I can still remember opening day of the 2013 spring Indiana turkey hunting season. It rained all morning in Spencer County. My wife, Vikki, and I were not fortunate enough to hear any gobbling, but we did see a few jakes — somewhat of an unfamiliar sight.
Several miles away, my son, John, had a similar morning. He, too, saw an abundance of jakes before sending an arrow through the vitals of an adult gobbler that couldn’t resist checking out a nearby gobbler decoy.
Yes, seeing an abundance of insubordinate gobblers in the state of Indiana has been a rarity in recent years. The state has experienced poor brood production since 2005. Meanwhile, veteran turkey hunters have found it difficult to find an adult bird.
Could it be we are now on the road to recovery, or could we see another downhill slope? More about that later.
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GOOD NEWS JAKES
It’s really no big news that jakes were abundant last spring. After all, hunters during the late spring of 2012 reported seeing hens with poults before the hunting season ended. Most hunters can still remember that early spring and how the woods greened up prior to the hunting season.
Last spring we saw the results. There were numerous jakes. The spring harvest report for 2013 showed that 24 percent of the total harvest consisted of jakes. The previous year, 1-year-old gobblers made up only 14 percent of the harvest. The best news, though, is what the numerous jakes mean for this spring!
Wildlife Research Biologist Steve Backs referred to the summer of 2012 as “the drought year.” Nonetheless, it was a great year for brood production and will help hunters this coming spring. He claims there should be an abundance of 2-year-olds — those birds that do much of the gobbling.
THE HARVEST REPORTS
Although we did see lots of jakes last spring and will probably have lots of 2-year-old birds in 2014, the harvest was not exceptional in 2013. Hunters cashed in on 11,374 birds in 89 of 92 Hoosier counties during the state’s 44th spring hunting season. This was a 10 percent decline compared to the 2012 harvest of 12,655.
Indiana hunters enjoyed their highest spring harvest in 2010 when they cashed in on 13,742 birds. There were a few down years prior to then, and only in 2006 did hunters take more than 13,000 turkeys for the first time. Of course, that followed the great hatch and excellent brood production that occurred in 2005.
If we could turn back the clock a few decades, you would discover that only 62 hunters pursued the wild turkey in 1970 — the first time Indiana hosted a spring turkey hunt. Hunters harvested 6 birds with 3 counties open to hunting.
Although many new counties opened to turkey hunting by the end of the 1990s, not to mention there being lots more birds for hunters to pursue, the number of hunters continued to increase statewide. For instance, by 2004 an estimated 40,000-plus hunters were afield. By 2006, the estimated number of hunters jumped to more than 50,000. Officials estimated that almost 60,000 participated last spring.
Obviously, many Hoosier turkey hunters have perfected their tactics over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, fewer than 10 percent were successful. By the 1990s, hunter success rates surpassed 20 percent, sometimes reaching more than 25 percent. Last spring, though, only 19 percent of the hunters tagged a bird.
Backs said that last spring’s hunter success rate was the lowest since 1992. He hopes that we’ll soon see this statistic hit 22 percent, or higher.
THE STOCKPILE OF MATURE GOBBLERS
Make no mistake; it hasn’t been great hatches and brood production that has carried us for numerous years. In fact, it all goes back to 2005 when turkey production boomed. These results are carved into the minds of many die-hard turkey hunters, and they’re also in black and white. The reports show that prior to 2011, the harvest of those birds 3-years-old and older usually ranged from 22 to 29 percent. However, in 2011 the older birds made up 31 percent of the harvest. In 2012, they accounted for 34 percent of the harvest.
Backs suggested that the higher harvest of mature birds in recent years indicates that turkey hunters have survived on the stockpile of older birds that came from the limited years when better brood production occurred.
During the 2013 spring hunting season, 24 counties reported a harvest of more than 200 birds. In 2012, 26 counties showed a harvest of more than 200. Looking at county-by-county harvest rises and declines in 2013, we see that 64 counties reported a harvest decline, whereas in 2012, only 19 counties showed a harvest drop.
There was little difference in the Top 10 this past spring compared to the previous year. No. 1, Harrison County, reported the highest harvest at 408, yet still showed a sharp harvest decline compared to the previous year. Switzerland ranked second in both 2012 and 2013, but also showed a harvest decline last spring, followed by Jefferson and Dearborn counties, which respectively ranked 3rd and 4th in 2012.
Perhaps the amazing news came from northern Indiana. The Top 10 counties are typically found in the southern half of the state. Last spring, however, northern Indiana’s Steuben County reported a harvest of 308 birds and ranked No. 5. The county ranked No. 8 in 2012 with a harvest of 289. Marshall County also moved up the ladder and ranked No. 8 this past spring with a harvest of 288, compared to ranking No. 10 in 2012. However, their harvest dropped 2 percent in 2013.
Several counties had major harvest fluctuations from 2012 to 2013, but most of these typically report a low overall harvest. For instance, Adams County had a harvest decline of 20 percent in 2013, but hunters took only 8 birds there in 2013, compared to 10 turkeys in 2012. Dubois County reported a decline of 25 percent last spring with a harvest of 171 turkeys. Other counties (excluding those in the Top 10) reporting major declines last spring that usually harvest 100 or more birds were Fountain, Monroe, Newton, Ohio, Pulaski, Spencer, Vermillion and Washington.
On the flipside, I found only one county that reported a harvest increase of more than 20 percent last spring, when looking at those with a harvest of 100-plus turkeys, and excluding the Top 10. Bartholomew County, reported a harvest of 131 birds in 2013 — an increase of 31 percent when compared to a harvest of 100 turkeys in 2012. There were other counties that show respectable increases last spring, but these counties typically harvest fewer than 100 birds.
For many years, southern Indiana counties offered the only hunting opportunities. Restocking of wild turkeys in the northern half of the state has changed all that, and it appears that northern counties are coming on. In 2004, North Region hunters took 1,303 birds. By 2007, they harvested 1,758 turkeys. In 2013, they reported a harvest of 2,834. Consider, too, the North Region’s percentage of the total statewide harvest. In 2004, it accounted for 12 percent, and in 2007, 16 percent. However, in 2013 it accounted for 25 percent of the total harvest. But make no mistake, even the North Region showed a harvest decline last spring of 6 percent when compared to 2012.
“We’ve got some really good counties in the northern part of the state. Marshall, Lagrange, Pulaski, Starke and Steuben counties are doing great,” said Backs, adding that these were some of the last counties in the state to be restored with wild turkeys. “They are still in kind of a growth phase, but I suspect that will be leveling off soon.”
Of Indiana’s six regions, the biggest declines in harvests last year occurred in the West-Central and South-Central regions (13 percent). The Southeast and Southwest regions declined 10 percent in 2013 when compared to 2012.
Hoosier National Forest and several nearby state forests offer some of the best public-land hunting opportunities in the southern half of the state. Yet, many public-land hunters do report hearing fewer gobblers and seeing fewer birds in these areas in recent years. According to Backs, this is the bulk of the public land in Indiana.
“We still have good (turkey) populations on the forest grounds. Part of this is because the turkeys are benefiting from some of the open country on adjacent private land,” claimed Backs.
Backs also suggested that some hunters do not want to go to the public forests because of hunting pressure. However, he said that after the first five days of the hunting season, there are fewer hunters and better hunting on these public lands.
In the North Region, Backs said that Pigeon River Fish & Wildlife Area (FWA) continues to produce lots of birds. Then he mentioned Newton County where only 80 birds were harvested last spring, with Willow-Slough FWA the primary producer. He also claimed that both Jasper-Pulaski FWA and Winamac FWA (located in the same proximity) also act as core turkey areas in northern Indiana.
However, central Indiana has not done as well. Backs refers to this region as the corn and soybean belt, and it has less forest cover.
BROOD PRODUCTION AND THE FUTURE
Many hunters are fully aware that we didn’t enjoy an early spring in 2013. In some areas it was downright chilly and wet, both of which can affect the hatch. It could also impact brood production if dismal days continue after the hunting season. According to Backs, it might have last spring. At the time of this writing, he was still unsure about brood production this past summer.
“When the crops came out, I did finally get reports of large flocks of bird getting seen, but people can’t tell if these are just large clusters of birds from previous years, or if they are a result of good production,” noted Backs.
However, despite the damp and miserable weather last spring, my wife managed to tag a 4-year-old gobbler with only a few days left in the season. I might add, only 30 minutes before she harvested her bird, we found ourselves standing under a huge oak tree waiting on the rain to stop. It soon did and the turkey gobbled only 150 yards away. We quickly crossed a water-filled ditch (only after I took a fall on the slick, muddy bank), moved through the soggy woods and set up quickly. Several minutes and a few hen calls later the gobbling bird showed up in full strut only 25 yards in front of us. The tom acted as though it was a beautiful, sunny day. For Vikki, I guess it was. The bird carried 1 1/8-inch spurs and a super-thick beard.
Although we worked hard for this eager turkey, I couldn’t help but wonder if nesting hens could be in trouble. Would it affect their hatch and could it mean another year of poor production?
“My gut feeling is that we were extremely wet even after the turkey season, and that we did not have as good of production last spring as we could have,” claimed Backs.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN 2014?
With no changes in regulations for this spring, Backs is assuming a harvest this spring of about 12,000 birds, plus or minus 1,000. “We’ve gone through a number of years of reduced production,” said Backs, suggesting that several states in the Midwest and the South have had inadequate turkey production the past 10 years.
Although many hunters still wonder if another record turkey harvest could occur, Backs said it could take at least 2-3 years of good turkey production. In fact, it’s the adult hens that could determine how many gobblers that will become available in the years ahead. In other words, the good brood production of 2012 will mean more mature hens nesting in 2014, which could mean better production this summer if good weather prevails. However, Backs said that some hunters get the wrong idea.
“It takes only a couple of years of poor production to put you in the hole, but sometimes it takes 4-5 years of good production to crawl back out of that hole,” noted Backs.
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