With spring gobbler season at hand, let's check out the areas that are your best bets for spring 2009 turkey hunts. (March 2009)
Spring's in the air, and as days lengthen, a gobbler's fancy turns to thoughts of hens -- and a hunter's mind focuses on wild turkey on the table. The challenge lies in bagging the gobbler so you can baste him!
Wildlife managers introduced a serious restocking program in 1973. At this point, suitable turkey habitat existed in many areas of the state, so biologists began trapping turkeys from the Piedmont region and relocating them. Since 1973, more than 4,800 birds have been transplanted to 400 locations around the state. Deemed a success, the stocking program was wrapped up in 1996, and today, wild turkeys can be found in all 159 Georgia counties.
Just shy of 50,000 hunters bagged a bit under 25,000 gobblers in the Peach State last season. Photo courtesy of the NWTF.
Fortunately for Georgia hunters, wild turkeys roam the Peach State's woods in abundance, so with a bit of planning, some skill with shotgun and turkey call, and just a little bit of luck, you can be frying, roasting or stewing that tom in time for Easter.
Turkey season opens on Saturday, March 21 and runs through May 15, 2009. The limit is three gobblers per hunter per season.
According to Chris Baumann, regional supervisor and turkey committee chairman with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division, the current turkey population is estimated at around 300,000 birds. "We have seen consistent declines in reproduction over the past three to four years because of the drought and habitat changes," he stated.
Things may be picking up, however. While the WRD has no final numbers on 2008 reproduction, Baumann has a good feeling about the 2009 season. Spring and summer weather patterns make a major impact on the turkey population, and rainfall in 2008 was closer to normal than has been the case for recent prior years.
"Generally what we find is that any deviation from the average rainfall is bad for turkeys," he said. "If there's too much rain, there is a higher mortality of hens on the nest, and more poults die from moisture exposure.
"When poults are small, they grow quickly and need a lot of insects. A week of heavy rain is bad news at hatching time. On the other hand, if there is not enough rain, then the numbers of insects and brood range are negatively affected. Everything is driven by rain!"
Some areas of Georgia are improving because of habitat enhancements; in others the population is declining because of changes in land-use patterns. "No one is in real bad shape, but compared to the early 1970s we're in our heyday," Baumann pointed out.
Until the 1900s, wild turkeys were abundant in the Peach State. Then, habitat changes, along with subsistence and market hunting, took their toll on the wild birds, and by the mid-1900s, wild turkeys had essentially disappeared from Georgia's landscape. As recently as 1973, fewer than 17,000 of the birds haunted Georgia's turkey woods.
In the 1950s, the state began releasing pen-reared birds in hopes of restoring the turkey population -- and it was a total flop: The pen-reared specimens lacked both the skills and the instincts necessary to survive in the wild and were eaten by predators quickly or starved to death slowly.
Management efforts now focus on maintaining and improving habitat. The WRD employs a myriad of activities to enhance turkey habitat, but, according to Baumann, the best thing that the state does for turkeys is to thin and burn pine stands. Controlled burning opens up the understory of vegetation and provides insects and nesting habitat for turkeys in all of their life stages.
"We've been able to get on schedule with thinning and burning in the last two years and this makes a huge difference for the birds," he said. "There's a lot more vegetation that they need on the burned areas, and the turkey populations definitely respond."
Wild turkeys need a variety of habitat types to survive and to thrive. They migrate to areas in which openings and areas of some type appropriate for nesting, such as upland pines or hardwood stands, are present. Hens favor these areas; gobblers follow. If you're looking for a good place to hunt, start with a pine stand that was burned the previous winter, as lots of the fresh growth that produces the shrubs and bugs essential to wild turkeys' diet will be found in such a place.
Turkeys rely heavily on hard and soft mast such as acorns, beechnuts, dogwood berries and other seeds, but bugs constitute the largest part of a turkey's food intake. "Turkeys have an extremely varied diet," Baumann pointed out. "If they can catch it and put it in their mouths, they'll probably eat it."
Turkey management activities are largely funded by money received by the WRD from a federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. The National Wild Turkey Federation also underwrites a substantial portion of Georgia's management efforts, having since 1985 spent more than $3 million on a variety of projects including habitat enhancement, the purchase of equipment, land acquisition and education. "NWTF has donated lots of money over the years for planters and other equipment that is difficult for the state to buy," offered Baumann.
We now have plenty of turkeys in the Peach State today -- so what's next? How about hunting them? When figuring out where to go hunting in 2009, it helps to look at numbers from the 2008 turkey season.
The statewide harvest survey reveals that 49,327 license hunters killed 24,297 turkeys statewide last year. This averages out to 0.49 turkeys per hunter, which is similar to harvest rates the past several years.
These numbers only account for resident hunters, though; the WRD estimates that as many as 32,000 lifetime license holders, non-residents and honorary license holders may hunt for turkeys. It's estimated that these "other license holders" may harvest as many as 20,000 additional birds.
The majority of sportsmen -- 68.6 percent, to be exact -- will hunt exclusively on private lands. But if you don't have access to private hunting lands, the state's WMA system offers some great hunting opportunities. In last year's survey, 31 percent of hunters reported chasing birds on both public and private land; about 8 percent hunt exclusively on public land. That so many hunt private lands is unsurprising, Baumann said, given that wildlife management areas comprise only 7 to 8 percent of Georgia hunting grounds.
In 2008, 15,229
hunters signed in at the 82 WMAs requiring sign-in/sign-out -- a 5 percent increase over the 2007 season. The WMA hunter success rate for 2008 was 5.9 percent, while the WMA harvest averaged 0.64 turkeys per square mile statewide, down a bit from 2007's numbers.
"The 2008 harvest was similar to 2007, but our harvest averages have been down for three years in a row," remarked Baumann. "The WMA harvest has also shown a slight decrease across the board. Our harvest success rate is still around 50 percent, and that's still pretty good. It was in the upper 60 percent range for a long time, but it's down in the 50s now, which is not too bad. Turkeys are cyclic, and we're hoping to see an upswing soon."
The Peach State is broken down into five general physiographic regions -- Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge Mountains, Piedmont, Upper Coastal Plain and Lower Coastal Plain -- each of which is defined by a distinctive soil and habitat makeup.
In terms of harvest -- according to the 2008 WMA survey -- the most productive areas of the state for turkey hunters are the Piedmont and both the Coastal Plain regions. These areas currently boast better habitat, but development is encroaching, especially in the Piedmont. The Upper Coastal Plain is still largely agricultural, making it a prime turkey area.
So which are the best places for maximizing one's chances of taking a gobbler? Turkeys are to be found in every region of Georgia, so let's take a look at the WMAs in each region that had the best harvests in 2008. Something promising's bound to be available in your area.
Ridge And Valley
This physiographic region in extreme northwest Georgia is dominated by a series of limestone-substrate parallel ridges forested with a pine or oak/hickory mix, depending on soil moisture. The soils are fairly productive for wildlife, but the steep ridges make hiking in and out challenging. The overall percent of hunter success in this region was 5.2 percent.
Berry College WMA, a 15,700-acre tract near Rome, took top honors in this region with an 8.6 percent hunter success rate. Crockford-Pigeon Mountain was close behind with a 6.2 percent success rate. Other WMAs of note were Johns Mountain and Coosawattee, both in the 5 percent range. Overall, just over 1,800 hunters called turkeys on the 89,000 acres of WMAs in this region.
Blue Ridge Mountains
Comprising Georgia's northernmost counties, this region is characterized by less-fertile soils. Here, as in the Ridge and Valley zone, steep terrain can render hunting difficult.
Among the 12 WMAs in this region, the best success was seen at 19,000-acre Swallow Creek WMA, where hunters achieved a kill rate of 8.9 percent. Dukes Creek was also a notable spot, with 7.7 percent success. Blue Ridge WMA was the most hunted area, with 536 hunters bagging 26 birds -- a 4.9 percent success rate.
Other productive areas: Warwoman WMA and the 30,000-acre Cooper Creek tract. Overall, nearly 2,900 hunters used the 294,000 acres of WMAs in this region, attaining an overall success rate of 4.99 percent.
Heading south, we come to this region stretching across the Peach State's midsection. Though development continues to compromise prime turkey habitat, the Piedmont has produced a lot of birds over the years. Its granitic clay soils are very productive for wildlife, but steep, rocky terrain makes erosion an ongoing problem. The forested areas are predominately an oak/hickory mix, but large areas of pine are present as well. Last year's regional hunter success rate: 5.2 percent.
The stars in this region were 3,622-acre Joe Kurz WMA and 6,015-acre Rum Creek WMA. Turkey hunters were relatively few at both, but the former posted a whopping 18 percent success rate and the latter an only slightly less whopping 16 percent. Lake Russell WMA had the highest harvest in the Piedmont region, 30 birds being taken there by 590 hunters for a 5 percent success rate. West Point WMA and the Vaughter Tract in Elbert County WMA ran up success rates in the range of 7 to 8 percent.
Upper Coastal Plain
Characterized by mature forests interspersed with wildlife openings, the Upper Coastal Plain physiographic region boasts one of the more recently restored turkey populations. During the 2008 season, this area recorded the highest overall success rate, with 7.92 percent of hunters bagging birds at WMAs. Overall, sportsmen harvested 224 toms from the 122,114 acres of public land in the region.
The star of the Upper Coastal Plain's 23 WMAs is 8,100-acre Di-Lane WMA, a tract composed of a mixture of agricultural fields and forested areas. The area, which recently went to a quota hunt for the first two weeks of the season, has gotten really popular, Baumann reported. The 137 hunters who pursued turkeys here last year recorded a 19 percent success rate.
Another great turkey spot -- but one you must be lucky to hunt -- is River Creek, outside of Thomasville. The area boasted a 50 percent success rate -- but there's a catch: It's a small area, and it's a quota-only area. The first two hunts are parent-child events; there's one general hunt.
"It's a tough area to get onto," Baumann stated, "but it's a great place to introduce a kid to turkey hunting, because there are a lot of birds on it."
Also in this region: 5,500-acre Beaverdam WMA, at which hunters racked up a 13 percent success rate with a harvest of 2.3 birds per square mile. Chickasawhatchee WMA, near Albany, was also a worthwhile spot, the 19,700-acre tract reporting a 15 percent success rate. At 7,800-acre Yuchi WMA, too, notable harvest figures were tallied, the success rate equaling 12.7 percent.
Lower Coastal Plain
Taking in basically the southeastern corner of Georgia, this region includes all of the counties along the Georgia coast, as well as some a bit farther inland. Flat and typified by wet, sandy soil low in fertility, it's made up primarily of pine forests in the uplands and gum and shrub swamps in lower-lying areas.
The Lower Coastal Plain's overall success rate was 7.7 percent, which isn't bad, but the harvest per square mile was only 0.47 birds. This region has a large amount of public acreage on coastal barrier islands harboring virtually no turkeys; deer hunting hotspots like Ossabaw and Sapelo islands contain few if any birds. Seven hunters tried their luck on Sapelo last year, but none bagged a gobbler.
Most notable of the 19 WMAs in the Lower Coastal Plain was Griffin Ridge WMA, outside of Ludowici. Hunters at this 5,600-acre tract had a 17.8 percent success rate, harvesting 0.9 gobblers per square mile. With an 11.8 percent success rate, 36,100-acre Dixon Memorial WMA was also a hotspot; Tuckahoe also put up solid numbers for this region, with a 10.5 percent success rate and 1.2 birds harvested per square mile. Finally, Moody Forest, Penholoway, and Sansavilla WMAs all recorded success rates in the 8 percent range.