Turkey hunters love to hear multiple gobbles on any given morning, as it gives them options. But most agree that one gobbler hammering from the roost is enough to make their day. At that point, they can engage and hunt.
It’s good that many turkey hunters have that attitude, because turkey numbers are down again in terms of harvest and recruitment into the population. The latest data is the 2015 harvest and recruitment data and neither bear much good news for turkey hunters. But there are some positive aspects for the upcoming 2017 turkey-hunting season.
According to Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer and Wild Turkey Program coordinator, the spring turkey harvest in 2015 was down about 6 percent from 2014 and down cumulatively 40 percent from the record harvest established in 2002.
Ruth said the estimated harvest in 2015 was 15,237 birds and that the harvest decline was expected by SCDNR due to the low reproduction and recruitment in recent years.
“Reproduction in wild turkeys has generally been poor during the last decade and the spring harvest following each year of low recruitment has been down,” Ruth said. “The overall effect has been a significant decline in turkey harvest.
“Reproduction in turkeys has generally been low for the last decade,” he said. “In the 2015 summer survey the average brood size of 3.6 poults per hen with poults remained good. Recruitment ratio is the key number and it’s a measure of young turkeys entering the population based on the total number of hens. The total recruitment ratio in 2015 was only 1.5, a very low number, continuing a less-than-desirable downward trend in turkey recruitment. This low figure was primarily driven down because a high percentage (59 percent) of the hens had no poults at all by late summer.
“Recruitment ratio has averaged only 1.7 over the last 5 years, considered a low number because a ratio of 2.0 is somewhat of a break-even mark for maintaining the population,” Ruth said.
The recruitment ratio figure for 2013 was only 1.3, the worst on record. A low recruitment ratio impacts hunting success in future years because there’s simply fewer turkeys coming into the population, which for obvious reasons leads to lower harvest trends. In 2014 and 2015 the recruitment ratio was slightly better at 1.6 and 1.5, but these numbers are not what could be termed “good” figures for population growth.
To put this into perspective, the 2013 recruitment ratio of 1.3 was the lowest since the summer reproductive survey began in 1982. So fewer 2-year old gobblers were in the woods during 2015. That carryover continued into the 2016 season in terms of the 3-year-old gobblers. The slight improvement in 2014 and 2015 recruitment upswing should mean more adult gobblers available in the 2017 season. Ruth stressed that on a statewide basis the 2014 and 2015 recruitment data was not a significant upward number, it’s simply a little better than the worst on record.
“Since hunters most frequently have success calling and harvesting 2-year-old gobblers, it was a given that harvest figures would be down in 2015,” said Ruth. “But we also expected an increase in the harvest of jakes, or juvenile gobblers, and there was, with a 36 percent increase compared to the 2014 harvest. Jakes comprised 16 percent of the total harvest in 2015, which is the highest proportion of jakes in a number of years. The association between changes in reproduction and its effects on harvest are rather remarkable in South Carolina’s turkey harvest and reproductive data sets.”
Although data for 2016 harvest was not available, Ruth said he felt the slight upturn in 2014/15 recruitment should have enabled hunters to see a slight upswing in 2016 with a possible carryover into 2017.
“As for the 2017 season, without the 2016 data set, I can’t make a definitive projection,” he said. “But based on the trends and discussions with landowners managing large tracts of land around the state, I think 2017 should produce hunting similar to the 2016 season.”
Ruth said any upturn would likely be small, however, because the root issue is not enough poults are making it into the adult population.
“I do want to state that despite this decrease in our turkey population and harvests, overall turkey hunting is comparatively good in South Carolina,” Ruth said. “The downturn is something being experienced by all southeastern states. It’s not a localized issue.”
The harvest data for 2015 reveals the most recent trends in the most productive counties for turkey hunting and that can give hunters a good idea of areas where to potentially have better hunting success for the upcoming season.
According to the SCDNR 2015 harvest data, the top 10 counties for total turkey harvest in 2015 were Williamsburg, Berkeley, Fairfield, Colleton, Newberry, Orangeburg, Laurens, Spartanburg, Charleston and Hampton counties. Because counties vary in size, Ruth said a better method of “apples to apples” harvest comparison between counties for management purposes is the harvest rate per unit area — for example, turkeys killed per square mile.
Using this method the top counties were Cherokee, Spartanburg, Pickens, Anderson, Newberry, Edgefield, Fairfield, Charleston, Laurens and Union.
These counties represent the most productive areas in 2015 and offer a great starting point for finding more gobblers.
Some overlap exists in these lists and counties making both lists are likely to have the best combination of both more area in terms of land acreage to hunt and more turkeys on that land.
The overlap counties (with their respective ranks for per-square-mile harvest and total harvest) are Spartanburg at 2nd and 8th; Newberry at 5th in both lists; Fairfield at 7th and 3rd; Charleston at 8th and 9th; and Laurens County at 9th and 7th.
And often counties adjoining these top areas will have good hunting where they border with the top counties. Quality habitat doesn’t simply end at a county line, so consider the larger perspective when scouting.
Another way to increase your odds of getting a gobbler anywhere in the state is to improve your turkey hunting skills.
Skeet Thomas from Chester chases gobblers nearly every day of the season and his passion to work a gobbler keeps him sharp on his calling and woodsmanship skills. He said during these times when turkey population numbers are lower, hunters can work on calling and woodsmanship skills to enhance their odds of success for 2017.
“Practice calling and get very proficient with a couple of calls,” Thomas said. “Also more scouting is needed to find gobblers when populations are low.”
He said that mastering a call can be a key element to success.
“Years ago when we had plenty of gobblers in the woods, this abundance of birds enabled many hunters to be able to kill turkeys with good, but not elite, calling skills,” he said. “Now the situation is different and I’ve found that really honing calling skills to a high level makes a big difference. Also, years ago it was common for hunters to not scout as much or roost birds the evening prior because we had a lot of gobblers. Now that effort and skill set can do a lot to enhance success.”
The same is true of woodsmanship skills.
“Turkeys are always wary but with fewer of them in the woods, a premium is on a hunter’s moving and setup skills. Fifteen years ago if someone messed up early and spooked a gobbler, odds were good other longbeards may be in the area and the hunt could still end successfully. Unless you have access to huge parcels of property to hunt, spook that gobbler early now and you may not have a fallback gobbler to hunt.”
Thomas said practice with two kinds of calls to the point you feel comfortable in a calling contest with a live hen. That’s a situation he said he frequently encounters and mediocre calling usually won’t compete with a live hen.
Ruth said overall he thinks the 2017 has more promise than some recent seasons.
“I think for the 2017 season we should over the hump in terms of dealing with the worst recruitment ratio in history in 2013,” he said. “The gobblers from that year would have been two-year old in 2015 and three year olds last year. While not a big upswing, 2014 and 2015 were better in terms of recruitment, so that should mean more adult gobblers in the woods in 2017.”
Ruth said the upswing is a relative term in that it’s not a huge surge, but it’s certainly better than recent years.
WHY TURKEY POPULATIONS HAVE DECREASED
Turkey harvest figures in South Carolina have been on a long-term down cycle and it has created lowered expectations for hunters in recent years. The problem, in a nutshell, is far fewer turkeys are being recruited into the population and it’s a statewide problem, not a series of localized issues. In fact, it is a problem throughout the southeast not just South Carolina.
The first thought by many hunters is that turkey recruitment into the overall population is simply based on weather conditions for a given year. Weather conditions do impact poult survival. Weather, such as unusually rainy and cool, or even too hot and dry are examples of extreme conditions that can negatively impact poult survival. But weather alone is likely not the major culprit for such a long-term decline.
Charles Ruth said he’s researched data to look for answers for this downward trend and has he’s found some pertinent data.
“Weather issues will create poult survival issues from small isolated areas to large scale issues in some years,” Ruth said. “However I have looked at weather patterns over the recent years coinciding with the declining turkey population and simply don’t see where this is the major problem. The trend is simply been down for too long for this to be the overall, single issue driving this downward trend.”
Ruth said his research has revealed some data that explains the trend in an objective and biological manner.
He said loss of quality nesting and rearing habitat will limit the number of poults brought into the population. If the overall number of poults produced is down, even with good weather conditions in any given year, the number of birds making it into the populating will be lower.
“I think a lot of the downward trend is from general habitat conditions as it relates to changing forest structure in the state,” Ruth said. “For turkeys, good nesting and brood rearing habitat is the thick cover prevalent after areas are timbered, whether it’s pine or hardwood. The early succession growth is ideal, and turkeys will likely reproduce in greater numbers with more prime habitat — and a case can be made for deer recruitment as well.
“The data I’ve found suggests that this is a major component of the decline,” he said. “Recruitment Ratio is the number of turkey poults that survive and enter the population annually. From the inception of our turkey recruitment survey through 1988, the average annual recruitment ratio was 3.5 poults per hen. That’s a very good number. From 1989 through 2015 the annual average recruitment ratio is 2.2. That’s about a 37 percent decrease over those years. Also, the past five years the ratio has been only 1.7, and that’s close to a 51 percent drop.
“Conditions creating this downward spiral seems to be directly linked to dramatic changes in nesting and rearing habitat,” he said. “If you look at data provided by the South Carolina Forestry Commission, the age structure of our state’s forests have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In that time, the amount of forest land in the 0-to-15-year-old age class, the class that supports quality nesting habitat, decreased by 34 percent. During this same time, the amount of state forests in the 16-to-30-year-old class has increased by 104 percent. This data indicates a significant loss in nesting and rearing habitat. And in that time our turkey harvest has dropped about 40 percent. The numbers seem to indicate that the data and real world issues are linked.”
Ruth said the data shows turkeys don’t have nearly as much prime nesting and rearing habitat as compared to the 1980s and 90s when turkey numbers were higher and populations were still expanding.
“The situation now is that the woods have changed and the habitat is not in as good of a place in terms of providing early succession growth,” he said. “Obviously this will continue to change as these older timber stands are harvested. However, from a purely biological standpoint, it does explain the major shift to significantly lower recruitment into the turkey population.”