Just when we thought turkey stocks were ticking upward in the Natural State, the market took an unexpected downturn in 2015 and left turkey hunters wondering about the future of their cherished sport.
We tend to be optimistic, but current trends force us to be cautious.
Since 2012, Arkansas has had a 16-day turkey season in most of the state. The season was 18 days in 2011, but the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission settled on the 16-day format the following year due to declining turkey harvests and lackluster reproduction and recruitment data.
Turkey harvests stabilized and then started climbing largely on the strength of strong year-classes in 2012. We had relatively weak reproduction in 2013-14, which might partly explain why our turkey kill fell to 11,561 gobblers last year. That's a 4 percent drop from 2014, when hunters killed 12,079 gobblers.
Even with the decrease, the statewide turkey kill is consistent with the goals of the AGFC's turkey management plan, said Brad Carner, chief of the AGFC's wildlife management division, but the turkey population is still unstable. It's even more tenuous given the rumblings among the state's turkey hunters to liberalize seasons to some degree.
To satisfy those demands, the commission proposed starting the season a week earlier in 2016. The wildlife management division originally proposed starting the season on April 16 and ending it on May 1, but the commission proposed an alternative framework running from April 9-24. The commission was taking public comments about the season frameworks as this was written, and had not determined the actual dates, but there seemed to be a preponderance of support for the earlier framework.
The earlier dates reflect the belief among many hunters that gobbling activity is greater earlier in the season, and that birds are "gobbled out" in late April. Carner disputed that claim with data showing there are several peaks of gobbling activity throughout the spring.
"There's no such thing as a turkey being 'gobbled out,'" Carner said. "They do not have a meter that tells them when they hit a certain number of gobbles, they quit."
The second largest peak of gobbling activity occurs in late April, Carner said, and there's a near-equal spike of near-equal intensity in mid-May.
"We do our quail surveys around May 15, and it's extremely common to hear turkeys gobbling in Hempstead County in mid-May," Carner said.
Hempstead County is in southwest Arkansas, almost as far south as you can go.
Given current turkey reproduction data and population dynamics, Carner added that his staff is comfortable with annual harvests between 11,000-12,000, and that the current season frameworks facilitate that rate. Opening the season earlier might inflate the harvest and temporarily satisfy a few more hunters, but reproduction and population dynamics will stay the same if we do not experience a sustained period of high reproduction.
We haven't experienced such a string for many years.
"We don't want to get into a situation where we get more liberal," Carner said. "We can kill more gobblers for a year or two, but we're concerned that we can't maintain that."
Other states that enjoy better turkey hunting are experiencing the same trends, but they have more turkeys than we have, and they have more and better habitat. Their season frameworks are also designed to absorb and overcome bad years.
Arkansas's history, in contrast, is to promote greater harvests as soon as there's a hint of a surplus.
"Missouri has had the same bad hatches we have, but they haven't seen the declines we have because they have a conservative season structure to bank some gobblers," Carner said.
Missouri also is a much larger state, Carner added, and a greater percentage of it contains good to excellent turkey habitat. The same is true for Oklahoma, Tennessee and even Mississippi and Louisiana. The eastern half of Arkansas contains very little turkey habitat, and the good stuff is prone to flooding.
On the other hand, changing weather patterns offer an argument for starting the season earlier on the basis of hunter comfort. In recent years, winters have been colder and more intense, but spring-like weather has come earlier. Weather has been very warm to hot by the third week of April for a number of years. Starting a week earlier would allow hunters to enjoy cooler weather and perhaps fewer bugs, ticks and chiggers.
Naturally it gets warm in south Arkansas before it gets warm in the Ozarks, but the commission did not consider a graduated system of opening dates from south to north.
Mike Knoedl, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said that opening the season earlier in one part of the state would only encourage hunters to migrate to open zones, which would artificially inflate hunting pressure.
Knoedl also noted that turkey populations are hard to monitor in some parts of the state. In south Arkansas, for example, vast tracts of leased timberland are behind locked gates where biologists do not have access. Knoedl, who was a career wildlife officer before he became director, said his experience afield enabled him to observe wildlife trends and patterns over decades.
"I think sometimes we get caught up in trying to micromanage certain areas," Knoedl said. "I see from a standpoint where I hunt in south Arkansas. We have more turkeys than we've had in the last seven or eight years. I've heard more turkeys than I've heard in the last three years. It's not unusual to hear turkeys gobbling in south Arkansas in January. If you close me down in south Arkansas, I'm moving north."
TURKEYS BY THE NUMBERS
As usual, hunters killed more gobblers in the Ozarks last year — 4,779 — than in any other region. The Ozarks have large amounts of public land, including the 1.5 million-acre Ozark National Forest, the Buffalo National River and a number of excellent wildlife management areas for turkey hunting, including Madison County WMA and the respective shorelines of Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry lakes.
The eastern Ozarks were most productive, with a string of contiguous counties leading the tally. Hunters killed 431 gobblers in Fulton County, far and away the best turkey-hunting county in the region. One look at the habitat in Fulton County makes that easy to understand. Its mosaic of pastures, hollows, creek bottoms, scrubby woodlots and mature hardwoods is ideal turkey habitat.
Izard County, directly to the south, produced 378 gobblers, and Stone County, directly south of Izard, produced 388. Hunters killed 357 gobblers in Van Buren County, at the southern end of that string. Let's not forget Cleburne County, directly east of Van Buren County, where hunters bagged 342 gobblers.
Newton County, an island in the middle of the Ozark region, produced 410 gobblers. Its adjacent counties produced a low of 188 gobblers, in Carroll County, to a high of 257 in Searcy County.
Like the Ozarks, the Ouachita Mountain region has a vast amount of public land that includes the 1.5 million-acre Ouachita National Forest, Muddy Creek WMA, and the respective shorelines of lakes Ouachita, DeGray and Greeson. It is a popular and productive region that yielded 2,137 gobblers.
Saline County was the best of that 13-county lot with 248 gobblers killed, followed to the adjacent northwest by Perry County with 228 and Yell County, 213.
Scott County, a traditional and storied turkey-hunting hotspot, added 195 gobblers to the statewide total, while Logan County added 176.
Gulf Coastal Plain
The GCP doesn't have much public land, but as mentioned earlier, it does have vast amounts of corporate timberland leased to private hunting clubs. Large percentages of this acreage have been clearcut in the last five years to create excellent turkey habitat. I hunt on one such club in Grant County with considerable success.
As usual, Union County was the best county in the region, contributing 316 turkeys to the statewide total. Clark County was runner-up with 249 gobblers, followed by Ouachita County (240) and Dallas County (238).
Columbia, Pike and Nevada counties produced 203, 150 and 140 gobblers respectively, and harvests dropped precipitously in the westward counties. That's surprising because the habitat is beautiful in those counties and looks like it should teem with turkeys. Maybe it does, but most of that land is privately owned and receives comparatively little hunting pressure.
Only two counties in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain — The Delta — contributed 100 or more turkeys to the statewide total harvest. They were White and Lawrence counties, but they lie halfway in the Ozark foothills where turkey habitat is good. White County produced 252 gobblers, and Lawrence County produced 113, both respectable numbers considering their bi-polar habitat. Greene County just missed the 100-bird threshold at 97.
What can we expect this year?
The county harvest tallies are pretty consistent and reliable over time, and they reflect the areas with the largest number of birds combined with the greatest hunting opportunity.
Winona WMA, for example, a subdivision of the Ouachita National Forest, produced 100 gobblers to the statewide harvest. Winona is about 40 minutes west of Little Rock and is very popular. That's a fairly small area, but it produces a lot of turkeys every year.
Likewise for Sylamore WMA, in the Ozark National Forest, which produced 107 gobblers. The Buffalo National River corridor runs through a lot of great habitat, but it produced only 33 gobblers along a course that stretches nearly 140 miles.
The acreage that I hunt in Grant County also has a lot of birds, and for years they inhabited certain areas and were easy to pattern. That changed last year when the landowner thinned more than 1,000 acres of middle-aged pine plantations. That opened the forest floor to sunlight and created massive amounts of new turkey habitat awash with rich amounts of turkey forage.
The turkeys spread out across this newly enhanced habitat, and I failed to adapt. I'll be better prepared this year, and I expect to have a better result.
That's the synopsis of turkey hunting everywhere. It's great if you're around birds, and it's awful if you're not.