November 08, 2018
By Jeff Knapp
Autumn provides many potential adventures for the outdoors-person. In the Buckeye State, the pursuit of wild turkeys is at the top of the list for many. Ohio hunters should enjoy another productive fall turkey hunt, based on the information available prior to the season.
To set the stage for the coming fall season, let’s take a look at fall harvest results from recent years. During 2016, the latest year final numbers were available, total turkey harvest was 2,168, a 41.1 percent increase from the prior year, and 48 percent above the past five-year average. The significant bump in 2016’s fall harvest coincided with the emergence of periodic cicadas. Similar increases were experienced in 1999 and 2008, years cicadas hatched.
According to Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife’s Mark Wiley, the wildlife biologist who oversees wild turkey management, 2017’s fall harvest was down from the prior year, but within fall totals in recent years.
“There was a notable decrease in fall harvest between 2016 and 2017,” Wiley said. “The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but Ohio’s reproductive index was above average in 2016, and below average in 2017. That said, fall harvest totals do not always track well with changes we see in the turkey population. I suspect changes in hunter activity influence fall harvest totals as much as turkey numbers.”
During the 2016 fall season, the Ohio DOW issued 11,506 fall turkey hunting permits. Counties in the east-central part of the state accounted for the highest fall harvests that year, with Coshocton leading the list with 94. Other top five counties were Tuscarawas (92); Monroe (86); Guernsey (79); and Meigs (79). More wild turkeys were taken during the first day of the season. Not surprisingly, after that, spikes in harvest occurred during weekends, and lulls during weekdays.
Traditionally, Ohio’s fall turkey season opens the second Saturday of October and extends through the Sunday following Thanksgiving. Only select counties are open to fall hunting, which is determined by factors such as recent trends in spring harvest, habitat characteristics and location relative to other eligible counties. In addition to a valid hunting license, one must also purchase a fall turkey hunting permit. Hunting hours are 30 minutes prior to sunrise to sunset. The season bag limit is one bird of either sex. Dogs may be used during the fall season.
Recently I spoke at length with Ohio DOW Wildlife Biologist Mark Wiley regarding the state of Ohio’s wild turkey population, factors that have influenced last year’s fall harvest, and what hunters might look forward to for this year’s hunt.
Though wild turkey numbers fluctuate from year to year, based on factors such as weather and available food sources, all in all wild turkey numbers are quite stable. “Following successful establishment in all of Ohio’s 88 counties, Ohio’s wild turkey population has stabilized at an estimated 180,000 birds,” Wiley noted. “We see annual fluctuations in that estimate of several thousand birds, dependent in large part on reproductive success. Overall, Ohio’s wild turkey population has been fairly stable for the past 15 years.”
As noted earlier, years when periodic cicadas emerge, fall harvests tend to dramatically increase. I asked Wiley to expand on why this takes place. “In summers with a large periodical cicada emergence, poult survival is typically very high within the geographic range of the emergence,” he explained. “The pattern we have observed in the past is a spike in fall harvest the year of the emergence, then increasing spring harvest for the subsequent two years. Spring harvest return to long-term means three to four years after the cicada event.”
Wiley added that fall harvest often increases in years with good poult production. 2016’s reproductive success was unknown at the time of this writing, but would be measured in September. Mast production affects hunter strategy, in that hunters must adjust to levels of available food on a local level. “I suspect hunters make the necessary adjustments in a good or bad year,” he said.
Last winter was a particularly tough one, with the potential to impact wild turkey populations. It’s effect on turkey populations was unclear heading into the spring nesting season. Wiley said harsh winters are not ideal, particularly following a year with below average mast production.
“But we do not know exactly what winter losses might be,” he noted, adding that he would expect hens in poor condition from a tough winter to recruit fewer birds into the population than hens in good body condition.
What follows is a look district-by-district look at fall turkey hunting across the state. Wiley said that Ohio’s eastern counties hold the largest turkey populations, and offer the best fall hunting opportunities, particularly the east-central region that is currently seeing a boost in numbers due to the 2016 cicada hatch in that region.
Keep in mind that fall turkey hunting is not open in many of Ohio’s western counties. It was proposed to add three additional counties: Hancock, Lucas and Erie. This proposal will have been voted on prior to the 2018 season, so be sure to carefully check your current regulations book for any additional fall hunting opportunities.
Over 90 percent of fall turkeys are taken on private lands, but the harvest ratio is close to that of private/public land ownership in the state. Wiley reminds hunters that written permission is needed to hunt private land. He advises hunters to be polite, cordial and amenable to any specific conditions landowners may have. Wiley, “If granted permission for a property, express your gratitude by caring for the land, and possibly sharing your harvest with the landowner,” he added.
You are reminded that game tags providing the hunter’s name, date, time and county of kill must be filled out by successful turkey hunters, and must be checked in by 11:30 p.m. of the day of the kill.
District 1 has a history of a good turkey population, but the habitat is pretty broken up. Not all the counties in this district are open to fall hunting; those west of Morrow, Delaware and Franklin are closed. This is central Ohio, centered around the capitol of Columbus. Primarily it’s private land. Hunters are going to have to work harder to get permission to hunt. If they can get permission, they should find birds.
Much of the hunting attention in District 2 focuses on the abundant waterfowl options the district provides. Indeed, the marshlands associated with Lake Erie provide excellent sport. But the hunting isn’t limited to ducks and geese. There is good sport and expanding hunting opportunities for birds of a different feather, the wild turkey. Only two counties in District 2 were open to fall hunting in 2016: Williams and Defiance, which produced 25 and 26 wild turkeys, respectively.
The counties in District 2, in northwestern Ohio, average only about 15 percent forested cover. But the turkey populations there are the most rapidly growing ones in the state. Turkey abundance in District 2 is the lowest of the five districts of Ohio.
Many of the wildlife areas in District 2 are marshlands. Some upland area is present, however. In Williams County, consider the Beaver Creek Wildlife Area and Oxbow Lake Wildlife Area in Defiance County. Often the key to success in this district is to do your homework and get permission to hunt the forested private land areas. Contact the District 2 office at (419) 424-5000 for more information on the hunting in this area.
District 3, located in the northeast portion of the state, contains some of the stronger wild turkey populations. This serves many hunters well, as the area also houses major population centers like Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown. These sportsmen don’t have to venture far to find excellent wild turkey hunting.
Hunters should have no problem finding turkeys in District 3 as it is one of Ohio’s stronger turkey districts. Turkeys have been there for a long time. You can move anywhere in District 3, from the northeast corner, in Ashtabula County, all the way down to Jefferson County and Harrison County and you are going to find good numbers of birds.
Columbiana County is also a good one. District 3 has a good mix of both public-land hunting opportunities and private land. Several counties in District 3 have a strong history of producing good wild turkey harvests, including Ashtabula, where 66 birds were taken in 2016. Harrison County produced a harvest of 68 while Tuscarawas County hunters bagged a whopping 92 the same season.
Much of District 3 is made up of a mix of forestland and agricultural land. The areas in Trumbull County are rich in such makeup. During the fall of 2016, 42 birds were taken from that county. It’s an area worth the effort to find private lands to hunt. The region also features many state-owned wildlife areas that contain upland forested habitat. This includes Grand River Wildlife Area, which features nearly 7,500 acres of public hunting area, a good portion of which exists as uplands favorable to wild turkeys. Contact the District 3 office in Akron at (330) 644-2293 for more information on this region.
Southeastern Ohio’s District 4 is the cream-of-the-crop in terms of the state’s wild turkeys. From the rugged, forested hills that lie along the Ohio River in the eastern portion of the district to the agricultural lands to the west, there is an abundance of wild turkey habitat in this district. Add to that the plethora of former strip-mined areas, places that are now reverting to forested cover of various life stages, and you have a lot of options to choose from.
District 4 probably has more turkeys than any other district in the state. Turkeys have been there the longest. It is where all the reintroduction and reestablishment of turkeys in the state began, so they have had turkeys for the longest period. Every county has good numbers of birds, and they are very well distributed. By far, with the Wayne National Forest, state forests and wildlife areas, District 4 has the most public land turkey opportunities in the state.
Athens County accounted for 63 wild turkeys in 2016 with 47 birds taken in Belmont County. Coshocton County, in the western portion of the district, led the state last year with a harvest of 94 birds. Guernsey County hunters put tags on 79 wild turkeys, while 50 did the same in Jackson County. Meigs County, as usual, had a significant fall harvest with 79 wild birds being taken.
Wayne National Forest provides the most extensive public hunting area in District 4, covering over 800,000 acres. The public land exists in three separate units, and is found in 12 different counties. Additional information can be obtained by phoning the District 4 office in Athens at (740) 594-2211.
District 5 contains a blend of habitats, from the Ohio River valley counties to the south, to the flatlands to the north. In between you’ll find urban areas such as Dayton. Only a portion of the counties in District 5 are open to fall hunting, basically ones in its southern region.
Wild turkeys in the district have a good mix of the heavily forested counties like Adams and Highland. But when you move into the western part of the district, such as in Ross County, things begin to get more broken up by agricultural and urban areas.
Most of the counties in District 5, especially the northern and western counties of the district, just like many District 2 counties, will have more limited wild turkey distribution. Most of the birds are on private land, so access and permission to hunt is a factor there. It may take a little more planning and a little more time to set up a hunt in that part of the state.
Two of the highest fall turkey harvests in District 5 were Pike with 39 and Adams with 30. The district does contain some extensive public lands, mostly in the southern portion, such as Shawnee State Forest.