South Carolina's Turkey Hunting for 2011

Here are some specific tips and locations that will help you get your spring turkey in South Carolina.

There are a lot of variables with regard to where and how to put a turkey tag on your gobbler in South Carolina. Despite recent years of lower than hoped for reproduction, we still have good turkey hunting across the state. There are excellent areas to hunt gobblers from the mountains to the lowcountry. Often it is the type of tactics you use, rather than the part of the state that you are in, that will determine your success. But you can also key in on some of some prime areas to improve your odds.

Knowing the general areas where gobblers are found in good numbers is important, but there are some specific locations that offer excellent hunting in South Carolina, both in wildlife management areas (WMAs) and public land. While a lot of the very best hunting occurs on private lands in the state, there is still vast amount of WMA acreage that provides outstanding turkey hunting.

The data reported in last month's issue covered a lot of the areas in South Carolina regarding private lands in terms of 2010 harvest by county totals. Although these county totals also include any WMAs that are available to hunt, there are some outstanding opportunities to hunt various WMAs across the state. A lot of these WMAs are of small to medium size and can accommodate a few hunters comfortably. But we'll look at the bigger picture and see how the turkey hunting is going on some of the larger WMAs where there is plenty of elbow room for a lot of hunters.

According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor Charles Ruth, there's some very good news on some of the larger areas for turkey hunters.

"For openers, I will say that legwork will be one of the keys to success in any of the WMAs," Ruth said. "Hunters will need to get out and scout, walk and hunt to find the areas where turkeys are most concentrated. While the large WMAs that we'll discuss are actually doing well in terms of turkey numbers, like the rest of the state, we just don't have the numbers we had several years ago because of poor recruitment. But recruitment numbers were well up in 2010, which bodes well for the upcoming year with more jakes, but especially in two years with more adult birds."

We'll begin with the Francis Marion National Forest.

"There's actually some good news on this property," Ruth said. "While the entire state has suffered in terms of recruitment in recent years, there are areas of Williamsburg and Berkeley counties that have actually fared somewhat better than the state average. A lot of the Francis Marion National Forest is in this better-than-average area. While the recruitment here has not been what we'd like to see, this specific area has fared pretty well compared to the rest of the state, which means percentage-wise, there's likely more adult gobblers there than in many areas of the state. Plus recruitment in 2010 was very good in this area which bodes well for future years too."

Ruth said that the Francis Marion area suffered tremendously from the ravages of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but there has been a lot of recovery in the ensuring years. Many hunters who hunted there previously have still not gone back because of the problems they encountered after the storm. Plus a lot of hunters new to the sport don't know the historical impact and awesome turkey hunting that once existed there.

"There's been tremendous recovery over the past 20-plus years since Hurricane Hugo," Ruth said. "While there's still more recovery that will occur over the years, the population of turkeys has recovered well and hunting there now is very good. Plus, a lot of hunters probably don't know that the Francis Marion National Forest is home to the most pure strain of Eastern Wild Turkey anywhere, not just in South Carolina. These birds were used to populate the piedmont area as far back as the 1950's and a lot of those piedmont birds did so well that that stock was used to help population and stock other areas of the state. But overall, the recovery for this area has been very good and would be a very good choice for anyone wanting to hunt on WMA land."

Ruth noted that finding the right habitat is the key on the Francis Marion area. He said some of the management practices such as burning, thinning pine forests and clearing thick areas have enhanced turkey habitat. The best way to find these areas is to get out in the woods and look.

One key to success in the Francis Marion is the swampy bottoms where gobblers tend to roost. That's the area to begin the morning and try to hook up with a gobbler early. As the day progresses, the birds will roam more and often get into the open fields, food plots and even in the pine stands.

Another huge tract of public land that turkey hunters have available is the Sumter National Forest. This large tract of land lies in several counties but according to Ruth, the overall turkey hunting prospects are quite good.

"My assessment is that despite the lower than hoped for recruitment, we do have a good number of birds on the Sumter National Forest lands. The numbers of turkeys there are not like hunters would have found 10 years ago. But the piedmont area did quite well on recruitment this year and actually did better than most of the state last year. So that's a very positive factor for this area.

"I do get good feedback from people who hunt this area and people do regularly harvest turkeys there," he said. "One of the key components is that hunters do the necessary legwork to find the right areas. There are a lot of areas that are planted in pine and some of these areas do not provide the right habitat for large numbers of turkeys. Hunters need to get in the larger drainages and in the hardwood creek bottoms where the habitat is right to find the most turkeys.

"I would (also) suggest that hunters get a WMA map of this area, or any WMA they hunt," Ruth said.

While these are two of the major land mass areas that provide good turkey habitat and hunting Ruth added there are some other WMAs to consider as well.

"I think the combination of the Webb Center, Palachucola WMA and the Hamilton Ridge WMAs combine to make one of the better turkey hunting opportunities for public land hunters in the state," Ruth said. "Their adjacent properties are located in Hampton County, which is generally prime turkey habitat anyway, especially near the Savannah River where these properties are located."

The size of the three adjacent properties is another factor Ruth said is excellent for hunters. The Hamilton Ridge area covers 13,281 acres; Palachucola covers 6,757 acres; and the Webb Center has a total of 5,866 acres of land. The total land available in the three areas totals 25,904 acres, making it a sizable WMA resource for turkey hunters.

"In addition, on the Webb Center, we have full time staff that actively manages the land," he said. "Thus, there are food plots, controlled burns conducted and other management techniques that create excellent habitat."

On Webb, Palachucola, Hamilton Ridge and Oak Lea WMAs, all turkey hunters must pick up and return data cards daily to a kiosk and display hang tags on vehicles. Harvested turkeys must be checked in at the self-check kiosk located adjacent to the check stations at the respective properties.

The final large area that Ruth recommends is the Woodbury WMA located in Marion County. He said this 25,668 acre WMA offers lots of hunting opportunities and is located in some prime habitat.

"Essentially the area encompasses areas along the Big Pee Dee River and the Little Pee Dee River," Ruth said. "All of the major river drainages are potentially prime turkey hunting territory. There are lots of birds in this area and again, there's enough size to this area to accommodate a number of hunters."

The SCDNR acquired this property in 2006 from International Paper Company with the assistance of the Conservation Fund, the Nature Conservancy and other partners. There is an excellent road system through this property, which enables turkey hunters to get to most of he areas with little problem. Again, Ruth recommends getting a WMA map to help you find your way around. The main entrance of the Woodbury WMA is off US Highway 378 about 2.8 miles southeast of Daviston, SC.

According to SCDNR data, the Woodbury WMA contains several unique habitat types, which Ruth said offer the diversity that turkeys need. There's both black river (Little Pee Dee floodplain and many smaller watercourses) and red river (the Great Pee Dee River floodplain), with habitat including hardwood bottomlands, Carolina Bays and other isolated freshwater wetlands, longleaf pine forests and loblolly pine plantations.

Another factor that will play a vital role in the success of the 2011 and even more in the 2012 turkey hunting season is the very good recruitment year turkeys had in South Carolina in 2010. Ruth alluded to it previously but there is good reason to be excited about the recruitment numbers for a change. While a lot of hunters don't harvest jakes, they are legal and with the good recruitment the additional birds will add more opportunities to harvest turkeys in 2011. Ruth noted too that these birds will be adults in 2012.

"After five years of less than desirable production, wild turkey recruitment increased substantially in 2010 based on a S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey," Ruth said.

Ruth said that annually since the early 1980's, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducts a Summer Turkey 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. Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer, according to Ruth.

Therefore, the survey statistics document poults (young turkeys) that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall.

"All indicators were much better in 2010 compared to the last few years," said Ruth. "The average brood size of 4.5 poults was up 21 percent and the total recruitment ratio of 2.6 was up 44 percent compared to 2009. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. These increases were driven by a decrease in the percentage of hens that had no poults. In 2009, 55 percent of hens observed during the two month survey had no poults accompanying them, but in 2010 that figure dropped to 41 percent, the lowest figure in 6 years. At the regional level it appears that reproduction improved in all parts of the state, a positive indicator considering the declining trend that we have seen the last few years. "

Ruth said it is unclear why reproduction in turkeys improved in 2010. 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.

"However, given that we have had consistently poor reproduction over the last 5 to 6 years in spite of variable weather conditions, it is difficult to say that there was anything related to the weather that contributed to the substantial increase in reproductive success this year," Ruth said.

Ruth said that harvest trends are definitely impacted by recruitment, based on the data he has.

"Harvest trends have followed the trends in reproduction in recent years and we have seen about a 30 percent decline in turkey harvest since 2002," he said. "With substantially better reproduction in 2010, the number of turkeys available during the spring of 2011 season should increase. However, most of the increase in 2011 will be in the form of jakes and it will be 2012 before this year's reproductive output will show up in the form of mature gobblers, 2-year-old birds."

Another positive factor in the turkey population, Ruth said, is that the gobbler-to-hen ratio remained good, with a statewide average of 0.69 gobblers to each hen. Ruth noted that many experts believe that when gobbler to hen ratios get below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be impacted because hens are extremely available, which in turn affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.

"The bottom line is this type of reproduction is exactly what we need to overcome less than desirable reproduction the last six 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."

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