If you liked what you saw in the turkey woods last spring, you should be pleased with what you’ll likely witness this season in terms of wild turkey numbers, according to the wildlife biologist who monitors Ohio’s population of poults, hens, jakes and toms.
“We should see an increase from what we harvested this past spring overall,” said Mark Wiley of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, referring to a 2016 hunter take of 17,793 birds. “The increase will be due in large part to the high number of jakes we expect hunters to see in the woods, especially in eastern Ohio, that benefited from an easy food source thanks to last summer’s cicada hatch.”
All turkeys, as well as a host of other game birds and animals, benefit from bumper hatches of cicadas. Turkey poults, in particular, benefit from the surge of protein in their diets from the super-abundant cicadas. Not only is there a great deal of food, but the young turkeys don’t have to expose themselves to predators to eat their fill.
This last spring and into the summer a large emergence of cicadas from what biologists refer to as Brood V (5) hatched across eastern Ohio. Cicadas emerge on a 17-year cycle, and this past spring it was the Brood V’s turn, which last made its raucous appearance in 1999.
It’s worth noting that Ohio’s highest turkey harvest rate on record followed that 1999 cicada hatch — albeit two springs later. In 2001, an unprecedented 26,156 bearded birds fell to Buckeye State hunters during the April and May season. The 2016 emergence of those same Brood V cicadas bodes well for turkey hunters seeking mature birds during the 2018 spring season, and for those who will harvest a jake this spring.
As explained by Wiley: “The year of any cicada emergence we don’t see an effect on that spring’s harvest, since the emergence happens after the (spring turkey) hunting season. But poult survival from the spring turkey hatch is usually very high after an emergence, which is why we see a spike the following fall and spring in the number of young-of-the-year birds harvested.
“Turkey hunters who pass on shooting jakes that first spring reap the benefits the following season, two years away from the turkey hatch that benefitted from the cicada emergence,” he continued, “which results in a bumper crop of mature, two-year-old gobblers.”
That’s why, according to Wiley, harvest numbers spiked in 2001, two years after that major Brood V cicada hatch of 1999.
“The first spring that the ‘cicada’ birds are mature, two years after the emergence, hunters aren’t passing on shooting them, as many do when they see a jake, and the resulting harvest rates rise dramatically.”
The last spike in spring turkey harvest rates was witnessed in 2010, when Ohio hunters tallied 23,421 toms. That was due in part to the 2008 emergence of Brood XIV (14) cicadas two years earlier, in southwest and south central Ohio.
“We saw the same pattern,” said Wiley. “The (cicada) emergence in the summer of 2008 resulted in a bumper crop of birds surviving, a slight increase of first-year birds harvested that following spring, but two years after the emergence we saw the spike as mature toms got killed.
“Since 2010 we have harvested between 16,500 and 18,400 turkeys each spring,” Wiley added, “hovering around an average of 17,000 birds for the past six years.”
The wildlife biologist expects that number to rise this spring season, as hunters begin to harvest the young-of-the-year “cicada turkeys” that hatched last spring and thrived while feasting on the insect windfalls, but doesn’t predict a spike across the board — or state.
Because hunters will be targeting an abundance of birds that benefited from the same Brood V cicada emergence that produced the record harvest in 2001, he said, “We could see another record next spring.”
Any such harvest record, however, would be carried by regional harvest spikes in counties where the cicadas hatched and fed the local population of poults.
“The place to be hunting spring turkey, or fall turkeys for that matter, to take advantage of the high ‘cicada’ turkey numbers for the next two years,” advised Wiley, “is eastern Ohio.
“The western counties probably won’t see the effect on populations from the most recent (Brood V) emergence,” he said, adding: “And that’s reflected in our brood surveys from last summer.”
Those mid-summer counts of how many poults are observed with hens is the benchmark Wiley and his team uses to determine turkey populations in a given area. The poults per hen (pph) tallies for the summer of 2016 survey showed that Central Ohio’s Wildlife District One hens average 2.1 pph; Northwest Ohio’s Wildlife District Two averaged 1.8 pph, Northeast Ohio’s Wildlife District Three averaged 3.3 pph, Southeast Ohio’s Wildlife District Fourth averaged 4.5 pph, and Southwest Ohio’s Wildlife District Five averaged 2.3 pph, for a statewide average of 3.6 pph in 2016 — the third highest average on record.
“Notice that the highest, in District 4, is comprised of pretty much all ‘cicada’ counties,” Wiley pointed out, referring to counties in which the Brood V emerged last summer. “You had a handful of cicada counties in D-1 and several in D-3, and those (pph) numbers were up, as compared to D2 and 5, where there were no ‘cicada’ counties and counts remained lower.”
The other factors that affect turkey populations, in the short term and the long, are weather and habitat, said Wiley.
“We have reached a threshold of sorts across most of Ohio, where local (turkey) populations have met what the habitat can support and leveled off — though we are seeing some expansion and growth in some western counties where birds were released as recently as 2008,” he explained, adding: “But in large part, turkey have saturated the suitable habitat within the state.
“In the short term, mast affects a local population,” he said. “Acorn production, which fluctuates greatly year to year, creates boom and bust years for mast and the percentage of acorns help carry the birds through the winter.
“And in the spring, we like to see it warm and dry with lots of bugs around for the poults to eat.
“Ohio has good turkey habitat,” Wiley said. “Turkeys are forest generalists; they can utilize a variety of habitat types, but relate to forests, both young and old forests alike,” with the nod going to younger growth when it comes to rearing young.
“And I don’t think our forests are going to be depleted like they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said, adding: “These days hunting is highly regulated. No diseases threaten the (turkey) populations at present, and the birds have survived most threats, survived weather events, and have seemed to be able to maintain their numbers through most of that over the years.
“From extirpation in 1950 to the mid-1950s when we started releasing birds in southeast Ohio, they have done remarkably well — even to the point of doing very well in highly agricultural counties in the western part of the state.
“The numbers in the western part of Ohio certainly are not what they are in the unglaciated parts of the state,” he admitted. “But we do have huntable populations of turkeys in all 88 counties, which is pretty amazing considering that turkeys were absent from Ohio just a hundred years ago!”
Organized into five wildlife districts, here are Wiley’s top picks for two counties in each for Ohio turkey hunters to consider this spring.
Central Ohio’s Wildlife District One: “It looks like Knox and Licking are right at the top,” said Wiley. “Both are well ahead of the pack in terms of harvest rates in the central part of the state.”
For pubic hunting areas in Knox Country, Wiley recommends the Kokosing Lake Wildlife Area; in Licking County, he would direct public land hunters toward the Dillon Wildlife Area. For maps and more information on both areas and spring turkey hunting in central Ohio, call the Wildlife District One office at 614-644-3925 or visit wildohio.gov.
Northwest Ohio’s Wildlife District Two: “Williams and Defiance counties stand out in D-2,” said the wildlife biologist. “Both average between 220 and 300 birds each season, while the counties in the rest of the district are lucky to produce 100.”
Wiley says the best hunting opportunities in the district are found on private lands, but that Lake La Su An Wildlife Area’s youth-only opportunities are good. He offeres that while Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area has some birds, the opportunities for turkey hunting success there are limited.
For maps and more information about spring turkey hunting in northwest Ohio, contact the Wildlife District Two office at 419-424-5000 or visit wildohio.gov.
Northeast Ohio’s Wildlife District Three: “The top turkey harvest counties are Ashtabula and Trumbull in the extreme northeast corner of the state,” according to Wiley, who says that the best public land prospects include Mosquito Creek and Grand River wildlife areas in Trumbull County and New Lyme and Dorset wildlife areas in Ashtabula County.
For maps and more information about spring turkey hunting in northeast Ohio, contact the Wildlife District Three office at 330-644-2293 or visit wildohio.gov.
Southeast Ohio’s Wildlife District Four: “You pretty much have your pick of counties in D-4,” said Wiley. “All are excellent turkey hunting counties; even the least-productive ones in D-4 offer higher harvest rates than some of the best counties in other districts.”
He says that Muskingum County is a perennial top-producer and its Tri-Valley Wildlife Area would be a good public land destination for turkey hunters this spring. He recommends Belmont County and its Egypt Valley Wildlife Area as well, adding that Waterloo Wildlife Area in Athens and Vinton counties is worth a look by turkey hunters seeking birds on public land in the district.
For maps and more information about spring turkey hunting in southeast Ohio, contact the Wildlife District Four office at 740-589-9930 or visit wildohio.gov.
Southwest Ohio’s Wildlife District Five: “The top harvest counties are usually Adams, Highland, Brown and Clermont,” said Wiley, who recommends Highland County’s Fallsville Wildlife Area, Adam’s County’s Tranquility Wildlife Area, and Brown County’s Indian Creek Wildlife Area as good prospects for finding turkeys on public lands in District Five this spring.
For maps and more information about spring turkey hunting in southwest Ohio, contact the Wildlife District Five office at 937-372-9261 or visit wildohio.gov.
Across the board, Wiley says that the most common mistake that turkey hunters make is “Giving up too early in the day and the season.”
Wiley’s advice for Ohio turkey hunters who want to experience more success is two-fold: “Get out more often — and if you hunt in the western counties and aren’t seeing birds over the next couple of seasons, head east!”