By Ryan Miloshewski
Turkey hunters in Ohio will see a spring season similar to last year’s, according to Mark Wiley, the state game agency’s gobbler expert, projecting that 2018 should be a another productive one for the birds and the hunters who pursue them.
“That’s especially true in the east,” he said, “thanks to that cicada emergence in 2016.”
Biologists use three factors to determine the relative number of turkeys that may be available to hunters in Ohio’s woods and fields each spring: The harvest data from the previous spring and fall seasons, and poult production.
“Last year’s spring turkey hunting season harvest was 21,098, up 18.5 percent over 2016’s total of 17,796,” Wiley noted, “so that’s a sign that populations may be up this year as well.”
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Poult production, however, was down this year. The third factor — fall turkey harvest — was also down in the autumn of 2017 compared to 2016 season, when a total of 2,168 turkeys taken. The decline in the fall harvest year-over-year, however, comes with a caveat in this case. In the fall, hunters typically kill between 1,2200 and 1,500 birds, so the 2016 take was far above average.
Turkey hunter harvest each spring itself is not a factor in the following year’s spring turkey population, because only males are removed from the population, and only after they have reproduced. And since toms don’t contribute anything to rearing the young, killing toms in the spring does not significantly affect the future turkey population.
What can affect the turkey population is weather, particularly as it influences poult production when the hens are nesting in early May and through early June. Good or bad weather during that crucial period can make or break the success of a hatch and the number of poults that survive the summer. Turkeys want dry weather when the hens are nesting in early May and when the poults are young, into June. The first two weeks of June are crucial; the poults are too small at that time to regulate their body temperatures without the hen’s assistance and the heat of her body. As the poults grow larger, the hen has a progressively more difficult time protecting and warming the poults, especially if she’s wet from rain.
The process for determining poult survival and population numbers includes the assistance of the pubic as well as ODOW employees. People who see hens and poults in the spring and summer are asked to count the poults they observe with each hen and report those sighting and figures to the ODOW via the Ohio Wildlife Species Sighting Page at apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/speciessighting. The Division of Wildlife uses those sightings to assess the population and come up with hen-to-poult ratios for each county in which they are observed.
The 20 year poult-per-hen (pph) average is 2.9 — or an average of nearly three poults seen with each hen. In previous years, the state has seen an average of as many as 3 pph, and the highest was 5.9 following the brood V cicada emergence in 1999.
“This year,” said Wiley, “although all the results aren’t in, (as of press time) we appear to be down from 2016, which was 3.6 pph.”
Turkey poults that survive the spring in Ohio feed mostly on seeds, berries and insects through the summer and into the fall before switching over to grain crops and acorns. Consequently, mast production can be a key factor in poult over-wintering success and thus in determining the number of huntable jakes and egg-bearing hens the following spring.
That said, while acorns are a major protein source, they don’t hold much moisture and can’t supply the needed fluids for the birds’ diet. That requires acorn-fed birds to visit water sources, such as creeks, springs and ponds, at intervals to drink in years of high mast abundance. Following autumns of poor mast production, turkeys have to turn to berries and other food sources that hold more moisture, and birds may not need to visit water sources. Savvy swaybeard hunters factor those habits into where they start scouting for turkeys in the spring and fall.
In early April, gobblers and jakes are feeding and looking for places they can eat, dust themselves and be sighted by hens to join them. Hunters take advantage of these patterns and set up between where the gobblers are roosting in the woods and the open areas where the long-beards will eventually go to parade for the hens they hope to attract.
A common error turkey hunters make is giving up on their calling location too soon. Gobblers often will go quiet and sneak up to the spot where it expects to see a hen. And they may not make a beeline to that location, especially from the roost. That’s why it always pays to scout the birds and their travel routes before opening day to know where to set up and how long you may have to wait before they make an appearance.
Scouting to get a rough idea of how many birds are in the areas you plan to hunt can begin far in advance of the spring hunting season. But by the beginning of March across most of Ohio, turkeys will begin to separate from their winter range and the toms will start to posture, strutting and gobbling and moving nearer to where the hens are hanging out.
Whether you are hunting public or private land, great scouting tactics include driving back roads and looking for turkeys out in the fields, or listening for gobbles early in the morning. Broadly speaking, the eastern half of Ohio is the most productive region of the state to locate and hunts turkeys, but there are huntable populations in all 88 counties. That said, with the bird populations taking advantage of the sizeable cicada emergence two years ago, and populations thriving on the food source windfall, the eastern counties where that emergence occurred should have more than their share of mature turkeys to hunt this this spring.
In Central Ohio/Wildlife District 1, Wiley advised that the eastern-most counties, such as Fairfield and Licking, will have the best opportunities as they fall into the region where the cicadas emerged the year before last and boosted local populations of turkeys.
“That said, they don’t compare to the (turkey hunting) opportunities in districts 3, 4 and even 5,” he said, adding: “But Deer Creek and Delaware wildlife areas hold birds; you just have to scout them and learn where the flocks are during the periods you have to hunt.”
Call the Wildlife District One office at 614-644-3925 or visit wildohio.gov for maps and more spring turkey hunting information for central Ohio.
Northwest Ohio/Wildlife District 2 hunters should look north and west to Williams and Defiance counties for the best gobbler hunting, according to Wiley.
“Lake LA Su Ann in Williams (county) is your best public hunting land bet, but it’s open only to youth hunting and by lottery,” Wiley advised. “Huron and Seneca counties have huntable populations of birds, and there are some Wildlife Production Areas there that can be productive. Willard Marsh in Williams Country can be worth a look, as can Killdeer (wildlife area). Neither are prime turkey-producing areas, but hunters harvest birds there every spring.”
Call the Wildlife District Two office at 419-424-500 or visit wildohio.gov for maps and more spring turkey hunting information in northwest Ohio.
In Northeast Ohio/Wildlife District 3, turkey hunters have ample opportunities in what Wiley called one of the top areas in the state for gobbler numbers.
“D-3 contains a handful of our top spring turkey counties, so you sort of have your pick of public places to hunt with a reasonable chance at seeing birds,” he said. “Grand River, Dorset, New Lyme (wildlife areas) are all great. As are Killbuck Marsh, Mosquito, La Due and Shenango (wildlife areas). Really, because turkey harvest rates are so high in that region, almost any wildlife area in D-3 will offer good opportunities this spring.”
Call the Wildlife District Three office at 330-644-2293 or visit wildohio.gov for maps and more spring turkey hunting information for northeast Ohio.
Southeast Ohio/Wildlife District 4 offers perhaps the best spring turkey hunting opportunities in the state, year-in and year-out. Being “ground zero” for the massive cicada emergence in 2016, this area should be even better than it usually is.
“It’s hard to go wrong in any county in D-4 when it comes to turkey hunting opportunities,” said Wiley. “At the core of the cicada’s range, Coshocton County’s turkey harvest rate was up 40 percent following the emergences. Woodbury Wildlife Area is a prime example of a place to go this spring, Same with Tri Valley and Wolf Creek in Morgan County. Crown City Wildlife Area should be a big producer, as well as Waterloo. The Wayne’s (national forest) Ironton and Athens units, and state forests like Zaleski and Vinton Furnace hold good numbers of birds,” he said, adding: “And of course, there’s all the prime wooded private land, and it all should be excellent for turkey hunters this season.”
Call the Wildlife District Four office at 740-589-9930 or visit wildohio.gov for maps and more spring turkey hunting information for southeast Ohio.
Spring turkey hunters seeking the top action in Southwest Ohio/Wildlife District 5 should look east, according to the gobbler biologist.
“The counties with the highest spring harvest rates annually are those in the eastern part of the district,” Wiley said. “Adams, Highland, Brown and Clermont, specifically,” he added. “Within those, Tranquility, Fallsville, East fork, and Indian Creek (wildlife areas) can be excellent.
Call the Wildlife District Five offices at 937-372-9261 or visti wildohio.gov for maps and more spring turkey hunting information for southwest Ohio.
“In summary,” said Wiley, “after that cicada emergence in 2016 we saw a bump in spring harvest in 2017 due to all the jakes that were on the landscape. Now there are a bunch of two-year-old birds, two years after the emergence, out there – at least across eastern Ohio. If everything follows past post-emergence patterns, the 2018 spring harvest should be up significantly.”