It’s always good to have a Plan B when turkey hunting. During the spring of 2012 on one of my first hunts of the season, I thought I had a good Plan A. As most turkey hunters have learned when turkey hunting, you usually have to re-figure your planning mid-gobble if you’re going to be consistently successful.
The ole longbeard I had targeted was one that should work right into my lap, according to Plan A. But he had another plan, and after toying with me for a while, he thought it was time to do something important so he literally abandoned the area and left me scratching my confused head.
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I was hunting an area that several years ago was chock full of turkeys, but not so much in recent years after successive poor recruitment seasons. However I had little recourse unless I quit for the day; and that’s not an option. I walked about 250 yards in the opposite direction from where the longbeard had ruined my original idea. I ran a loud series of yelps on the trusty tube call and two gobblers hammered a response. Better yet, they were less than 200 yards away.
Plan B was now in session and fortunately, it played out well. But the key point to me was that there seemed to be more turkeys in the woods where I hunted. Maybe not quite back to the ‘good old days,’ but noticeably better than in recent years. Good reproduction, based on recruitment into the population and poult survival surveys by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in 2010 and 2011, had paid dividends: There were considerably more gobblers in the woods I hunted than in several years.
That pattern held true throughout the state in 2012, with significantly more gobblers taken in 2012 than in 2011. And 2011 was better than 2010. And that pattern of more longbeards is projected to continue to hold true for the 2013 season.
The 2010 recruitment class will be 3-year-old gobblers — and that was a bumper crop, according to Charles Ruth, deer and turkey project coordinator with the SCDNR. He said 2011 was also a good recruitment year, meaning plenty of 2 year olds will be in the woods this season.
When the 2012 harvest figures were up by 20 percent, it was very good news, not just for last year but for this season as well.
Last month we looked at county-by-county rankings in terms of the best places to get a gobbler in 2013. This month we’ll re-focus and look at a broader picture and consider some regional areas that offer exceptional hunting for South Carolina on private lands as well as consider some of the better Wildlife Management Areas.
As it turns out, there are clusters of counties that are the most productive for turkey hunting. That’s actually not unusual, according to Charles Ruth.
“The reproduction and survival of turkeys into the South Carolina population is very weather dependant,” Ruth said. “Of course, some weather patterns are statewide in terms of wet and/or cold, two of the worst enemies of good recruitment. However, during the time when poults are susceptible to weather, late spring and early summer, there are often localized weather events that can create issues with poult survival. In addition, some areas simply have better habitat for turkeys and turkey survival. Likely a combination of events occur to create these larger areas of higher turkey harvest in 2012, as in other years.”
On a broad scale, the best regional areas in the state are easy to see on a map. And if you go beyond the top 10 counties of the state and look at the patterns of top counties, two distinct patterns are clear.
We’ll first consider harvest by unit area, the method preferred by wildlife biologists. By far, in terms of overall ranking and the total number of counties in the pattern, the upstate pattern is best, with a swath of counties from east to west including Pickens, Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick, Edgefield, Saluda, Greenwood, Laurens, Greenville, Newberry, Fairfield, Union, Spartanburg, Cherokee, York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
On a statewide basis this group of counties has no county ranked lower than 22nd and actually includes nine of the top 10 counties. But all of the other counties except Greenwood rank in the second 10. The entire region is likely the overall best contiguous area of turkey hunting in the state.
In the lowcountry portion of the state another region of top turkey hunting counties by unit area is clear. There is an east-to-west swath that consists of Bamberg, Colleton, Orangeburg, Clarendon, Berkeley and Williamsburg counties. This string of counties is connected by some common county borders just as the best region in the upstate. Overall they do not collectively rank as high, but Clarendon County at number 21 statewide is the lowest ranking county in this list and 21st is still well in the upper half of counties statewide.
Looking at the patterns by simple total harvest, the basic pattern remains the same, with a bit more emphasis on the lowcountry counties. Four of the top 10, and seven of the top 20, counties are in this group — Colleton, Bamberg, Orangeburg, Berkeley, Clarendon, Williamsburg and Florence counties.
The upstate contiguous top 20 counties include Anderson, Pickens, Greenville, Laurens, Newberry, Fairfield, Union, Spartanburg, Cherokee, York, Chester, and Lancaster counties. Only one county, Edgefield at number 12, does not connect with one of the other counties in this total harvest grouping.
Another excellent area for looking for gobblers in 2013 is the state’s WMA’s and, according to Charles Ruth, there are several excellent WMA’s for turkey hunting.
“The harvest of turkeys in the WMA’s is typically included in the overall county harvest totals, so we cannot extract the specific harvest for most of the areas,” he said. “But you can look at harvest data for many of the counties where the larger areas are located and correctly infer that there is quality hunting opportunities on WMA’s in those top counties. I get a lot of feedback from hunters as well on this subject and know some of the better areas where hunters can focus efforts and know they have a reasonable chance of hearing turkeys gobble.
“Most of the really large areas are great places to start,” Ruth said. “The Sumer National Forest, along with the Francis Marion Nation Forest, provide not only a lot of turkey hunting territory but some quality hunting as well.
“The Wildlife Management Areas offer hunters throughout the state access to some excellent turkey hunting opportunities,” he said. “The key for many is to not dismiss them simply because of the fact others will be hunting them. If hunters get off the beaten path in those large WMA’s they can find secluded areas where they can enjoy very good hunting.
“When you look at the Francis Marion National Forest, which consists of 250,000 acres, and the Sumer National Forest, which is broken into three very large segments in the piedmont and upstate, you have some outstanding turkey hunting opportunities. I’ve looked at the data on turkey harvest and it’s almost as simple as saying that how the hunting on these large WMA’s goes, that’s how the county will stack up. A lot of those birds killed in those counties come from these WMA’s. Plus these public lands offer opportunities to hunt quality turkey habitat for everyone with a WMA permit.”
Ruth said the key is to get familiar with a certain section of the forest and scout and then hunt it. He said finding the right habitat is the key on the Francis Marion area. Some of the recent management practices such as burning, thinning pine forests and clearing thick areas have enhanced turkey habitat that was decimated in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo. The best way to find these areas is to get out in the woods and look. He said those practices and natural re-growth have again produced good turkey hunting habitat.
How to hunt the lowcountry area is a bit different than hunting the piedmont and upstate.
One lowcountry hunter that consistently takes big lowcountry gobblers is Moncks Corner resident William Peagler. The 58-year old lawyer said he does as any veteran turkey hunter will do: he has learned to adapt. In this case he adapts to the ever-changing habits of the lowcountry gobblers throughout the spring season.
“I’ve been hunting turkeys for 30 years here in the lowcountry and being able to adapt to change is one of the real keys to success,” Pegler said. “When the early season opens in mid-March until the season closes on May 1, there will constant change in the behavior of these gobblers. The key to being successful is being adaptive and adjusting to their changes. But the typical pattern for these lowcountry birds is they love to roost in the swaps. Most mornings will find me at the edge of a swamp and working a bird. If I’m not successful early, the typical pattern is for the turkey to move toward slightly higher ground such as open fields and open pine plantations. There may not be a lot of elevation change, but the turkeys will usually work out of the swamp toward these areas and later in the day work back toward the swamp. Open fields, food plots and pine plantations are all good places to find these birds,” Peagler said.
Ruth said the Sumer National Forest is a prime place for 2013 as well.
“The areas where this public hunting land is located is among the best recruitment areas of the year in 2011 and they were also excellent in 2010,” he said. “The combination of consecutive very good years means here’s a lot of turkeys in those areas.”
That means a lot of 2-year-old gobblers this season should be roaming the Sumter Forest area as well as good carry over from the 2010 recruitment season.
In terms of the best way to hunt the piedmont and upstate, most hunters begin near some water source. There are some swampy areas but large creek bottoms, especially those loaded with hardwood trees with a stream flowing through the area, are ideal. As the day progresses in this section of the state, the turkeys will also migrate toward higher ground, but there they have more elevation change opportunities and they will often move to ridge tops and open hardwood areas as well as open fields, powerlines and food plots. Powerlines are a favored area for much of the piedmont and upstate hunters. If you are not familiar with an area, a powerline always a good bet to check out.
Ruth said there is another area of excellent turkey hunting located in the lowcountry and that’s on three tracts of land located close to one another that opens for hunting on April 1. The combination of the Webb Center, Palachucola WMA and the Hamilton Ridge WMA’s combine to make one of the better turkey hunting opportunities for public land hunters in the state. These areas are in Hampton county.
The size of the three adjacent properties is another factor that Charles Ruth said is excellent for hunters. The total land available in the three areas totals 25,904 acres, making it a sizable WMA for turkey hunters.
“In addition, at the Webb Center, the Department has a full time staff that actively manages the land,” he said. “Thus, there are food plots, controlled burns conducted and other management techniques that create excellent turkey habitat.”
In addition there is another specific public land hunting opportunity with lots of turkeys in the upstate as well.
Fant’s Grove and Keowee WMA’s are located in Game Zone Two and cover areas around Lake Hartwell. Tom Swayngham is the Regional Wildlife Coordinator for these areas and said both WMA’s offer excellent hunting opportunities for turkey hunters.
“There are some specific regulations that turkey hunters need to understand,” Swayngham said. “Fant’s Grove is open to gun hunting throughout the WMA for turkeys, but on Keowee WMA about half of the area is only open for archery hunting. The Fant’s Grove area is located on the lower end of Lake Hartwell and the Keowee WMA on the upper end of the lake in the Seneca River section.”
“Hunters can check the WMA maps to determine precisely where the archery only areas are located on Keowee WMA,” he said. “The benefit to hunters regarding the archery only areas is archery hunters will usually find much less pressure on turkeys in those areas.”
Fant’s Grove WMA is an 8,540 acre WMA that is primarily owned by Clemson University and one other landowner. Clemson University also owns the 4,100-acre Keowee WMA. The Keowee WMA is located primarily in Pickens County, with a smaller portion located in Oconee County. Both WMA’s can be accessed by boat and that can enable hunters to better access some of the more remote areas that would otherwise take a long walk to get to — and that also means you leave other hunters behind.
Study the regional harvest data and make your Plan A to hunt the areas where the most turkeys are located to improve your odds for 2013 success. Also, take advantage of the WMA’s if you hunt public land and find the right habitat in the more remote areas.
<h2>Alabama</h2>State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management. <p> Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys. <p> For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the <a href="http://www.gameandfishmag.com/2013/02/12/gf-forecast-alabama-turkey-hunting-in-2013/" target="_blank">2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast</a>.