary tremendously from county to county, it is not as reliable because there is no standard unit of comparison. However, some readers may be interested in this type of ranking. The top 10 counties during 2008 were Berkeley with 985 turkeys, Colleton with 838, Williamsburg with 795, Orangeburg with 653, Fairfield with 598, Bamberg with 570, Laurens with 561, York with 557, Chester with 547, and Jasper with 545 turkeys.

The precise time of the season when you hunt can also have an influence on success, according to the data. You can plan for success by considering this information as well.

Ruth said there is data that puts this into perspective.

"Gobbling by male wild turkeys occurs primarily in the spring and is for the purpose of attracting hens for mating purposes," he said. "Therefore, spring turkey hunting is characterized by hunters attempting to locate and call gobbling male turkeys using hen calls. With respect to both biology and effective hunting, the timing of the spring gobbler season should take into account three primary factors: peak breeding, peak gobbling and peak incubation. Considering these factors, seasons can be set to afford hunters the best opportunity to hunt during the best time, which is peak gobbling, without inhibiting reproductive success."

Ruth said that South Carolina currently has two spring turkey season frameworks. Throughout most of the state, game zones 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, the season is April 1-May 1. This season is based on a recommendation from the SCDNR following gobbling and nesting studies that were conducted in the 1970s. The other season fram

ework is March 15-May 1 and is only in effect in Game Zone 6, the lower Coastal Plain. This season is socio-politically based, he said.

"If seasons are set appropriately, the greatest proportion of turkeys should be harvested during the first week of the season because hens should be nesting, resulting in gobblers that are naive and most responsive to hunters' calls," Ruth said. "Harvest by week of season demonstrates that the timing of the April 1-May 1 season affords higher turkey harvests, as most turkeys are harvested following the April 1 opening date. When broken out by specific season framework, the results are similar. In areas where the season begins March 15, only 28 percent of the total harvest is accounted for during the first week of the season. This is likely because late March is the time of peak breeding and males gobble less because they are all henned up. On the other hand, 40 percent of the harvest occurs during the first week of the season in areas where the season begins April 1. This is because by the first week in April, a significant number of hens have left the gobblers and have begun continuous incubation. This lack of hens stimulates peak gobbling resulting in hunters being able to locate and call responsive birds.

"Comparing the first two weeks of each season format, we find that where the season opens March 15, 45 percent of gobblers are harvested," Ruth said. "However, this figure is 62 percent where the season opens on April 1. Again, this is a reflection of a lack of hens due to nesting, resulting in gobblers being more responsive to hunters' calls."

While the trend in harvest is down, there are still plenty of gobblers in the woods. The best tactic will be to analyze the above data for good places and best times to go. Plus, if you didn't achieve the success you wanted last season, you can increase your scouting, work on your calling and improve your woodsmanship skills. When there are fewer turkeys in the woods, you need to learn to play the game a little bit better.

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