Every turkey hunter greets the sunrise of a new turkey season with the anticipation of thundering gobbles and bagging a tom. However, since turkey numbers are highly cyclic, some years are much better than others. In fact, most seasons are predicted using hatch and retention numbers from two years previous.
After several years of hunter and harvest numbers trending downward in Georgia, there was a small uptick in last season. In 2017, 50,694 hunters harvested 25,702 gobblers. The 25,702 gobblers killed in 2017 represent a 60 percent increase from the previous season, which was historically low. After several years of poor reproduction, the last two seasons had improved results.
"Long term, we have had several years of bad reproduction since 2012, and that has resulted in less gobblers to hunt," said Kevin Lowrey, Georgia Wildlife Resources Division biologist. "The 2016 harvest was the lowest we have seen in 17 years. In 2017, the harvest has rebounded some due to better reproduction in the summers of 2015 and 2016."
There has been a disappointing trend in the last few years of declining hunter numbers. The competition for the interest of young hunters is intense. However there were nine percent more turkey hunters in 2017 than in 2016.
In 2017, the top counties for turkey harvest were Burke with 267 kills, followed by Floyd (253), Bartow (226) and Polk (223). Of course, the size and acreage of the counties are a factor in number of birds taken.
Other top counties include Screven, Washington, Laurens, Walker and Fannin, with the highest number of birds being killed in counties in the northwest portion of the state and the eastern piedmont.
The wildlife management areas that produced the highest number of gobblers were Paulding Forest (59), Cedar Creek (39), Blanton Creek (22) and Johns Mountain (21). Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge produced 33 toms for hunters last season.
The state is divided into seven game management regions, each with its own geography, habitat and biologists. Statewide, the piedmont section in the middle of the state accounts for the highest percentage of harvest at 41 percent followed by the Upper Coastal Plain at 31 percent.
In the northwest portion of the state, the geography is ridge and valley around Rome. David Gregory, wildlife biologist, rates the forecast this season as fair.
"Reproduction this past year was spotty overall, with most counties seeing very little reproduction whereas some specific areas were good," said Gregory. "For example, Floyd County seemed to have better reproduction than most other counties."
According to Gregory, Paulding Forest, Sheffield, McGraw Ford WMAs are best bets in this region.
The northeast section of the state is known for its mountains with steep draws and inclines full of oaks and rhododendron. Biologist Kevin Lowrey manages this region and predicts a 'fair to good' season.
"I think we had better reproduction this summer in our area, but the relatively poor reproduction in 2016 will still reduce the number of vocal two- year old gobblers this spring," said Lowrey. "In our area, the population is stable. Turkey populations in general are cyclic by nature, so we experience the highs and lows, but overall we are stable."
Chattahoochee National Forest makes up thousands of acres with numerous WMAs, including Johns Mountain, Coopers Creek, Dawson Forest, Warwoman and Chestatee. Lake Russell and Dawson Forest WMAs account for the largest harvest totals, and Swallow Creek has higher than average success rates due to lower numbers of hunters. Dukes Creek has the highest success rate, but it is a limited quota hunt.
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The Piedmont Region, with its hardwood bottoms, rolling hills, old farms and pine plantations, has been a consistent producer.
"The trend in turkey production has been down for the past five years, though we did see a slight uptick in the 2016 brood surveys," said Drew Larson, regional biologist. "This could mean more two-year old birds next season, but I don't expect a lot compared to previous years."
Larson rates the population as "mostly stable to decreasing," but adequate rainfall this year should carry more birds into fall and winter, especially in areas where management practices are conducted to open understory of forests.
Overall hunter satisfaction seems to be down from last season, even though harvest has remained relatively stable for the three seasons prior to 2017. However, a decrease in harvest is expected due to the low reproduction data.
The best WMAs in the eastern piedmont are DiLane, Oconee and Redlands, according to Larson.
The western Piedmont has similar productive terrain as the eastern side. While there was an increase in poults, which should translate into more two-year-old gobblers, the four years prior had poor production, so Bobby Bond, regional biologist, forecasts a fair season at best.
"Over parts of the state it is decreasing, with lots of spots where the habitat has degraded and/or been lost, and some areas where people have over-harvested their properties," said Bond. "However, there are some areas with stable populations where large contiguous tracts of land are still being properly managed for turkey habitat and some of those people also practice turkey harvest management in doing their best to not over shoot their properties."
Bond rates the most promising WMAs in his region as Blanton Creek, Rum Creek, Big Lazer and Ocmulgee.
The southwest section of the state is categorized as lower coastal plain and has plantations, farms and fertile habitat. Biologist Brent Howze is optimistic for his region, rating the regional as "slightly increasing.
"Hopefully the increasing trend from this past year will follow into next year," Howze said. "We had an uptick in harvest on most of our WMAs compared to last year."
Extensive habitat work, such as thinning, increasing wildlife openings and burning, is taking place on Silver Lake, River Creek and Chickasawhatchee WMAs, which should help the turkey population. Howze also recommends Mayhaw WMA.
The flat, sandy section of the state east of Dublin and Tifton is the domain of Wildlife Biologist Chris Baumann.
"Based on reproduction two years ago in the Upper Coastal Plain, 1.7 poults per hen, and the Lower Coastal Plain, 2 poults per hen, we should see a decent number of two-year-old gobblers on Region 6 WMAs, which are typically the more vocal and active birds for hunters," said Baumann. "However, due to lower reproduction other years, there may not be a surplus of older birds on these areas. Our populations here are stable to decreasing on many areas. Hunters are having to spend a little more time in the field to harvest their birds. Patience is important if you want to be a successful hunter."
Biologists in the region have ramped up burning efforts and thinning operations on certain WMAs, which creates more ideal turkey season. However, this past year, biologists weren't able to burn as much as planned due to the drought that created conditions for the north Georgia wildfires, which was followed by heavy rains in January and February.
Some of the better WMAs to consider in this region are Bullard Creek, Moody Forest and Dixon Memorial.
The coastal region along the Atlantic Ocean has flat swampy terrain. However, the forecast for the region is good, according to Kara Day, regional biologist.
"The turkey populations throughout the state fluctuate depending on the geographic region," said Day. "The lower coastal plain region has been experiencing an increase in observed broods, total poults and hens, which is a good sign."
The region saw a productive burn season, which helps the turkey population by providing cover and brood rearing habitat. Additionally, maintenance of existing and installation of new wildlife openings has been beneficial. Day deduces that the best WMAs in her area are Griffin Ridge, Little Satilla and Clayhole Swamp.
While the turkey forecast might not paint a rosy picture, as the population appears to be in a downward trend over most of the state, there is still some good hunting available. Hunters might have to hunt harder, longer and smarter to find a gobbler this season. In fact, it might be a good idea to only take one or two birds this year, rather than trying for a three-bird limit, to save some for next year, particularly on private land.
One of the successful hunters last season was Ernie Johnson, who bagged two Georgia gobblers. He hunts on Fort Stewart in Bryan Count. In mid-April last year, he was anticipating the hens going on nest.
"The middle part of April is always a much-anticipated time for a Georgia turkey hunter as nesting time is usually well underway and a good percentage of the hens will often start to break away from the gobblers after the early morning hours," Johnson said.
Johnson proved that not only can there be great turkey hunting in Georgia, but folks can also find good birds on public land, even in the middle of the day. Hunters just have to put in the effort and have some perseverance and a little luck.
As with all wildlife populations, the populations trend up and down, depending on numerous factors, particularly the weather. Many of the WMAs recommended by biologists may be good choices because these areas are managed with prescribed burns, timber cutting and wildlife openings. Wherever you hunt in the Peach State, you may need some extra time, effort, dedication and luck to bag a Georgia gobbler.