The hunter thought he had done everything right. Up well before daylight, he walked into woods he knew well without a flashlight because of the bright moon and took a seat on the ground by a large white oak tree. The evening before, he had roosted a large flock of turkeys in the area, then quietly sneaked out, hoping they would still be in the area at sunrise. The morning was cool with a calm clear sky, no wind and lots of promise, but he has some concerns.
While waiting for sunrise, another hunter, maybe 100 yards away, made some hen calls well before sunrise, which is always a bad idea. At first light, he heard a turkey fly from the roost, with several more following. He was not sure what was happening, but knew his spot was busted. A couple of minutes later, he watched another turkey hunter walk through the woods, right under the trees were the turkeys had roosted. Even as he watched the novice practically ruin the area, he devised another plan.
He figured the turkeys would end up in a small food plot nearby and moved to that location to set up. He had just sat down when two hens began to feed into the field. A few soft hen calls and the woods erupted with two gobblers sounding off. They soon came into the field, spotted the decoys and headed in his direction. As soon as the gobblers were within range, the hunter dropped the hammer on the closest one, turning failure into pleasure, proving that turkey hunting is about planning, preparation and adaptation, especially on Georgia public land.
According to Bobby Bond, wildlife biologist for Region 4, the outlook for turkey hunters in 2016 should be both fun and challenging. Bond says that Georgia's early glory days for the expansion of turkey populations may be over, but turkey hunters can still be successful, though they may have to work a little harder than in previous years to bag a gobbler.
When the turkey population was expanding back in the 1980's, the turkey hen to surviving poult ratio was around one hen to 3 poults. In the past three years, that success ratio has declined to one hen per 1.4 poults, a significant reduction that could point to fewer turkeys in the overall population. Another unfortunate development is that the percentage of young jakes in the harvest has declined over time.
In 2014, there were 1,600 jakes in the harvest, but only 1,200 were killed in 2015. Over many years, according to Bond, the jake harvest has been about 20 percent of the total harvest, but it declined to 12 percent in 2015. That means there were fewer gobblers in the woods in 2015 and the gobbler carry-over to 2016 will also be less.
Bond reports that the 10-year average success ratio for Region 4 has been 8.2 percent, but in 2015, the overall success ratio for the region was 6.7 percent. That reduction is not significant, but still indicates a little more effort might be required to harvest a gobbler in 2016.
Bond says that the Chattahoochee Fall Line WMA had the best turkey success in 2015 for region four, where 68 hunters harvested 13 gobblers for a success ratio of 19 percent. This was a quota hunt on a new WMA where the turkey population was in good shape. It would be his top pick again for 2016 for hunters who obtain a permit.
Blanton Creek WMA is another good quota choice. Back up choices in Region 4 are Cedar creek, where 685 hunters bagged 46 gobblers in 2015, or Big Lazer WMA in Talbot County, where the hunting pressure tends to be a little less.
According to Bond, turkey hunters may have to change the way they think about the annual turkey limit of three gobblers to insure there are enough gobblers in the future on the property they hunt. He compares it to the annual limit of 12 deer that allows the maximum latitude in harvest, but if every hunter on the typical hunting club killed 12 deer, the population would really suffer.
For example, on a deer club of 640 acres, one square mile, a healthy deer population would be 26 deer. If every member took two deer, most of the deer would be removed annually from the land. Of course other factors are at play, but the main idea is that for both deer and turkey populations, conservation is important.
Likewise, on the average hunting club with a small population of turkeys, perhaps taking one or two gobblers per year is all the population can stand to maintain a healthy flock.
For example, Bond recently spoke to a hunter concerned about the lack of gobbler sightings on a 200-acre piece of property. The man used to take three gobblers per year off the property, but had only taken one gobbler for each of the last couple of years. He felt that predators were hurting his turkey population, but Bond told him that as the main predator, he was harvesting too many turkeys.
Three gobblers harvested per year on 200 acres amounts to 9 gobblers per square mile, which is a very high harvest and should be avoided. Bond says that many hunters like to hear gobblers when they hunt, even if they don't harvest one, so seeing and hearing turkeys is important to overall hunter satisfaction, so hunters might want to limit their harvest, particularly on areas with heavy hunting pressure. Other actions that hunting clubs can take to improve turkey health is to plant food plots and provide nesting habitat.
For 2016, Georgia hunters face a big change because of the hunter harvest reporting system now required for turkeys. Hunters must record their harvest on their licenses, similar to the deer reporting system, and will then have 72 hours to report the harvest to receive a confirmation number.
According to Kevin Lowery, Region 2 biologist, the new system will give biologists better insight into actual turkey harvests, which have relied on random phone surveys and hunter mail-in cards.
Lowery reports that the statewide turkey population is lower than previous years. In 2015, the population was around 300,000, down from 335,000 in 2014. Hunter success has also dropped from 62 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2015. In 2014, 52,982 hunters killed 33,000 gobblers and in 2015, 52,407 hunters killed 26,000 gobblers, so there were 7,000 fewer gobblers harvested in 2015.
But Lowery is not overly concerned about the recent reduction in turkey numbers and says the state just needs a couple of good reproduction years to get the population back to its potential.
In the northeast region, Lowery reports that in 2015, hunters harvested 18 jakes and 140 gobblers on the regions WMAs for a success rate of 6.8 percent. Dukes Creek WMA had the best success with 21 percent, but it's a quota hunt. Good backup WMAs are Swallow Creek with a 9 percent success rate or Lake Russell, which came in with 8.8 percent success when 451 hunters harvested 40 toms.
One of the brighter spots for Georgia's turkey population is northwest Georgia, says Region 1 Biologist David Gregory out of the Armuchee office. He reports a good reproduction year and was seeing good numbers of young poults during the summer of 2015. He says it was nice to see a bump upward in the population after three years of poor reproduction.
He reports that the top WMA in his region is John's Mountain, 24,849 acres, which had a general season sign-in hunt and 10 percent hunter success. A nice back up would be Berry College WMA where the hunter success was 7.4 percent. Over the last 10 years, Berry College has been one of the best producers of gobblers in the region, says Gregory.
For top success per turkeys harvested per square mile, J.L. Lester WMA was at 1.34 per square mile, but it's small at only 477 acres. Other good bets in the region would be Paulding Forest with 42 gobblers harvested in 2015, or Crockford-Pigeon Mountain, which had 32 gobblers checked in. For better success, Gregory recommends hiking into some of the more remote locations and hunting during mid-week.
In Region 3, around Thompson, I.B. Parnell says the 2015 season was not real good, but he is hopeful for better days in the future. On Region 4 WMAs, hunters took 134 total gobblers, of which only four were jakes, for a success rate of 7 percent. Those lucky enough to draw a Di-Lane quota permit should have good chances for success. In 2015, 20 hunters took home 12 gobblers, so the WMA is high on Parnell's "best spots" list.
Backup spots include Oconee WMA were eight hunters harvested 2 gobblers, and Tuckahoe, where 172 hunters killed 17 gobblers. Parnell also suggests that hunters give some of the smaller areas like Mead Farm (25 percent success) and Big Dukes Pond (11 percent success) a look for a hunting trip.
In Region 5, in southwest Georgia around Albany, records indicate that WMAs offered up 61 gobblers and nine jakes in 2015. Best results were on Silver Lake WMA where 88 hunters took 18 gobblers. On a general sign-in hunt, a top pick would be Flint River WMA, where 54 hunters harvested nine gobblers over the entire season for 16 percent success.
Greg Nelms, Region 6 biologist around the Waycross area, reports that he saw more poults in the spring of 2015 and is hopeful that this will signal an increase in the region's turkey numbers. He says that River Bend WMA had the best success in 2015 with 44 hunters harvesting 8 gobblers on a quota hunt. A good sign-in hunt is on Dixon Memorial State Forest, where 101 hunters lowered the boom on 17 gobblers. He also suggests Horse Creek, Bullard Creek and Beaverdam as areas hunters should check out.
In Region 7, in the southeast section of Georgia around Brunswick, Wildlife Biologist Will Ricks reports the recruitment for jakes was about average in 2015, and hunter success has been stable in recent years. In driving around the WMAs, he says he saw more hens and poults than normal and is predicting a good season for 2016.
A big part of the positive forecast is due to increased burning of woodlands, which has improved the overall habitat. One of the WMAs in the region is Little Satilla, which is high on Rick's list because 142 hunters took 15 gobblers in 2015. Paulks Pasture is another good one, where 156 hunters harvested 14 gobblers.
Honorable mentions go to Griffin Ridge and Altamaha WMAs, where Ricks reports that hunting is good, but access can be a problem due to high river levels. Wildlife Tech Ed Van Otteren says that when the rivers are up the turkeys are pushed into the higher sand ridges near the rivers, so bring a canoe or waders and be careful.
Wherever you choose to hunt this year in Georgia, even though turkey numbers may be down a bit, you can still get your gobbler!