Turkey hunters face a very mature flock this season and will have to use all the savvy they can muster to be successful. (March 2009)
Thorough scouting often spells the difference between success and failure in the turkey woods. Photo by Ralph Hensley.
The truck climbed slowly up the forest service road and coasted to a stop along the edge of the ridge. The hunters emerged quietly, gathered their gear, and then gently eased the doors closed. They made their way along the ridgeline without speaking, taking great care not to make any more sound than necessary.
Upon reaching the pre-chosen vantage point, the hunters prepared for their first stab at finding an early-morning gobbler. The sun was just beginning to give the slightest hint of color on the horizon. It was destined to be a glorious morning.
The chosen starting point was a high ridge point that intersected three other ridgelines and overlooked choice hardwood bottoms and two large green fields. A short blast on an owl hooter was answered by three very distinct gobbles from birds spaced alongside the nearest green field and another possible gobble some distance away at the far end of the woods. The hunters whispered strategy and then quickly headed off in pursuit of an opening day tom.
Scenarios like this are what we all strive for as turkey hunters. Unfortunately, far too many days don't resemble our vision in the least. Several factors have to come together in order to make those perfect mornings a possibility.
There is a commonly heard phrase that reiterates the importance of "location, location, location." While the phrase was originally meant in a different context, it is highly applicable to turkey hunting. The main key to success is knowing where to hunt. Knowing how to call and being a good shot doesn't play a part at all if there are no birds present. This is true whether hunting on private or public land. However, location is even more important on public land because other hunters and their movement patterns must be factored in to develop a hunting strategy.
Finding birds in Illinois has not been difficult based on harvest results from the last several years. Although there has been some fluctuation, spring hunters have typically bagged increasing numbers of birds each year. However, the harvest figures have fallen slightly since a record number of birds were taken in 2006.
The numbers of spring birds taken by adult hunters in the last 10 years had steadily climbed from 10,061 in 1999 to 15,066 in 2004. The special youth spring season commenced in 2001 with 75 birds taken, a number that rose to 498 by 2004.
All harvest numbers fell slightly in 2005, but hunters set a new record high of 15,628 birds in 2006, only the second time harvest numbers exceeded 15,000.
Since then, the number of birds taken by youths climbed from 570 in 2007 to 633 in 2008, but regular season numbers dropped to 14,197 birds, the lowest harvest total in six years. That figure rebounded last year as hunters bagged an impressive 15,159 birds or about one turkey bagged for every five hunters.
The DNR was seemingly pleased with the 2008 preliminary results. The total harvest, 15,792 birds, was the second-largest spring turkey harvest ever, according to Tom Micetich of the DNR.
"We are very pleased with this year's spring turkey harvest," Paul Shelton, forest wildlife program manager said, "The South Zone started out slowly in cool, rainy weather, but improved over the course of the seasons and finished with the fifth-largest harvest ever. In the North Zone, conditions were generally favorable for turkey hunting, although cool weather and heavy rain on the final Sunday of the fifth season dampened results slightly."
Although last season resulted in a successful spring harvest, the outlook for this season may not be as bright. Production has been off for the past couple of years and last year's extremely wet and cool spring -- the third wettest January to May period in more than 100 years -- didn't help. The rainfall, 7 inches above average, combined with some very cool temperatures, resulted in an average temperature of 44 degrees, three degrees below average. Cold, wet weather is not helpful for nesting and poult survival.
Poult production has been down for the last two years. The DNR biologists use various methods to determine brood success and poult survival, recording the results in a poult-to-hen index, which simply put, is the number of poults counted compared with the number of hens counted.
The counts are collected from various sources, including cooperating landowners, mail carriers, biologists and public-land site managers. Figures are assessed and compared against long-term trends.
"Illinois had the two poorest years of production in the past 10 years in 2007 and 2008," Micetich said. That is not particularly encouraging, but it doesn't mean the end of the world either.
When there is a poor production year, it means there will be fewer jakes in the flock the next year. However, if there was good production the year before, there will be strong numbers of 2-year-old birds, the component of the flock that most affects hunter success and turkey harvest. The 2-year-old birds do the majority of the gobbling, are more receptive to calling and are generally not as tough to hunt as older birds.
In 2006, there was much better production, so last year, there was a strong number of 2-year-olds in the flock. This probably contributed greatly to the very successful harvest last season. Now, with two poor production years in a row, there may be a decrease in both the number of jakes and the number of 2-year-old birds.
Does this mean the turkey flock is in trouble? Of course it doesn't. Animal populations naturally fluctuate in response to weather, predation, disease and other factors. The turkey numbers are still in great shape, but it does mean hunters will be dealing with a more mature flock this season and must use all the savvy they can muster to be successful. A bird that has survived two or three hunting seasons is obviously going to be much harder to take than a jake or a 2-year-old. However, bagging an old tom is a great reward and a true trophy for a hard-working hunter.
This year, the choice of hunting location will be more important than ever. Hunters with access to private land hold a decided advantage over those who must hunt on public ground where birds are pressured every day of the season. However, no matter where one hunts, searching out the best locations, doing thorough scouting and pre-hunt planning and then applying superb hunting skills may spell the difference between success and failure.
Hunters with access to private land in the North Zone have a number of great locations across the area to hunt. The harvest figures for many counties in the North Zone are much greater than those in the South Zone. By looking at past success and finding the strongest counties, one can make some logical assumptions for future hunting success.
The top county for harvest last spring was Jo Daviess with 568 birds taken. The previous year was also strong in that county with a harvest of 542 spring birds. Not far behind in second place was Pike County with a harvest of 552 birds. Hunters there took 528 gobblers the previous spring. The only other county to break the 500 mark was Adams County with 507 birds. The 2007 total for Adams was 456. Rounding out the top five counties in the North Zone were Fulton County and Macoupin County with 415 birds and 399 birds, respectively. In 2007, Fulton County hunters took 386 birds, and Macoupin County hunters bagged 400 gobblers.
The South Zone has some great hunting as well, but the harvest numbers per county are not quite as high as in the north. However, hunter success is still good and several counties yielded very impressive harvest results.
The top spot in the South Zone in 2008 was Marion County where hunters tallied some 347 toms in the spring season. Hunters in that county took a comparable 343 birds the year before. The second highest total was recorded in Randolph County with 344 turkeys taken in the spring. In 2007, that county yielded 335 birds. Next was Pope County with 329 birds, which was right at the mark of 322 from the previous year. Fulton County came in fourth and showed a nice increase from the total of 386 birds in 2007, as hunters last year bagged some 415 spring birds. Our last South Zone county in the top five actually went the other direction and had a decrease in the harvest. In 2007, Jefferson County turkey hunters bagged 336 spring birds. Last year, that number fell to 299.
Obviously, these are not the only counties that produce good harvest results. However, by looking at the top-producing areas, hunters can position themselves for the best opportunity to find a bird. In contrast, counties with very low harvest numbers are typically not where one would want to hunt if given a choice. For instance, in 2007, Livingston County only had a harvest of six birds. Compare that with the numbers listed for the counties above and it's easy to understand why shopping around for a county with a strong population of birds is important.
Likewise, it's important to do a little homework when choosing public ground on which to hunt. Obviously, some hunters are restricted by where they live and the opportunity to travel. Even so, here are some public access areas to consider this spring.
SHAWNEE NATIONAL FOREST
This area is one of the best public access spots in the entire state, not just because of adequate numbers of turkeys but also simply because of its size. The Shawnee NF, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, totals some 277,506 acres spread across some of the best turkey-hunting counties in the South Zone.
Hunters will find a wide diversity of habitats across the forest and most any type of topography a turkey hunter could want is located within the boundaries of the Shawnee. Additionally, the Forest Service works hard to ensure hunters have a good opportunity for success.
The Forest Service states, "Much of the Shawnee National Forest is managed for wildlife habitat as part of its multiple-use management program. Mowing, disking or burning maintains wildlife openings. These openings produce more of the 'edge effect' supplying food in the openings and shelter in the woods. Roads leading to openings and waterholes are maintained to provide hunter access. Private croplands are interspersed with forested and shrub-covered areas on federal lands."
There are two very important things hunters must keep in mind when hunting at the Shawnee NF. First, you must have a valid Illinois hunting license and necessary turkey permit before hunting at Shawnee. Also, hunters should be aware that there is private land interspersed with state and federal land, so you must remain within the boundaries of the forest or obtain permission to enter and hunt any private ground. It is highly recommended that hunters obtain a map showing the national forest boundaries before hunting. They are available at the Shawnee NF offices.
For more information or to obtain a map, visit the Shawnee National Forest headquarters at 50 Hwy. 145 South in Harrisburg. The office may be reached by phone at (618) 253-7114 or (800) 699-6637 or online at www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee.
The Jonesboro-Murphysboro Ran¬ger District, 521 N. Main St. in Jonesboro, may be reached at (617) 833-8576. The Vienna/Elizabethtown Ranger District is located in Vienna and may be reached at (618) 658-2111.
APPLE RIVER CANYON STATE PARK
This public hunting area is located in the top-producing county (Jo Daviess) from last year. It provides limited access for turkey hunting and is open only through a quota system. Hunters must have a site-specific permit and obtain and display a windshield permit while on the property.
More information may be obtained by contacting the Apple River Canyon State Park at (815) 745-3302 or visiting the park office at 8763 E. Canyon Road.
RAY NORBUT FISH AND WILDLIFE AREA
This area is located in Pike County, which is also one of the top counties of the state. It is approximately five miles east of Griggsville off Route 107 and two miles south of Valley City along the Illinois River. It provides some 1,290 acres of hunting access.
Turkey hunting is permitted under statewide regulations, but hunters are required to sign in and out and record daily harvest.
More information may be obtained by calling the FWA at (217) 833-2811. Hunters may also get information by calling the Pittsfield office at (217) 285-2221 or Weinberg King SP at (217) 392-2345.
REND LAKE STATE FWA
There are about 8,000 acres available at this Jefferson County property. It consists of a wide mixture of fields and forest. There are numerous fields planted with row crops and special wildlife food plots. Natural foods such as mast are also abundant, so turkeys are well fed and in good numbers.
The FWA is located about eight miles south of Mt. Vernon and may be accessed off Jefferson Road near Bonnie. Hunting regulations vary, so hunters should contact the Rend Lake headquarters at (618) 279-3110 for more information.
There are many other great public land opportunities out there. By doing a little homework, hunters can search out some of the best opportunities our state has to offer and develop a game plan for the upcoming season.
For more information on turkey hunting or to obtain a hunter fact sheet for any of the public access areas in the state, contact the Illinois DNR at (217) 782-6302 or visit the Web site at www.dnr.state.il.us.