Alabama turkey hunters had a very tough year in 2016, with many folks experiencing less-than-usual success. Hunters in the spring woods heard less gobbling and killed fewer birds, causing some folks to become concerned about turkey populations in the Cotton State.
However, Chuck Sykes, director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, says for hunters to not panic, as 2017 promises improved possibilities for hunters, particularly in localized areas, and that overall turkey hunting in Alabama is not that bad.
“I talked with people from all over the state,” said Sykes. “Some people had the best season of their career, and some people did not kill a turkey. That’s how variable it was. Some people in Choctaw County, where I do a lot of hunting, had outstanding seasons, and some people didn’t hear a turkey. It’s highly variable from one end of the state to the other and highly variable even within individual counties.”
Steve Barnett, Wild Turkey project leader and supervising biologist for District V in southwest Alabama, acknowledges some concern about overall bird numbers in the state. But like Sykes, Barnett is not yet prepared to perpetuate the gloom-and-doom forecast of some hunters, citing an ongoing project with Auburn University, the now-mandatory Game Check harvest program and the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, instituted in 2014.
“There is concern,” Barnett said. “That’s why we are working with Auburn right now on this current wild turkey project. That gives us better data, so we can better quantify what’s going on. We still have a good wild turkey population in Alabama, but there are concerns regionally about reproductive declines based on our observations.”
However, anecdotal evidence from hunters trends toward the negative. From north to south, hunters report a decrease in gobbling activity, visual sightings and harvest numbers.
Jeff Pounders manages Little Bear Valley farm in Franklin County extensively for wildlife and timber purposes in northwest Alabama with his brother Joel.
“For the last three or four years, actually maybe six or seven years, we’ve seen a reduction of turkey numbers on our farm,” Pounders said. “At one time I would have flocks of 60 or 70 birds, and now I might have flocks of 10, 12, maybe 15 birds, a couple of flocks like that.”
Farther south, veteran turkey hunter Dustin King, who lives in Covington County near Andalusia, reports similar experiences. He hunts both private and public lands across south Alabama.
“The last four years (the population) seems to be trending down,” King said, “and I honestly think it’s due to predators — coyotes, bobcats, even raccoons on eggs. Game-camera-picture-wise, I’m starting to get more and more predators that I didn’t see before.”
Thankfully, based on reports from the summer of 2016, Sykes anticipates better hunting in the future.
“I’m fairly optimistic that the numbers are going to be better,” Sykes said. “I’ve heard a lot of reports of people who have seen a good number of poults. I’ve seen good numbers of poults. That will not necessarily translate into good hunting (in 2017), but it will in the years ahead.”
Sykes’ comments are supported by observations by state biologists in the field. Late spring weather allowed for a good hatch, with a good number of poults appearing across the state. Barnett says that based on 875 observations statewide by WFF personnel and volunteers that hens with broods were accompanied by 3.07 poults, although the overall average was driven down by hens without broods.
“From what I have seen, poult production and survival may be better this year than it has been in previous years, which is a good thing,” said Matt Brock, North Alabama Private Lands technical assistance biologist.
Despite a marginal 2016 season, Alabama still provides excellent turkey hunting in localized areas. For hunters who don’t enjoy the luxury of a private setting, state and federal properties offer plenty of hunting options.
“What I like to look at are good areas that have a high harvest and also number of man days to kill a turkey, 10 or fewer man-days to kill a gobbler,” Barnett said. “I would consider that a good area.”
According to Barnett, the traditional hotspots remain good options for Alabama turkey hunters, pointing out several destinations in northwest Alabama, such as Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area in Colbert County and Sam R. Murphy in Lamar and Marion counties. Black Warrior WMA, and adjoining Bankhead National Forest in Lamar and Marion counties is a vast acreage with plenty of birds and relatively light pressure because of the rugged terrain.
Boasting a combination of timber habitat and cleared areas, Freedom Hills covers 33,000 acres with a mixture of timber and other habitat perfect for wild turkeys. It produced an estimated kill of 55 gobblers last spring, an average of 11.4 man-days hunted.
Murphy can be even better with six man-days needed to harvest a gobbler in 2015, the best rate in the state that year. That percentage dropped to 11.4 last year with an estimated kill of 35 birds.
While more turkeys were harvested than at other WMAs, because of the size (17,000 acres) and limited hunting pressure the potential for a downed bird at Sam R. Murphy remains among the best in the state.
In northeast Alabama, Barnett notes that Choccolocco WMA, near Heflin, can also be good. At 56,000 acres, Choccolocco yielded an estimated 68 turkeys in 2016, down slightly from the previous year. However, the man-day rate of 9.9 remains among the best in the state.
In extreme northeast Alabama, Skyline WMA actually led the state with 46 reported kills, the result of intense hunting pressure suggested by Skyline’s man-day rate of 28.0.
In the central portion of the state, Oakmulgee is perhaps the best destination, according to Barnett. A 44,000-acre expanse that covers parts of four counties southeast of Tuscaloosa, Oakmulgee draws a large contingent of hunters from across the northern half of the state, especially from the Birmingham area.
Oakmulgee, known as a top destination for deer hunters in the fall and winter, also produced well for turkeys last year with 45 reported kills and an estimated harvest of 59.
In the south, Barnett said his top choices are Barbour WMA in Barbour and Bullock counties, and Blue Spring WMA, which is part of the Conecuh National Forest on the Florida-Alabama line.
Barbour’s numbers dipped last year to an estimated harvest of 38, while Blue Spring actually had more estimated harvest numbers at 45 and a better man-day percentage at 13.3.
“Typically, I would pick Oakmulgee as No. 1, but Barbour is very close,” Barnett said. “So I would name Oakmulgee and Barbour as my top picks. Freedom Hills has been doing really well the last few years.”
AVOIDING THE CROWD
Barnett mentions several other state properties with good turkey-hunting potential, a couple that receive limited hunting pressure and another that suffers from the vagaries of spring weather.
He labels the 17,000-acre Perdido River WMA in Baldwin County as an up-and-comer, with an ongoing habitat restoration project to restore longleadf pines, which should enhance the existing turkey population.
Barnett also recommends Yates WMA, a small tract north of Tallassee in Elmore County, as another area that is potentially underutilized. Yates produced an estimated nine turkeys last spring in limited hunting pressure.
Upper Delta WMA, in Baldwin and Mobile counties, is one area that is annually good. Unfortunately, it falls victim to rainy spring weather at times. Only two kills and very limited hunting pressure was reported at Upper Delta last year.
“Upper Delta can be real good when we have access, when it’s not flooded,” Barnett said.
Both state officials and hunters cite similar concerns about the issues impacting the Alabama turkey population. While predators — with coyotes being the chief culprit — certainly prey on turkeys, they are definitely not the only detrimental factor.
Sykes points out that predators are potentially a cause for concern but other factors need more study, including the use of chicken litter as a natural fertilizer, the presence of feral pigs and the effects on eggs by fire ants.
While King views predators as a main cause of decline, Pounders also continues to study the influences to better manage birds on his property.
“It’s highly speculative and everybody has an opinion,” Pounders said. “I really think the drought started it. A lot of people say predators, and I know predators have some impact on populations. I also know that turkeys are fairly adept at avoiding predators. Last, but not least, the chicken industry here in north Alabama. Chicken litter may have introduced some diseases or parasites that have impacted the turkey population. I’m not on the bandwagon against the poultry industry, because I am employed by a poultry company. But it’s a possibility in what’s going on.”
GATHERING THE DATA
In addition to land management across Alabama, state officials say data is one key that has been missing. Both Sykes and Barnett share the sentiment that Alabama hunters need to be involved in management by supplying data, some of which will also come from the Auburn study.
Now that the Game Check program is now mandatory, hunters must report deer and turkey harvests to Game Check within 48 hours, via 800-888-7690 or at www.outdooralabama.com/gamecheck.
The Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, now three years old, allows hunters to report activity like gobblers seen and number of gobbles heard. While the program has grown, participation remains limited. Barnett stresses that more involvement is needed to provide better data. To participate in the turkey survey, contact Barnett at www.outdooralabama.com/wild-turkey. According to Sykes, Alabama remains behind surrounding states in using statistical information to help manage its turkey hunting.
“I can just tell you in the three years that I have been here as director, I go to meetings with my peers from the other 13 Southeastern states, and we’re behind the curve,” Sykes said. “They are showing some trends that show their turkeys are down, so I don’t see why Alabama should be on an island by itself saying that everything is good. That’s just a common sense approach. If everyone around us is experiencing some declines, then I don’t see that we wouldn’t be. We just don’t have the data to back it up. It’s all anecdotal. Some people have more turkeys than they can deal with; some say they don’t have any. That’s why we’re trying so hard to get our Game Check harvest up and running and working on the long-term turkey project with Auburn so we can see long-term trends.”
Blast and Cast
Turkey hunting and crappie fishing are synonymous with spring across Alabama. Some outdoorsmen prefer turkeys while others favor crappie. Rarely do the two pursuits easily blend together.
Such an opportunity presents itself, however, in northwest Alabama in the spring. Gobblers are strutting at Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area, and crappie are biting at a couple of lakes only minutes away.
Long known as one of the top turkey producers among state WMAs, Freedom Hills is located in Colbert County and is in proximity to the Bear Creek Development Authority (BCDA) lakes.
Cedar Creek Lake, the biggest in the chain at 4,500 acres, is known for producing prodigious numbers of crappie, and it is 10 miles from the gates at Freedom Hills. Another BCDA reservoir, Little Bear Creek Lake, is located 10 miles south of Cedar and offers excellent crappie fishing as well. Both lakes are west of Russellville in Franklin County.
For crappie fishing on bigger waters, Pickwick Lake is up the road about 30 minutes from Freedom Hills. Bear Creek, which feeds the lake at the Alabama-Mississippi line, is among the traditional hotspots for crappie in north Alabama. — Greg McCain