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.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it's showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn't do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It's hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam's in the same state. It doesn't get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven't been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state's current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state's typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000's. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it's also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.