The status of the Alabama wild turkey population remains largely unchanged as the season opens, with overall turkey numbers being relatively stable compared with the past few years, along with localized areas of high turkey density and other spots with fewer birds.
"I think we're still in good shape in terms of hunting," said Steve Barnett, Wild Turkey Project leader for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) and supervising biologist for District V in southwest Alabama.
The key is proper management, particularly practices that enhance nesting and poult rearing in the late spring and summer months. Properly managed tracts will likely house good numbers of turkeys. Acreage that is not managed with turkeys in mind will likely have fewer birds.
Growing statistical data suggests an increasing number of adult birds entering the population for the 2018 season. Jake numbers derived from the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey reached a peak last year with a substantial increase over counts from previous years.
"The number of jakes observed went up to 9.37 per 100 hours of hunting," said Barnett. "That's the highest number we've seen since we implemented the survey in 2014. It's also a good sign for hunters for the coming season."
Barnett and other wildlife personnel who monitor the state turkey population continue to rely on data from various sources, including an on-going study by Auburn University. The preliminary numbers — the information is incomplete at this point — suggests both good signs and some negatives.
A disturbing trend, not only in Alabama but also in neighboring states, is a reduction in the overall number of poults per hen observed. While the overall average of about 2 poults per hen remains strong in the state and potentially suggests a slight increase in the overall numbers, the average dropped considerably with a growing number of hens without poults. Hens were observed with a brood average about 3 poults, but those numbers are offset by hens without any offspring.
"We have seen a decrease in the number of poults per hen," said Barnett. "The number of poults of hens with broods has remained relatively stable. But when you include hens that do not have any poults, that drives the overall numbers down just under two. That's something we are investigating, not only in the state but also in the Southeast. Biologists feel that habitat is the main driver of that (lower number), especially for spring and summer brood rearing."
Despite the mixed numbers, Alabama turkey hunters can expect another good season with localized areas of high density in the bird population.
Part of the Talladega National Forest, Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area, near Heflin, has long been a quality turkey-hunting destination. The WMA produced an all-time high of 129 total birds harvested in 2012. While recent harvest rates haven't approached that peak, Choccolocco maintains an excellent turkey population, with good harvest numbers and a quality man-days ratio of 12 to down a turkey.
Choccolocco consists of 56,000 acres, with the forest service conducting an extensive burn program. It is mostly long-leaf pine habitat, with turkeys responding to the management.
Another Choccolocco tract, on the southwestern side, is owned by the Alabama Forestry Commission. Once largely devoid of turkeys, habitat management conducted on that portion of the WMA has created an explosion of turkey numbers. The overall numbers on Choccolocco are such that it is one of the few WMAs in the state where hunting extends past 1 p.m.
Brandon Howell, area biologist, suggests that once the weather stabilizes in the spring, the gobbling commences in full force. Traditionally, that time might be at least a week or two past the mid-March start date for turkey hunting across most of the state. With that in mind, the opening of the season this year on Choccolocco is a week later than normal.
"We're part of the Auburn study now and that's a reason for the later start date," Howell said. "They were looking for some habitat similar to Skyline (in extreme northeast Alabama), and we've become something of a sister area for the study. The late start is really a trial run from what I understand. We'll look at it for a couple of years and see if there are any differences and if it's worth it."
Hunters generally flock to the Choccolocco in the opening weeks of the season, with heavy pressure in late March when the weather improves.
Barnett often starts a conversation about state public options with Oakmulgee WMA, part of the Talladega National Forest southwest of Tuscaloosa. The 45,000-acre WMA sprawls across parts of four counties. Long known as one of the better public-lands options for deer hunters, the diverse habitat makes for some of the best turkey hunting in the state as well.
The rolling landscape of Oakmulgee features long-leaf pines on the ridges, pines and hardwoods on the slopes, and mature hardwoods in the lower areas, all of which hold turkeys.
"Oakmulgee is probably one of the most popular public hunting areas," said Jeff Makemson, area biologist. "One of the reasons that it is so popular is the turkey habitat. It's almost ideal habitat."
Makemson and his crew work hard to create turkey habitat, and their efforts create what he calls a "park-like experience" at times.
"We have just about everything that a turkey needs to thrive," Makemson said, "good habitat, moderate pressure from hunters and from predators. We offer a quality experience for a variety of species, including turkeys in the spring."
The overall estimated harvest from last spring, just under 50 birds, doesn't particularly jump out in the statistical information. The man-day rate of 7.4, however, is easily the best in the state for any WMA will a substantial number of birds killed.
Makemson stresses the abundant wildlife openings available to hunters at Oakmulgee. Perhaps designed with deer hunters in mind, turkeys also flock to openings, about 100 in number. While some of the openings require a hike of up to two miles, some are located as little as 200 to 300 yards from roads.
Like Choccolocco, Oakmulgee is also part of the on-going Auburn study, and the season will start later there as well.
Freedom Hills, located in the rugged terrain of southwest Colbert County, has long been known as a go-to destination for turkey hunting in this portion of the state. However, success on another area just to the north suggests it might be just as good or even better. Lauderdale WMA, near Waterloo, yielded an estimated kill of 55 birds and a man-day rate of 10 last year.
The 20,000-acre WMA is situated as far north and west as possible in Alabama. Bound on the south by the Tennessee River, Lauderdale is within a few miles of the Tennessee and Mississippi state lines.
Lauderdale has always supplied local hunters a steady number of turkeys, but increased efforts to provide better habitat in recent years have apparently enhanced the population. Combined with the natural habitat of mixed forest and streams draining into the river, prescribed burns and other management practices were re-emphasized about four years ago; the turkeys have responded.
Last year's overall harvest was the best in recent memory at Lauderdale and slightly overshadows that at Freedom Hills. In a traditional year, the opposite is true.
Hunters took an estimated 30 birds with a man-day ratio of about 20 on Freedom Hills last year.
While WMAs like Black Warrior in Lawrence County and Barbour in southeast Alabama will always attract much of the attention of state hunters, numerous other options exist. A couple of them are potentially very good.
When Howell started his work at Choccolocco about 10 years ago, he also began managing Little River WMA near Fort Payne.
"Before I got to this area, I didn't really think there was much turkey hunting possibilities there," Howell said. "Once I took it over, I realized there were some good turkey numbers there with some areas on Little River that have just as many turkeys as Choccolocco. As far as the poult groups and sizes, the numbers are comparable to the numbers at Choccolocco."
Smaller WMAs are scattered across the state. While their harvest and man-day numbers can be skewed due to lack of pressure, the possibility of a quality hunt exists.
Barnett often points out the possibilities of Upper Delta WMA. The 42,000-acre tract in northern Mobile and Baldwin counties in south Alabama holds good numbers of birds from year to year, but is subject to the vagaries of spring weather. The Tensaw Delta often floods in the spring, and gates to the WMA are locked due to the expanding water.
Last year proved a wet one at Upper Delta with an estimated kill of only 12 birds. However, the hunting pressure was very low due to the wet conditions.
MORE EVIDENCE NEEDED
Barnett continually stresses the need for more data to evaluate properly the status of the Alabama turkey population. Data-gathering instruments like the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey and the Auburn study continue to be part of the equation.
Another part is Game Check, now a mandatory part of hunting. Hunters are required to report deer and turkey kills. Barnett recommends the app or the state website, both available at www.outdooralabama.com/gamecheck.
"Just like any Southeastern state, we still have concerns, and we need reliable data to better predict the future of our turkey population," Barnett said. "Game Check is a good resource and now a mandatory one."
The most comprehensive statistical information about Alabama turkey numbers is currently available in the annual report — Full Fans and Sharps Feathers 2017 — at www.outdooralabama.com/wild-turkey.