Tennessee's Turkey Hunting Outlook

Will Tennessee's turkey hunters continue to set harvest records every year? Here's what may be ahead in the 2005 season.

Photo by Mark & Sue Werner

The two longbeards I roosted the night before opening day were still together and now on the ground gobbling and headed toward my subtle calling. As daylight began to break on an otherwise peaceful East Tennessee morning, the only choice left to make was which one to shoot. It was the kind of choice that didn't exist for Tennessee turkey hunters just a few years back.

You can't hunt in the Volunteer State and not know about the success of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) restocking program for wild turkeys statewide. Ten years ago, only a select few hunters could call themselves hardcore or even dedicated turkey takers.

Welcome to the future of turkey hunting: Success isn't around the corner or down the road, it's on us now. Like anything that does well, there have to be certain controls. Things are so good that Tennessee's turkey-hunting success is like a runaway train.

Turkey hunting in Tennessee is as good as it's ever been, and all indications point toward continued success.

INHERITING THE FLOCK

We've all known folks in life that seem to get things handed to them on a silver platter. That may seem the case when you look at the job of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Randy Huskey, the wildlife biologist now shepherding the statewide turkey flock. Tennessee's restoration of the wild turkey across the state is well recognized, and the job that the now-retired Jack Murrey did will never be forgotten.

In any case, it's far better to be handed a strong, vibrant program than one that's deteriorated and in need of an overhaul.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's also remember that managing wildlife can be an up-and-down affair. Huskey inherits a bustling flock of wild turkeys that still need managing. When things are going this good, it's easy to let up your guard and not see what's coming around the corner.

There are still fall hunts to manage and brood surveys to worry about. There's also the matter of getting help from flocks in some counties with perhaps too many birds moved to those counties still lacking in population or from one area to another within some counties. Let's just say that Huskey's silver platter will still need a little polishing from time to time.

It didn't take Huskey long to figure out which areas are the best among Tennessee's top turkey producers. He's found that Dickson, Hardeman, Hardin, Greene, Maury and Wayne counties are top target areas.

When it comes to public hunts on the wildlife management areas (WMAs), AEDC, Catoosa, Cheatham, Chuck Swan, Fort Campbell and LBL are all great WMA hunts and still the places you'll want to find yourself on a Tennessee spring morning.

We'll look closer at each region in the state and top counties, but to whet your thirst, Huskey said Hardeman County's harvest of 945 birds was best in Region I; Dickson County led the way in Region II with 919 turkeys; Region III's top turkey takers were in Jackson County, where 520 birds were harvested; and Greene County led the way in Region IV again in the 2004 with 761 birds. Huskey's data showed that Region I had the biggest increase in regional harvest, an increase of nearly 10 percent from last year's regional total.

RECORD AFTER RECORD

For an astonishing 21 years running, Tennessee turkey hunters have seen an increase in the annual totals for harvesting wild turkeys. The spring hunts and fall seasons in 2003 figures reached the same level as the harvest in prior years when you combine the season totals. The 2003 total of spring, fall and WMA hunts tallied together set the new record mark at 35,731 turkeys harvested. That outdoes the 2002 record of 34,952 turkeys. We'll look at the spring breakdown after a quick look at fall opportunities.

In our breakdown of fall hunts, we have to utilize the 2003 fall data, since the 2004 fall tags were not totally counted at this writing. There were 15,650 quota hunt permits issued for the 2003 fall gun hunts, with 53 counties participating. On the fall hunts, you can take one bird of either sex.

Each fall since 1998, harvest numbers have been steadily rising until the fall of 2003. Successful fall hunters tagged 2,393 turkeys, which includes the non-quota archery figures. Despite more hunters on the quota hunts from additional 12 counties added in 2003, those combined hunt numbers were actually down slightly from the 2002 fall harvests that totaled 2,725.

For those who have heard the rumors of possible fall turkey hunts without a quota in some counties, they're not rumors. Huskey said the non-quota system has been discussed and may be implemented in the future. For now, the fall turkey hunts remain relatively the same with one additional county added in 2004 to bring the total counties with fall quota hunts to 54.

As in the last few years, there were several permits remaining after the fall quota hunts were drawn in 2004. All were in Region II and were sold on a first-come, first-served basis. The fall of 2004 didn't see quite as many permits remaining after the draw. In 2003, there were over 5,000 permits remaining, while just over 2,000 were left in 2004.

Region II may have permits left over just because there are so many turkeys in those respective counties. In 2003, there were only seven of 53 counties that produced more than 100 turkeys on the fall hunts -- and all were from Region II. Giles led the way on the fall stints with 163 turkeys tagged, followed by Dickson with 160, Bedford with 159, Wayne with 141, Lawrence with 123, Hickman with 118, and Smith with 111. Dekalb County in Region III was the only county outside Region II to harvest more than 50 fall birds with 54 taken.

SPRING BRAGGING RIGHTS!

For years, Region II has dominated the statewide turkey harvest with figures over 14,000 turkeys. Region I hasn't broken the 10,000 harvest figure yet, but with a 10 percent increase and numbers consistently over 8,000 birds, the far west is making a statement. Region I also had its fair share of representation in the top counties statewide. There is also a county east of Nashville that makes serious noise as well.

The top 10 statewide turkey harvests were led by Hardeman's strong take of 945 turkeys followed by Dickson's 919, Montgomery's 881, Giles County's 880, and Hardin's 791 in fifth. The bottom half of the top 10 was led by Wayne County's 781 harvest followed by Greene's 761, Maury's 727, Carroll's 645, and Hickman's 643 in the 10th spot. Other than Region I's three representatives (Hard

eman, Hardin and Carroll counties) and Region IV's Greene County, the remaining six counties in the top 10 are from Region II.

When it comes to bragging rights, we'll bring things a little closer to home with the top five in each region. Hardeman County's statewide leading harvest of 945 turkeys was, of course, tops in Region I, a 23 percent increase to vault them ahead of last year's Region II statewide leaders. Hardin County's 39.5 percent harvest increase moved them into the second spot, with 791 birds in Region I, followed by Carroll County's 645, Henry's 635 and McNairy County's 609.

In Region II, Dickson County was second this year with 919 birds, but was best in their region. The No. 2 spot in Region II went to Montgomery's harvest of 881, followed as close as you can get by Giles' 880 birds. Wayne County's 781 and Maury County's 727 round out Region II's top five.

Region III may not have a county in the top 10, but the area has steadily improved, with total harvests increasing slowly annually. Jackson County led the way with a respectable harvest of 520 turkeys. Dekalb County's spring hunt featured a harvest of 441 birds for second, followed by Scott's 315, Clay's 314 and Overton's harvest of 306 birds for fifth in Region III.

Greene County remains the beast in the east when it comes to taking gobblers in the springtime. The Region IV county has remained in the top 10 statewide for the last few years and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. The top 10 county led Region IV with 761 turkeys harvested; Hawkins County's 577 a distant second in this region. The third spot was filled by Claiborne's 540, followed by Cocke County's 375 and then Grainger's 329 harvest for the fifth spot in Region IV.

Other counties to keep an eye on this spring that had very good harvest increases in 2004 include Crockett, Gibson and Hardin in Region I. Each had harvest increases of over 40 percent from 2003 figures. Hamilton County in Region III also had one year increase in harvest of 39.8 percent.

A few counties saw decreased harvests. They include Anderson, Carter, Loudoun, Lake, Shelby, Tipton and Unicoi. All of these areas had harvest decreases from 2003 to 2004 of at least 25 percent. However, such decreases do not necessarily mean there is a problem with the turkey flock's longer-term prospects.

WMA hunts offer turkey hunters another avenue for getting that extra bird during the year. There were 41 WMAs that featured some type of turkey opportunity in 2004. Let's highlight the hotspots. To be considered among the top five turkey WMAs in the state, an area had to be a member of the 100-bird club. The top five all reached the century mark in harvest figures.

Fort Campbell was head and shoulders above the rest with a 2004 harvest of 346 turkeys. LBL led the rest of the pack with 142 birds, followed by Catoosa at 122, Cherokee with a combined total in the north and south of 120 birds, and Cheatham at 109. Chuck Swan was just off the 100-bird pace with 97 turkeys tagged. Other areas that produced more than 50 birds included AEDC, Laurel Hill, Natchez Trace and Royal Blue.

WHAT'S AHEAD

The 2003 record spring harvest didn't last long. In 2004, Volunteer hunters set yet another high-water mark with a spring hunt total of 33,528 wild turkeys. That surpasses everything we've done in the past, but we'll need strong final numbers from the fall gun and archery harvest to keep up the record pace for annual harvest when the 2004 totals are finalized.

The annual harvest is a nice record to set each year, but the number most hunters or biologists look to is the spring harvest. The fall quota gun and non-quota archery hunts are management tools where turkeys of either sex are harvested. However, the spring harvest totals, although not declining, have slowed in their increase the last few years.

In the spring of 2000, Tennessee hunters took 23,139 birds, 29,108 in 2001, 32,227 turkeys in 2002 and 33,338 in 2003 (figures include WMA totals). The 2004 spring statewide hunt that produced 32,029 non-WMA birds combined with WMA counts of 1,499 birds equaled a springtime total of 33,528 turkeys.

Although new records have been set each spring for 21 years, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the annual increases are slowing down. The harvest from 2000 to 2001 increased by over 12 percent, while the 2003 to 2004 interval saw only an increase of less than 1 percent.

Despite the slowdown, Huskey is already looking forward to what the 2005 hunts will bring and believes the 2005 harvest will eclipse 2004's newly set record. He bases this on preliminary brood surveys from last August. He said early indications are that the brood survey was up across the state with good poult survival. That'll put more young birds in the population. Huskey said all county populations are stable -- some experience increases and decreases from year to year, but that's to be expected in any population of wild game.

The brood survey was incomplete, but the early indications are much better than in 2003. The Region I total was great, with poults per hen in August 2004 at 3.38. As a barometer, the population requires a poult-per-hen rate of 2.7 in August in order to maintain itself. Region II had good numbers as well with 2.99 poults per hen. We're in good shape overall. In my travels across the state this past summer and fall, I've seen more young turkeys and the biggest broods gathered around mother hens than in any other year in the past.

For those worried about the heavy flooding primarily in East Tennessee from the effects of run-off from three hurricanes that raced through the Carolinas, don't worry too much. Huskey said it takes extreme weather conditions to affect the population even with flooding or other hurdles.

"The Southeastern wild turkey is less affected by weather conditions than wild turkeys that live on the edge of their range, explained Huskey. "Tennessee turkey habitat is generally in areas where high ground is accessible (ridgetops)."

He added this allows them to escape major flood problems. In low-lying areas in Tennessee, flooding will adversely affect the population. Most of the serious flooding last year occurred in areas adjacent to higher terrain.

Prior to the turkey season setting meeting of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission (TWRC), the total proposed bag and possession limits for 2005 were expected to remain the same as in 2004. The limit shall not exceed four bearded turkeys per season on the statewide hunt and WMAs combined (only two can be from WMAs alone and three total on the statewide hunt).

At the December TWRC meeting, the TWRA planned to propose the dates of April 2 to May 10, 2005, for this spring's hunts. There was also some commission discussion at an earlier October meeting of having two turkey units statewide with one in the western portion of the state opening earlier than another in the eastern half.

Additional proposals the TWRA was asking the commission to consider for next year included opening the spring season annually on the last Satu

rday in March so hunters can better plan their hunts. A third proposal for this year would possibly change the annual youth hunt to the Saturday prior to the regular season opener to allow young hunters the first shot at wild turkeys. The majority of states have youth hunts prior to the main season before hunters hit the woods and fields full force. The proposed 2005 youth dates were March 26-27.

A fourth proposal the agency was asking the TWRC to consider is making those birds taken on WMA Quota Draw Hunts additional birds to the statewide three-bird bag limit. This option would allow hunters to limit on the statewide hunts and still be able to participate in the draw hunts. Be sure to consult the TWRA Web site or hunting guide to confirm which proposals made the cut.

Regardless of which proposals pass and which proposals fail, the Tennessee 2005 turkey forecast is a bright one. The gobbler has moved up the big-game ladder in the Volunteer Sate and gained respect as he climbed. Take advantage, and be part of a record-setting history.

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