Turkey hunters across South Carolina have weathered a long-term decline in the overall population of turkeys for the past 15 years. When compared to many other southeastern states, however, we still have a respectable population of turkeys and enjoy ample opportunities to hunt and harvest gobblers.
While no return to the turkey populations we enjoyed 15 to 20 years ago is in the short-term forecast, some optimism does exist for the potential for the 2018 turkey hunting season. The overall outlook appears to include some bright spots blended into the conversation for a change.
Charles Ruth, Big Game Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) says based on the data he has available, the 2018 season should be similar or slightly better than what hunters experienced in the past couple of years.
"Based on the recruitment success on a statewide basis in the 2015 and 2016, we should have more adult gobblers available than in recent years," Ruth said. "The recruitment ratio is a measure of young turkeys entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. This is one tool we use to predict how the population is doing, and while the numbers for 2015 and 2016 based on the summer poult surveys were not great, some bright spots were noted. This provides some historically sound data leading us to believe overall the turkey population has made some positive progress."
At the time this story was written, the 2017 Summer Turkey Survey had not been completed. But from discussions with many of those participating, Ruth felt the data would be in line with recent years — and better than the really down year in 2013.
Ruth says that he's generically referencing the statewide survey numbers as a whole. The Summer Turkey Survey report is measured by regions — the Piedmont, Midlands, Northern Coastal and Southern Coastal areas. Not all of the data from individual regions were positive, but the sample size in some areas was small. The Summer Turkey Survey data for both 2015 and 2016, however, did indicate the Southern Coastal area had a noticeably higher recruitment ratio than other areas both years, and had a respectable sample size both years.
This data is available on the SCDNR website along with a good narrative if you want to search for specific data on your hunting area.
Ruth says the spring harvest trends have followed the trends in reproduction for many years, so improvement in recruitment in 2015 and 2016 bodes well for the 2018 season.
"I think considering recruitment two years and three years prior to the season is a historically sound way to look at the 2018 season, based on past results," he said. "The 2015 and 2016 recruitment means more adult gobblers should be available in 2018. Case in point is we hit a historical low recruitment in 2013, which impacted both the 2014 and 2015 harvest. The 2016 harvest increased by about 10 percent over 2015 because of better recruitment in 2014 and 2015. With more two-year-old and three-year-old gobblers available in 2018, barring weather extremes, I think hunters may have a good season."
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The latest harvest data available for South Carolina turkeys is from the 2016 season and that data indicates that during the 2016 spring season an estimated total of 14,856 adult gobblers and 1,927 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 16,783 turkeys. This figure represents a 10 percent increase in harvest from the 2015 harvest of 15,237.
Ruth said that just as the reduced harvest in 2015 was explained by the all-time low reproduction in 2013, the increase in harvest in 2016 was likely a result of slightly better reproduction in both 2014 and 2015, which lead to an increase in turkey numbers in many parts of the state. However, in spite of the increase in 2016, harvest levels remains 34 percent below the record harvest established in 2002.
"The association between changes in reproduction and its effects on harvest are rather remarkable in South Carolina's turkey harvest and reproductive data sets," Ruth said.
"The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one primary factor — poor reproduction. Reproduction in wild turkeys has generally been low over the last several (years) leading to this long-term declining harvest trend. Unlike deer, wild turkeys are much more susceptible to significant fluctuations in recruitment. Lack of reproductive success is often associated with bad weather, either cold or wet (or both) during nesting and brood rearing season."
Ruth says that on the other hand, habitats are continually changing in South Carolina. Turkey populations expanded rapidly in the 1980's and 1990's as a result of significant nesting and brood rearing habitat created by timber management activities. However, considerable acreage statewide is currently in even-aged stands that are greater than 15 years old. According to forest inventory data, during the last 20 years the states' timberlands in the 0- to 15-year age class decreased 34 percent while timberlands in the 16 to 30 year age class increased 104 percent. Ruth said this situation is simply not as productive for turkeys because the older, even-age stands do not provide understory nesting and brood rearing cover to the same extent that younger forest stands do.
"It's important to note the habitat change is not focused simply on pines, it's a result of timber stands in general," he said. "These changes have reduced the desirable nesting and brood habitat needed for good turkey recruitment just as it reduces food and cover for deer."
The harvest data for top hunting areas in 2016 can be compared by considering the estimated turkey habitat available in South Carolina on a harvest-per-unit basis. The turkey harvest rate in 2016 was 0.8 gobblers per square mile statewide.
Ruth said although this harvest rate is not as high as it once was, it should be considered good and is similar to other Southeastern states. The top county for harvest per unit area was Spartanburg, with 1.9 turkeys per square mile. The remaining top five counties for harvest per square mile were, in order, Laurens with 1.6, Union with 1.5, Cherokee with 1.5, and Anderson with 1.2. A more detailed examination by turkeys taken per acre, suggests that Union County was slightly better than Cherokee although the square mile data was the same.
The top 5 counties by simple total harvest during 2016 were, in order, Williamsburg, Spartanburg, Berkeley, Laurens, and Colleton counties.
While much of the hunting in South Carolina is on private lands, many hunters rely on the large number of Wildlife Management Areas (WMA's) to hunt. The habitat diversity among WMA's is significant on a statewide basis and some are much more suited for turkey hunting than others. Excellent hunting on WMA's exist somewhere in all four Game Zones.
Ruth said Game Zone 1 is essentially the mountainous terrain of the upstate and the largest WMA here is the Sumter National Forest land.
"Game Zone 1 is unique in that it's quite small compared to other game zones, but that's a function of topography, essentially, steep, rugged mountain-type terrain," Ruth said. "The Sumter National Forest WMA's here are scattered blocks of land, often bordering private lands, so knowing and respecting boundaries is crucial. But while the terrain is basically mountainous, some areas have been logged and are in various stages of re-growth and others that have been burned provide good habitat diversity for multiple species."
Ruth said this is a good example where hunters need to get out and do leg work to find areas having the right habitat for turkeys.
"These things change from year to year, with cut areas growing up and controlled burn areas the same," he said.
Ruth said this general area overall has lots of mature hardwood areas, interspersed with potentially good nesting areas. He added each year different areas may have the specific habitat turkey hunters want, so scouting in advance is crucial.
In Game Zone 2 one area with good habitat for turkeys is the 806-acre Draper WMA in York County. The Draper Tract is about 10 miles south of the town of York and the property is located south of State Road 322 and west of Secondary Road 165 (Brattonsville Road), bordering Love Creek to the south. Access to the property is limited, but a parking area is provided.
About 80 acres of planted loblolly, natural loblolly, shortleaf and Virginia pine are present. Hardwood stands on this tract comprise nearly half the property and are found in both upland and bottomland sites. These areas harbor a significant number of desirable mast-producing hardwood species.
About 386 acres is open land or is non-forested and consists primarily of abandoned fields, powerline right-of-ways and ponds. Many of the fields are relatively large, some in the 50-acre-plus range. The open areas are managed by periodic mowing, disking and burning to maintain an early successional habitat.
In Game Zone 3 the first WMA mentioned by Ruth was the Webb Center Complex.
"When referring to the Webb Center Complex I'm referencing the three separate WMA's of Hamilton Ridge, Palachuacola and Webb as a package," Ruth said." "They are contiguous properties and comprise a large tract of prime public hunting for wide diversity of species. Webb certainly has excellent habitat for turkeys."
Ruth said the three WMA's together have over 25,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, creek drains, oxbow lakes and various types of wetlands as well as numerous pine stands. Wildlife openings and food plots are scattered throughout, creating tremendous diversity for wildlife.
In Game Zone 4 several WMA's provide good hunting opportunities with the Marsh WMA in Marion County being a good choice for multiple species.
Marsh has several habitat types, including floodplain habitats from the Great Pee Dee River such as bottomland hardwoods, isolated freshwater wetlands and extensive pine and mixed pine-hardwood forests.
Woodbury WMA is another consensus choice. It's a large area — 25,668 acres — and is located in Marion County. The main entrance to Woodbury WMA is about 2.8 miles southeast of Daviston, SC.
Ruth said habitat types vary and include bottomland hardwoods, Carolina Bays, and other isolated wetlands as well as longleaf and loblolly pines.