The three of us drove out well before daylight because it was a long hike back to the hunting area. We were headed to Pete’s best farm and it was looking like the weather was going to break and give us a window of good hunting. We made good time on the walk back, splitting in two directions at a junction of old farm roads.
Pete and I set up on a field corner close to a section of woods where turkeys had been roosting the past few nights. Booming gobbles were already shattering the morning stillness as the sun was slowly peeking in the distance. Within just a few minutes, we had two gobblers answering calls and coming closer very quickly. The birds hung up to our left, out of sight, and kept walking back and forth gobbling. We knew they were stuck at a small ditch and we feared they might not cross.
We were whispering about letting them calm down and developing a strategy for moving and intercepting them when a spine-tingling gobble blew up right out in front us, quickly followed by another slightly farther away. Waist-high field weeds were bouncing franticly and within seconds two big toms appeared at a trot straight in front of our position. We picked our spots, counted to three and fired for a double.
Not a half-mile away, the third member of our party laid down a big tom of his own. Three hunters had three adult birds in the first hour of daylight. Not all days go that perfect, but who could ask for more?
Overall, the Tennessee turkey population is doing quite well and seems to be stabilizing in regard to population numbers. At least that is the preliminary belief. Turkey populations across the southeast are showing similar trends in numbers and harvest data, so many of the state wildlife agencies are getting together to share data.
Last spring, hunters took about 1,000 more birds than they did in the spring season of 2015. The 2016 spring harvest was also about 1,000 birds over the most recent five-year average. Region II accounted for some 35 percent of the spring harvest, but is also the only region in the state with a declining 10-year harvest trend.
The final tally from last fall’s turkey season was not yet available, but the fall harvest in 2015 was about 250 birds below the most recent five-year average harvest of 2,012 birds. The 2015 fall harvest consisted of 1,145 hens, or about 65 percent, and 617 toms, roughly 35 percent of the harvest.
“It is important to note that comparison of fall harvest between years is not appropriate, as bag limits are set on a county basis and over time, season and bag limits have fluctuated significantly, impacting harvest totals,” said Joy Sweaney, Wild Turkey Program leader for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Wildlife Management Area coordinator.
Related to fall turkey hunting, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission reduced the 2016 fall season bag limits statewide, due in part to the declining harvest trend in Region II. The TFWC also funded a multi-year research project with the University of Tennessee.
“To investigate the recent decline in harvest and the reported decrease in turkey sightings in lower middle Tennessee, researchers will trap, radio mark and monitor wild turkeys to collect fundamental demographic data that will allow the identification of population trend (increasing, stable, decreasing) as well as survival rates and mortality factors influencing the trend,” said Sweaney.
The preliminary study regarding potential disease impacts is complete and researchers and biologists are finalizing the results in order to present the information in more detail. Of course, since it was a preliminary study, Sweaney recommends caution when drawing conclusions from the results.
There is also a disease component in the broad scale, five-year turkey study that will further investigate the role of disease on Tennessee turkey population dynamics. The role of hunting and other causes of mortality will also be investigated.
“As the statewide turkey biologist, I am most excited about knowing more about how harvest affects our turkey population, as that is what we as an agency have the most control over,” said Sweaney. “I am also excited because the research study should also allow us to know with confidence the trend of our middle Tennessee turkey population as to whether it is increasing, decreasing or stable. It is difficult to have confidence communicating the status of our turkey population when all we have to go on is harvest data and field observations and limited brood study data.
“The other great thing about the study is that it is part of a collaboration with research being conducted by other states in the southeastern U.S. and the data collected in all the states participating is cohesive, so we will be able to know, not just about turkey population dynamics in Tennessee, but in the southeastern U.S. as well. There has been a lot of research and knowledge amassed about turkey populations while in the restoration phase, but since turkey populations across the eastern U.S. are just now stabilizing, there is a lot to be learned about population dynamics at this population stage.”
Looking at a graph of the last 10 years of turkey harvest, the trend in Region II is negative in relation to the other regions in Tennessee, which may be a normal occurrence when a turkey population reaches capacity or it may not be. Other southeastern states are experiencing the same trend in regional turkey harvest. This is one of the reasons for the long-term study.
For a long time, Tennessee and many other states throughout the southeast were in a restoration mode with turkeys and were actively managing to build the population. All indications are that there is now a leveling off of both turkey populations and hunting harvest.
“The peaks and dips in the past 10 years or so indicate that harvest and probably the population has reached capacity and we expect these changes to occur and also expect the harvest to settle out somewhere below peak harvests,” said Sweaney. “It seems that overall the Tennessee turkey population as indicated by the long term harvest trend is stabilizing.”
Looking toward the upcoming spring season, hunters should expect to enjoy another great season. Survey cards from last summer’s poult survey were still coming in and being evaluated, so there is no hard data on brood production and poult survival from last breeding season. However, there is no reason to expect major changes in hunting success or harvest results as compared to past years.
The TWRA did modify the survey cards to be more user-friendly and also solicited data collection from other natural resource professionals to improve the sample size. There just have not been enough observations recorded for wildlife managers to have good confidence in their analysis. The TWRA may look for additional ways to gather more meaningful data in the near future.
Even with a lack of information on the breeding success last year and with the drop in hunter harvest in Region II, the outlook for the coming season is very good. Last spring’s harvest was some 1,000 birds over the season before and the recent five-year average.
Of course, most hunters just want to know where they have the best chance of success.
It is not really a surprise that Maury County once again led the state for turkey harvest last spring. After all, it was at the top the previous two seasons and always ranks high. What may come as a surprise though is that the total harvest dropped from 1,045 birds in the spring of 2015 to 879 birds in 2016. Maury County is a Region II county and perhaps these numbers give example of the drop in harvest numbers in that region.
However, on a bright note from Region II, the turkey harvest in Montgomery County increased by some 180 birds from the 2015 season to the 2016 season. Hunters took a total of 875 turkeys there last year as compared to only 695 the season before, making Montgomery the second best county in the state.
Region II accounted for some 35 percent of the turkey harvest in the state. Dickson County hunters took 747 birds last spring, while another 699 birds were taken in Sumner County, enough to place it in the top five statewide.
The fourth best county in the state was Greene County with a harvest of 741 birds last spring. Greene County has been recording good harvests in recent years. In 2015, Greene County placed second in the state with a take of 719 birds. The spring before, Greene produced even better numbers with a tally of 786 turkeys.
Unfortunately, there were no other counties in 2016 with a harvest over 600 birds. There were, however, a total of eight counties where hunters took at least 500 birds. Robertson County led the way with 583 birds, but Henry County was not far behind with 572 turkeys. The other counties breaking the 500 mark were Bedford (548), Rutherford (531), Hardin (512), Hawkins (509), Humphreys (506) and Weakley (502).
BEST PUBLIC LANDS
Once again, South Cherokee Wildlife Management Area led the state for public land harvest with a total of 142 turkeys last spring. The WMA always ranks near the top for turkey harvest and that harvest total was more in line with the 158 taken there in 2014. The turkey harvest tally from South Cherokee was off the charts in 2015 with an incredible 231 birds taken.
South Cherokee yields a lot of birds, but it also provides a lot of area. The property is about 250,000 acres, so it can accommodate a lot of hunters. But hunting at South Cherokee is hard and the hunters who bag turkeys there must do their homework, hunt hard and be very savvy.
Second best last season was another very large property. Hunters took a total of 112 birds at the sprawling Land Between the Lakes last spring, up from the previous two years when hunters took 92 birds in 2014 and 89 birds in 2015. There is some habitat management ongoing at LBL to benefit wild turkeys, so perhaps the bump in harvest is an early result.
LBL offers a lot of birds, but hunting there is not easy. There are a lot of access roads cutting through the property, so it is difficult to always know the whereabouts of other hunters. Birds get hunted hard and called to a lot, so they are sometimes very closed-mouth.
Several other properties posted good public land harvest numbers last spring. Among the best were Milan AAP (90 birds), Cheatham WMA (71), Chuck Swan WMA (71) and Catoosa WMA (71).