Every spring I always anticipate shooting my first gobbler within 10 minutes on opening morning but most years I am fooled by an old gobbler. Last year was no exception; it took me four mornings to finally entice a nice gobbler to stroll up in front of the gun.
Getting up close and personal with a gobbler requires some work; first and foremost of course, is figuring where to go. Fortunately, Kentucky hunters have a wide range of public land, including wildlife management areas and national forests, and the forecast continues to look good.
According to Zak Danks, Kentucky Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Resources turkey coordinator, there are a few exceptions but overall Kentucky turkey numbers are continuing to increase. The 2016 hatch is holding close to the 15-year average at around 2.3 poults per hen; however, some years averages dip to 1.9 poults per hen. Since this is a normal occurrence with turkey populations, Kentucky looks at long-term survey data spanning 15 years, because of many factors that can’t be controlled.
Overall turkeys are very residual birds. They have large home ranges and they also have an almost unlimited list of food they eat. Add this with the ability to re-nest successfully and it is a good bet turkeys are here to stay.
The most critical habitat element for turkeys is nesting and brood rearing cover, but there are concerns coming from states where turkeys are declining. Because of this the KDFWR is monitoring Kentucky’s population.
It is not at all unusual for wildlife populations to hit a ceiling. Biologists call it carrying capacity and once a species reaches carrying capacity it is almost like an invisible barrier that holds populations in place. However, it doesn’t hold at a constant level, but rather resembles a roller coaster with the annual cycles moving up and down. However, the good news for Kentucky is that in most of the Commonwealth county harvests are still on the increase.
According to Jacob Steward, public lands biologist, there are places on Clay where hunters can get away from others, particularly during the week. He also says that the 2017 numbers are looking good, with the 2016 hatch appearing to be running with previous averages.
In 2016 hunters harvested 43 birds, which is really impressive considering the size of Clay compared to other WMAs in the state. In fact, this 7,996-acre area is running along with larger WMAs in regard to birds harvested per acre.
A nice added bonus for hunters visiting Clay WMA is that hunters are allowed to camp on the Upper Unit. There are no “designated camp sites” but there are mowed areas along WMA roads, along with a number of fire pits.
Also, don’t overlook accessing some of the WMA from the adjacent Licking River. A nice float down the river provides access to gobblers other hunters may miss. There are a couple of canoe launching points, as well as a boat ramp on the Lower Unit.
PENNYRILE STATE FOREST AND TRADEWATER RIVER
Those on the western end of the state, should consider Pennyrile Forest and Tradewater River WMAs, according to Pat Hahs, KDFWR public lands biologist.
The terrain on Pennyrile is rolling to rugged, with acres of downed trees created by an ice storm several years ago.
“This storm really tore a lot of trees down, so hunters have to deal with a lot of underbrush and downed treetops making it difficult to see very far,” said Hahs.
However, even though it is challenging to hunt Pennyrile, it is still worth the trip because populations are strong and doing well. Additionally, Pennyrile is next to Tradewater River WMA, adding another 729 acres that are managed identically with the same regulations. The only exception is that no camping is allowed on Tradewater.
Hahs also feels that hunting pressure on Pennyrile is fairly low, as the area is moderately far from major cities, and is large enough (14,379 acres) to provide plenty of room to roam. The only exception to this is the 850-acre Pennyrile State Resort Park, which is closed to hunting but provides campsites with RV hookups.
DANIEL BOONE NATIONAL FOREST
Stretching over 21 counties from the Tennessee border to Morehead, Daniel Boone NF provides 708,000 acres of public land, a large portion of which is open to hunting. However, the area is fragmented in some locations, so be sure to check maps and learn the boundaries.
While there are some areas that have seen a slight decline in turkey populations, Joe Metzmeier, forest service district wildlife biologist, feels that much of the forest is at carrying capacity.
“Population levels can change every few years, according to ongoing management, and the best management practice is a prescribed fire program,” Metzmeier said. “Forest Service staff are burning around 5,000 acres each year and these burn areas are magnets to turkeys.”
As part of this improvement, the National Wild Turkey Federation just wrapped up a $215,000 dollar habitat project that will benefit turkeys for years to come.
“This project was part of a shortleaf pine restoration effort, which improved 12,000 acres and it’s not really the pine, but the management of the pine that will benefit turkey,” said Jason Lupardus, NWTF biologist.
In the past, pine stands were so thick that there was little or no ground vegetation, but with these new stands, pine will be maintained thin enough to allow sunlight to reach the ground to promote beneficial plants to grow. Best of all, these sites will be managed through prescribed fire. With 12,000 acres of newly improved habitat hunters should seek out these areas.
“The Boone offers such large expanses of land to hunt that in many cases you can walk all day and never see another hunter and sometimes not even a boundary line,” said Metzmeier.
Those unsure of where to start hunting should consider one of the WMAs within the national forest — Mill Creek in Jackson County and Cane Creek in Laurel County produce several gobblers each year.
Another WMA on the Daniel Boone NF is Beaver Creek in McCreary County. Established in the 1930s, Beaver Creek is one of Kentucky’s older WMAs with a long history of turkey hunting. Beaver Creek WMA has miles of cliffs, with Beaver Creek being the lowest point.
The WMA has 75 openings planted in clover and other grasses, scatted along the ridgetops of 17,753 acres, but hunters should expect some tough hikes, and always carry a map, compass and GPS unit to ensure orientation.
With all the acres and WMAs within the Daniel Boone National Forest, hunters should not have any trouble avoiding others.
BIG RIVERS AND SLOUGHS WMAs
Charlie Plush, public lands biologist over Big Rivers and Sloughs WMAs, had some concerns after last year’s excessive spring rains. It was a critical time as poults were hatching about the time these rains occurred. However, by late summer numbers appeared to have held up and Plush felt like most pulled through.
With around 9,000 acres, Big Rivers is laid out almost perfectly for turkeys because of a nice mix of ridgetops, hardwood forests, native grass fields, crops and bottomlands, though like many areas, birds are not very talkative after the first week of season.
Hunters should also consider Sloughs WMA, which is a well-noted waterfowl area, but is also good for turkeys, though hunters will need to wear waterproof boots to get into many areas.
Sloughs lies in the Ohio River floodplain and like all the surrounding topography it has alternating ridge and swell habitat.
“You may hear a gobbler not too far from you but to reach him you will either have a long walk or wade water,” said Plush.
Regardless of the difficult hunting, Sloughs hunters consistently harvest around 25 to 30 birds every year.
Now figuring out where to go hunting is always a question, especially with the numerous choices available in the Bluegrass State. Of course, hunters shouldn’t overlook smaller tracts of public land. Sometimes small details can provide an edge over other hunters, such as knowing where a small isolated field is located where an old gobbler is strutting around mid-morning.