Last year was a Jekyll and Hyde turkey season for me, but for most hunters, Mr. Hyde ruled the day.
I experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows, but I was one of the relatively few hunters in Arkansas who tagged a legal gobbler.
Everything stacked up for an excellent harvest in 2018. The 16-day season ran April 9 to 24 across most of the state — the peak of the breeding season — but the weather was unusually hot and very windy, making it very hard to hear and work gobblers.
Consequently, hunters checked 7,783 legal gobblers and 87 bearded hens for a statewide total of 7,870 turkeys. That was a 22 percent decrease from 2017, when the season started on roughly the same day, April 10.
In 2017, for comparison, hunters checked 9,894 gobblers and 195 bearded hens for a statewide total of 10,089 turkeys, but that, too, was a significant decrease from 2016, when the season started later.
Hunters may kill two gobblers in Arkansas. A legal gobbler must have a beard longer than 6 inches, or its tail feathers must be the same length. It is illegal for adult hunters to kill sub-adult gobblers, or jakes, but hunters ages 6-15 may kill one jake.
Because most hunters may not kill jakes, reproduction and brood data from 2018 are irrelevant for this season’s outlook. Instead, we’ll examine 2017 data because 2017-year-class turkeys are the ones we’ll hunt in April.
The executive summary should be optimistic, but it is not.
By every measure, hunters should have killed more turkeys in 2017-18 than in 2016, but we didn’t.
For many years, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) prescribed a 16-day spring turkey season that opened in late April and ended in early May. That framework was designed to reduce the harvest of gobblers because it opened the season after most breeding activity was believed to have occurred. The intent was to protect gobblers until most hens had been bred.
Hunters believed that gobblers were less vocal in late April. The AGFC acquiesced to hunter demands in 2017 and opened the season earlier. To everyone’s astonishment, the 2017 harvest decreased by nearly 1,800 gobblers.
Arkansas simply does not have many turkeys, and turkey reproduction trends angle consistently downward. Our only reproductive spike since 1998 was in 2012. Gobblers from the 2012 year-class are long gone, and poor year-classes since then have not been sufficient to sustain prosperity.
Jason Honey, the AGFC’s former turkey biologist who was recently reassigned, explains it simply.
“Many factors, such as hen health, predators, illegal hen harvest, poor habitat and weather influence the number of turkeys in Arkansas,” Honey says. “Poor hatches during the last several years continue to suppress population levels across the state.”
BY THE NUMBERS
We can gauge turkey reproduction and survival through several key indices. One is the poult/hen ratio, which indicates poult survival. Statewide, 22 percent of hens were observed with at least one poult in 2017. That’s a 7 percent decrease from the 29 percent figure from 2016.
The 5-year average in the Ozark Mountains region is 1.2 poults per hen, which reflects slight growth. In 2017, however, observers counted 0.66 poults per hen. Fewer than 1 poult per hen is not even replacement level, and that’s particularly alarming in the Ozarks, which typically supports our strongest turkey populations.
However, the average number of poults per brood in the Ozarks was 4.4.
When reproduction and harvests are poor everywhere else, it is always pretty good in the Ozarks. We hope that 2017 was an anomaly, but hunters can expect to encounter fewer 2-year-old gobblers in the Ozarks this season.
The Ozark poult/hen index is doubly significant given the fact that it was even lower than that of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (the Delta), which traditionally harbors our weakest turkey populations. Delta habitat is limited and largely confined to river bottoms that often flood in the spring and early summer. Nevertheless, observers in the Delta counted 0.76 poults per hen.
Turkey hunters in the Delta will take good news where they can get it, and the good news is that the 2017 poult/hen index is .04 percent higher than the 5-year average. The number of poults per brood was 5.2.
Our best reproduction in 2017 appeared to have been in the Ouachita Mountains region and in the Gulf Coastal Plain.
Trends have been encouraging in the Ouachitas, with a 5-year average of 1.7 poults/hen. That ratio fell significantly in 2017 to 1.2 poults/hen, but the trend is still positive.
The number of poults per brood was 4.7.
The Ouachitas were once a turkey-hunting hotspot that attracted hunters from around the United States. Its luster has tarnished, but it still supports a lot of turkeys. The more than 1.5 million-acre Ouachita National Forest is an excellent place to hunt.
The Gulf Coastal Plain is mysterious to AGFC wildlife managers. Turkey numbers in the GCP and the quality of hunting is much better than data suggests it should be.
Mike Knoedl, former director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, hunts in the GCP, and he has often said that data from that region was inaccurate.
For the record, observers counted 1 poult/hen in 2017, but the 5-year average is 1.3. The number of poults per brood was 5.1.
Keep in mind that most of the GCP is owned by timber companies, which lease their properties to hunting clubs. Most of the land is behind locked gates and is not as accessible to researchers as the rest of the state.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
That also cuts down dramatically on poaching. Without a key, scofflaws can’t drive interior club roads before the season and poach turkeys the way they do elsewhere.
The hunting clubs are predominantly deer-hunting clubs. Only a small percentage of their members hunt turkeys, and most do not kill their annual bag limit of two gobblers, so turkeys in the GCP receive relatively light pressure. That contributes to fairly high carryover of gobblers from one year to the next.
Gobbler carryover is a very important index for hunters and is expressed as the number of gobblers per hen. Before the AGFC prohibited the killing of jakes in 2011, gobbler carryover was lower than 0.5 gobblers per hen, according to the AGFC’s 2017 annual wild turkey brood survey. It has stabilized with the “No Jake” regulation and the later season opening dates, but again, we saw alarming numbers in places in 2017.
In the Ozarks, the 5-year average was 0.68 gobblers per hen. In 2017, that fell to 0.44 gobblers per hen.
In the Ouachitas, the 5-year average is 0.42 gobblers per hen. In 2017, observers counted 0.50 gobblers per hen.
In the Delta, the 5-year average is 0.47 gobblers per hen. In 2017, that ratio fell to 0.37 gobblers/hen.
In the Gulf Coastal Plain, the 5-year average is 0.59 gobblers/hen. In 2017, observers counted 0.81 gobblers/hen, which is close to a 1:1 ratio.
The peak of the wild turkey hatch in 2017 occurred in late May and early June. It then started dropping off moving closer to mid-June and through the rest of the month, and it continued to slow in the weeks after that.
Unfortunately, the peak of the hatch coincided with very heavy rainfall in much of the state. Severe flooding occurred, especially in eastern Arkansas, and is believed to have wiped out a significant percentage of the turkey year-class in every region.
Regrettably, some version of that same story has been repetitive since 2012.
We had a mild spring and summer in 2018 with normal rainfall, so perhaps we’ll have a happier forecast to give for the 2020 season.
WHERE TO HUNT
From a harvest standpoint, the Ozarks region was, as usual, the place to be. Hunters in Fulton County checked 327 birds, followed by Izard County (278), Baxter County (252), Sharp County (246), Cleburne County (244), Stone County (239), Van Buren County (195), Newton County (187) and Randolph County (168).
Fulton, Izard and Sharp counties are near the eastern edge of the Ozarks and typically yield the highest harvests in the region.
The best public areas were within the Ozark National Forest, which encompasses several subdivisions including Mount Magazine WMA (40 gobblers), Ozark National Forest WMA (90), Sylamore WMA (76), Piney Creeks WMA (44) and White Rock WMA (35).
Saline County was the best in the Ouachitas with 141 birds. Much of Saline County is in the Ouachita foothills, but a significant portion lies in the Ouachita National Forest. Next was Scott County in western Arkansas with 140 birds, followed by Montgomery County (130), Polk County (114) and Logan County (110). Hunters in Pike and Perry counties checked 107 gobblers each. Yell County surrendered 97 gobblers.
The best public areas in the Ouachita region were Winona WMA (53), Muddy Creek WMA (36) and Jack Mountain WMA (21). Winona and Muddy Creek are subdivisions of the Ouachita National Forest.
Gulf Coastal Plain
Harvests in the Gulf Coastal Plain were remarkably consistent, which suggests that turkey numbers in that region are healthy.
As always, Union County was the most productive place to hunt, with 235 birds checked. In second place was Dallas County (165) followed by Clark County (160), Drew County (160), Bradley County (153), Calhoun County (149), Ouachita County (136) and Columbia County (135).
The best public areas in the GCP were Casey Jones WMA (19 gobblers), followed by Lake Greeson WMA (16), Moro Big Pine WMA (14) and DeGray Lake WMA (6).
The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge was the best place to hunt in the Delta. Hunters there checked 14 gobblers.
Despite it being a Monday, opening day was far and away the most productive day to hunt in 2018, with hunters checking a total of 1,750 gobblers. April 10 was the next best day, but the number of checked birds (986) fell by a substantial number.
Harvests dropped consistently and precipitously thereafter except for a slight spike on April 14 (542). Success fluctuated wildly in the last six days of the season, but the daily harvest did not reach 250 after April 17.
KEEP ON HUNTING
I hunt almost exclusively in the Gulf Coastal Plain on a leased portion of timber company property in Grant County, about 15 miles south of Benton. Like Mike Knoedl, I see more turkeys and more gobblers than the data suggests should be possible.
Opening morning was uneventful. I returned to camp and overslept.
Disgusted that I missed my favorite 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. window, I woke to a hot, howling gale that bent the pines. I thought hunting would be futile, but I trudged back to the woods anyway.
Sitting above a shallow draw in a stand of tall pines, I sounded a combination of some 10 different calls every 15 minutes, or whenever the wind abated enough to project sound. These included three box calls, three slate calls, two finger-operated friction calls, one can-type call and a diaphragm.
During a break in the wind, a gobbler replied at about 4:30 p.m., triggering a battle of wills that lasted nearly 30 minutes. When the gobbler finally committed, he strutted down a hillside into the draw with a subordinate gobbler in tow.
I resisted calling, but they lingered in the draw so long that I feared they slipped out the end and into a thicket unseen. I yelped once more. The tom gobbled and ascended my side of the draw.
Two minutes later, he wore my tag.
I hunted almost every day thereafter, but that was the last turkey I saw.