Spring turkey season in Arkansas may never return to the heights it enjoyed during the early 2000s, but it is improving in places.
It’s all a matter of perspective, anyway. I did not kill a wild turkey in Arkansas during its heyday, roughly from 1998 to 2005. I didn’t have good places to hunt then, but mostly it was because I wasn’t a good enough turkey hunter.
I’m a lot better at it now, and so I have killed at least one mature gobbler in the Natural State annually since 2007, despite all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about cold rainy weather during the nesting season, poor reproduction, and short, late seasons when birds are supposedly “gobbled out.”
Unfortunately, you can’t escape basic biology, and the data collected by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission suggested a poor year of turkey reproduction in 2015. That corresponds to a shortage of 2-year-old gobblers in the woods this year, and birds of that age are popular with hunters.
The AGFC’s annual reproduction and phrenology study was not complete when we were working on this article, but reproduction in 2016 was probably OK. Spring was dry and warm, but the first half of July was very wet. Jason Honey, the AGFC’s turkey biologist, said he hopes that turkey poults were old enough to survive the prolonged rainy spell.
The good news is that turkey production was decent in 2014, and so there will be a slight bump of 3-year-old gobblers in the woods this year.
EARLY VS. LATE
Since 2012, Arkansas has had a 16-day turkey season in most of the state. The season was 18 days in 2011, but the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission settled on the 16-day format the following year due to declining turkey harvests and lackluster reproduction and recruitment data.
Turkey harvests stabilized and then started climbing largely on the strength of strong year-classes in 2011-12. We had relatively weak reproduction in 2013 through 2015, but our turkey tallies have been fairly consistent for the last several years.
Hunters checked 11,864 gobblers during the 2016 season, which was slightly higher than 2015, when hunters checked 11,561. That’s only about 2 percent lower than 2014, when hunters killed 12,079 gobblers.
Consistent reduction of an unstable turkey resource ultimately leaves the resource on the red side of the ledger. For that reason, Brad Carner, chief of the Game and Fish Commission’s wildlife management division, said he is comfortable with a season framework that facilitates modest harvests during periods of poor reproduction. A major framework component is a short season that opens late in April, after the majority of hens have been bred.
In response to complaints from some hunters, the seven members of the commission debated vigorously about liberalizing the 2017 season.
“Turkey hunters have been very patient, and we need to show them a little consideration,” said Mike Knoedl, the commission’s former director who retired last summer.
The commissioners compromised. They retained the 16-day season, but they shifted it forward. This season will run April 10-25, as opposed to 2016, when it ran April 16 to May 1.
The 2017 season also will open on a Monday. Traditionally it has opened on Saturday. Fewer hunters will hunt a Monday opener. That will reduce the intensity of hunting pressure that occurs when the season opens on a weekend, and it might even result in fewer birds being killed overall.
That’s how we got to where we are. Now we need to know where to go. Regardless of whether you hunt on public or private land, Arkansas has plenty of great turkey habitat, which means we have lots of great places to hunt. The rest is up to you.
TURKEYS BY THE NUMBERS
As usual, hunters killed more gobblers in the Ozarks last year — 5,546 — than any other region. That’s a significant jump from 2015, when we killed 4,779 spring gobblers.
The Ozarks have large amounts of public land, including the 1.5 million-acre Ozark National Forest, the Buffalo National River, and a number of excellent wildlife management areas for turkey hunting. Some of those include Madison County WMA, and the shorelines of Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry lakes.
The eastern Ozarks were most productive, with a string of contiguous counties leading the tally. Hunters killed 428 gobblers in Fulton County, far and away the best turkey hunting county in the region. That’s almost identical to 2015, when hunters killed 431.
One look at the habitat in Fulton County makes it easy to understand why. Its mosaic of pastures, hollows, creek bottoms, scrubby woodlots and mature hardwoods is ideal turkey habitat.
Newton County, in the Buffalo River Country, produced 414 gobblers, and Izard County produced 404, up from 378 in 2015. Hunters killed 401 gobblers in Stone County, at the southern end of that string. Hunters killed 388 gobblers in Cleburne County, directly east of Van Buren County, where hunters bagged 379 gobblers.
Madison, Johnson and Carroll counties produced 218, 213 and 188 gobblers, respectively.
Like the Ozarks, the Ouachita Mountain region has a vast amount of public land that includes the 1.5 million-acre Ouachita National Forest, Muddy Creek WMA, and the shorelines of lakes Ouachita, DeGray and Greeson. It is a popular and productive region that yielded 2,137 gobblers to Arkansas hunters.
The Ouachitas encompass Turkey Management Zones 7 and 8. County totals were not complete at press time, but hunters checked 1,228 gobblers and two bearded hens in Zone 7.
They killed 303 gobblers and one bearded hen in Zone 8. That hunt area takes in portions of Sevier, Howard, Pike, Polk, Clark and Hot Springs counties.
One of the best areas is the Winona WMA, about 40 minutes west of Little Rock. Despite its proximity to Little Rock, Benton, Bryant and Hot Springs, Winona WMA is amazingly productive. That’s largely because it is so rugged that enterprising hunters can enjoy success by getting away from the roads.
The Gulf Coastal Plain doesn’t have much public land, but as mentioned earlier, it does have vast amounts of corporate timberland leased to private hunting clubs. Large percentages of that acreage have been clearcut in the last five years to create excellent turkey habitat. I have had considerable success in the past at one such club in Hot Spring County, but I did not kill a turkey there in 2015-16.
Overall, hunters killed 3,085 in the Gulf Coastal Plain in 2016, compared to 2,996 in 2015. County totals were not complete, but Moro Big Pine WMA was the top producer in this region with 17 gobblers.
As usual, hunters had the most success in Union County, where they killed 306 gobblers, but that’s down from 316 in 2015.
Turkey Management Zones 9 and 9A comprise most of the GCP. Hunters checked 2,691 gobblers and 13 bearded hens last year in Zone 9, and they checked 51 gobblers in Zone 9A.
Combined, those zones account for nearly a third of the state’s area.
Consisting mostly of row cropland and bottomlands, the Delta has the poorest turkey habitat in Arkansas. That correlates to the lowest reproduction, lowest gobbler carryover, lowest overall number of birds and, ultimately, lowest hunter success.
Hunters killed 1,072 gobblers in the Delta last year, up from 957 in 2015.
The sprawling White River National Wildlife Refuge contributed 25 gobblers to that tally, and hunters killed 21 gobblers at Casey Jones WMA, in Ashley County.
One of the great things about Arkansas is its large amount of public land, much of which contains good to excellent turkey hunting habitat.
Turkey hunting on many of our WMAs is limited by permits that the AGFC awards through an annual lottery, but many other state and federal lands are open.
The Ozark National Forest was our top public area last year, yielding 132 gobblers. That number is small, though, considering how much land is available — until you take in the area’s various subdivisions.
They include the Sylamore, White Rock, and Piney Creeks WMAs. They are within the Ozark National Forest but managed as WMAs by the state. Hunters killed 129 gobblers in the Sylamore WMA, 70 in White Rock WMA, and 75 in Piney Creeks WMA. These are consistently some of our best areas.
Hunters also killed 35 gobblers in the Buffalo River WMA, which is owned by the National Parks Service.
Gene Rush WMA, an AGFC property adjacent to the Buffalo National River, yielded 30 gobblers.
Muddy Creek WMA, a subdivision of the Ouachita National Forest, yielded 86 gobblers. Mount Magazine WMA gave up 72, and Winona WMA, near Little Rock, produced 63.
Every year, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission offers excellent turkey hunting opportunities on many of its wildlife management areas through a lottery permit system.
Unclaimed permits can be purchased during an online sale on a first-come, first-served basis.
Last year, I failed to draw a permit for Madison County WMA, where turkey hunting is allowed for only two three-day hunts. However, I got lucky and bought permits for both hunts in the online sale.
Despite a couple of close calls, I did not bag a gobbler the first weekend, but I learned enough to put myself in position to score on the second weekend.
On the second Sunday, I called up a mature bird that hung up on the opposite side of the hill. After holding my gun in shooting position for 70 minutes, I concluded that the bird had left. Instead, it was catching some rays in a blackberry bramble. When I stood up, the bird thundered skyward and flew across a wide hollow to safety.
I found a tree at the bottom of the hill at the edge of thick woods and thought it would be an excellent place to call up a gobbler. I was so confident that I left all my gear in a chair against the tree.
I returned the next morning and called softly to birds that gobbled far in the distance on private ground. I clucked a few times and hushed.
It was enough. About 20 minutes later, a deep gobble quivered the air. Two mature gobblers came up the hill, and the bigger one strolled to my right a mere 15 yards away.
He weighed less than 20 pounds, but his beard was nearly 11 inches long. His spurs were 1 inch long.
That was the only gobbler killed on the WMA that weekend, and one of only six killed on the entire WMA.
That’s what is possible in a WMA controlled hunt.