Turkey populations in the Natural State have been down for nearly 10 years, yet I heard gobbles from at least five different birds, and all of them on the same property, located in northern Grant County. Thus began my most memorable day of Arkansas turkey hunting in my home state.
Our season opens April 20, which is very late compared to opening dates in a number of our neighboring states. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission pushed our openers way back several years ago to reduce pressure on a struggling resource. The AGFC also made it illegal for adult hunters to kill jakes, or immature turkeys. Those two regulations, along with a good hatch and recruitment year in 2012, have done much to help our turkey population begin recovering. I saw the result of that resurgence on opening day.
At least, I heard it.
Calling to three different gobblers, I finally got one bird to approach. By the sound of its voice and its gobbling pattern, I believed it was the same gobbler that gave me the slip after calling it to within 10 yards in 2012.
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It didn’t get that close this time. Instead of coming to me, it continued on the trail it was on, gobbling throughout its entire departure. I finally heard a distant shot from the direction it was headed, and I feared I had blown my best chance.
At about 10 a.m., I went to town to get a bite to eat and run a couple of errands. I returned to the same patch of hardwoods at about 1:30 p.m. and settled into a pop-up blind. I placed two hen decoys about 20 yards away and began using the big assortment of calls I brought. You see I believe it’s a sin to leave a pocket in a turkey-hunting vest empty, and my vest has a lot of pockets. They contained four box calls, two slates, a push-button yelper and a weird little wooden disc that makes a wicked yelp. Oh, and I had a diaphragm in my mouth. Every 15 minutes, I made a symphony of yelps, cutts and purrs with some or all of those calls. It was like a play, with all these fake turkeys talking to each other. If nothing else, it was a good way to pass the time.
I finished my last calling routine at about 4 p.m. I was checking Facebook and reading the Drudge Report on my iPhone when I heard footsteps approaching through the dry leaves. They were so loud that I feared I had called up another hunter.
I peered out the window to see two big gobblers among my decoys. Both birds had thick beards that almost touched the ground. I locked onto the bigger bird, but they were too close together. One shot would kill them both. You can kill two gobblers in Arkansas, but only one per day.
They went this way and that, but the smaller gobbler stayed behind his buddy.
Finally, the smaller bird stepped to the side, leaving me a clear shot at my quarry. It wasn’t a moment too soon, either, because they were getting nervous. I put my sight on the intersection of the neck and shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
I dashed out to seize the flopping bird, but it wasn’t necessary. My tom wasn’t going anywhere. Only then did the other turkey flee.
This one was a real beauty. Pushed flat, its beard was 11 inches long. However, it weighed less than 16 pounds and its spurs were only 1 1/4 inches long. Still, it was close enough to perfect for me.
The rest of our short turkey season was cold, wet and windy. Jason Honey, the AGFC’s turkey biologist, said the unseasonably inclement weather suppressed our 2013 turkey hatch somewhat, but he also said that because of good gobbler carryover from the previous two years, there should be a lot of adult gobblers available in 2014.
2013 IN REVIEW
We had a 16-day turkey season in 2013, and we can expect the same, with a late opener, for the foreseeable future. Many hunters complained when the AGFC started shortening seasons and pushing back opening days in 2007, but they have mostly reconciled to the new reality now that they are starting to see positive results. Eliminating the fall season in 2009 probably did some good, too.
Hunters killed 9,122 turkeys in 2013, a 1 percent increase over the 8,928 killed in 2012. Opening day, April 20, was definitely the best day to hunt. Hunters killed almost 2,250 birds that day, nearly a quarter of the season total. April 21 was beautiful, as well, and it produced the next highest total, about 1,190 gobblers. From April 23 to May 5, the daily kill never exceeded 500 birds. From April 29 to May 3, the daily kill never exceeded 100 birds.
As usual, the Ozarks were the best place to hunt last year. Hunters killed the most gobblers in Sharp County (341), followed by Fulton County with 313, Van Buren County (264), Newton County (261), Izard County (253), Stone County (230) and Searcy County (214). Those seven counties alone produced 21 percent of the state’s turkey harvest.
Union County, way down in the Gulf Coastal Plain of south Arkansas, was our third best county with 278 birds. Clark County, also in the Gulf Coastal Plain, was eighth with 228 birds. That is noteworthy for several reasons, which we’ll explain later.
Our best public areas for turkey hunting last year were Muddy Creek WMA with 79 gobblers and the Ozark National Forest with 70. Piney Creeks WMA yielded 34 birds. Sylamore WMA produced 50, and White Rock WMA produced 47. Those are actually subdivisions of the Ozark National Forest, so for all intents and purposes, you can rightly say that the ONF produced 176 gobblers.
Muddy Creek WMA is in the Ouachita Mountains, as is Winona WMA (63 birds). Mount Magazine WMA is administered by the Ozark National Forest, but is actually part of the Ouachitas. Hunters killed 60 birds there.
All this despite what appeared to be poor reproduction in 2011, the year most legal gobblers taken in 2013 would have hatched.
“The 2011 brood survey indicated the second-lowest number of poults per hen in recent years, but the additional carryover of jakes appeared to somewhat make up for those dismal numbers,” Honey said. “It is also possible that excellent weather and hunting conditions enabled hunters to take a larger percentage of the population than usual during the 2013 season.”
Well, guess what? We had a phenomenal hatch in 2012, and male turkeys hatched that year are adult gobblers this spring. If 2014 is a poor nesting year, it will probably affect the number of 2-year-old gobblers available for the 2016 season, but it will have no bearing on the 2014 season.
“There should be a good number of 2-year-old and older gobblers in 2014,” Honey said, “and 2-year-old gobblers typically make up the bulk of the harvest.”
We also had a good hatch in 2010. The no-jakes rule went into effect in 2011, which preserved a lot of juvenile gobblers and allowed a good number to reach adulthood in 2011. Those would be 4-year-old birds this year, but there are still a few of them around.
“Prior to the initiation of the no-jakes rule, jakes comprised 15 to 20 percent of our total harvest,” Honey said. “Now we’re down to just 5 percent of our harvest being jakes, and that’s no doubt going to aid in carryover. Based on our hunter survey, which is made up of avid turkey hunters, we know that hearing and working birds are usually more important than actually killing birds.”
The 5 percent harvest figure comes from youth hunters, who are allowed to shoot the jakes.
Despite poor weather for much of the nesting and brood-rearing season in 2013, reproduction was actually pretty decent in most of the state last year. According to the AGFC’s 2013 Wild Turkey Population Summer Survey, the statewide poult-to-hen index was 1.82. Honey said that a pph index of 2 indicates a growing population. He added that 49 percent of hens were observed with poults in 2013, a 16 percent decrease from 2012. Keep in mind though, that the pph index is an average. Reproduction in some areas was better than in others, but the bad areas, specifically the Delta, drag down the overall index.
Also, according to the survey, observers reported seeing 569 gobblers in 2013, compared to 502 in 2012.
We mentioned earlier a large turkey harvest in Union and Clark counties. They are the poster children for the entire Gulf Coastal Plain where, coincidentally, turkey reproduction has been good for three consecutive years. That explains why I heard so many gobblers on opening day in Grant County.
Gobbler carryover in the GCP was listed as “good,” which is the highest level. The gobbler/hen index was .52. Honey said the ideal is 1:1.
“Reproduction in 2012 and the additional jake carryover all point to a really good gobbler carryover,” Honey said. “There was even good reproduction there last year, so we should continue to see good gobbler carryover and decent reproduction.”
Land management practices contribute greatly. Paper companies and timber companies own much of the GCP, and they lease hunting rights to clubs and individuals. They have been clearcutting a lot of timber over the last three years, creating miles of excellent nesting and brood-rearing habitat.
“That’s the way it’s been there,” Honey said. “I hope they continue to clearcut and keep those shorter (timber) rotations going.”
The average day of poult hatching in the GCP was June 12.
Turkey production was also good in the Ouachitas, where the poult/hen index was 2.5. Observers returned 89 brood surveys, which showed 90 gobblers and 108 hens, 117 broods and 660 poults, as well as 147 hens without poults. The gobbler/hen index was only .34, though, and gobbler carryover was listed as “above average.”
“Until 2012, reproduction in the Ouachitas hasn’t been all that great,” Honey said. “They’ve always been second fiddle to the Ozarks and the Gulf Coastal Plain. We should see a good number of birds harvested in 2014, but that’s all going to depend on the weather.”
Land management is also a big factor in turkey numbers in the Ouachitas. The U.S. Forest Service aggressively uses selective timber harvest and prescribed fire in the Ouachita National Forest, especially in the pine/bluestem restoration area in the western sector.
“There’s no doubt that’s excellent turkey habitat, and there’s no doubt that helps turkey populations in that part of the region,” Honey said. “Anytime you can get quality habitat on the ground, you should see localized increases.”
Some hunters complain that the USFS burns during turkey nesting season, and that its prescribed fires actually burn up a lot of turkey nests. In the long run, the practice is beneficial, Honey said.
“You have to look at the whole landscape,” Honey said. “Everything is burned prior to the primary turkey nesting season, but folks go in and get ready to turkey hunt and see that a location has been burned. They tell all their friends, and it turns into really bad publicity when in reality that area is going to be really excellent turkey habitat in two years, and there will be more turkeys as a result. There is a chance we’ll burn up a nest or two, but it’s better in the long-term that we created 1,500 acres of nesting habitat where we only had 100 acres before.”
The average day of poult hatching in the Ouachitas was also June 12.
Although the Ozarks contribute the most turkeys to the annual harvest, reproduction there was spotty in 2013. Observers returned 91 surveys that showed 126 hens with poults, 136 broods and 657 poults. However, observes also noted 324 gobblers, and the gobbler/hen index was .79. The poult/hen index was just 1.6, however, which might mean trouble later.
Gobbler carryover in the Ozark National Forest was good. It was above average in the northern Ozarks and average in the eastern Ozarks. Reproduction was also poor in the eastern Ozarks.
Anecdotally, I have seen more turkeys in the Ozarks than anywhere, both gobblers and hens with poults.
The average day of poult hatching in the Ozarks was June 1.
Finally, the Delta, the state’s problem child. That’s where all our major rivers drain into the Mississippi, and it experienced a 100-year flood and a 500-year flood in 2009 and 2011, respectively, along with generally bad reproduction for many years prior.
In 63 brood surveys, observers noted only 29 hens with poults, and just 103 poults. They noted 74 gobblers, but the gobbler/hen index at .42 was actually better than the Ouachitas. The poult/hen index, however, was just .59. That’s not even close to maintenance level.
The average day of poult hatching in the Delta was June 24.
If you have turkeys on your land, manage them well. Go easy on your gobblers and continue to groom their habitat. This season should be pretty good. With a few warm springs, we might eventually get back to our glory years of the early 2000s.