With the approach of opening day, will the Georgia woodlands be alive with wild tom turkeys sounding off? Let's ask the experts. (March 2010)
The number of turkeys in the Georgia woods is expected to be down slightly this spring.
Photo by Polly Dean.
The approach of spring indicates the renewal of nature with budding flowers and trees, warmer temperatures, and the mating season of the Eastern wild turkey. Hunters across the state anticipate this time, looking forward to hitting the woods and listening to gobblers reverberating their declarations throughout the forests.
Georgia is fortunate to have exceptional turkey hunting, and opportunities abound from the northern mountains to the southern Coastal Plain. But some areas are better than others, and some years are better than others too. The weather and the habitat are the two major factors that determine the health of the flock in any given area or individual year.
These factors affect the turkey population, and consequently, your hunting success and enjoyment. A look back at past seasons and factors, plus a look forward to the upcoming season can provide an indication on your chances for rolling a tom this spring.
Georgia Wildlife Resources Division biologist Kevin Lowrey has been tracking Georgia turkeys for several years and has noted some trends. The biologist has noted the overall statewide turkey population going down slightly in numbers.
"We're definitely on a slight decline, but we still have a lot," Lowrey said of the turkey population. "The turkey population in Georgia has declined since 2003, primarily due to poor reproduction five of the last six years. We still estimate the population at about 300,000 turkeys and harvest rates are still stable."
But at least the cause is not a mystery.
"There has been drought conditions since 1999 and some odd weather patterns," Lowrey noted.
While a drought can mean better hatching conditions, the low rainfall inhibits the plants and insects that the young turkeys need to eat and grow up on.
On the contrary, wet conditions, such as we experienced last year, grow better turkey groceries, but in some circumstances, young still flightless poults may drown. Also, scenting conditions are better in moist or wet weather, which aids predators in locating young birds and preying on them.
Obviously, the weather is a huge factor in turkey survival, though there is nothing anyone can do about it. Another major factor related to turkey populations that we can do something about is habitat.
Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation are serious detriments to the turkey population all across the state.
"It's happening everywhere," Lowrey observed. "There's habitat loss or urbanization across the state and particularly the Piedmont section of the state."
The metro areas continue to expand and encroach while gobbling up wildlife habitat and turning it into houses, shopping centers and businesses. Atlanta continues to expand toward Athens, Gainesville, Newnan and Jonesboro, filling in everywhere in between. But the Macon, Augusta and Savannah metro areas are bulging and clearing turkey habitat as well.
Lowrey noted that turkeys thrive in certain types of habitat.
"Turkeys need mature forests with little understory, interspersed with weedy grassy openings. They also need corridor management to connect the patches of habitat types, including streamside management zones," the biologist added.
This type of ideal turkey land is getting harder to come by, and fewer land managers are crafting their property specifically for the birds. When lands are clear cut and planted in a monoculture of pine trees, it doesn't provide well for turkeys, and consequently, their population won't thrive.
Even though the population has been in a decline, the drop has been slight and it could easily turn around with some good hatches and weather conditions.
"In one year it can turn things around, it can bounce back quickly," Lowrey agreed. "We need to put together several good weather years."
But 2010 is probably not the turn-a-round year.
"It doesn't look good," Lowrey admitted.
The heavy fall rains, especially in the upper and lower Coastal Plains have had a negative impact on nesting time.
"Unfortunately, reproduction is down again in 2009 due to heavy rainfall, and this will continue to compound lower turkey numbers," Lowrey added.
Thus, the 2010 season won't have many jakes.
"Reproduction was good in many parts of the state in the summer of 2008. This should mean a lot of vocal 2-year-old birds available for the 2010 season," Lowrey added.
Also, the 2011 spring will have fewer 2-year-old toms.
These are overall statewide assessments and predictions. Your individual hunting area may have plenty of toms of all ages and may have had several good hatches. The situation can be localized depending on the habitat and local weather conditions.
Rating the turkey season can be done statistically and scientifically as the state does, but you can also ask individual hunters on how their prior seasons went. Greg Brown turkey hunts in Talbot and Taylor counties in the west-central area of the state. "My turkey season was the worst I have had since I started hunting in 1981," Brown admitted regarding 2009. "I only saw four adult gobblers all season. I normally kill two or three and I had no kills in Georgia last season."
Brown wondered if predators, the weather and drought have affected the flock. He saw less sign and heard less gobbling last season. However, he is optimistic about the future.
"I was seeing more birds after the season, so the next few years should be good," he said.
Up in northwest Georgia in Chattooga County, Chuck Morgan of Resaca was a bit more successful last spring. Morgan bagged a 20-pound tom and rated his season as fair.
"The birds did not gobble much," Morgan observed.
During the season a hunting buddy of his also kill
ed a tom while they were hunting together. Chuck could have made it a double on that hunt, but missed a second tom while leaning around his partner to shoot.
The ironic aspect of all this is the fact that despite declining turkey numbers over the past several years, the hunter harvest has been increasing. The taking of the gobblers doesn't affect the overall population since the hens do the hatching and a tom can breed several hens.
The gobbler harvest for the spring 2009 season was an estimated 27,323. There were 56,113 resident hunters pursuing Georgia turkeys. That translates to a hunter success rate of 49 percent, which means about half of all hunters took a gobbler home.
That was the same success rate for 2008 and 2007. Previous years were a bit higher with success rates of 63 percent in 2006, 56 in 2005, and 65 in 2004. So the rate at which turkey hunters bagged a bird has gone down slightly.
Of the 27,323 toms taken, 3,783 were 1-year-old toms, or jakes. The WRD uses the jake harvest as an indicator of last year's hatch.
"Jake harvest simply indicates that jakes were available for harvest. So, the years we harvest more jakes tracks pretty well with an increase in reproduction the prior summer," stated biologist Lowrey.
As with any wild game species, some regions are better than others, and this is also true for turkeys.
"The upper Coastal Plain and the Piedmont continue to reliably produce turkeys," said Lowrey. "The lower Coastal Plain and the ridge and valley seem to have greater annual fluctuations in production. The Blue Ridge is stable, but always has lower productivity than the rest of the state."
Finding turkeys can be done on private or public lands. Many hunters have access to private lands through leases, family or friend's land, or by individual ownership. But if you don't have one of those options, there is plenty of public land for the turkey hunting.
Georgia has nearly one million acres of public land available for turkey hunting. Most of that is in wildlife management areas that are open to hunting during the statewide turkey season. A few have quota hunts or specific dates only for turkey hunting. Check the regulations for specifics.
For the cost of a $19 WMA license, plus a regular hunting license, Georgia residents have access to hundreds of thousands of acres of turkey-filled land. And unlike most private lands, these properties are managed for turkeys. Many WMAs have food plots, timber clearing, streamside management, burnings and other land management practices to help enhance the habitat.
The average hunter success rate for all WMAs is 6 percent. The upper Coastal Plain WMAs had a high of 8 percent, while the Blue Ridge WMAs had the lowest at 5. Overall, 15,984 hunters visited Georgia WMAs in search of a gobbler and 962 took home a bird.
So, which WMA is best for calling in a gobbler? Here's a breakdown by regions.
Region 1 in northwest Georgia is composed of the ridge and valley geophysical region around Rome. The 19,951 acres of the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA was visited by 393 hunters and 31 birds were bagged. That's a success rate of almost 8 percent.
Region 2 incorporates northeast Georgia and has mountainous areas centered on Gainesville. The Dukes Creek-Smithgall Woods Conservation Area near Helen has quota hunts and 25 hunters took seven toms for an impressive success rate of 25 percent. Lake Russell WMA contains 17,300 acres near Cornelia, and 29 gobblers were harvested. There were 538 turkey hunters at Lake Russell, and 5.4 percent went home with birds.
Region 3 stretches from the Atlanta area to the central eastern portion of the state, including the Augusta region. The top producers are Tuckahoe and Yuchi WMAs. There were 26 toms taken by 207 hunters at Tuckahoe and 26 gobblers bagged by 260 hunters at Yuchi. One of the most popular and productive eastern tracts is the 40,570-acre Cedar Creek WMA near Monticello. Last spring, 717 hunters killed 57 turkeys for a success rate of 8 percent.
The west-central Piedmont portion of the state just north of Macon and Columbus is Region 4. The best flocks tend to reside at Rum Creek and Joe Kurz WMAs. Rum Creek saw 65 hunters bag 14 toms, and Joe Kurz had 12 toms leave with 57 hunters.
Down in southwest Georgia around Albany is Region 5. Chickasawhatchee and River Creek stand out there for turkey production. Chickasawhatchee's 19,700 acres gave up 41 gobblers to 389 sportsmen for a success rate of more than 10 percent.
Region 6 is in southwest Georgia, but excludes the coastal counties. River Bend WMA hosted 52 hunters that bagged six birds.
In coastal Region 7, the top tracts for turkey hunts were Sansavilla and the Little Satilla WMAs. They had 16 kills from 252 hunters, and nine birds from 148 hunters, respectively.
While the forecast and present population counts are not optimal, there are still plenty of reasons to go afield. Georgia is still one of the best places to hear, see and bag an Eastern wild turkey. And our public lands provide a lot of room for the effort.