March 28, 2019
By Richard Hines
With turkeys now present throughout the Volunteer State, finding a place for your memorable hunt this spring should not be an issue.
If you are hunting private land, you can almost be guaranteed a turkey or at least a good chance at one, especially in the right county.
Looking through TWRA’s list of county harvest records, it’s easy to pick which counties are on top, but finding a hunting location on private ground in these counties can be difficult.
If private land is not an option for spring turkey season, then you should look at the long list of public lands found across Tennessee. Public land is within a short drive of every location in the state, from the Mississippi River to the mountains along the North Carolina line. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency owns and manages many tracts of public land. In addition to TWRA, other agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and even the National Park Service at Big South Fork also provide access to good turkey hunting.
While finding a place to hunt may not be a problem, there is bad news. Some locations in Tennessee are seeing turkey harvest numbers dropping and these lower numbers have gotten the attention of TWRA and researchers at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. To better understand why harvest numbers are dropping in some sections of Tennessee, a five-year research project investigating possible reasons for lower turkey numbers was implemented. These findings will help TWRA determine exactly what the situation is with turkeys and most importantly how the problem can be solved.
TWRA Wildlife Biologist Tabitha Lavocot said, “We are just about ready to start our third year of the research, so it’s still too early to make any conclusions; however, we are already finding out many aspects about the daily routines of turkeys including movement and how far they are traveling throughout the day.”
This five-year project will help provide more insight into turkey activities throughout the year. At the completion of the project biologists will have better ideas about how to adjust seasons, limits and even improve habitat specially for Tennessee.
A drop in the turkey population is by no means exclusive to Tennessee. Neighboring Kentucky has seen an 18 percent drop over a five-year period, South Carolina has been in a long decline, and Northern Alabama has noted reductions in turkey numbers as well. Fortunately, some sections of East Tennessee are still increasing.
Most wildlife populations experience population changes because wildlife populations never remain perfectly stable. As years pass, populations fluctuate long term, moving up and down on the charts. Reasons for this would more than fill this article. Weather is one factor. In fact from the time a turkey hen lays an egg until the poults make their first flight, predators and weather will take their toll.
But another factor being observed across southeastern states is a factor called density dependence. This biological term means that as a population such as turkeys reach or exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat, the population begins to slow down. From the standpoint of turkeys there are only so many “good quality nesting sites” in a given area. As a result, some hens must nest in less suitable habitat which may make them more vulnerable to either weather extremes or predators.
In either case, the result is a destroyed nest or lost poults. Hens in better nesting habitat will have higher poult survival. That is why habitat improvement is continually needed. No matter whether losses are from bad weather or predators, good quality habitat will help buffer these losses. Researchers will be using radio telemetry tracking birds and over the five-year study will be able to identify specific nest sites that were successful and how to duplicate this with habitat management
According to TWRA Wildlife Biologist Joy Sweaney, “I just don’t expect a high harvest this spring — last year’s harvest was low as well.”
That’s because the hatch and poult numbers were dismal last year. Sweaney added that the results of these low poult numbers will not be seen for a couple of years when hunters will be seeing fewer gobblers in the woods. Although turkey numbers have dropped in some locations, the turkey population is still providing outstanding hunting over most of the eastern potion of the state.
If you are wondering where to go this spring, here are options available in the Volunteer State.
NORTH CUMBERLAND WMA
TWRA Turkey Biologist Joy Sweaney said, “I really like to point people to the North Cumberland WMA. It really stands out for harvest numbers and there still seems to be plenty of room and hunter pressure is not too bad yet.”
North Cumberland WMA has over 190,000 acres and TWRA is continually adding acreage to the WMA, making it a great location to hunt spring gobblers. North Cumberland WMA is divided into units such as Royal Blue and Sundquist. Hunters will find a nice mix of hardwoods interspersed with reclaimed coal mine lands. Don’t overlook these reclaimed sites as the open ground has created great strutting areas for gobblers that move onto these areas from the surrounding forest, which comprises about 75 percent of the WMA.
CHEROKEE NATIONAL FOREST
One of the larger tracts of public land in east Tennessee is the Cherokee National Forest. With over 630,000 acres stretching from Cleveland to Johnson City, the Cherokee will provide not only turkey hunting, but you will find plenty of places to camp plus some trout-fishing opportunities.
With such a large tract of land, figuring out where to go can be daunting. Many hunters who successfully hunt larger national forest lands don’t move from one end of the forest to the other but concentrate on one general location of the forest. Going from one location to another may yield some birds but you may spend more time learning the lay of the land or where road goes than you do hunting.
It seems best to picking a general area such as one district on the forest. Over time, not only do you become familiar with the landscape itself and how turkeys use it, you meet and learn some of the staff as they make routine checks on campgrounds or trails. As you get to know them, they might happen to mention a distant gobbler they heard when they were working on a trail. Spending time on one district is not like you are confining yourself to a small property, either — some forest districts contain well over 80,000 acres.
Chris Coxen, is a District Biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, has worked on several projects on the Cherokee and said, “The NWTF has had a long partnership with the Cherokee Forest and we have multiple projects on going, both on the south and north ends of the forest.”
These projects include maintaining fire lines and linear wildlife openings, all of which benefit turkeys. Better habitat of course will in turn provide plenty of opportunities for turkey hunters. In addition to work being conducted on the Cherokee National Forest, the NWTF has also funded a great deal of work along the Cumberland Plateau.
Much of the pine and oak forests are in desperate need of prescribed fire and using this habitat management tool will open the forest floor helping plants including legumes quickly cover sites. Why legumes? Legumes attract large numbers of insects, an essential component of the diets of turkeys.
These habitat improvements will result in higher brood counts each year ultimately resulting in more gobblers. Coxen said, “NWTF will be funding a fully dedicated prescribed fire team for improving oak and pine woodlands on several locations on the Plateau…right now this is our biggest partnership in Tennessee and the project has plans underway to burn 6,000 to 7,000 acres per year.”
This work is also going to be used as a model to expand this type of habitat operation across other regions of Tennessee.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
One WMA with some nice scenery is Bridgestone/Firestone. Wildlife Manager James Douglas notes that the 18,000-acre WMA has several small fields scattered across the area. One field is quite large — 750 acres. Like most WMAs, the bulk of the property is forest — oak and pine in this case. The presence or absence of these trees is dependent on the elevation and the direction of the slope.
Hunting large woodlands on this WMA is tough but TWRA staff conducts prescribed burning each year. To help manage burns, there are around 72 miles of fire lanes. Douglas said, “we burn between 1,200 and 1,800 acres each year.
Hunting this WMA has other advantages as well: There are campsites and fishing is available on the Caney Fork River.
Douglas said, “Turkey hunting at Bridgestone has everything to do with elevation…when turkey season starts, hunt in the bottom, then in two weeks or so, go hunt the top.” This pattern is related to temperature differences between the elevations. Even a five-degree difference seems to affect gobbler activity.
Tabatha Lavacot said, “A good area to think about hunting in Central Tennessee is Yanahli located in Maury County.” This WMA has 12,325 acres but Yanahli is a disjunct area, so plan on taking a map or use one of the hunter apps available on the TWRA website. Either one will help you keep up with the boundary lines.
Lavacot also wanted hunters to think about hunting Bear Hollow Mountain WMA. “It is some hard hunting, with some tough walk-in areas on top of mountains, but there are birds here.” Bear Hollow Mountain is on the Alabama state line with several tracts containing a total of 17,000 acres scattered out around Franklin County.
Natchez Trace State Forest
Jim Hamlington, Wildlife Manager in Region I said, “turkeys are not doing great on some WMAs and it seems we have not had a good hatch for the past three to four years.” Hamlington added that Land Between the Lakes still ranks high in Region I and Natchez Trace is a good choice.
The Trace has 48,000 acres scattered over three counties and hunters will find plenty of access points around roads where you can get away from the crowd. Hamlington also wanted hunters to not overlook smaller WMAs, “some of these WMAs don’t have high harvest numbers but there are still turkeys, so the best thing to do is go to the WMA and listen.”