The sun had barely peaked over the horizon when several toms chose to welcome the new day with thundering gobbles. Two of the longbeards we heard that morning were in a rush to come to the “sweet-sounding” hen calls John provided. Only one bird departed for safer territory. Surprisingly, it was only the second day of the first spring Illinois turkey hunting season the South Zone. As John packed out the gobbler in his vest, we could not help but contemplate whether Illinois spring turkey hunters would enjoy an increase in harvest this year. Wrong! Preliminary harvest statistics (including both youth seasons) dropped from 15,941 turkeys in 2012 to 14,133 last year — a decrease of 1,808 turkeys.
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Of course, when there is a decline in the number of spring gobblers harvested, hunters start scratching their heads. Did the number of hunters drop? Has turkey production declined, or could it be more birds are falling victim to predators such as the coyote or fox? Is it possible that Mother Nature has shown her dismal-weather face again?
Weather wreaked havoc on last years spring turkey hunting. Many of us remember the very early and mild spring of 2012. Several hunters reported that they spotted hens with poults in late spring while turkey hunting! Mild weather most certainly was not the case in 2013. In fact, John and I had to rush our photo shoot of him and the turkey because one shower had just ended and another was about to begin.
I questioned Paul Brewer, Wild Turkey Program manager, as to his opinion on the decreased harvest. He agreed that weather played an important role in last spring’s harvest.
“Cold and wet weather, particularly in the North Zone, made for very difficult hunting conditions for hunters. In addition, poult production has been below average for 6 of the last 7 years due to wet and cold spring weather,” states Brewer.
Brewer also reminded me that April 2013 was the fourth-wettest on record for the state of Illinois. Moreover, when the rain/snow falls during the weekend hunting season, many turkey hunters choose to stay indoors rather than go afield. Fewer hunters also account for lower harvest statistics.
As mentioned earlier, John and I thought that since we had an early spring in 2012 and relatively dry conditions, brood production possibly improved. However, it did not take long to realize preliminary harvest reports would show a drastic decline compared to last year (2012). I asked Brewer to share his knowledge on nesting hens and brood production.
“While we had hoped the early and dry spring had positively affected brood production and survival in the spring of 2012, this was not reflected in later sighting reports from deer hunters. Extended drought late into the season may have had some effect on insect abundance and overall turkey poult survival. Crops also got planted early in the spring of 2012 making it somewhat difficult to see poults from June to August when we conduct our surveys,” claims Brewer.
Poults could easily be missed as the surveyor tries to count them. I have noticed that when I am in the field photographing turkeys, it is extremely hard to get an accurate count on poults as they dart in and out of brush and scurry around the hen’s feet.
Illinois is divided into two zones — the North Zone and the South Zone. Each is divided into five turkey-hunting seasons. Season dates began for North Zone spring turkey hunters on April 15, whereas South Zone hunters had their opener on April 8, 2013. The two-day youth-only hunts were held March 30-31 for South Zone hunters, whereas North Zone children had their special hunt April 6-7, 2013.
The preliminary report for youth hunters shows that even though the total harvest was down, our kids harvested their second-highest season total of 923 birds last year, compared to 1,300 turkeys killed in 2012. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that our youths do not just settle for the short 2-day youth season. They are purchasing licenses for the regular spring turkey seasons as well and harvest even more turkeys during the regular season. This is awesome news because the future of our turkey-hunting heritage rests squarely on youth participation. The more we involve them in hunting, the better chance our sport will survive, not to mention that it renews the amazing feeling of pride we feel when we accompany the young hunter — regardless of whether they savor success or not. Having them alongside and teaching them the ways of the woods at a young age will only assist in making them good, honest, ethical hunters later in life.
According to Brewer, hunters were complaining of the cold and wet weather last spring — especially those hunting the early season dates. Some hunters even reported turkey hunting in the snow!
“Many hunters commented on the cold and wet weather making hunting very difficult. Breeding activity was delayed, and gobblers were not very responsive for much of the season,” claims Brewer.
He also shared that the rain and wind not only makes it difficult for hunters to hear birds, turkeys also struggle to hear our calls. We all know that turkeys dislike gloomy, dismal weather. The turkey’s depression is exacerbated when cold, wet feathers are added to the mix.
NORTH AND SOUTH ZONE COMPARISONS
It seems that even when the turkey harvest declines, North Zone spring turkey hunters always take more toms than the South Zone hunters do. Last year was no exception. Preliminary reports indicate that North Zone spring turkey hunters bagged 7,639 birds and South Zone hunters took 6,494 turkeys (including bearded hens).
When comparing the North Zone to the South Zone, we notice an interesting statistic in the harvest fluctuation. It seems that although we had a decline in total turkey harvest, the North Zone faired a little worse. For example, the North Zone only harvested 7,639 birds. Compared to 2012, that is a decline of 1,296 turkeys. The South Zone also had a decline, but their decline was not as severe and dropped by only 512 birds in 2013.
TOP-PRODUCING NORTH ZONE COUNTIES
North Zone top-producing counties include Jo Daviess (552), Pike (396), Fulton (328), Macoupin (293) and Adams (290) turkeys. Jo Daviess County spring turkey hunters harvested 638 birds in 2012, 534 in 2011, and 628 in 2010. They seem to fluctuate every year. However, one point worth mentioning is that Jo Daviess hunters typically lead the way as far as harvest statistics are concerned. Moreover, last spring Jo Daviess County weather reports indicate that in the 32 days of combined turkey season dates, rain and snow fell on 20 of those days and included wind gusts in excess of 20 mph!
North Zone counties included in the top-five list consistently over the last several years include Jo Daviess, Pike and Fulton. Although Macoupin and Adams counties did not make the top 5 category consistently, it is worth noting that they did make the grade each year since 2008, except for Macoupin that missed in 2010, and Adams that missed in 2011.
Spring turkey hunters in the North Zone enjoyed the addition of four counties that opened last year. They include Ford, Douglas, Kane and Lake counties. Hunters bagged 14, 13, 3, and 1 turkey(s) respectively.
TOP-PRODUCING SOUTH ZONE COUNTIES
South Zone turkey hunters boasting the highest harvest rates include Jefferson, Pope, Marion, Randolph and Wayne counties. Statistics show that 411 birds were taken in Jefferson, 360 in Pope and 344 in Marion. Randolph and Wayne counties tied at 333 toms each.
An interesting fact is that the Jefferson County harvest last spring declined by 57 birds when compared to 2012, yet they still made the top-five list and have held that title since 2007.
Other South Zone counties that have maintained top-five status since 2007 include Pope and Marion counties. Wayne County has been included in the top-five each year except for 2010 when their harvest declined to 339 birds. Randolph County has been included in the top-five spring harvest list every year since 2008.
Another interesting statistic discovered as I researched, is that even though the harvest rate decreased statewide last spring, the preliminary report showed that some counties showed a harvest increase. They include Calhoun, Carroll, Champaign, Lee, Moultrie, and Stark in the North Zone. South Zone counties with increases in 2013 include Clay, Effingham, Hamilton, Hardin, Marion, Massac, Perry, and Union.
Illinois has four state forests open to turkey hunting. They include three in the North Zone: Big River in Henderson County, Sand Ridge in Mason County and Hidden Springs in Shelby County. South Zone hunters can consider Trail of Tears, located in Union County.
Henderson County hunters bagged 127 turkeys, Mason County 164, Shelby County 83 and Union County 294. Although these counties are not the top harvest counties, they are still worth investigating.
Big River has 2,997 acres, yet they only grant 6 permits for turkey hunting. This could be just the place for that hunter seeking a place to run and gun without bumping into other hunters. For more information and regulations, log on at www.dnr.state.il.us/Lands/landmgt/parks/R1/BIGRIVER.HTM.
Sand Ridge consists of 6,600 acres of flat lands and rolling hills open to hunting. A special Sand Ridge turkey permit allocated through the annual permit system is required. Sand Ridge information is available at www.dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r4/sand.htm#Hunting.
With the exception of 240 acres where the headquarters, campground and Rolling Meadows picnic area are located, the remaining 1,200 acres of Hidden Springs State Forest are open to hunting. Hidden Springs State Forest details can be found at www.dnr.state.il.us/Lands/landmgt/parks/R3/HSFOREST.HTM#Hunting.
Trail of Tears State Forest includes 4,784 acres available to hunters. They report good populations of squirrels, white tailed deer, raccoons and wild turkeys due to maintained waterholes and wildlife openings. The waterholes and openings provide improved habitat conditions for these species. Trail of Tears State Forest does not allow hunting on the small 222-acre parcel that comprises the Ozark Hills Nature Preserve. Trail of Tears information is available at www.dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r5/trltears.htm.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
I asked Brewer for his conjectured turkey harvest forecast for 2014. Although he was somewhat pessimistic about what we can expect, he remains optimistic overall.
“Six of the last seven spring production periods were both wet and cold, including this past spring (2013). Last year’s poult production is down,” said Brewer, adding that good weather during the spring hunting season could mean a slight improvement in the spring harvest for 2014 statewide.
Brewer shared that poor weather conditions in 2013, poor poult production and fewer turkeys seen by our deer hunters in the fall of 2012 paints somewhat of a dismal picture. However, fewer birds harvested last spring could mean a few more adult birds in some areas available this spring. He mentioned, too, that it helps if good weather prevails as the season opens and on weekends when many hunters are afield, it could mean better news for turkey hunters.
Mentioned earlier was the fact that in 2012, the early spring enabled farmers to get their crops in the ground early and that caused issues when surveyors are trying to visibly count turkeys. There may have been some birds that were missed. Brewer also mentioned that deer hunters’ reports showed a decrease in turkey sightings. Could this be due to the crop harvest causing more turkeys to take to the fields rather than being in the woods? It is often bowhunters that provide some of the best analysis for DNR officials. They are out there consistently and usually happy to report their sightings. We can only hope for the best and see what next year will hold. Hopefully, the magnificent Eastern wild turkey population that calls Illinois home will increase.
As we ended our conversation, Brewer said he would like to add one important comment to the article. He ended by saying that less rain and milder temperatures would sure help! I cannot agree with him more and, hopefully, 2014 will be a “picture perfect” year!
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