Kentucky has ranked second over the last several years in turkey harvest among the border states, according to Steven Dobey, turkey and bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department (KFWD). He noted as well that some states’ spring limit is more than two birds with visible beards, with seasons longer than Kentucky’s 23-day season, which begins April 18.
Dobey attributes the stable statewide population of around 225,000 birds to very good turkey habitat and decent reproduction in recent years. These two factors, largely dependent on weather patterns, greatly influence the number of toms available each spring for hunters to pursue.
“Though we expect the 2015 spring season to be very similar to last year in most areas, almost every southeastern state has experienced a decline in poult survival recently,” said Dobey.
Kentucky doesn’t have immunity in that regard, but Dobey is not overly concerned with that trend. He believes that the ongoing loss of habitat in general and the great susceptibility of two- to three-week-old birds to hypothermia is what affect survival most.
“Many wildlife populations trend up at times or down based on weather patterns, nesting conditions, harvest and several other factors,” said Dobey. “We can have a good hatch, and a rainy period two weeks later and it puts many poults in jeopardy while they are still on the ground.
“We work with statewide averages, and look at survival rates of poults to each hen. In some areas of the state, the number is higher, which we often see in the midwest where the best habitat exists, while other regions may be lower in a given year. Obviously, better numbers of birds are generally going to be where the best habitat is, but at times we’ve gotten excellent survival about everywhere, and that’s when you see the harvest rate jump up in the next season or two.”
Back in 2008 for example, a superb hatch and survival occurred, resulting in a 36,000-plus gobbler take in 2010. Up until then, a harvest of 30,000 had not ever happened. For wild turkeys, that is a tremendous jump in harvest in a single year.
In subsequent years, the survival average has been lower — maybe more normal — and the harvest has moderated back and stayed right around the 33,000 during the last three seasons. That’s about where it is expected for the spring of 2015.
On the particular land being hunted, the volume of birds may be a little higher or lower than last year, but overall Dobey believes the population is stable and harvest will be likewise. He adds that since 2010, the average take has been higher than any other time in history.
Kentucky wildlife managers approach their jobs on a regional basis, primarily because the state’s 120 counties can be divided fairly well by the similar habitat groups of counties. KFWD identifies five different regions, with varying potential for turkey hunting success this spring.
The 14 most western counties in Kentucky comprise the Purchase Wildlife Region. Last season, hunters in those counties reported just shy of 3,500 birds taken in the spring season, which was a tad over 10 percent of the total statewide harvest.
Christian, Graves and Crittenden counties clearly offered the best potential for bagging a tom in 2014, and have ranked at the top of the region in other recent seasons. All three are large counties in land mass and hold relatively good turkey habitat.
This region is marked by large field-row agriculture, river and creek bottomlands, and a good deal of wetland complexes. Not the best in the world for turkey production, but not horribly poor either.
“Any county where the harvest is at or above 400 is a pretty good area to consider getting permission to hunt,” said Dobey. “There are pockets of very good numbers of birds in every county, but when the harvest bumps up into this range, it indicates a more widespread distribution, probably a higher amount of quality habitat, both of which increase the hunter’s odds of finding birds to work.”
Counties like Fulton, Hickman and Carlisle, along the Mississippi River, struggle more for good turkey numbers due to less habitat, so hunters looking in those counties will have to search harder for productive hunting lands.
On public lands in the Purchase Region, hunters took almost 200 toms in 2014. Compared to gun deer hunting, restrictions for spring turkey hunting on most state-managed public hunting and management areas are much less complicated.
Many are open under the same rules as the general season on private lands, but some will have one or two special requirements, which can be found on the agency’s website or by consulting the 2015 Spring Turkey and Squirrel Season Guide booklet at license outlets.
The top public hunting lands in the Purchase are Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge, Land Between the Lakes and Ballard Wildlife Management Area. Hunters need to contact Clarks River NWR and LBL directly prior to the season regarding permits and hunt dates. Ballard WMA, owned by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is generally open under statewide regulations for the spring youth and general turkey seasons.
Green River Region
Dobey’s top recommendation for spring is the Green River Region, which covers about 25 counties in the mid-western part of Kentucky and provides hunters with around 30 percent of the total harvest each year. It has all the ingredients for turkey production and survival, and county for county more birds are taken in this region on average here than anywhere else in the Commonwealth.
“We mentioned that 400-bird-per-county threshold as a benchmark for our most populated areas,” Dobey said. “In the Green River Region, we had 10 out of 25 above that level last season. It would be a much shorter list to point out counties where numbers are less abundant, than all the counties where good turkey hunting should be. Practically the entire area is just that good.”
At the top of the list, hunters should consider Logan, Hart, Grayson, Muhlenberg, Breckinridge, Hardin and Ohio counties. These seven rather destroyed the 400 birds per season mark, with each county surpassing 500 birds in 2014. Logan hit 700 turkeys, which is a tremendous single-county harvest total, and no other county went over 600 birds harvest last season.
Interestingly, Dobey’s statistic of the successful turkey hunters each spring, almost 70 percent only report taking one or two birds each year. It would be interesting to know how many of the 30 percent who limited in recent years were hunting Logan County or one of other top producers in the Green River.
Just based on volume of harvest alone, a good number of spring “limit getters” would almost have to be hunting in these elite counties.
Kentucky has about 16 public hunting areas in the Green River Region, and hands down, not even in the same hemisphere, the Peabody WMA yields more turkeys each spring than any other area. Of the 318 taken on public lands in 2014, more than 130 came off Peabody territory. Of course, it is a very large piece of property in the heart of great turkey country, which greatly helps.
Other spots to check are Big Rivers, Barren Lake and Nolin River Lake WMAs, along with Yellowbank WMA, along the Ohio River in Breckinridge County. Again, be sure to check for any special regulations for spring turkey season on these areas. Peabody users must have a permit to be on the area for any recreational reason.
The seven counties in the Bluegrass Region, which roughly includes the area in northern Kentucky around Louisville and Lexington and a few outlying counties, gave up more than 300 birds last season, and Dobey says they have potential in 2015.
The northern half of the region, away from horse farms, provides better turkey hunting in the Bluegrass. A core of top producers, based on harvest in the recent years, are scattered across the entire region.
The best counties in this neck of the woods include Pendleton, Owen, Henry, Shelby, Washington, Nelson and Madison.
Interestingly, the harvest of each during the last two seasons was within 12 birds of each other in 2013 and 2014, coming in at 6,284 most recently. Hunters in this region can expect season chances to be very similar in 2015, according to Dobey’s research.
Public land opportunities in the Bluegrass Region are somewhat limited due to higher human populations, but practically right outside the Louisville metro area, Taylorsville Lake WMA leads the way in best public land hunting for wild turkey.
Recently, additional acreage was added to the Kentucky River WMA, mostly in Henry County, which ranks second in the “Golden Triangle” for public lands in this vicinity.
Moving east of Lexington, along the Mountain Parkway, in the northeastern quadrant of Kentucky, the populations are stable, but the turkey habitat begins to decline in the more heavily forested territory there. As such, locating birds gets slightly harder.
“One thing turkey flocks in both the eastern Kentucky regions don’t have much of, is back up food sources,” said Dobey. “What I mean is, since much less agriculture occurs east of I-75, turkeys must almost completely rely on the mast crop to winter well and be in good shape for nesting the next spring.
“If we have a poor nut crop year for acorns especially, turkeys in the western half of the state often have left over grain fields as supplement to natural food sources. Eastern Kentucky birds have to really scrounge. They don’t have remnant corn, beans or other grains to fall back on and the chance of winter mortality on a greater percentage goes up significantly in lean mast, or particularly harsh winters.”
Likewise, more open-edge field and woodlands interspersed across the landscape is better suited for turkeys than deep, large tracks of forest. That’s what’s found in much of the Northeast Region, and nearly all of the Southeast Region.
Regardless, counties along the Ohio River corridor to the north are great spots to find turkeys in bottomland hardwood stands and around any crop farming activity going on. Bracken and Lewis counties, for example, are among the harvest leaders in the Northeast.
Other counties in the northern tier of the region are likewise leaders in population densities, such as Morgan, Carter, Rowan and Bath counties, because they lie just on the edge of where the more mountainous and forested habitat begins and extends extensively to the south.
Interestingly, Pike County has been at the very top of the best counties in the Northeast Region for years, most likely because it is simply a massive county in square miles, and more turkeys can live in a larger county generally, than a smaller one.
When considering a public land location for hunting think about checking around a major reservoir and you’ll be in the best areas, with one exception. Corps-owned properties by far give up more turkeys than other lands not associated with a large body of water, other than the Clay WMA. Clay hunters took 42 reported gobblers last season — best in the region.
This portion of Kentucky is very large, with the largest public land area anywhere in the state in the Daniel Boone National Forest. There are more than 600,000 acres to roam, and much of the land is considered excellent for turkey hunting.
Out of 840 turkeys taken from public lands in the southeast last year, just under 500 were dropped in the DBNF. The Southeast Region has an excellent volume of land open to public hunting, and for the adventuresome and “in shape” turkey hunter, this is the region to consider.
Of the nine counties in the southeast with more than 300 birds taken in 2014, every one of them is clustered to the south-central part of the region. In other words, the further east you go, populations decrease.
Birds can certainly be encountered anywhere, but top places to consider are farms and public territory in Pulaski, Wayne, Adair, Green, Cumberland, Whitley, Lincoln, Casey and Laurel counties. This little chunk has some marginal farming activity, with open lands mixed in, which just seems to hold more birds than other counties along the Cumberland Plateau.
Southeast Region harvest report history explains hunters here will account for about one quarter of the total harvest in 2015, so a lot of turkeys are being found in this region even with a prevailing lack of good habitat.
“The southeast seems to always account for a good portion of the harvest, and hunters are able to find enough birds to keep them engaged for the season over a large portion of the area,” said Dobey. “I expect that to be the case again this spring.”
Hunters shouldn’t expect to see a tremendous jump in 2- and 3-year-old toms, which are the most vocal birds and make up the bulk of the gobbler harvest each spring. At the same time, hunting should remain as good as it has been the last couple of seasons in most Kentucky counties, with a few ups and downs in local areas that always occur.
According to Dobey, the only significant change to turkey regulations for 2015 is that .410 shotguns will be legal for use. He says a .410 can be effective for turkeys at close range, and it gives hunters who may need a more “user-friendly” firearm, or who want the challenge of getting birds in to 10 or 15 yards for a quality shot.
Complete turkey season information can be found by visiting the fish and wildlife department website, or by calling 1-800-858-1549 weekdays 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern.
Now, get out there and give it a shot.