Turkey hunting soon will be officially under way, and the Prairie State offers abundant opportunities for hunters seeking to bag a gobbler.
Illinois has wild turkey populations throughout the state where habitat is suitable, and the numbers are looking pretty good.
Harvests by hunters are now reaching their peak, and habitat improvement projects are under way to continue to ensure the long-term survival of this proud symbol of Illinois’ woodlands.
Each season, novice turkey hunters head afield. And veteran hunters continue to participate in the challenge and tradition of turkey hunting while introducing new hunters to this exciting sport.
The 2017 Spring Season
The South Zone’s 2017 first season runs April 3-7. The second segment in this zone begins April 8, while the third segment starts April 14. The fourth segment is slated for April 20-26, and the fifth and final segment runs from April 27-May 4.
The first North Zone season is April 10-14, followed by the second season April 15-20. The third season is planned for April 21-26, fourth season April 27-May 3 and fifth season May 4-11.
The spring turkey season actually kicks off with the special youth hunts.
As of press time, those hunts were slated to kick off March 25 in the South and April 1 in the North. Consult the regulations before heading afield.
The spring youth turkey hunt is open only to hunters who have not reached their 18th birthday prior to the opening date of the youth season.
Youth hunters are limited to one Youth Spring Turkey permit, either a Special Hunt Area Permit or County Permit. And permits issued for the Spring Youth Turkey Hunt will be counted in the number of permits a person can be issued for the regular Spring Wild Turkey Season.
Each Illinois Spring Youth Wild Turkey Hunt permit holder using an apprentice or youth hunting license is required to be accompanied by a parent/guardian or grandparent who possesses a valid Firearm Owners Identification Card.
Last Season’s Success
Last year’s unofficial harvest totals show the special youth hunt resulted in 1,045 birds, compared to 896 the previous year.
As with several of the recent spring hunts, Illinois’ 2015 spring wild turkey hunt was significantly influenced by the early spring weather. This time, however, it was good weather that positively impacted hunter success rates.And it’s always amazing how much difference a slight change in weather conditions can make in spring turkey hunting success.
As with several of the recent spring hunts, Illinois’ 2016 spring wild turkey hunt was significantly influenced by the early spring weather. This time, however, it was cooler weather in the early days of the hunt that may have impacted hunter success rates.
Following the nearly five-week 2016 season, Illinois hunters bagged an unofficial total of 15,484 wild turkeys.
The 2016 total compares with the statewide turkey harvest of 15,000 in 2015. The statewide preliminary total includes Youth Turkey Season harvest.
The record spring season harvest occurred in 2006, with a total of 16,605 birds. During this record year, harvests were 6,530 in the South Zone and 10,075 in the North Zone.
Turkey hunters took a preliminary total of 6,694 wild turkeys during all 2016 season segments in the South Zone, a slight increase. The North Zone preliminary harvest total of 8,790 wild turkeys was only slightly higher than the 2015 total of 8,613 in the north.
“This is the second consecutive year of improved harvest numbers in Illinois,” said IDNR forest wildlife biologist Paul Shelton. “The 2014 spring season marked a low point in recent turkey harvest after a number of consecutive years of poor reproduction, particularly in the North Zone,” the biologist added.
“We’re encouraged to see that harvest numbers are rebounding — numbers in the North Zone were almost 20 percent higher than in 2014,” he continued. “Harvest in west-central Illinois, which seems to have been most affected by poor reproduction in recent years, was about 30 percent higher than 2014 figures.”
Most biologists are hopeful that the good spring weather we experienced will help turkeys rebound in some areas where populations have declined somewhat.
Another long-term key to improving wild turkey populations will be habitat management, particularly for nesting and brood rearing habitat.
During 2016, spring turkey hunting was open in 100 of Illinois’ 102 counties. Now we’ll take a look at how those counties ranked in regard to turkey harvest numbers.
The top counties for spring wild turkey harvest in the South Zone in 2016 were Jefferson (420), Marion (380), Randolph (372), Pope (356), and Union (354). The top five North Zone counties for spring turkey harvest this year were Jo Daviess (568), Fulton (446), Pike (393), Adams (389), and Schuyler (360).
Weather and the Role it Plays
As we’ve noted, the weather plays an important role in determining how the hunting season shapes up across the state. Last year’s overall turkey total would have been even better had it not been for something of a slow start. According to veteran Prairie State turkey hunters, a couple of issues were a factor in the early reduced harvest. First and foremost is the late spring we’ve been experiencing. Many hunters were complaining that the wintering flocks of birds were just beginning to break up as the season got under way.
Another likely reason is that the numbers of wild turkeys were still be down a little from several previous years of limited reproductive success. While most feel that the spring of 2015 brought better wild turkey reproduction, it would likely take a few years to bring the numbers back up.
Bob Whitehead, an avid turkey hunter from the St. Louis area, said he thinks the cooler-than-normal spring temperatures have these birds running far behind their normal reproductive schedule.
“When it comes to turkey hunting, every year seems to bring new and different challenges,” he noted. “It seemed like the 2015 turkey hunting season was scheduled weeks too late and, in 2016, things were just the opposite.”
Still, he said hunters did not face problems like too much green foliage. That was a bit of an issue during the 2012 spring hunt.
“There are many other issues, including available food resources, that play a role in the location of turkeys,” he explained. “During 2015, many of these birds moved to more suitable habitat.”
Whitehead said hunters last year found the birds in their regular haunts for the most part.
The majority of gobblers harvested each year by hunters are typically two to three years of age. Last season, however, an abundance of young birds were found in the population.
This Year’s Outlook
As always, much of the hunting success depends upon weather conditions, and this year will be no exception. When we are experiencing cold or wet weather, the birds become more difficult to locate and even harder to lure within shotgun range.
Illinois hunters are permitted to bag one male turkey or bearded hen per permit. The permits are issued for a specific county or special public hunting area.
While there have been no official wild turkey population numbers released in more than a decade, a 2001 estimate places the Illinois number at about 102,000.
However, when the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded in 1973, there were approximately 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. After 40 years of effort, that national number reached a historic high of about 6.7 million turkeys.
But today national turkey numbers are down and are estimated at between 6 and 6.2 million birds. Why has the overall turkey count experienced a decrease? These recent declines may not be long-term, but they do warrant close monitoring.
According to NWTF experts it is production, not predation, driving turkey populations. With high population densities, a significant number of hens won’t have access to quality nesting habitat and may not successfully hatch or raise a brood.
These same experts note that as carrying capacity becomes an issue productivity is declining because hens are nesting in suboptimal habitat. The researchers believe vegetation measurements contribute to the success or failure of nesting sites. In other words, little vegetation means little chance at poult survival.
It seems that in some areas birds have reached carrying capacity and have declined as the capacity of the habitat to support a certain number of birds has declined. The experts tell us that if the habitat conditions decline across multiple counties and states, then birds decline with it.
Illinois, too, has seen wild turkey population decreases the past few decades. However, things are not all that gloomy for hunters this spring. Last year, the population in many areas enjoyed good reproduction. While the production in 2016 appears to be down a bit, this is also only a situation in localized areas. It is entirely likely that wild turkey numbers will be good in your own favorite hunting grounds.
In fact, the outlook remains bright throughout the entire state. Even if reproductive success was limited in your own personal hunting site, most of the younger birds from 2015 will now reach the two to two-and-one-half age mark. This is the age that most hunters prefer. The birds are adults and readily come to a call.
Northwest Illinois is again expected to be one of the best areas to bag the main ingredient for a Thanksgiving dinner. Here, turkey populations seem to do well in the scattered-but-common woodlots, interspersed with agricultural land. Jo Daviess and Fulton counties are once again projected to be hotspots this season for turkey hunters.
West-central Illinois is another location where turkey numbers are expected to thrive. Ample acreage of cropland and interspersed timber are the likely combination providing good habitat for these birds. Pike, Adams and Schuyler counties are expected to be among the best locations. However, don’t count out Macoupin and Madison counties. They, too, should be good locations to focus hunting efforts.
The large expanses of forest make southern Illinois another excellent area for wild turkey hunters. Jefferson, Marion, Pope and Union are among the top locations in this part of the state. But don’t rule out Randolph County. It has produced several consecutive years of quality wild turkey hunting.
Though harvest numbers are usually a bit lower in the eastern part of the state, this area can also provide excellent hunting. Winnebago, Iroquois, Vermilion, Clark, Edgar and Effingham counties are among the best spots.
The season is drawing near, and now is the time to stake out your hunting area and begin scouting. We’ve covered a few of the top locations from previous years and some additional research that should help you begin planning your next hunt. Now it’s time to explore one of these locations or another one near you. With lots of great opportunities statewide for bagging a bird, this should be a productive year for Illinois turkey hunters.