Although the Mississippi turkey population declined recently, thousands of gobblers still roam the Magnolia State.
“Unfortunately, the Mississippi turkey flock has been on a downward slide for most of the last decade,” lamented Adam Butler, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks Wild Turkey Program coordinator. “For example, the 2015 spring harvest estimate was the lowest since the late 1970s. The good news, things have seemingly bumped up over the last couple of years. Hopefully, we’ll continue heading in a positive direction.”
The best habitat historically occurs in east-central Mississippi and bottomlands along the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the river frequently floods in the spring, inundating turkey nests and breeding grounds. Floods during each of the past three years greatly affected turkey reproduction.
“Things are actually looking up in the Delta,” Butler remarked. “I don’t think the Delta has had back-to-back years without flooding over most of the last decade, but the long-term forecast for turkey habitat is positive. Tremendous numbers of hardwood acres have been planted over the last 25 years via government conservation programs.”
Fortunately, central Mississippi birds enjoyed a great hatch in 2016, which means more two-year-olds gobbling in the woods this spring. On the down side, northern Mississippi turkeys suffered a terrible hatch, but some toms remain from the hatch in 2015. The southern Mississippi hatch came in about average.
Some of the best turkey hunting in the Magnolia State occurs in the six national forests and associated wildlife management areas spreading over more than 1.2 million acres. Toms tend to gobble earlier in southern Mississippi, so traveling hunters might begin their season in the Homochitto National Forest. The forest covers 191,839 acres of mostly mixed pine and hardwood forests on rolling hills crisscrossed by creek bottoms.
In the forest, Caston Creek WMA covers 28,286 acres near Meadville. Sandy Creek WMA includes 19,125 acres along the Homochitto River in Adams and Franklin counties. Hunters might also consider the 6,799-acre Copiah County WMA.
“In south Mississippi, the Homochitto National Forest is a good place to go,” said Nathan Blount, MDWFP biologist. “The Forest Service does prescribed burning and selective timber harvest to improve the habitat. Caston Creek and Sandy Creek each had average seasons in 2017. Besides the WMAs, there’s a lot of open hunting in the forest. Copiah County WMA is improving for turkey hunting. It’s a small area, but the habitat is intensively managed. The area had a really good season in 2017.”
In central Mississippi, head to Bienville National Forest, which covers about 178,000 acres in Scott, Smith, Jasper and Newton counties. The forest encompasses Bienville, Tallahala and Caney Creek WMAs. Near Jackson, the forest receives considerable pressure.
“Bienville National Forest is a good area for turkeys,” Blount said. “The harvest has been down for the past several years, but had a rebound in 2017.”
North of Morton, Bienville WMA covers 26,760 acres, while Tallahala WMA includes 27,442 acres. Caney Creek spreads across 27,991 acres of Smith and Scott counties. Each offers good turkey hunting. Sportsmen can also find good turkey hunting in the forest outside of the WMAs.
“Tallahala is the most popular of the three WMAs in the forest,” Blount said. “The habitat is mostly mature pine forests, but the area has a lot of hardwood drainages. To find birds, concentrate on the hardwood drains along the creek bottoms.”
Traveling sportsmen can cap off their season by visiting Upper Sardis WMA in Holly Springs National Forest. The second largest WMA in Mississippi, Upper Sardis covers 50,485 acres near Oxford. Divided into two tracts, the forest preserves about 156,000 acres near Holly Springs, which includes a 21,000-acre section near Coffeeville. The habitat consists primarily of mixed shortleaf pine and upland hardwoods with some bottomlands.
Holly Springs National Forest receives considerable pressure in the spring, but a few old logging roads and powerlines provide openings in the forest. Many people use these openings to get away from other hunters.
Over in Louisiana, hunters report hearing fewer gobblers and seeing birds less frequently even in prime turkey areas. Statewide, Louisiana turkey harvests declined over the past decade
“Based on frequent comments, it is quite evident that turkey hunters in Louisiana are increasingly concerned about declining turkey populations,” said Cody Cedotal, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Resident Small Game and Wild Turkey Program manager. “As an avid hunter myself, I am also concerned over what is, or more importantly is not, happening on the properties I hunt.”
Since 2005, the annual Louisiana turkey harvest declined by an estimated 43 percent while the number of hunters grew. Cedotal also reports declining reproduction rates in much of the state during the same period.
“These declines in harvest and production are indicative of declining turkey populations,” Cedotal explained. “Low turkey populations, combined with continued poor production, could have serious consequences for the future of turkey hunting in Louisiana.”
Cedotal cites disappearing habitat and increased urbanization as some causes for turkey population decreases, as well as hunters killing too many gobblers at the wrong time.
In Louisiana, turkey breeding typically peaks in the second week of April. Historically, about 45 percent of the gobblers bagged each spring die in the first week of the season. Another 22 percent die in the second week, meaning about 67 percent of the Louisiana turkey harvest takes place before the breeding season peaks.
“By aligning our season structure with the biology of the birds, we can potentially increase production,” Cedotal said. “Breeding occurs during turkey hunting season and the act of hunting can disrupt this important cycle. Therefore, the timing of hunting may potentially be contributing to some of the production problems and the decline in harvest that we’re experiencing across the state.”
On a positive note, Louisiana hunters should find many good public places to bag gobblers this spring. A perennial turkey hotspot, the five units of the Kisatchie National Forest spread across seven parishes in central Louisiana. Much of Kisatchie consists of rolling hills covered in pine forests crisscrossed by hardwood-lined creek bottoms.
Some WMAs associated with the forest hold good turkey populations. Topping the list, the Fort Polk military training area near Leesville includes some of the best turkey habitat in Louisiana. The property stretches over 105,545 acres and consists mostly of rolling hills covered with longleaf pine forests and scattered oaks. The nearby Peason Ridge WMA holds another 74,309 acres. The Army uses both areas for training, so hunters need to obtain daily military clearance before hunting these properties.
Another excellent turkey hunting area, Clear Creek WMA covers 52,559 near Deridder. Like much of western Louisiana, pines dominate the terrain. Some small creeks lined with oaks and other hardwoods flow through the area.
In northeastern Louisiana, Big Lake WMA covers 19,231 acres on the Tensas River east of Winnsboro. The property abuts Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, which includes about 80,000 acres of hardwood bottomlands. Together, these two properties conserve one of the largest remaining contiguous hardwood bottomland tracts in the lower Mississippi River Valley.
Louisiana turkey hunters might also find toms in the Atchafalaya Basin, particularly Sherburne WMA and adjacent federal lands near Krotz Springs. The property includes 43,637 acres of hardwood bottomland habitat. Eastern Louisiana hunters might venture to Tunica Hills WMA in West Feliciana Parish. The property includes 6,503 acres of rugged hills covered in upland hardwoods.
In both states, sportsmen still enjoy many great opportunities to bag birds. They might just need to work a little harder to find gobblers before someone else does.