Tennessee's 2006 Turkey Forecast

Tennessee's 2006 Turkey Forecast

What parts of our state are the best places to go turkey hunting? Here's what the record shows. (March 2006)

Tennessee's turkey population has been busting at the seams for over 20 years. The restocking efforts of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) are well documented and highly respected. The Volunteer State turkey comeback we've witnessed is one of our greatest wildlife success stories on record.

Records, as the saying goes, are made to be broken -- and that's what Volunteer turkey hunters have done for over two decades. Here are 2005's top hunt results and what to expect in 2006.

THE RECORD RUN STOPS HERE

The 21-year run of consecutive turkey harvest records in Tennessee officially ended last season. However, hunters shouldn't be worried: Turkey hunting in Tennessee is strong, and a one-year decline is nothing to be concerned about.

After a harvest increase each of the last 21 seasons, who's going to complain about a season where we finally drop in numbers slightly? If it becomes a trend, then we'll worry, but for now, hunters will accept it and go on because it was bound to happen sooner or later.

After a record harvest of 34,000 birds in 2004 (a total that includes statewide and wildlife management area (WMAs) figures), Tennessee hunters tagged 33,059 turkeys in 2005. That's a slight decrease of 2.8 percent in the total harvest picture. The 2005 statewide harvest by county was down all of 2.2 percent, from 32,461 turkeys in 2004 to 31,762 in 2005. The WMA hunt harvest fell 15.7 percent from 1,539 in 2004 to 1,297 in 2005.

A closer look reveals the biggest percentage of change occurred in Region I harvests. Hunters in Region I saw a decline of 12 percent from 8,916 turkeys in 2004 to 7,845 in 2005. Region II, the ringleader statewide for numbers of turkeys killed, was stable with a harvest in 2004 of 13,004 turkeys reflected again in 2005, with 13,015 birds tagged.

Region III experienced only a very minute decline, with 2005 figures of 5,156 turkeys compared with 5,183 in 2004. Region IV's turkey harvest saw the only real increase, with 7.2 percent improvement, when hunters went from 5,358 in 2004 to 5,746 turkeys in 2005.

The greatest decline in WMA harvest figures came in those found in Region II. Total WMA harvests in Region II fell from 683 in 2004 to 464 birds last year, a 32.1 percent drop. Region I WMAs were stable with a harvest of 309 turkeys last season (compared with 302 birds in 2004). In Region III WMA hunts, harvest figures fell as well from 357 in 2004 to 318 turkeys in 2005. Region IV, with only a few WMA opportunities, did have an increase from 197 birds harvested in 2004 to 206 in 2005.

TOP STATEWIDE TURKEY HUNTS

Just because we didn't set a new record doesn't mean turkey hunters across the state didn't have great success. You can spread 31,762 turkey kills a long way across the state. When you break the numbers down, the areas they were taken county by county and in each region show quite a diverse turkey population and opportunity for hunters.

At one point not so many years ago, when a larger percentage of hunters were new to the sport, their main concern was putting a tag on a bearded gobbler or jake. There's still nothing wrong with tagging a jake to break the ice or fill out a limit, but hunters who have quite a few days and even seasons under their belts are doing more trophy hunting than ever and may have contributed to the slight decrease in the harvest. There's something special about limiting out with three or four mature gobblers. It's the same feeling you get when you kill your first turkey on your own.

The top five counties statewide for producing such opportunities come from traditional turkey counties and others that have proven to be just as strong. When it comes to top harvests, the counties in Region II dominate except for one shining star in Region IV.

Hardeman County might have been the top producer of turkeys in 2004, but second-place Dickson County that year took over the 2005 spotlight with a statewide leading harvest of 982 birds. Giles County, also located in Region II, was second with a harvest of 944 birds. Wayne County controlled the third spot with a harvest of 887. The fourth Region II top spot, Montgomery County, posted a harvest of 864 birds. Region IV's Greene County absolutely blew away every county east of the state capitol to finish fifth statewide again with a total of 829 turkeys tagged. Unfortunately for Hardeman County hunters, their 22 percent drop in harvest rate from 952 in 2004 to 739 in 2005 put them just outside the top five.

Let's break things down a little further by showing hunters where in their respective hunting grounds their best opportunities could lie in 2006. This region-by-region look will put things more closely into perspective.

In Region I, Hardeman County did lead the way with a harvest of 739 turkeys. Hardin County was second with 726 birds, followed by Henry County's 599 turkeys killed. Humphreys County and Carroll County took the fourth and fifth spot with a harvest of 562 and 500 turkeys, respectively.

Region II hunters again led most of the state. Dickson County was best with 982 turkeys taken, followed by Giles County and its 944 birds harvested. Wayne County and Montgomery County took the third and fourth spots with harvests of 887 and 864 turkeys, respectively. The fifth spot in Region II was filled by Maury County's take of 649 birds.

For Region III hunters, things were a little closer. Jackson County did stand high with a leading harvest of 554 turkeys. Overton and Scott counties tied for the second spot with each posting 364 birds. The fourth and fifth spots went to Clay County with 354 birds taken, and Dekalb County with 352 turkeys tagged.

Greene County again dominated Region IV with its strong harvest of 829 turkeys. Hawkins County was a distant second with 674 birds harvested last year. Claiborne County hunters who took 546 turkeys held the third spot in the region. Cocke County's 424 turkeys and Grainger County's 368 birds filled the final two top rankings in Region IV.

TOP PUBLIC OPPORTUNITIES

We've already determined that last spring's WMA harvest was on the decline compared with 2004 figures. On WMAs, the total 2005 spring hunt decline fell from 1,539 turkeys in 2004 to 1,297 in 200: a 15.7 percent drop in harvest. Given the weather and other variables, that's not a startling decline, but it is something to keep in the back of your mind as we look to this season.

Of the top five WMA harvests in 2005, all experienced declines, some more, some less. The hunts at Fort Campbell led the way again this season but not without concern. In 2004, turkey hunters at Fort Campbell ta

gged 346. This past spring, they took 180 gobblers. That's enough to lead the WMA totals but still 48 percent below the 2004 harvest.

Land Between The Lakes was second among the public hunt harvests with 124 turkeys, followed by Cherokee WMA as the third hottest destination, with 112 birds taken. The top five WMA hunts were rounded out with Catoosa's 108 turkeys in fourth and Chuck Swan's 91 turkeys in fifth.

Allen Ricks, the information and education officer out of TWRA's Region IV office, is an avid turkey hunter and takes advantage of the WMA opportunities. He also took time to offer these quick tips about hunting on Tennessee's WMAs.

Ricks said getting your hands on a good map is an excellent starting strategy. Also, try to talk with someone who has hunted the area in the past for some history. Another good idea is to communicate with the folks working the area. The guys at the checking station are full of knowledge; they see birds and are aware of their movements.

"Nothing replaces legwork, and a little luck doesn't hurt anything," Ricks added. Walking around and scouting out areas for leftover corn fields or clover fields that attract turkeys can be a plus as well. Most WMAs can be scouted when no hunts are scheduled. Ricks said to get there early and onto high ground to listen to see where turkeys are roosted. Certain areas just tend to hold birds -- it's up to you to find them.

Ricks said it isn't hard on most WMAs to get away from the crowds, but it's always a good idea to have a couple of backup spots picked out on the day of the hunt in case someone else has also done their homework. He said that's your backup plan, and the next day, be the first guy to the hotspot.

BIOLOGICAL OUTLOOK

Randy Huskey, the TWRA biologist in charge of monitoring the state's turkey population, has had more than a year to get a feel for the Volunteer turkey situation.

Looking at the first decline in the turkey harvest in modern times, Huskey said the opening weekend weather can take much of the blame for the slight 2 percent decrease in overall harvest.

Huskey recalled the weather on opening weekend as horrible, and typically, the opening week of spring turkey season sees the majority of the harvest. Two years ago (spring 2004), 54 percent of the total harvest was taken during opening week; almost 6,000 birds were taken on opening day and over 8,000 were harvested opening weekend.

"When you have weather like we experienced last year, the harvest will suffer," Huskey explained. "More hunters are in the woods opening week and weekend than any other time during turkey season."

On a positive note, Huskey said our young sportsmen hunt for 2005 was moved to the front of turkey season in order to give youth more opportunity to harvest a bird. During the two-day hunt on March 26 and 27, 2005, juvenile hunters harvested 927 turkeys. That's an incredible increase and good for the future of hunting when you compare that figure with only 40 birds harvested during the one-day juvenile hunt at the end of the season in 2004. Huskey said he talked to many wide-eyed, excited, young hunters after the hunt.

When it comes to this spring, the turkey biologist said he thinks we will set a new record in 2006; after all, we were only down 2 percent last year. If the weather is decent at all, he said we will set a new harvest record.

THE FUTURE

Tennessee's springs and summers have been unpredictable the past few years. We went from extremely wet to very dry at the drop of a hat, but turkey populations are coping. People reported seeing many turkeys between seasons this year, but the poult surveys are what biologists lean on for determining the health of the population. Although the heavy rains we received in Middle Tennessee occurred after the majority of poults were big enough to handle wet weather, there was a decline in some areas.

However, the statewide poult per hen count was 2.24, which is below the 2.7 poults per hen needed to maintain current population levels. Huskey noted this is the lowest it has been in a long time; in 2003, it was averaging 2.4 poults per hen statewide.

However, there are some noticeable regional differences. Region I averaged 1.98 poults per hen and Region II averaged 1.87 poults per hen, while Region III averaged 3.00 poults per hen and Region IV averaged 2.69 poults per hen.

Huskey explained that the areas with lower population numbers seem to have higher numbers of poults per hen. He said this is nature's way of increasing the population in areas where densities can support the increased production. In regions with low poults per hen numbers, these areas have high population numbers, suggesting that the population densities are reaching the carrying capacity of the habitat. The poults have to compete with older birds for food, and there is only a given amount of food, so only the most fit and most adept at finding the food will survive. That's nature's checks and balances -- where there are fewer birds, they have more poults. Where there are more birds, they have fewer poults.

Poult counts aren't the only things hunters and biologists have to look forward to when it comes to turkey harvests. The fall turkey hunts have become an important part of everyone's agenda in cool weather. Huskey said the fall harvest has increased every year. He feels it is due in part to hunters becoming more proficient in hunting fall birds, which is considerably different from spring tactics. Also, more counties are now open for fall hunting, which, of course, will in turn lead to a larger fall harvest as well. Huskey said there are 63 counties that now hunt turkeys in the fall.

All in all, the fall quota hunt along with the non-quota archery hunts added an additional 3,067 turkeys to the harvest last year. An amazing 15,650 hunters participated in the quota gun hunts that were at one time nonexistent. The WMA fall hunts added another 104 turkeys taken by hunters.

The fall hunts and the birds taken during archery season have added to the overall turkey harvest, but Tennessee's wild turkey population is a dynamic entity changing from season to season. Huskey said as the turkey population increases and densities reach the maximum sustainable level, we will witness the population level off (sometimes the population will decline slightly after reaching maximum levels for a couple of years after restocking).

Huskey said this phenomenon of the population leveling off is very desirable, and it is what biologists strive for. Of course, certain counties are not exactly where the agency wants them to be as far as harvestable populations are concerned. Huskey said these counties are the counties that are still exhibiting growth. The counties that are currently experiencing decreasing harvest rates are areas that have very healthy populations. These counties for the most part have reached maximum density levels.

Tennessee's turkey situation isn't really changing -- it's just evolving. And as populations in certain areas reach maximum sustainable densities, harves

ts will vary. However, as good as the situation is here in the Volunteer State, hunters need not worry, the future is as bright as ever.

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