Spring is the season of renewal; new leaves, new grass, new flowers. The weather starts to turn warm, and both people and animals began moving after the winter cold. This includes turkey hunters, for whom spring means one thing — a chance to get out into the woods, prop against a tree and wait for the sweetest sound in the spring woods, a gobbling tom.
A ROUGH FEW YEARS
Turkey hunting in the Peach State, however, has been tough the last few years. According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials, turkey populations in the state have been pretty lean since 2012.
“Overall our brood survey indicated low reproduction those four years,” said Kevin Lowrey, DNR wildlife biologist.
Georgia hunters are crafty, though, and even low turkey numbers couldn’t stop them from bagging an impressive amount of birds during those four years, with only 2015 showing a slight decrease in harvest numbers from the year before. But taking large numbers of turkeys out of the population without replacing them eventually had its consequences.
“It set 2016 up to be a bad season and it was,” Lowrey said. “Approximately 49,000 hunters only harvested 16,108 gobblers — almost 10,000 less than the year before.”
According to Lowrey, the southeast as a whole has experienced population declines over the last 10 years, stemming from a combination of factors, such as habitat quality, habitat loss, fragmentation, predation and weather.
“I think turkey populations in Georgia are basically stable, but I do think they are more vulnerable to fluctuation due to complex factors that can’t be influenced much by regulation,” Lowrey said.
Georgia has seen population fluctuations over the last 10 years — a few years of poor reproduction, then a year of good reproduction, then back to a few lean years.
“Turkey populations can still grow as long as you have some good years mixed with bad,” Lowrey said, “but right now we’re in a low period. From 2012-15, it was all pretty poor reproduction. In that same time period, we harvested gobblers at a pretty high rate. So those cumulative effects led to the 2016 season, which was one of the worst we have experienced.”
So what does all this mean for the Peach State’s 2017 turkey season?
“After seeing the 2016 harvest numbers, most hunters will conclude that the sky has fallen,” Lowrey said. “I too am concerned, but have reason to be optimistic.”
Much of that optimism is based on statistics regarding the percentage of jakes in the harvest numbers. When jakes represent nine percent or more of the spring harvest, Lowrey says, the following season is usually pretty good.
Going into the spring seasons in 2015 and 2016, the percentage of jakes in the harvest the previous years was five percent and two percent, respectively, leading to rough seasons both years. But going into 2017 season jakes made up 12 percent of the 2016 harvest.
Even though overall numbers were down for the 2016 season, harvest patterns remained fairly similar to years past.
The upper western corner of the state was the top producer for numbers. Three of the top five turkey-producing counties in 2016 were found in Region 1. Polk took the top spot with at least 258 birds, followed by Floyd and Bartow. According to Lowrey, two WMAs in the region should be top choices for the upcoming season — Paulding Forest, which encompasses some 25,000 heavily wooded acres in Paulding and Polk counties and Berry College WMA, nearly 15,000 acres surrounding the college’s campus in Floyd County.
Burke County, in Region 3, tied for the second spot in last year’s harvest totals, and six counties in the region averaged nearly 110 birds taken over the season. Lowrey says hunters wanting to take advantage of the region’s solid reputation should consider hunting Oconee WMA for the 2017 season. Hunters killed just eight birds there during the 2016 season, but only one had a beard longer than 6 inches, which means that more likely than not, the longbeards are still out there waiting for a hunter smart enough to get the better of them.
Georgia’s inland mid-section also had a county in the top five producers from 2016. Hunters in Jasper County killed 175 birds, more than 18 percent of which had beards long than 6 inches.
Jasper County is home to part of Cedar Creek WMA, where hunters killed 39 turkeys last year, but Lowrey recommends Rum Creek WMA in nearby Monroe County. This small WMA surrounding Georgia Power-owned Lake Juliette consists mainly of fingers of land jutting out into the lake, but a good network of WMA roads allows easy access to most of the property.
Though none of the counties in Georgia’s upper coastal plain made the top five for 2016, several came close, most notably Laurens County, where hunters took 161 turkeys, and Screven and Dodge counties, which yielded 153 and 115, respectively. Hunters took seven birds off Beaverdam WMA and another five off River Bend WMA, both in Laurens County.
In the northeast corner of the state, numbers were fair, but Lowrey recommends hunters check out Lake Russell WMA next year. Over 17,000 acres of hilly terrain southeast of Toccoa, Lake Russell provides plenty of space for hunters to go after wily old toms. There should be a few out there, too. Hunters killed 16 birds on the property last year, but only two had beards longer than 6 inches.
Hunters in the southwest corner of the state didn’t have much luck compared with fellow hunters across the state. More than half of the 31 counties in the region reported harvest totals under 53 turkeys. Only one county in the region, Decatur, boasted a harvest above 100 birds, with 111 total kills, seven of which had beards long than 6 inches.
Georgia’s lower coastal plain, once again produced fairly low numbers with a little over half the counties harvesting between 50 and 100 turkeys and the rest falling between one and 50.
NEW REPORTING SYSTEM
DNR biologists do have a new tool at their disposal to help bolster turkey populations in future seasons. 2016 marked the first year of a new harvest-reporting requirement that hunters register their birds with the state within 72 hours of the kill — by calling a toll free number, logging on to the Internet or using an app created by the GDNR.
“When we go to this harvest reporting we won’t have to wait for several months following the season to find out what’s going,” said Charlie Killmaster DNR biologist. “We’ll know as it’s happening. It’s critical pieces of information that we have not had up until this change.”
The first test of the new harvest reporting went great, Lowrey says, but it’s not really meant to be a statistical harvest estimate. Rather, it will provide county-level harvest information that will be invaluable to making better management decisions on a small scale.
MANAGEMENT IN HUNTERS’ HANDS
Management decisions come both from the DNR and from hunters who venture out each spring. The Department of Natural Resources is working to increase turkey populations statewide with rules and regulations. Georgia is one of an increasing number of states that do not allow turkey hunting in the fall, when it’s more difficult to tell toms and hens apart. This means that most falls seasons are either-sex, which removes vital brood-producing females from the overall population.
Of course, the DNR only has control of the state’s wildlife management areas. Over 90 percent of land in Georgia is privately owned, and for most of those landowners, good turkey habitat management is not very high on the priority list.
“After changes in Georgia’s timber industry, and three Conservation Reserve Program enrollments, there are millions of acres of closed canopy pines in Georgia that need to be thinned and burned,” Lowrey said.
Thinning and burning opens the forest canopy allowing sunlight to reach the ground and regenerate the native grasses, weeds and shrubs that turkeys rely on for food and cover.
According to the DNR, prescribed burning safely mimics the natural one- to three-year fire rotations that evolved from Georgia’s annual average of 7,000 lightning-derived wildfires.
Georgia hunters can do their part in property management, too, Lowrey says, by allowing unused fields to go fallow or by creating wildlife openings on property (do not use fire as a tool to create openings; it’s illegal, and dangerous.)
These openings, which are simply cleared areas of forest that support undergrowth for food and cover, should be between two and four acres and scattered over five to 25 percent of the total land area. Try to place these openings at natural junctions on the land, such as where different stands of trees or forests of different ages meet.
As with any type of hunting, having a selective trigger finger can also help populations rebound. Taking a jake just for the sake of bringing home a bird takes a potential mate for several hens out of the picture and may unnecessarily reduce next year’s flock.
“I hope that we can find creative ways to influence good habitat management on private lands,” Lowrey said, “so we can support robust populations of wild turkeys into the future.”