Tom Time in Georgia

Tom Time in Georgia

With the turkey season fast approaching, it's time to figure out where you can find your bird this year. Here's some information that may make your quest for a gobbler a bit easier.

By Tim Earl

Georgia's turkey hunters take their sport very seriously. During the 2002 season, the average hunter spent 11.1 days in the woods. Anyone willing to spend that much time and effort outside their busy lives is apparently intensely interested in turkey hunting. Because of that, the state's turkey population is closely monitored by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD).

The WRD biologists do several statistical studies on a yearly basis to better understand where the turkeys are and how the populations can best be managed. These studies are available to the public and can be used to help predict what the upcoming hunting season will offer.

Hunters last year had an average harvest rate of 0.65 gobbler per hunter, making Georgia one of the best turkey hunting states in the nation. While the turkey population has fallen from a high of around 400,000 down to 300,000 birds over the past six years, the state continues to offer excellent hunting opportunities.

"The drop in population is significant, but the state is still considered by wildlife biologists to produce a good harvest potential," says senior wildlife biologist Haven Barnhill. "Even with recent declines, the statewide population remains good and should continue to be good in the foreseeable future."

Biologists from the WRD monitor reproduction with an annual brood survey. Field personnel record all sightings of turkey hens with and without poults. Results from the 2000 and 2001 sightings show some of the lowest numbers documented during the 22 years of conducting the surveys. Overall, brood survey results indicate that statewide turkey production is down compared to the peak years from 1993 to 1996. In 2001, the average number of poults per hen was 2.2, considered by biologists to be "only fair." This number is up from the lowest documented average of 1.8 in 2000. Hopefully, this increase will continue and indicates a favorable trend for coming hunting.

Georgia's turkey population is now estimated to be around 300,000 birds. Photo by Tom Evans

"Wildlife reproductive rates follow cyclical trends," Barnhill notes. "In Georgia, we have very unpredictable spring climatic conditions, which can greatly impact turkey reproduction. A dry spring offers good nesting conditions. However, a dry summer is not good for herbaceous production or the production of insects.

"The best possible conditions are a relatively dry spring followed by a summer with moderate rainfall," the biologist adds.

Georgia's five-year drought has probably had a negative impact on turkey reproduction. The dry weather, however, is a natural phenomenon that wildlife has dealt with for a very long time. The real threat, according to biologists, is loss and degradation of habitat - especially in the Piedmont region of the state. A great deal of viable turkey habitat disappears each year as lands are developed for Georgia's growing human population. Since a plurality of Peach State turkey hunters are in this region, the Piedmont is considered to be the greatest challenge for turkey population management.

"Forty-three percent of turkey hunters live and hunt in the Piedmont region," says Barnhill. "Managing the population to provide decent hunting in an area where habitat is disappearing so rapidly is going to be difficult."

Though pressure from development is most obvious in the Piedmont, each region of the state is experiencing the same threats to habitat. With fully one-third of the state's hunters using public land, which only accounts for 8 percent of the state, it is obvious that more land needs to be protected to ensure a quality hunting experience. Each year there is an increase in turkey hunting on the state's wildlife management areas (WMAs), and this trend will probably not change. Therefore, it is imperative that the management of the WMAs continues to be studied and improved for the future.

The Georgia chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) is doing its part to help the state get the information needed to properly manage turkey hunting. In 2001, the group contributed over $200,000 to turkey management in the state. This money is raised through donations and by local fundraising banquets.

"The Georgia Chapter of the NWTF is a tremendous supporter of management and hunting in the state," says Barnhill. "They fund many projects through the WRD, the National Forest Service and the Department of Defense. Anyone who attends their local NWTF banquet can be sure their money is going back into the state to improve their hunting."

Through the efforts of the WRD, the NWTF and a rising number of turkey hunters, Georgians can look forward to a good season of turkey hunting in 2003.

Here is a breakdown of the different physiographic regions and how well they produced hunter success last year. All WMAs mentioned here require hunters to possess a big game license and a WMA stamp, and to sign in at the check station prior to hunting.

Georgia's Ridge and Valley province is located in the northwestern corner of the state above a line that runs roughly through Floyd and Murray counties. An evaluation of the most recent Georgia Statewide Wild Turkey Population Density Estimate indicates that the top three counties in the region are Floyd, Walker and Bartow. Their estimated turkey populations are 3,568 in Floyd, 3,157 in Walker, and 3,086 in Bartow. Higher populations in these counties can probably be attributed to large areas of undeveloped land in forests that provide good nesting and feeding potential.

According to information gathered from WMA hunts, the Ridge and Valley region produced a little over 13 percent of the turkey harvest for 2002, with a total of 151 birds. Of these 151 birds, 97 were adults and 54 jakes. This is the smallest region represented by WMA property, holding only 9.5 percent of the WMA acreage. Still, it produced the third-highest harvest per square mile. The hunter success rate was 7.44 percent, which is slightly below the state average of 7.65 percent.

In the categories of hunter success (9.03 percent) and total gobbler harvest (42), Johns Mountain WMA had the best results. That total harvest was split with 21 jakes and 21 adults, and there were a total of 465 hunters who used the WMA.

Johns Mountain WMA covers 24,000 acres. From Calhoun, take State Route (S.R.) 136C north six miles to Sugar Valley, turn left and go six miles to Lake Marvin. The check station is in an area known as The Pocket.

Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA ranked second in hunter success, at 8.86 percent, with a total harvest of 32 toms. Twenty-one adult birds and 11 jakes were taken. A total of 361 hunters used Crockford-Pigeon Mountain during the season.

Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA covers 16,400 acres. From Lafayette, take S.R. 193 west 2.7 miles to Chamberlain Road, then turn left and go 3 miles to Rocky Lane Road. After turning right, go 0.3 mile to the check station.

The Blue Ridge Mountain physiographic province is outlined by Fannin and Gilmer counties to the west and Lumpkin, White and Habersham counties to the south. Within this area, Gilmer County is estimated to have the highest turkey population - 3,911 - followed by Rabun, with 3,401, and Fannin, at 3,383 birds. Turkey populations tend to vary more in this area due to the different climatic conditions experienced in mountainous terrain.

Information gathered from last year's WMA hunting season indicates that the hunter success rate for this region was 5.1 percent, placing it last in the rankings by region. The total number of turkeys harvested was 156, with 138 adult birds and 18 jakes being taken. In this area, WMAs were used by the second-largest group of hunters, with 3,058 sportsmen taking to the woods. This made up approximately 20 percent of the hunters statewide who used WMA lands.

Hunter success rates for the top two WMAs in this province were all above the state average of 7.65 percent. The best success, at 9.27 percent, was on the Chestatee WMA, with a total harvest of 23 birds. Of those, 20 were adults, indicating that reproduction may have been poor during the preceding year.

Chestatee WMA covers 25,000 acres. From Cleveland, take U.S. 129 north 10.5 miles to Turner's Corner, turn left on U.S. 19 and go 0.5 mile. Next make a right turn onto Dicks Creek Road, then go one mile to the check station driveway on the left.

The second-highest success rate, 8.06 percent, was at Warwoman WMA, with a total of 10 adult birds taken. Again, the lack of jakes indicates a poor reproduction rate from the previous spring.

Warwoman WMA covers 15,800 acres. To get there from Clayton, take U.S. 441 north, turn right on Warwoman Road and go 3.5 miles to Finney Creek Road. After turning left go 0.2 mile to the check station.

Georgia's Piedmont is generally thought of as the northern half of the state, without the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge Mountain provinces. The northern boundary runs roughly from Haralson County on the west to Stephens County in the east. The lower boundary runs roughly from Muscogee County in the west to Columbia County in the east, following what is known as the "Fall Line," where the Coastal Plain starts.

According to the WRD, the Piedmont counties with the highest numbers of turkeys are found in the southwestern portion of the province. Harris County leads the estimate, with 4,962 birds, followed closely by Meriwether, with 4,688, and Talbot, at 4,459.

Surveys of the WMAs show that Rum Creek had the best hunter success, at 34.69 percent, followed by Oconee, at 15.79 percent, and Blanton Creek, at 15.74 percent. Rum Creek's total harvest was 24 birds, made up of 14 adults and 10 jakes taken by a total of 70 hunters.

Rum Creek WMA covers 24,000 acres. Turkey hunting is restricted to Adult/Child hunts March 22-28, March 29 through April 4, and April 5-11 by quota. General hunting is allowed by quota April 19-25 and April 26 through May 2. In the Berry Creek Area, archery turkey hunting is allowed from March 22 through May 15, with hunters needing to sign in only. To get to Rum Creek WMA from Forsyth, take S.R. 18 east 7 miles to the check station.

Oconee WMA had a total harvest of 18 birds, evenly split between adults and jakes. The area hosted a total of 114 hunters.

Oconee WMA covers 4,100 acres. Hunting is allowed March 22-28 and March 29 through April 4 by quota. No quota is required April 5 through May 15. To get there from Eatonton, take S.R. 16 east 14.7 miles to the Oconee River. Proceed 1.3 miles to Georgia Power Company Road and turn left, then follow the signs 3 miles to the check station.

Blanton Creek WMA had 37 birds harvested - 23 adults and 14 jakes taken by 235 hunters.

Blanton Creek WMA covers 24,000 acres. To reach the check station from West Point, take S.R. 103 south 10 miles to mile marker 6 and turn right.

The Upper Coastal Plain is bounded in the north by the Fall Line and to the south by a line that runs roughly from Grady County in the southwest portion of the state to Burke County in the east-central part of the state. Boasting the highest hunter success rate of all the provinces, at 11.63 percent, it is also generally the least hunted.

Burke County, located on the South Carolina border, has the highest estimated population, at 5,557 birds. Chattahoochee County had the second-highest population, with 4,548 turkeys, and Stewart County is third, with 4,180. Chattahoochee and Stewart counties are located on the Alabama border.

Statistics for the WMAs indicate hunter success rates well above the state average. Chickasawhatchee WMA was best, with a rate of 27.42 percent, followed by Beaverdam, at 20.44 percent, and Di-Lane, at 19.43 percent. Chicasawatchee had a total harvest of 17 birds. The 14 adults and three jakes were taken by 62 hunters.

Chickasawhatchee WMA covers 19,700 acres. Hunting is allowed by quota March 22-28 and March 29 through April 4. No quota permit is required April 5 through May 15. From Albany, take S.R. 91 south 4 miles to the junction with S.R. 62. Turn right and go 15 miles, then follow the signs to check station.

Beaverdam WMA had a total harvest of 28 gobblers - 20 adults and 8 jakes. In all, 137 hunters signed in on the area.

Beaverdam covers 5,500 acres. From Dublin, take U.S. 441 north 4.5 miles, then turn right on Old Toomsboro Road. At 7.5 miles, turn right on Oconee Church Road at the WMA sign. At 1.5 miles, turn left at another WMA sign.

Di-Lane had a total harvest of 34 birds last season, of which 21 were adults and 13 jakes. A total of 175 hunters visited the area.

Di-Lane WMA covers 8,100 acres. To get there from Waynesboro, take S.R. 25 south to 4th Street and turn right. Continue on 4th Street/Herndon Road for 10 miles, then follow the signs to the check station.

Georgia's Lower Coastal Plain lies south of the Grady County to Burke County line described earlier and extends to the Florida border. The region had the second-highest average hunter success - 10.27 percent. Wayne County tops the list for estimated number of turkeys, with 6555, followed

by Bacon County's 5,723 and 4,832 in Liberty County. These counties have some of the highest population densities in the state.

The top three WMAs in the Lower Coastal Plain offer hunter success rates well above the state average. Dixon Memorial WMA leads, with a success rate of 23.21 percent, followed by Griffin Ridge, at 19.35 percent, and Tuckahoe, with 12.93 percent. Consistent with other regions of the state, a low number of jakes harvested indicates that the previous year had only fair reproduction.

Dixon Memorial gave up 13 birds, with all but one being adults. The area was used by a total of 56 hunters.

Dixon Memorial WMA covers 36,100 acres. From Waycross, take U.S. 1 south 6 miles to S.R. 177 and turn north. Follow the signs to the check station.

Griffin Ridge gave up a 12 toms, all adults, and the total number of hunters was 62.

Griffin Ridge WMA covers 5,600 acres. Hunting is allowed by quota March 29 through April 4, April 5-11, April 12-18, April 19-25 and April 26 through May 2. From Ludowici, take U.S. 301 south two miles. The WMA is on the right (north) side of the highway. Take the first road south of the Department of Transportation weigh station to get to the check station.

Tuckahoe yielded 34 birds taken by 263 hunters. Thirty-two of the turkeys were mature gobblers.

Tuckahoe WMA covers 15,100 acres. To get there from Sylvania, take East Ogeechee Road 2.2 miles to the junction with Buck Creek and Brannen's Bridge roads. Follow Brannen's Bridge Road 3.4 miles to the junction with S.R. 24 and continue on Brannen's Bridge 5.2 miles farther to the check station on the left.

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