Indiana’s turkey hunting success rate was on the rise in 2016. Approximately 57,332 spring turkey hunters harvested a total of 12,081 turkeys across the Hoosier state in 2016. This came as a complete shock to me. You see, last year I was forced to hunt the same gobbler three days because he was the only bird talking. He would gobble to my gentle tree yelps, and he even showed himself daily as he gobbled, strutted and walked past me — barely out of gun range. Several futile attempts were made as I tried to desperately to outwit the obstinate bird.
Each day the gobbler showed himself just out of gun range and kept walking. I could not get in front of him again. However, on day three the scenario changed. He gobbled continuously from the roost and on the ground. I let him talk a bit, then gave him a few loud clucks and a yelp. Suddenly, he was strutting and drumming and coming. I raised my Remington 870 when he dropped off his ridge still gobbling and in full strut. When he raised his head high, the gun roared.
As I tagged the Pike County gobbler, I pondered how my fellow Hoosier spring turkey hunters were doing.
Tim Hilsmeyer, from Stendal, has turkey hunted Indiana for more than 25 years.
“We saw an increase over the years; however, turkeys in the last five years have declined,” Hilsmeyer said. “The last two years, gobbling has decreased drastically. I feel predators such as the bobcat are taking a toll. Add to that, raccoon and opossum pelt value has declined, so hunters do not pursue them.”
Another veteran turkey hunter I had the pleasure of speaking to is Paul Newland, pastor at Central Christian Church.
At the age of 40, he began turkey hunting and now has 33 seasons under his belt. Prior to moving to Indiana, he hunted his home state of Missouri for 27 years and hunted one year in Florida.
When asked his opinion of hunting public land, he readily admits that although most of his hunting is on private land, public land does offer potential.
“Most of my turkey hunting has been on private land. The few times I have hunted on public ground I had good experiences and never felt crowded by other hunters,” noted Newland.
Newland also shared with me that he thinks our Indiana turkey flock is prospering.
“I’m looking forward to the spring hunt here in Indiana. We certainly have enough gobblers for an exciting hunt. Every year, each area is a little different. I don’t know if this will be a ‘good’ year or a ‘great’ year, but every turkey season is a ‘good’ year when I can get out into God’s creation and experience the challenge of the hunt,” said Newland.
Pike County saw a decrease in the number of birds taken, yet neighboring Gibson County had a slight increase when spring turkey hunters took 141 birds in 2016 compared to 134 in 2015. Pike County’s harvest declined from 228 in 2015 to 191 in 2016. Although this is a 16 percent deficit, it only accounts for a decrease of 37 turkeys. Also worth mentioning is that Pike is located in the southern portion of the state where turkey restoration originated.
Other counties that may raise an eyebrow include Crawford, Greene and Orange. These counties harvested totals of 285, 303 and 314 respectively during spring season 2016. When compared to 2015, the increases include 14 percent (250 taken in 2015), 30 percent (233 harvested in 2015) and 40 percent (224 Orange County birds in 2015) respectively.
According to Steve Backs, wildlife research biologist, weather in certain patches of landscape could have been conducive, whereas other neighboring counties had poor weather. When inclement weather arrives in turkey season, there are fewer hunters afield and fewer turkeys taken. Backs commented that several counties suffered decline in their 2016 harvest. Daviess, Harrison, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Perry and Washington dropped in reported harvest statistics. Jackson County had a slight increase as they took 217 birds in 2016 compared to 202 turkeys in 2015. Backs also shared that while Orange County had a good increase, neighboring Dubois and Washington counties suffered decreased harvest numbers. Again, factors that affect statistics include weather when hunters are afield as well as survival rate of the wild turkey.
“Clay County went up, and Owen County went down substantially. We don’t have fine enough data from our production indices that would indicate exceptional production in Greene County (substantial harvest increase),” stated Backs. He also shared the new web-reporting system that the public can volunteer for and said this project should help state officials gain more accurate information as to flock size. Volunteers can register and report turkey broods annually during the months of July and August on the IDNR website.
Several turkey hunters have been talking about the bird flu, which heavily impacted Indiana’s domestic turkey farmers in 2016. I asked Backs for his thoughts as to whether we had concerns for our wild flock, and he advised that there was no real cause for concern.
Many of us remember 2016 as the year for rain. It seemed the rain would never end. Hens were forced to find nesting areas that were not submerged, so fear of a nest flooding dwindles. But how far is a hen willing to go in order to find dry ground? I questioned Backs about the home range of a wild turkey hen.
He mentioned that prior to the nesting season, juvenile hens wander more than adults because they have never nested before and travel farther during the pre-season nesting learning the landscape. Once a hen finds a nesting location, studies in several states utilizing GPS transmitters reveal a hen will typically return to that approximate location every subsequent year.
“This has been one of the wettest summers of record, and the key to turkey production is often defined by what occurs between Memorial Day and July 4,” Backs noted. “Since Memorial Day, it seems to have been continuously rainy, exceptionally hot and humid. This is good for bugs, however the continuous drenching of young poults has an influence and reduces the number of insects to some degree.” Backs also noted that vegetation was very thick, which makes it hard for birds to navigate.
Of some concern is the data from the web report previously mentioned. Keep in mind, though, that this is a new program and non-DNR staff supplied 75 percent (501 observations) for July 2016. According to unofficial reports, it is possible the poult production has declined again. As with anything new, you must allow for margin of error.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, during the 2016 spring turkey season, Indiana turkey hunters reported a slight increase of 2 percent in harvest statistics. Even though it is a very small increase, keep in mind that the number of spring turkey hunters has declined the last few years. For instance, in the year 2013 we had approximately 60,889 hunters afield although 74,966 permits were sold. In 2014, permit sales totaled 73,279, and approximately 59,237 of those permit holders hunted. Of those that hunted in 2014, harvested turkeys numbered 10,872 for an 18 percent success rate. Looking at 2015, a total 69,192 permits were sold and approximately 55,531 hunters utilized their permit. Harvested birds numbered 11,853 for a 21 percent success rate.
Another interesting fact is the age of the birds Hoosier spring turkey hunters are taking. For instance, in 2005, hunters took 11,159 birds. Of that number 33 percent were jakes, 44 percent were 2-year-olds and 23 percent were 3-plus years of age. Ten years later (2015), spring hunters harvested 11,853 turkeys. Jake harvest dropped to 21 percent, while 2-year-old turkeys rose to 46 percent and the real shocker — the amount of 3-plus-year-old turkeys had a 33 percent increase. These numbers seem to suggest the amount of jakes have declined. And we have seen poor hatches/brood production consistently. Last year, the jake harvest percentage decreased again to 19 percent, two-year-old birds consisted of 42 percent of the harvest and birds 3-plus years rose to 39 percent of the total. The number of 2-year-old toms taken dropped again, while the percentage of 3-plus years increased.
There are 25 counties that had harvests of 200-plus birds, but in 2015, that number included 26 counties. We had 49 counties with increased harvests, three counties reported no change and 40 counties reported fewer birds harvested. Only four counties (Tipton, Hamilton, Marion and Delaware counties) reported no harvest.
Top 10 counties for 2016 are slightly changed compared to Top 10 in 2015. For instance, Harrison ranked first in 2015 with 380 turkeys harvested, as well as in 2016, when 363 birds were reported. Steuben County ranked 4th in 2015, with 337, but rose to second place when successful hunters took 362 birds. Fifth place in 2015, Dearborn County reported 331. But in 2016, a harvest of 330 birds put them in third place. Jefferson slipped from third place in 2015 to fourth place in 2016 when they took 324 turkeys. Orange County hunters did not make the Top 10 list in 2015. However, they took fifth place with 314 turkeys harvested in 2016. Sixth place in 2016, Switzerland County spring turkey hunters bagged 309 birds. However, in 2015 they held the second place position with 360 turkeys reported. In seventh place, Greene County reported a harvest of 303 birds. But in 2015, they did not make the Top 10 list. Crawford hunters moved up in rank from 10th place in 2015 to eighth place last year when their harvest tallied 285 turkeys. Marshall County ranked ninth in 2016 (did not rank in 2015) with 278 harvested birds. Warrick County hunters held seventh place in 2015 with 297 turkeys, but sank to tenth place last year when successful hunters took 277 birds.
Backs does not expect any major changes to the harvest statistic.
“We had a slight increase this year of 2 percent,” he said. “I don’t see us increasing significantly in 2017. We will probably be around 12,000 birds plus or minus 1,000. We have to hope our turkey production stays up. The thing that would influence 2017 as far as production would be the 2015 production and poults-per-hen were pretty similar to 2014. I expect our harvest will be more geared toward adults again, but most of the Eastern U.S. is adjusting to a ‘new’ normal, and those numbers tend to be somewhat lower compared to the previous 10 to 20 years.”
Backs and I wrapped up our conversation discussing turkey hunters afield. As far as measuring population trends from the harvest, you have to be cautious because of hunter effort. As society changes, there are fewer hunters and they hunt less. A survey has been launched to inquire as to hunter effort to see how much time is spent turkey hunting. This number will be compared to 2012 and prior years.
Average age of our turkey hunters is getting older, and some of those hunters have retired their favorite turkey hunting boots. I, for one, can hardly wait to get back out into our Lord’s creation and hear a gobble or two, along with the whippoorwill singing.