Modern wild turkey hunting is as much a part of the Buckeye state as the Ohio State Fair and football, but it hasn't always been this way. In 1904 the wild turkey was a thing of the past in Ohio until a turkey populations in the vast forested tracts throughout the southeastern region of the state took hold again. Wildlife biologists at the time transplanted wild birds from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Texas to Ohio in the 1950s. The first modern spring turkey season was instituted in 1966 and the rest is history.
Today wild turkeys are everywhere. Taking a big gobbler hasn't gotten any easier, but even city-dwellers are within a reasonable drive of good turkey habitat and stand a decent chance of getting in a good shot or two during the spring season.
The Division of Wildlife does an excellent job of keeping its finger on the pulse of the turkey population. According to the most recent turkey population studies, turkeys were estimated to number about 200,000 birds statewide in 2008. The next year, reproductive success reached its lowest level in two decades and population levels plummeted. There has since been a gradual recovery, but the turkey still isn't out of the woods, so to speak.
Historical spring harvest counts lend some interesting shades of gray to an otherwise popular assumption that bird populations really don't change.
Over the 44-year period between the first spring turkey season in 1966 and 2010, successful hunters took well over 298,000 birds home for the pot. During that first spring season only 12 birds were taken statewide. After a steady increase in the number of wild turkeys taken every year, the spring of 2001 yielded the peak harvest of 26,156 birds. Hunting success dipped in 2004 to 16,118 birds but was back up to 23,421 birds in 2010.
Forest Research Wildlife Biologist Mike Reynolds is the Ohio Division of Wildlife's turkey specialist. He has been doing his part in analyzing the DOW's numbers to get an idea of where Buckeye hunters will stand this spring.
"Wild turkey nest success and brood survival have been below average in 2009, 2010, and probably again in 2011," said Reynolds. "The reproductive index in 2010 was a little better than the record low in 2009 so I expect the 2010 spring turkey harvest will be similar or slightly better than in 2011."
According to Reynolds, there should be a few more 2-year-olds around this spring. Even so, the 2012 spring harvest will be well below the record harvests in the early 2000s.
"What we need is some good weather and a cicada hatch to get things rolling again," said Reynolds.
Flooding during the nesting season may be one of the biggest causes of poult fatalities. Predation by fox, skunks, coyotes, and other toothy critters account for a lot of lost young-of-the-year birds as well. Only 30 percent of young turkeys survive their first two weeks.
Other factors limiting wild turkey populations include habitat destruction in the form of housing and commercial development and less-than-helpful farming practices. The number of local permit-holders in the field makes a difference as well. And an exceptionally harsh winter can decimate a bird population for years.
Though it sounds like the odds are stacked against the wild turkey, a good gobbler is a tough bird and can live to 5 years old. Turkeys have learned to survive in suburbia, agricultural areas with a smattering of woodlots, and islands of heavily wooded tracts of turkey paradise within the city lights.
Wild turkeys are now found in all of Ohio's 88 counties. In the spring season of 2010 the leading counties for bird harvests included Ashtabula with 1,030 birds harvested, Adams with 745, Tuscarawas at 664 birds, Galia with 640, and Guernsey yielding 635. These top five counties accounted for nearly 16 percent of the state's overall harvest.
The harvest rate in Adams County increased 47 percent in 2010 over the previous spring. Galia County increased 46 percent. Even Cuyahoga County, certainly not a turkey hotspot, got in on the act with an increase from 2 turkeys in 2009 to 6 birds in 2010. Comparing the overall state harvest data in 2009 to the 2010 numbers, the turkey harvest increased in 67 counties, decreased in 18, and remained the same in 3 counties.
The statewide forecast provides an overview of how things look as a whole but doesn't always say a lot about local conditions.
Aaron McPherson of Hardin County has been a dedicated longbeard hunter since 2005 and has bagged his share of birds. As far as he's concerned, things are looking up in his neck of the woods.
"The turkey population has grown significantly here due to the male-only hunt," said McPherson.
A couple of weeks prior to the season, McPherson scouts the birds with a camera. There are enough toms and hens in the area for McPherson to get several excellent still-shots every year as well as video footage. But when the gobbler season rolls around, he's all business.
"I use mouth calls, slate, box, and locator calls such as an owl or crow call," said McPherson. "The variety of calls helps me to call in birds in a variety of conditions. The first two toms I harvested both weighed in at 25 pounds, had beards over 11 inches, and spurs an inch and a half long."
Primos calls are the tools of the trade, according to McPherson. Add a state-of-the-art PS Dream Season GX 2010 bow and PSE radial weave 300 pro arrows with blazer veins and serious hunters like McPherson get their bird. Primos Brand B mobile, swing hen, and j mobile decoys work well for the farmland terrain McPherson hunts. Set up a whole flock, a single hen, or the B mobile in full strut mounted on top of a hen, and start calling.
Here's an overview of what each of the five wildlife districts look like for the spring hunt this year.
The top performer in District One is Knox County. In the 2009 spring season gobbler hunters harvested 497 birds and in 2010 the number jumped to 528, a 6-percent increase. In Champaign County a 58 percent increase meant 128 birds over 81 birds the previous spring. Delaware County experienced a 58 percent increase in the number of birds heading for the pot, climbing from 101 birds to 160.
Central Ohio offers an abundance of wild turkey habitat that often goes overlooked as spring hunters head for the more heavily forested regions of the state. The key to success in central Ohio is in looking for combinations of the right types of habitat.
Wild turkeys are highly adaptable and are firmly entrenched in the heartland. Toms live in dense forested tracts, open grassy areas, pastures, woodlots, row crops, and meadows. The important point to remember when looking for a place to hunt is that turkeys roost in trees from 15 to 20 feet in the air at night, and an otherwise good area without trees won't hold turkeys. Where there's a combination of cover, food, and roosting spots, an adult tom may never travel more than a few hundred yards.
Most archers choose to spend the spring season in the densely forested tracts of eastern and southern Ohio. It may come as a surprise that harvest rates in every one of the district's counties increased from 2009 to 2010.
For more information call the Division of Wildlife's District One at (614)644-3925.
"Turkeys in northwest Ohio continue to slowly expand their range," said Wildlife Biologist Scott Butterworth. "Private landowners continue to enroll in forest buffer and ditch buffer programs that provide travel corridors, nesting cover, and brood foraging sites."
That's the good news, said Butterworth. The bad news is that tree lines and woodlots are continuing to be removed or minimized on private property and that turkey habitat is suffering.
The region has limited public hunting opportunities and the best hunting is on private property. As in central Ohio, obtaining permission to hunt from local landowners is the key to getting a gobbler for most archers and shooters. A lack of respect for landowners and disregarding property lines has soured a lot of people and resulted in closed opportunities for even good hunters.
Anyone looking for a top-notch youth hunt should keep Lake La Su An Wildlife Area in Williams County in mind. Youth hunts are by permit only with a drawing each spring.
For more information contact District Two at (419)424-5000.
The highest concentrations of birds aren't restricted to the ridge tops and wooded terrain of southeastern and east-central Ohio. It's a surprise to even veteran gobble hunters that the northeastern corner of the state is loaded with birds along the Pennsylvania border.
A lot of hunters have a honey-hole already picked out on private land. Hunters looking for public land opportunities are in a wait-and-see mode.
"How the turkey production turned out last year will dictate which of our public wildlife areas will make for good hunting," said Wildlife Research Technician Geoff Westerfield.
There are several good spots to hunt a spring gobbler, said Westerfield. The Grand River Wildlife Area is one of the best with Ashtabula and Trumbull counties consistently putting good numbers of turkeys on the ground and the wildlife area offering plenty of land to roam on.
"I always recommend targeting the larger public areas," said Westerfield. "There's a lot of land there and hunters can spread out in a wide variety of habitat types."
For additional information contact District Three at (330)644-2293.
Southeastern Ohio has long been the turkey hunter's cup of tea. Counties like Athens, Galia, Hocking, Ross, and Belmont have produced plenty of longbeards over the years.
Athens County had a 17 percent increase in the number of toms taken from 2009 to 2010, jumping from 372 birds to 435. Gallia County hunters experienced a 46 percent increase during the same season, taking home 438 birds in 2009 and 640 the next season. Hocking saw a 35 percent jump, Ross a 36 percent increase, and Belmont a 10 percent improvement over the 2009 harvest.
"Don't be afraid to try something new," said Barb Saving of Hocking Hills Cabins.
Turkeys are creatures of habit, braving the open fields when it's raining and holing up in the thick stuff when the sunlight makes them more vulnerable. Taking advantage of the birds' predictability allows spring hunters to dig in and start calling. Saving likes to use friction or pump calls on the area's toms when romance invites them to throw caution to the wind.
Saving operates Hocking Hills Cabins and opens up the surrounding land to spring archery hunts. She personally prefers ground blinds for stealth but will pick up a 12-gauge shotgun when hunting elsewhere.
To book a hunt with Hocking Hills Cabins call 1-800-385-4161 or visit www.hockinghillsoutfitters.com. Contact District Four at (740)589-9930 for additional information.
Any serious discussion of turkey hunting in Ohio always leads to the ridges and rugged timber of the southwestern part of the state.
"The Tranquility WA in northern Adams is the place to start," said Assistant Wildlife Management Supervisor Brett Beatty. "It's loaded with ridges and hollows and a good mix of mature hardwoods, cedar thickets, early successional areas, and agriculture. It does get some pressure early on in the season so I'd recommend hunting during the week if possible."
The region has experienced some turkey population fluctuations, with some locales seeing increases in the number of birds and others seeing a loss. Adams and Butler counties both experienced a 47 percent increase of harvested birds in 2010 over 2009. Auglaize County, on the other hand, dropped 4 percent. Hamilton County took an 8 percent hit.
Contact District Five at (937)372-9261 for additional information.
The spring turkey season will be a good one. Get in on the action.
For additional information contact the Waterloo Wildlife Research Station at (740)589-9921.