If you're investing in Arkansas turkey hunting futures, diminishing returns suggest you should "Hold."
By every measure, hunters should have killed more turkeys last year than in 2016, and the fact that it didn't happen is cause for concern.
For many years, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has prescribed a 16-day spring turkey season that opened in late April and ended in early May. To the consternation of many hunters, the framework was designed to reduce the harvest of gobblers because it opened the season after most breeding activity was believed to have occurred.
Consequently, hunters believed that gobblers were less vocal in late April.
Before he retired, former AGFC director Mike Knoedl persuaded the commission to open the season in early April.
"Turkey hunters have been very patient with us and they've sacrificed a lot," Knoedl said at that time. "They need you to give them a little something in return."
The commission obliged and opened the 2017 spring turkey season on April 10, with a special youth turkey hunting season for hunters younger than age 16. That seasaon ran April 8-9, 2017. The season bag limit for adult hunters remained two mature gobblers. Youth hunters were allowed to kill jakes.
The harvest should have increased. Instead, it decreased by 1,798 birds. Hunters checked 10,066 turkeys in the 2017 spring season compared to 11,864 in 2016.
That includes the youth season in which hunters under age 16 killed 958 gobblers, including jakes. In 2016, youth hunters killed 1,336 birds.
What happened? Low turkey numbers appear to be the cause, said Jason Honey, the AGFC's turkey program coordinator.
"Many factors, such as hen health, predators, illegal hen harvest, poor habitat and weather influence the number of turkeys in Arkansas," Honey said. "Poor hatches during the last several years continue to suppress population levels across the state."
OUR BEST AREAS
The Ozark Mountain region, as always, was our most productive turkey hunting area last year. Hunters killed 4,446 gobblers, compared to 5,546 in 2016 and 5,431 in 2015.
The Gulf Coastal Plain, kind of an overlooked resource for turkey hunting, was second with 2,922 gobblers. That's almost identical to 2015, when GCP hunters checked 2,996 gobblers. There was a small spike in 2016 with 3,085 gobblers.
In the Ouachita Mountain region, hunters checked 1,745 gobblers. That was down significantly from 2016, when Ouachita hunters checked 2,161 gobblers, and that was almost identical to 2015's harvest, which was 2,177 gobblers.
And then there was the state's problem child, the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, or "the Delta." Hunters checked 953 gobblers in the Delta last spring, which was virtually identical to 2015, when they checked 957. There was a slight spike in 2016 with 1,072 gobblers.
Our top turkey hunting county was Fulton County, where hunters checked 380 gobblers. Right behind was Cleburne County with 345, followed by Stone (337), Baxter (326), Sharp (284), Izard (278), Newton (272), Union (267), Van Buren (256) and White (252).
Except for Union and White, all of those counties are in the Ozarks. Half of White County is in the Ozark foothills, and half is in the Delta. It's a safe bet that most of the turkeys were killed in the Ozark half.
Union County is in the Gulf Coastal Plain. It's always in the top 10, but that's probably because it is a very large county that contains a lot of prime turkey habitat.
Our top public hunting area was the Ozark National Forest Wildlife Management Area, a huge area where hunters checked 155 gobblers. Next was Sylamore WMA, another subdivision of the Ozark National Forest, which contributed 104 birds to the tally.
In third was Muddy Creek WMA, a subdivision of the Ouachita National Forest, which contributed 87 turkeys, followed by Winona WMA (87), also a subdivision of the Ouachita National Forest.
Piney Creeks WMA, another subdivision of the Ozark National Forest, contributed 56, followed by White Rock WMA (53), yet another subdivision of the Ozark National Forest. Rounding out the Top 10 were Mount Magazine WMA (50), Buffalo National River WMA (47), Cherokee WMA (38) and Casey Jones WMA (27).
Historically, spring turkey harvests hovered around 5,000 birds from 1982 to '84, but climbed steadily from 1984 to '89, when harvests were around 7,000 birds.
The spring harvest dipped in 1990, but began a long period of ascent from 1991 to 2002, when in 2002 the spring harvest peaked at just over 20,000 birds. It has fallen steadily and precipitously ever since.
The low point was 2010, when the spring harvest fell to levels equal to those of the mid-1980s. An upward trend ensued from 2011 to 2013, but the trend slopes downward from 2014 to present.
The AGFC has conducted its annual Wild Turkey Brood Survey since 1982. Brood survey results offer important information on population growth, Honey said, and population trends are closely related to turkey harvests in subsequent turkey seasons.
Brood survey indices in 2017 indicate reproduction was below the previous 5-year average across the state. The statewide poult/hen index of 0.66/1 was the lowest on record.
The poult/hen ratio is an indicator of poult survival. Statewide, 22 percent of hens were observed with at least one poult. That's down from 29 percent in 2016, suggesting lower nest success in 2017.
Overall, most of the poult/hen ratios across the physiographic regions were noticeably lower in 2017 than in the previous year. The average number of poults per brood was 4.4 in the Ozarks, 4.7 in the Ouachitas, 5.1 in the Gulf Coastal Plain and 5.2 in the Delta.
Overall, poult-to-hen indices indicate declining populations across the regions.
"To put the potential threats to poults in a specific order is difficult," Honey said. "A cool, wet spring during brood — rearing season can kill poults. These weather events after poults have hatched can decimate populations whether there was great mast production, excellent hen health, and any number of other positive factors."
A total of 515 gobblers were observed during the survey. The 2017 gobbler-to-hen index remained identical to 2016 at 0.52-1.
The observed gobbler/hen ratio indicates the level of carryover of gobblers from the previous spring turkey season. Before the commission outlawed killing jakes in 2011, gobbler carryover was below the 0.5 gobbler/hen ratio. It has stabilized the previous six years, which Honey attributed to "no jake regulation" and the late opening date.
It is noteworthy that these numbers are compiled from actual sightings. It is an inexact method of collecting data, but it is statistically reliable because the data is compiled in a consistent fashion from year to year.
In 2017, an additional 30 individuals submitted brood survey forms, which increased the data set from 171 submissions to 201.
"Despite this increase, fewer hens and poults were observed," Honey said.
When compared to the previous five-year average, reproduction in 2017 was lower. In recent years, the poult/hen ratio in the Ozarks, Ouachitas, and Gulf Coastal Plain was near 1.7/1.
"Since the beginning of the survey in 1982, if reproduction was low, then harvest would decrease two years later," Honey said. "Conversely, if reproduction was high, harvest increased."
Based on poult production in the Ozarks, frequent early spring rains should appear to have hurt production, Honey said.
"The effect will not be fully known until the 2019 turkey season, when these turkeys will be 2 years old," Honey said. "The Ouachitas and Gulf Coastal Plain observed decreased reproduction, but not to the extent of the Ozarks."
Of course, the quality of turkey season for any hunter depends on that hunter's particular experience. I hunt in the northern Gulf Coastal Plain, and I experienced the most exciting, most eventful, most rewarding spring turkey season ever in Arkansas. If not for a brief fit of malfeasance, I would have — should have — tagged out for the first time ever in the Natural State.
My season opened on April 10 with me spooking a turkey off the roost, and I didn't see another bird for the rest of the day. I sounded another gobbler on the second day but couldn't get him to work. That bird was odd because it roosted near a bunch of logging equipment that was put to work in mid-morning, and I named him "The Lumberjack."
On the third day, I went to another spot and sounded The Lumberjack. This time, however, he committed immediately. He gobbled aggressively, and he came fast.
I was in a pine thicket that had great sight lines. Directly in front, stretching to the east was a wide firebreak that topped a gently rising hill and seemed to run right into the rising sun. A single row of pines split the sunrise, diffusing the foggy light and giving it the appearance of a church cathedral through my persimmon-tinted shades.
At the top of that rise is where The Lumberjack first appeared. His fan glowed bronze and gold in the backlit sun, and he began the long waltz down the firebreak.
Closer and closer he got until he began the final approach up the small hill where I waited. The Lumberjack saw my decoys and veered away toward a dense thicket, as if he expected the decoys to follow him. He ducked under the hill, but raised his head for a brief appearance that ended with my tag around his leg.
I relive that moment almost every day because it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
The last day of the season almost ended the same way, but it was even more exciting than the first act.
A hen yelped from the ground much earlier than usual, and I responded in kind. At 6:30 a.m., I sounded a really loud gobbler that answered all of my calls, but he was going away.
With the season on the line, I resorted to a fighting purr, a frequent deal-sealer for my mentor, Rev. Mike Stanley of Highland. I have two small, thumb-operating purr calls for this purpose, and I simulated a protracted hen argument. The tom gobbled angrily and changed course. He was on his way.
I saw him from a distance coming through the woods, but a hen yelped loudly behind me. I mimicked the hen's every yelp, and cut her off in disrespect.
Furious, she clucked angrily as she approached from behind me, and I clucked in kind.
I was hoping the hen and gobbler would arrive at the same time.
The hen was about 35 yards away when I finally realized it wasn't a hen that was making those deep, raspy clucks, but a gobbler.
From my right appeared not one, but two gobblers. The dominant tom chased his subordinate in serpentine fashion, pecking him at every chance. They were well within killing range, but they were at a 90-degree angle that prevented me from shooting.
The clucking gobbler ruined everything. He continued to advance until he got to where he thought the ersatz hen should be. His clucks grew more spaced and more questioning.
He stopped 5 feet behind me, as in five-zero, and I was stuck.
The other two gobblers stood erect, their eyes locked on the clucker, and thus, locked on me.
The clucker got suspicious and retreated quickly, and the other gobblers ran after him.
The season was over, and I mentally flogged myself for misplaying that hand.
On the other hand, I have no regrets. I've never worked three gobblers at once in Arkansas, and to call a wary eastern tom almost into your vest pocket is a big deal.
That's what I'm looking forward to this season.