March 17, 2015
"The (turkey) population is still strong and viable despite several years of poor reproduction," said Kevin Lowrey, Georgia Department of Wildlife Resources (WRD) wildlife biologist.
Reproduction has been below average across the Peach State the last few years, but Lowrey assures that the turkey population is still in good shape and there are plenty of gobblers for Georgia hunters to pursue.
"Statewide turkey reproduction has been poor since 2012," Lowrey said. "Most of the losses in productivity were in the Piedmont, Ridge and Valley, and Blue Ridge physiographic regions. The Lower Coastal Plain and Upper Coastal Plain have had stable to slightly increasing reproduction. This past summer's brood survey has not been completely analyzed, but anecdotally it looks to be poor once again."
Lowrey notes that the poor reproduction is reflected in the decreased harvest on wildlife management areas from 2013-2014 and decreased statewide harvest in 2013-2014.
"Most telling is in the 2014 statewide jake harvest, which was only 5 percent of the overall harvest," Lowrey said. "We obviously did not produce many poults in the summer of 2013. There are still plenty of turkeys statewide with the population estimate at 340,000. Many hunters will notice fewer gobblers in 2015, and will have to hunt harder to be successful."
Jakes are first-year male birds or gobblers, which represent the most recently hatched toms and are an indicator of the reproduction. They're also the easiest turkeys to kill, like a spike buck among the deer herd. Passing on jakes means more mature toms in future years to fill the woods with gobbling.
In the 2014 season, there were 33,000 gobblers harvested by 52,982 hunters. That translates to a harvest rate of 0.62, or 62 percent of hunters successfully bagging a bird. These numbers are slightly down from the 2013 season where 60,936 hunters killed 35,000 toms. In 2012, 33,049 turkeys were taken by 56,736 hunters.
Over the last 14 years, there was an average of 29,468 birds killed by an average of 50,319 hunters. The lowest year was 2001 where 34,057 hunters got 20,196 turkeys. The high year was 2005 with 76,288 hunters bagging 42,777 gobblers.
As turkey populations trend up and down, so does habitat and hunter success rates. There are many variables affecting the numbers, and each geographical region has its own trends and population factors.
The state of Georgia is divided into five geographical regions known as the Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont, Upper Coastal Plain and Lower Coastal Plain, each with different issues in regard to turkey populations.
Ridge and Valley
This region is in the northwest portion of the state and has long steep ridges paralleled by deep valleys around the cities of Rome and Summerville. Biologist David Gregory manages this region and reports that the health of the turkey population is good.
"Since 2007, our overall harvest has shown an upward trend with 2012 being one of the best years in terms of number of turkeys harvested per square mile on our WMAs in the past 25 years," said Gregory.
However the recent poult recruitment hasn't been as encouraging.
2014 was a poor year, according to Gregory, but anecdotally some poults (or turkey chicks) were observed early in the year but there was very limited poult production during the summer. Speculation is that the wet spring and summer negatively impacted poult production.
"Since a low year of 2007, the population trend has been upward until 2012," said Gregory. "The past two years have been a downward trend and with the poor poult production, I would anticipate another down year in spring 2015."
So the outlook is not optimal for the upcoming season, but the trends are cyclical and things will rebound. Despite the ups and downs of the turkey population, Gregory reports that hunters are still for the most part satisfied.
"In a survey of WMA turkey hunters in northwest Georgia, hunters rated their satisfaction level at a 5.5 on a scale of 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent)," Gregory noted. "However as far as comments, the most common response was 'Good job' or 'Enjoyed the hunt.' Other common responses were 'too crowded' or 'need more food plots.'"
Gregory also noted that hunter participation at northwest Georgia WMAs has gone up significantly. There were about 1,000 more hunters in 2014 than in 2013. Some of this is attributed to the easier online check-in recently instituted. But he has reason to believe that some hunters signed in online but did not show up to hunt.
"Overall, it is difficult to say with any amount of certainty if hunter participation is up with the confounding factors associated with the type of sign-in available," Gregory said. "Harvest has been trending up in the past couple years. Last year in northwest Georgia WMAs, turkey hunters harvested 0.61 gobblers per square mile. From the years 2004-2011, gobbler harvest has been less than 0.6 gobblers per square mile whereas the past three years, gobbler harvest has exceeded 0.6 gobblers per square mile."
The best turkey WMAs in the northwest in 2013, according to Gregory, was Zahnd, Berry College, Allatoona and McGraw Ford. But in 2014, J.L. Lester, Sheffield, Paulding Forest and McGraw Ford were the top four in terms of harvest per square mile. Over the last 10 years, Sheffield and McGraw Ford WMAs have stood out for having an average harvest of 1.6 gobblers per square mile, whereas the next closest WMAs are Paulding Forest, Berry College and Allatoona with just over 1 gobbler per square mile.
If you're looking for a long-term consistent producer, Gregory says to look at Berry College.
"In terms of hunter success over the past 10 years, Berry College has stood out as one of the most successful WMAs for hunters to turkey hunt," said Gregory. "The average hunter success for turkey hunters on Berry College is 10.4 percent. The next most successful WMA for turkey hunters is Crockford-Pigeon Mountain at 7.4 percent, followed by Paulding Forest at 6.9 percent and John's Mountain at 6.4 percent."
Blue Ridge Mountains
Stretching across north Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains contain the tall mountains of the southernmost Appalachian mountain chain with elevations up to 4,000 feet. This region has plentiful public land with the Chattahoochee National Forest and numerous WMAs. A hunter willing to walk and scout can find some remote areas to chase some mountain toms. Lowrey handles this region and sees a favorable forecast.
"From the lows of 2007, we have generally been on an upward trend," said Lowrey. "The last few years of poor reproduction will change that trajectory. Since 2010, we have been up and down in the Blue Ridge areas."
The state biologists keep statistics of the number of poults that are produced per hen. The trend has been downward with the last three years being 0.65, 1.32 and 1.31 poults per hen ratio, which is lower than previous years. That means that reproduction hasn't been up to par lately, but there are still turkeys being hatched and a stable population in the steep wooded mountains.
Best counties in the mountainous area of the state include Dawson and Habersham. Lowrey picks Dawson Forest, Wilson Shoals, Dukes Creek and Lake Russell as top turkey WMAs in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dawson Forest is a popular WMA consisting of 25,500 acres near Dawsonville and provides excellent turkey hunting within an easy drive of Atlanta.
One of the largest and most productive regions of the state, the Piedmont is located in the center of the state from Columbus to Macon to Augusta. The terrain is rolling with hardwood bottoms, mixed pine and hardwood uplands. Many areas had old farms and homesteads, many of which are planted pine plantations now.
Senior Wildlife Biologist Bobby Bonds oversees the west-central portion of this region from his Fort Valley office.
"The population is healthy," said Bonds. "The recent poult production for 2014 was very poor. In fact, it has been poor for the past three years. The population overall is stable, however, there may be some localized areas that have decreased. The hunters seem to have the same satisfaction as the past few years. This past season was fair to good but was not as good as 2012, which seemed very good or above average for a lot of hunters.
"The best counties from this past season seem to be Harris and Meriwether in the Piedmont potion of the region and Pulaski and Taylor in the Coastal Plain part of the region. However, even within these counties, I have had some people report a bad season. So even within a county it can vary to how good turkey hunting is or not."
The top WMAs based on hunter success from this past year in Region IV were Blanton Creek, Clybel and Rum Creek, but a lot of this is due to the fact that these areas have mostly quota hunts.
Another excellent public hunting land location is the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge north of Macon. It is not in the state WMA system, but rather a federal refuge. Hunters must apply for the quota hunts, but it is well worth the effort since the area has a high turkey population.
This region is the southern section of the state below Columbus and Macon, and includes Savannah, Valdosta and parts of the coastal areas. The terrain is mainly flat with plentiful wetlands, palmettos and sandy soils. The western portion of state has ample agriculture and fields, which provide habitat for turkeys to browse on insects and seeds.
Wildlife Resources Biologist Will Ricks keeps tabs on turkeys in the lower coastal plain.
"Our turkey population on the coast is healthy," declared Ricks. "With early successional habitat creating good nesting, brooding and beneficial insect habitat, and prescribed fire creating additional quality habitat, the population has remained healthy over the past few years."
Ricks sees the poult recruitment and the overall turkey population along the coast as being stable over the past few years.
"The turkey hunter harvest has been stable on the coast," said Ricks. "Hunters have been hearing birds and getting plenty of opportunities. Turkey hunter participation has been great. Turkey hunting is excellent for new hunters. Whether male, female, young or old, many new hunters are attracted to the excitement of a gobbling tom.
"Hunter satisfaction is always great when it comes to turkey hunting. Experienced hunters know there are some days the birds just won't commit and new hunters enjoy simply hearing the birds. At the same time, everyone wants to harvest a tom and when they do it's always big smiles all around."
Ricks believes the WMAs along the hardwood bottoms of the Altamaha River should be good to consider this year.
"Clayhole, Penholoway, Sansavilla, Altamaha, Townsend, and Griffin Ridge are dynamite for turkey hunting," Ricks declared.
He also believes the counties of Glynn, Wayne, McIntosh and Long in the lower coastal plain are some of the best for turkeys.
With the population slightly down from poor reproduction, hunters may want to alter their strategy somewhat. Even though the state limit is three toms per hunter, it may be a prudent idea to limit yourself to one or two birds, should you be that skillful.
Also, if more hunters are after fewer birds, more stealth and strategy may be needed to lure in skittish gobblers. Calling less, hiding better and being in the best position to intercept moving turkeys may provide the edge needed to put a strutting tom in the sights this season.
Georgia has an excellent turkey population and continues to provide good hunting across the state from the mountains to the coast. Hunter participation, harvest and satisfaction remain above average for Peach State hunters. The poult production is a concern, however, as recent hatches have not been stellar. At the same time, game populations are cyclical and will rebound.
Hunters may have to hunt a little harder this season for a bird, but you know they'll enjoy every minute of it.