Every spring turkey hunter (myself included) is in a state of shock that we took 13,069 birds during the 2017 spring turkey season. This is the third-highest harvest recorded. Prior to the season, there seemed to be very little gobbling heard and not many turkey sightings.
I spoke with Steve Backs, wildlife research biologist, and he shared with me that even though Indiana spring turkey hunters enjoyed an 8 percent increase in harvest, there are still concerns.
The statistics show that spring turkey hunters throughout the Hoosier State took a record low number of jakes.A decline in juvenile turkey harvest typically is a sign of a declining population.
"Jakes harvest decreased 6 percent, with a total harvest of 13 percent. The lower production is catching up to us. Brood surveys switched to the web system in 2016, and those statistics show that there was a decline in brood production. Also, lower jake harvests reflects a lower production rate," states Backs.
As for other harvest statistics, 1.6 percent of the total taken were hens. Not good, considering low poult production. Consider, a harvested hen represents an entire nest that will never come to fruition. Then, factor into that a hen could successfully raise, on average, two poults per year and possibly breed for six-plus years, totaling minimum 12 turkeys gone forever. And that is only one hen and does not include jenny's she raised that could become breeding hens. In 2017, spring turkey hunters took 214 bearded hens.
With jake harvest being down and bearded hen harvest slightly increased, let us look at the other numbers to see what Hoosier spring turkey hunters harvested last year.
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AGE OF HARVESTED TOMS
These numbers represent toms only, since 98.4 percent of the harvest was gobblers. Typically, 2-year-old toms do most of the talking, thus make up most of the harvest. However, last year (2017), 39 percent of the harvest was 2-year-olds, while 48 percent aged 3 years or better. Once again, the increased number of older toms harvested is a wake-up call to the fact that poult production is declining and there are other factors affecting the flock too.
It is easy to blame predators, drought, floods, etc. on the declining turkey population; however, we need to think seriously about forest composition.
I had the pleasure to speak with a very knowledgeable forester, Justin Herbaugh, Association for Consulting Foresters, and gain his insight. He, too, feels that our forests have changed and not necessarily for the better.
"Indiana's forestland has shown an overall decline in composition of oak and hickory species for the last several decades. The root of the issue is poor oak and hickory regeneration. Lack of disturbance (fire and grazing livestock for example) maturing forests, and conservative harvesting practice, which favor shade tolerant species such as maple and beech are to blame," notes Herbaugh.
Herbaugh says we should also consider issues caused by invasive species that are rapidly reproducing in our forests.
"Although Asian carp and emerald ash borer get most of the press, invasive plants and trees are just as devastating in my opinion," says Herbaugh. He comments that it is important to realize the damage multi-flora rose, grapevine, autumn olive bushes, Amur maple, among others create in Hoosier forests. These invasive species are fast growing, rapid spreading and very aggressive when it comes to choking out mast trees.
"They (invasive species) have major ecological and economic effects on the landscape. Invasive species displace native species by out-competing them and preventing native regeneration. They can alter the forest structure and degrade the habitat for wildlife use," shares Herbaugh.
Although it is hard work, removing problem species such as grapevines and multi-flora rose, will enhance the oaks and hickory expansion.
Steve Backs also tells me that the public needs to get involved in forest management. Although this has been an ongoing issue for many years, we are starting to reach a level that if not changed, will alter hunting as we know it.
Backs explains: "A lot of CRP ground went away when crop prices went up. The day is coming we will see significant change in forest type. This includes loss of hickory and oak, a major concern of the forestry department. This will impact turkey, deer, squirrel and other wildlife species due to the loss of a food source. The cutting that took place was not enough to assist in oak regeneration. Within the next 10 to 20 years, we will see dramatic changes, unless there is intense cutting to promote mast tree regeneration. Once they convert to beech and maple, it may be a permanent loss that we cannot recover."
There were 60 counties in Indiana that can boast increases in the number of harvested birds, and 30 of those reported harvests topping 200 turkeys.
Harrison County (located in the southern portion of Indiana) led the way once again when spring turkey hunters bagged 406 turkeys. Compared to 2016, that is an increase of 43 birds. Steuben County hunters harvested 359, compared to 362 in 2016. Hunters in Greene County, in west-central Indiana, took 344 birds, compared to 303 in 2016. Fourth- ranking Jefferson County (located in southeast portion) increased their harvest over 2016 when those hunters harvested 332 turkeys in 2017 compared to 324 previously. Dearborn County hunters took 328 gobblers in 2017, and that is a 2 percent decrease compared to 2016, when they harvested 330 turkeys. Dearborn County is in the southern portion of the state. Orange County (south-central Indiana) relinquished their 5th place harvest position to 6th last year, however, they claimed a total of 314 birds taken — the same amount as in 2016. Warrick County (located in southwest portion) spring turkey hunters moved out of 10th place into 7th highest harvest county when they reported 320 gobblers bagged. In 2015, Warrick County hunters took 297, compared to 277 in 2016 and 320 last year. Noble County, located in the northern portion of the state, holds the 8th highest harvest county because they took 317 gobblers last year. Compared to 2016, when hunters bagged 269 toms, that was an increase of 48 birds. Switzerland County harvested 311 gobblers in 2017, placing them in 9th place. Worth mentioning is that Switzerland County, located in the southeast portion of the state, claimed 360 birds in 2015, and 309 in 2016, so it appears that their numbers have now decreased to what may be considered the "new normal." Franklin County (southeast portion of the state) holds the 10th place ranking. Those spring turkey hunters took 310 turkeys. However, compared to 2016, when they harvested 262 turkeys and 2015, when 269 turkeys were tagged, this county could be showing promise.
Although Brown County, located in the south-central section of Indiana, did not make the Top 10, they are worth mentioning. In 2015, hunters harvested 178 birds, decreased in 2016 when the number fell to 145, but increased to 187 gobblers last year.
Jackson County (also located in the south-central portion of the state) spring turkey hunters have enjoyed an increase in harvest the last three years. For instance, in 2015, spring turkey hunters bagged 202 toms, 2016 harvest figure was 217 and last year 244 gobblers were taken.
We have noticed a decline over the last few years in the number of spring turkey hunters across the Hoosier State. For instance, in 2014, there were an estimated 59,237 hunters afield, 55,531 in 2015, 57,332 spring turkey hunters in 2016 and last year (2017), our numbers increased to 58,980. Of course, more hunters can mean higher harvests, but harvest statistics were also influenced by the hen/poult production increase in 2014 and 2015. Those years produced a slight improvement compared to other years. It is best for us to remember, however, that a couple of years of improved production does not necessarily mean another record-breaker harvest is expected in 2018.
2018 HUNTING OUTLOOK
I questioned Backs as to what hunters could look forward to as far as the hunting outlook is concerned.
"My gut feeling is that we will see a drop in harvest," he notes. "How much is hard to speculate, but sustaining 13,000 birds seems unrealistic because of the low number of juveniles that were in the harvest. Granted, hunters select more adult birds, but that selection has not generally been on this magnitude. We must attribute the lower harvest to the fact that the number of jakes are just not out there. With that in mind, we should expect between 11,000 and 12,000 birds harvested, unless we have some miracle of production occur. But so far weather conditions this year are similar to 2016."
He concluded our conversation by saying that we should not expect an increase or even as high a harvest as we enjoyed last year. This is probably going to be the new normal for now and future years — up some years and down others. Overall, turkey harvests have decreased across the Eastern United States.
Another factor impacting our turkey population is that human population is expanding, requiring more "human habitat," which impacts wildlife habitat. Add to that the aging forests and loss of mast trees that provide food sources for wildlife, and flood areas that wipe out nests, we can see why things are changing over the last 10 years.
Thankfully, there are many hunters who have concerns about our hunting heritage. Some fear their children will not get to enjoy hunting the way we do today. I spoke with turkey hunter John Trout III who voiced concerns because he has a teenage son that loves to turkey hunt.
"I have noticed a decline in turkey numbers in my hunting area over the last few years. There just aren't as many birds to fool as there used to be," notes Trout.
He also voices concern over the loss of mast trees. He has noticed many dead or dying oak trees and even wondered if the droughts have affected them. In closing, he tells me that he kills maple and beech trees anytime he finds them on his property to promote oak regeneration. Maple and beech simply do nothing for supporting wildlife especially in the winter months and cannot compare to an oak flat.
As I sit here finishing my story, I cannot help but think that next turkey season may be more difficult. However, I view it as a bigger challenge and can hardly wait to get out there and talk to the Eastern wild turkey. One thing I am certain of: No matter what the circumstance, there is, in my opinion, no better way to spend a cool spring day other than in pursuit of that amazing game bird. And — you never know — I may just come upon a new oak or hickory seedling popping up along the way. And I will not hesitate to cut any maple or beech or grapevine that stands in the way of mast tree regeneration.