Even though the weather is still pretty cold, many hunters are already gearing up for turkey season, gathering equipment and scouting to find birds. Thankfully, the Bluegrass State has a good population of North America's largest game bird, as well as numerous locations where folks can hunt.
Last season, hunters took more than 33,000 birds in the commonwealth, which was a little higher than the previous two seasons of 31,000 and 30,800, respectively.
More hunters taking birds the last few seasons is certainly an indicator that the flock continues to be doing well as a whole.
Factors that directly affect the health of the population, such as spring weather conditions, fall mast production and hunting pressure were all normal in 2017, so poult production and winter survival was again good, according to biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Zak Danks is the state's turkey program biologist, managing wild turkeys by monitoring the harvest and annual production in order to recommend regulatory changes when needed to maintain healthy bird numbers. That number is estimated at about 225,000, spread throughout the Commonwealth. It's remained in that vicinity for an extended time.
It's likely that Kentucky has about reached carrying capacity of the available habitat in most regions of the state, but year to year fluctuations is normal. Interestingly, observations of wild turkeys have increased in urban settings in recent years. This uptick of seeing birds in closer proximity to houses and neighborhoods raises an interesting question about how adaptable turkeys are to the changing landscape.
Obviously not as suited as whitetails to survive in town, but enough so hearing birds somewhere close to neighborhoods isn't far-fetched.
"The 2017 harvest in Fayette County (Lexington) was 70 toms, while in Jefferson County (Louisville) it was 90 birds," Danks stated.
Regardless of urban sprawl and limited habitat in two populated counties, as well as the northern Kentucky area, good numbers of wild turkeys are present and hunters are finding a way to score on these "city birds."
The harvest of jakes was up in 2015 and down in 2016. This provided a lot of two-year-old gobblers last spring and explains a third straight year of increased harvest. This spring, it's more likely two-year olds will be a little less plentiful, but older birds should still be pretty strong.
Reproduction was expected to be good in the summer of 2017, which means hunters can expect to encounter more jakes than in 2017. Of course, hatch and survival, as well as weather conditions are not identical in all areas of Kentucky, so even in a given county, hens may have had better success in different areas. Pre-season scouting therefore, is key to finding birds opening morning, especially on public land.
In the far west Purchase Region, there are 19 state wildlife management areas, either state-owned or federally controlled, on which the KDFWR keeps harvest records. The majority are open for spring turkey hunting.
Far and away, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area offers the best single area for turkey hunter success. It's the largest by land mass and allows hunters to spread out. The kill ratio of about 1.5 birds per hundred acres in Kentucky is good for the amount of hunting pressure of which public lands are subjected. The area has a lot of birds, however, hunters have to be patient and dedicated to be successful.
Another federal area to consider is Clarks River NWR, which is a consistent producer. Clarks River gives hunters nearly 9,500 acres of both forested and open areas that appeal to turkeys.
KDFWR Public Lands Biologist Tim Kreher recommends turkey chasers to investigate West Kentucky WMA, where 30 to 40 toms routinely fall during the spring season. West Kentucky WMA sprawls out over almost 6,500 acres, with forested and bottomland areas to explore.
The Green River Region in central-western Kentucky provides two very good areas for wild turkey hunting — Peabody WMA and Big Rivers WMA and State Forest.
Hunters should have no trouble locating birds to work on the 50,000 acres in various tracts that comprise Peabody. Not to mention, the counties where this WMA lie are in the heart of some of the top turkey producing territory for private lands as well.
Big Rivers WMA spans just shy of 7,500 acres in Crittenden and Union counties, which are both rich agriculturally and contain bottomlands that seem to support good turkey numbers. Hunters can contact either Eric Williams or Charles Plush for information about turkey hunting either WMA, as they serve as public lands biologists in the Green River Region.
Bluegrass Region hunters have 17 different public hunting areas available, but for wild turkey there are three excellent choices for 2018. Fish and Wildlife Department Public Lands Biologist Chris Grasch points to one area associated with a major reservoir in his region, and two or three spots that all or a portion of which is found in the same county.
"Your best bet in the Bluegrass and the north-central part of the state for public lands is going to be the lands around Taylorsville Lake," Grasch said. "I would suggest considering boating into some of the areas, which sometimes keeps you more isolated from other hunters and gets you into birds that haven't had a lot of contact with human traffic and being called to as much."
Taylorsville has some areas with steeper terrain, but is pretty navigable to ridgetops, which are good places to entice gobblers. Weekday hunting is generally best to avoid the larger crowds on the weekends.
All three of the Kleber, Rich and Kentucky River WMAs have lands in Owen County, and this trio makes up the second collective choice for turkeys in the Bluegrass. Owen County is a state leader in turkey harvest on private lands, and it is logical public lands in the county would also be quality places to spend a few hours.
"Though the birds may have been worked some, I think a late-season, late-morning hunt on these three could be productive, since many hunters wear down at the end of a three-week season, and fewer are out there," Grasch said.
The key, according to Grasch, is learning to wait wary toms out, and pick locations pressured birds are more likely to show themselves.
Turning to the Northeast region, Clay WMA's 9,000 or so acres in Fleming, Bath and Nicholas counties should get some attention. Rarely does another WMA, out of the 21 or so in this section of the state, out produce Clay for turkey harvest. It receives a fair amount of hunting pressure, but it is well suited for wild turkeys, and seems to have a sustained population where 53 hunters there came away winners in 2017.
Good nesting habitat abounds on Clay, giving hens better chances for success, and broods seems to resist predation and other natural factor losses. Over 40 of the 53 reported birds taken there in 2017 were adult toms.
In the southeastern Region, there is an abundance of public land territories from which to choose, not the least of which are the majority of the lands contained in the Daniel Boone National Forest. It's vast, mostly open to public hunting during the normal statewide seasons and has multiple access points in several counties. Hunting can be rugged compared to other regions, but turkeys don't seem to mind.
Harvest in the DBNF for 2018 should be in the 500-bird range, and, obviously, pressure is much more balanced than on smaller lands.
Two other top choices for the southeast region are Green River Lake and Lake Cumberland WMAs. Corps-owned property around these reservoirs hold good numbers of gobblers for hunters.
Statewide, there are several counties that give up more than 400 toms each spring, many of which are clustered together. In the Green River Region, Hart and Logan counties eclipsed 600 harvested birds last season, while Muhlenberg, Ohio, Hopkins, Butler and Grayson gave up 400 gobblers or more each. Elsewhere, Breckinridge and Hardin counties also got high marks for hunter success, with between 450 — 550 birds taken in each.
Hottest counties in the Bluegrass are Owen and Pendleton, with Pike and Lewis at the top of the northeast region, and Pulaski and Wayne to the southeast. The top choices rounded out with Graves and Christian in the Purchase.
Though posting a fourth consecutive larger harvest in 2018 would be against the odds, the forecast for the overall spring season is good, according to Danks, with some areas and counties just better suited to what turkeys need to do well.