March 27, 2019
Alabama game managers, for the most part, are optimistic about most elements of turkey population management across the state. Alabama supports a reasonably stable turkey population compared to the past few years — and also compared to declines in neighboring states.
Positive signs of reproduction from the spring and summer of 2018 also adds to their optimism. Many hunters, however, decry the lack of birds in comparison to the high population of 10 or more years ago.
In general, the Southeastern states have experienced a decline in turkey numbers. Alabama has not been immune to that phenomenon. While wildlife biologists suggest the population progresses or regresses cyclically for various reasons, hunters focus on present conditions and voice concerns about a lack of turkey sightings and gobbling activity, a trend that began about five years ago for some.
The outlook is not totally negative. Alabama still boasts many localized public and private areas of good habitat that support good turkey populations. State biologists maintain that the late spring and summer of 2018 provided a good period for turkey nesting and rearing and perhaps some growth of the Alabama turkey population.
“Based on what I am hearing from the public, I’m getting more good reports than bad reports,” said Steve Barnett, Wild Turkey Project Study Leader for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) and supervising biologist for District V in southwest Alabama.
Barnett makes those comments based on conversations with hunters and largely on information gleaned from the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey and the Brood Survey, counts taken annually from spring through summer. He said various categories from both surveys indicate positive signs toward a stable Alabama turkey population.
One element that resonates with hunters is vocal birds. Barnett said the results from the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey suggests that gobbling activity observed by hunters rose again in 2018, a statistic trending up for the past few years.
Other statistical information improving last year included the number of poults per brood (about 3.5) and number of poults per hen (up to just under 2). The difference in the two numbers is that not all hens have broods, but the latter figure is up considerably from several years of averaging about 1.6 to 1.7 per hen.
One slight decline in the numbers from last hunting season is sightings of jakes, which generally make up a large portion of the gobblers killed the following year. Average sightings of jakes dropped from just over nine per hundred hours of hunting, the highest figure recorded since numbers have been tabulated, to about 7.9. One optimistic note from those figures is that many of the jakes from previous years remain in the population.
“In general, the numbers are positive,” Barnett said. “The numbers remain largely stable compared to the last few years.
“Part of the reason that numbers seem to be up is maybe a little bit better weather and a better timing of the rains. This year for the most part, the bad weather and heavy rains that could have negatively impacted nesting or brood rearing were before incubation or after the poults were a couple of weeks old.”
Individual hunters don’t always hold the same perspectives as game managers. Veteran turkey hunter Craig Harris, a Eufaula resident and vice-president of the Alabama chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), said his turkey hunting experiences over the past five years have not been totally negative — he killed four Alabama birds in 2018 — but “different.”
“I’ve always managed to hunt several difference places across the state,” Harris said. “I’ve always had really good luck hearing turkeys, which is what I love about it. I’m always happy if I can hear one.
“About four years ago, that became a lot harder, became a lot harder to actually hear a turkey. There was not as much turkey sign on the various properties that I hunt. It seems like the population has been down a good bit as far as my experiences from the past.”
The 2019 season openned March 16 for most of the state and on April 1 for some sections of north Alabama counties. Complete season dates, bag limits, other regulations, and Game Check information can be found here.
Let’s look now at some of the best destinations for Alabama hunters and information on other issues related to state turkey hunting.
LAUDERDALE WMA PRODUCING BIRDS
Tucked into the extreme northwest corner of the state, Lauderdale WMA has produced well recently, giving up an estimated 100 turkeys in the last two hunting seasons combined.
“We’ve had more birds killed on Lauderdale, and we’ve had an abundance of gobbling activity,” wildlife biologist Daniel Toole said.
Toole manages two of the prime public turkey hunting destinations in northwest Alabama: Lauderdale and Freedom Hills, which is located in Colbert County. Freedom Hills has long been known as the top public property in this part of the state, but habitat improvements at Lauderdale have produced better results there. Toole implemented a more extensive prescribed burning program in 2014, and the bird population has responded.
With some potential help from the Nature Conservancy, Toole expects to open up even more habitat for turkeys with controlled burns over an increased acreage.
On a rotating basis, Toole and his workers have burned up to about 1,500 acres per year. Especially if outside help arrives, that total could be boosted to 5,000-10,000 acres per year on the two areas combined. The total area of Lauderdale is currently 20,000 acres and Freedom Hills stands at 33,000, meaning the prescribed burns would impact a much greater percentage of the WMAs than in previous years.
“We’re excited about the possibilities,” Toole said. “We’re still working out the details, but the prescribed burns represent an opportunity to open up more prime turkey habitat.”
In addition to the burns, Toole has continued to restore native shortleaf pines to the management areas, creating better overall habitat than that produced by the hardwood and loblolly pine stands that dominate now.
Toole notes two potential impacts of more prescribed burns: that fire breaks will be cut and also some potential short-term effect on nesting areas. He reminded hunters that fire breaks are not roads and that they should stay off them with vehicles.
“About the nesting impact, we might destroy a few nests,” Toole said. “But if we destroy five nests with burns (in the spring), the positive impact will compound with 20 new nests in those same areas in the future.”
OTHER ALABAMA HOTSPOTS
One measure of turkey hunting success is the time required in the field to harvest a bird. The WFF tabulates that data, which helps hunters determine potential hunting destinations in the spring. Barnett suggests looking at properties with a man-day rate around 10. Generally, any average of 15 and under is good.
Among the state properties that reported an estimated kill of 20 or more birds, a traditional favorite, Oakmulgee WMA southeast of Tuscaloosa, ranks at the top of the 2018 man-day tables. On average, hunters killed a turkey every 11.3 days, down slightly from an exceptional 2017 season – a 7.4 man-day average – but still very good.
Lauderdale’s man-day average of 11.7 ranked just behind Oakmulgee.
Another traditional turkey hotspot, Choccolocco WMA east of Anniston, also continued to produce in 2018 with the most estimated kills in the state at 61 and a good man-day rate of 13.9.
Other WMAs with good man-day averages were Little River (12.0), Sam R. Murphy (14.3), and Blue Spring (15.0).
Top overall producers behind Choccolocco were James D. Martin – Skyline WMA in Jackson County (60), Lauderdale (45), Black Warrior in Lawrence County (40), Hollins (32), Barbour (30), Freedom Hills (30), and Coosa (28).
“You have to look at all the categories, not just look at estimated harvest,” Barnett said. “Look at man days and maybe gravitate toward those that had fewer man days needed to harvest a gobbler. On those WMAs, maybe there are fewer turkeys harvested but less hunting pressure and interference from other hunters.”
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
GATHERING THE DATA
Barnett and other turkey managers continue to study the state turkey population in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most significant on-going project designed to analyze Alabama turkeys is an Auburn University study. The study, conducted primarily on various public lands across the state, is now in its fifth and final year.
Among the various components of the Auburn study include later starting dates for turkey season on the following management areas: James D. Martin – Skyline, Barbour, Oakmulgee, Hollins, Choccolocco, Lowndes, and Perdido River. The season will open roughly a week later than normal, March 23, on those WMAs again this year. The later starting date was first used in 2018.
“We’ve been able to glean some information (year-to-year) from the study, but we’re certainly not ready to make any definitive conclusions just yet until we receive all the data,” Barnett said.
Potential impacts include changes in season dates, the length of seasons, and bag limits, which now stand at five gobblers per year. Barnett said any proposals developed and presented for possible approval by the state Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) would only be made after analyzing the data from the Auburn study and from other sources, including the yearly Avid Turkey Hunter Survey and the Brood Survey.
Barnett encourages hunters to participate in both surveys, which supply trend information about turkey populations and habits across the state.
“We’re still seeking new participants who wish to participate in the Avid Turkey Survey and the Brood Survey,” he said. “We like folks who are in the woods in the summer time when they are more likely to see turkeys and broods.”
Prospective participants should contact Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org and include their e-mail address and conservation ID number.
Information compiled from the studies is published each year in Full Fans and Sharp Spurs. The online publication, found here, also provides information about all public lands available and various programs associated with turkey hunting, including many services offered by the NWTF. Among the organization’s many attempts to improve turkey hunting, the NWTF helps fund Full Fans and Sharp Spurs.
THE FUTURE OF ALABAMA HUNTING
Expect at least some changes to impact Alabama turkey hunting in the years ahead. The changes may be slight — the new starting date being one example. The COS, in a move initiated by one of its members, changed the traditional opening date of the current season from March 15 to the third Saturday in March.
A more significant proposal from the COS to reduce the bag limit from five to four turkeys was voted down last year, but that type of proposal is likely to resurface in coming years.
While many hunters decry changes, especially any measure that reduces hunting days or bag limits, other hunters welcome positive approaches to turkey management.
“I’m all for good regulations, even if they impact my hunting to some degree, that will help the turkey population,” Lauderdale County hunter Corey Newton said.
Newton, who lives near Lexington, uses the recently implemented five-day season in eastern Lauderdale County as an example. For years, there was no open season in that part of the county, and Newton said opening even the short season was “premature.”
“It would impact some of my hunting close to home,” Newton said, “but I would be all for closing down turkey hunting in the eastern part of Lauderdale County. The numbers are just not there to sustain hunting. Take one gobbler out of the population, and it really has an effect on an area with a limited number of birds.
“I’m all for the state taking measures to preserve the resource that we have, whether it’s close to home or state-wide.”
Regardless of perspective, Alabama turkey season arrives this month. The opportunity to take a gobbler remains good, especially on the best public lands and carefully managed private property. Let the gobbling begin.