G&F Forecast: Alabama Turkey Hunting in 2013
February 12, 2013
It was the Saturday of the youth turkey hunt on the state's Wildlife Management Area last spring and my 12-year-old daughter Anna and I were hunting the mid-morning shift at one of our favorite North Alabama haunts.
We'd heard woodpeckers and other forest sounds and Anna would always look at me with her gorgeous blue eyes and ask, "Was that a turkey, Dad?"
I was supposed to be the guide, but this hunt was really all about Anna from the start. She'd decided where we would go and she set the pace for the hunt.
We'd walked a pretty good piece, stopping and calling every 100 to 150 yards like you're supposed to do.
"Dad, can we sit down and take a little break?" Anna asked.
She'd twisted her ankle when a "wait-a-minute" vine tripped her almost as soon as we'd gotten out of the truck.
If she hadn't wanted to stop, we would never have heard the turkey.
When the gobbler fired up on the ridge across a wide canyon from us, I looked at Anna and said, "Now, that's a turkey."
He gobbled 8 or 10 times, but was so far away that I didn't give us much of a chance. And the canyon between us was so big and rugged, there was no way we could cut the distance.
We called, just to let the gobbler know we were there. I used a box. Anna had a push button call and got in on the calling too.
The turkey gobbled and we could tell he was just a little closer, but not much. Anna and I got up and went to the biggest tree near the lip of the canyon to set up, just on the off chance he came.
Then we called and nothing answered. We called again with no answer. I told Anna I thought the turkey might have left, but we would sit awhile anyway just to see. Occasionally, I clucked on a scratch box and Anna yelped with her push button.
We got bored and started to goof off, taking pictures of each other and stuff. I thought we ought to call one last time, just to check. I got out the old slate call, one of my all-time favorites.
The gobbler roared from just below the lip of the canyon. Then we could hear it walking through the dry leaves.
Get ready. Don't move. Don't say anything, I coached Anna. I thought the turkey was going to roll up 5 or 6 yards from our toes. But it turned out that was a sheer cliff. He came up the canyon off to our left.
He took two hops and scaled an enormous rock with the ease of a billy goat. He'd just started to look back our way when the ancient 20-gauge single shot barked.
Two other turkeys unseen below the ridgeline flew up at the shot.
Anna's turkey flopped off the rock and down the canyon. I thought he was going all the way to the bottom and all I could say was, "Please, no."
Luckily, he got hung up on a log and stopped.
I went down the slick, steep canyon wall to retrieve the bird. I could hear Anna on her cell phone behind me.
"Mom, we got one," she said. "Dad is going off the bluff to get it now."
I was huffing and puffing when I got back to Anna with the bird. There were high fives and picture taking. I don't know who was grinning more, her or me.
She'd been with me before on turkey hunts, but they'd mostly been duds. So it was sweet to finally taste success together at long last.
Her turkey weighed 19 pounds, had an 11-inch beard and spurs between 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 inches long. It turned out to be one of the largest toms checked in on that particular WMA all season last year. The turkey came so far so fast, I almost still can't believe it.
By nearly all accounts, 2012 was a sweet season for spring turkey hunting, especially the early part of the season. Harvest data from 2012 was not in at press time, but Steve Barnett, the state's turkey biologist, said he'd heard lots of success stories from hunters during and after the season.
"I think we'll find after the hunter mail surveys come back in that it was a good year," he said.
There was a mild winter leading into the spring season last year and Barnett thinks that was probably a plus, especially in the early part of the season. The turkeys were gobbling and cooperating when the season opened.
"I think the mild winter helped us," he said. "I heard turkeys in South Alabama gobbling in January when I was on deer stands. They didn't gobble a lot, just once or twice. People have always said there's a danger turkeys can 'gobble out' but I think photoperiodism still controls everything and keeps them on schedule."
That's a big word for how turkeys' biological systems respond to lengthening days.
The early indications are that the 2013 spring turkey season could be another good one in Alabama. Brood survey numbers from the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries showed good poult production in the summer, Barnett said. There was good poult production the previous year, too, which translates into 2-year-old gobblers carrying over into the 2013 spring season.
For the state's private land turkey hunters, Barnett continues to stress that good turkey hunting doesn't just happen. It's an offshoot of good habitat management.
Turkey hens need brushy cover close to good food sources such as bugging fields for optimum poult production. Selective thinning of timber, prescribed burning and food plot management are all key components in developing ideal turkey habitat.
If you don't have private lands where you can pursue turkey management yourself, don't despair. Those exact same type programs are in place on the best turkey WMAs across the state and you can access these areas for the cost of a $16 WMA permit.
"We own more of our WMA lands now whether it's through Forever Wild or some other program that bought it," Barnett said. "You can just do so much more management when you own the property."
Management to benefit turkeys is also underway on some of the big national forest WMAs that the state doesn't own like Choccolocco and Oakmulgee. Thinning and burning takes place regularly on these large woodlands and they consistently rank among the top in the state in terms of turkey harvest.
Alabama may be more blessed with its outstanding turkey hunting than its hunters fully realize.
A research project being conducted out of the University of Georgia is looking at turkey population decreases in a number of southeastern states, Barnett said.
"We really haven't experienced a decrease in Alabama, but other states have," Barnett said. "We're cooperating in the research. If something is happening to cause a decrease, we want to catch it on the front end and address it."
TOP PARTS OF THE STATE
Turkeys have expanded their range in some parts of North Alabama that traditionally lacked them in recent years. There are turkeys to hunt in just about every section of the state, but some areas are still much better for turkey numbers than others.
"We've done some work looking at turkey densities," Barnett said. "District 5, the southwestern corner of Alabama, is very good in terms of turkey density."
Those counties are Escambia, Baldwin, Mobile, Washington, Clarke, Monroe, Conecuh, Butler, Wilcox, Marengo and Choctaw.
It's no great surprise that this region contains perhaps more turkeys than other parts of the state. This area had turkeys many years ago before other parts of the state did and the expansion of the state's flocks started in this region.
District 3 is another very good one for turkey numbers. It's the west central Alabama cluster of counties just above those mentioned earlier. Counties in this region include Sumter, Greene, Pickens, Tuscaloosa, Perry, and Lowndes.
District 4, the southeastern corner of the state, is not a bad one either.
HUNTING THE WMAS
The state's WMAs offer a fine place to chase turkeys, but you do need to remember that other sportsmen are afield and have just as much right to be there as you.
I've hunted a number of WMAs over the past decade and now turkey hunt almost exclusively on public land. I've had few problems.
One common sense rule of etiquette for turkey hunting is to move on and find another place if someone beats you to where you wanted to hunt. You don't park at the same pullout as someone else and hunt the same stretch of woods. It's not only common courtesy, but also a safety factor.
An advantage to the WMAs is that most are quite large and there are plenty of places to hunt without competing with someone else.
At the same time, it's important to remember that these birds hear lots of calling. Sometimes soft and easy calling with lots of patience beats the run-and-gun style of hunting.
In assessing WMAs to hunt, Barnett said he likes to look at the man-days required to harvest a turkey. He thinks anything under 10 is good. The accompanying chart indicates the number of turkeys killed on the state's WMAs and the man-days of effort required per bird for the 2012 season.
But man-days per turkey are not the only statistic he looks at. If the man-days per turkey are good, but the overall harvest is relatively small, he might think twice about hunting that area. He also likes to see a good high number of birds killed indicating a thriving turkey population.
That being said, here are some good WMAs to try this year.
Barnett has long liked the Sam R. Murphy WMA in the northwest portion of the state. It gets a lot of pressure, but produces a lot of birds too.
Freedom Hills is also coming on strong as a turkey producer in this region, as the statistics show.
But Choccolocco is the best WMA by far of not just any in North Alabama, but any in the state. It's on my personal rotation of hunting areas and I don't think I've ever visited that I didn't see or hear birds. It's rugged and you need to be prepared to walk up hills, but there's lots of timber management and burning going on that make the habitat just terrific for turkeys.
Wolf Creek, Little River and Coosa are also good choices in this region.
Moving into central Alabama, the Oakmulgee WMA and the surrounding portions of the Talladega National Forest continue to be jam-up turkey woods not just for the region, but the entire state. Like Choccolocco, Oakmulgee is a National Forest WMA with lots of timber and burning going on.
It's a sprawling WMA with a lot of rolling habitat that looks just alike, so pinpointing where to hunt can be difficult.
One tip might be to avoid hunting down the gated roads and just strike out through the woods. The birds won't be expecting a hunter to do that since so much hunting takes place along the road network.
The Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation routinely has work going on around this management area.
Lowndes is a "sleeper" area for turkeys in this region that is producing more and more birds.
Alabama's southern tier counties are the state's historically solid turkey producers.
Going east to west, Barbour, Blue Spring and Scotch all stand out from the chart as turkey areas with outstanding potential.
The Upper Delta is a good sleeper area, but can get flooded out so weather is a real key to being able to hunt it.
Barnett plays his cards close to the vest when predicting just what kind of turkey season we'll have.
"If I thought it was going to be excellent, I would probably only say it was going to be good," he said. "I'd also say good if I thought it was going to be good. I think our next season will be good."
A week out from being with my daughter when she took that North Alabama tom last year, I was with good hunting buddy Dan Myrick on another WMA when he bagged a 22-pounder after we'd found it and called to it for 2 1/2 hours.
It made for two turkeys in two weeks on two different WMAs. That kind of results illustrates the potential for Alabama public land turkey action in a year when the hunting is good.