Is another great gobbler season in store for Illinois' hunters -- or will bad weather again be a factor? Read on for what to expect this year. (March 2010)
The second day of Illinois' South Zone turkey season was cold and breezy, but at least it was not snowing as it had on opening day. After setting up against a tree and calling, I heard rustling leaves to my right and caught a glimpse of a gobbler's thick, dangling beard headed my way. I took advantage of the situation when the gobbler passed behind a tree and then stood in front of my shotgun barrel only 30 yards away. A moment later it was over. My season had ended!
The author's husband, John, tagged this South Zone gobbler a few days into the 2009 spring season.
Photo by Vikki Trout.
My husband, John, concluded his Illinois turkey season just a few days later. We were double-teaming a longbeard that gobbled consistently as he moved toward us. John set up in front of me, and after a few soft clucks and purrs from my call, the gobbler decided he just had to top a rise to find his hen. As he came over the hill, he was in perfect range of John's shotgun. It was then we both believed Illinois would boast a record harvest.
Since turkeys depend mainly on their eyesight for survival, an open woods is to their advantage -- not the hunter's. However, once the green-up begins, the odds change slightly because gobblers are forced to search for hens. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why John and I had the feeling this was going to be a great year for all turkey enthusiasts. How wrong we were.
After turkeys had all but disappeared around 1910, Illinois began its restoration effort in 1958 by releasing turkeys in Shawnee National Forest. These birds had been raised in captivity. However, those efforts failed and biologists soon learned that tame birds could not survive in the wild.
Illinois obtained 65 Eastern wild turkeys in 1967 from Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia. It was the year that changed our state forever. These turkeys knew how to survive -- and that they did!
"By 1967, we knew that the secret was in releasing wild birds. We brought in 65 birds from three other states. All of the tens of thousands of birds now in Illinois are descendents of those few dozen birds," said Paul Shelton, Illinois' Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Wildlife Program manager.
By 2004, DNR officials realized wild turkeys did not have to have heavily forested areas such as Shawnee National Forest to survive. They could easily flourish in varied terrain that included forests and open fields. More restoration efforts occurred as birds were moved to west-central and northwestern Illinois. We now have Eastern wild turkeys throughout Illinois.
Typically, Illinois turkey season in both the South and North zones arrives before the woods have begun to green up. Each zone allows five hunting dates, and each season lasts between five and eight days.
Illinois turkey hunter participants have steadily climbed from 47,374 in 2000 to 75,844 in 2008. When you compare hunter numbers with harvests, 12,850 birds were taken in 2000, while 15,159 were harvested in 2008. These statistics show an increase of 18 percent. Hunter numbers increased by 28,470 in those eight years, while birds harvested increased by 2,309. Although hunter numbers have increased significantly, harvest numbers in recent years have been somewhat steady.
"Our turkey population, in spite of the past few years poor reproduction, has been relatively stable. We haven't seen a change in the number of birds out there, and the poor reproduction is serving to keep us from seeing any increases," claims Shelton. He said if hunters would have gotten better weather last spring, we might have seen a slight increase in the harvest last season. Hunters in recent years have experienced poor weather during much of the hunting season.
Hunter success is also affected by the lack of 2-year-old gobblers. They are the birds that do most of the gobbling and often the ones that come into calls. Poor reproduction the last few years has led to fewer jakes, and fewer mature gobblers. Also, many Illinois turkey hunters are seasoned and will choose to pass on shooting a jake. If a jake does come in, they pass it up waiting for a longbeard. On the other hand, there are also fewer gobblers 3-years-old and older. Since most gobblers taken are 2-year-olds, poor reproduction rates have greatly impacted their numbers.
"Hunter success has been affected by the number of 2-year-olds. Older birds are a little more wary and less susceptible to hunters because they know the game a little better. Two-year-olds are a little dumber, and the lack of them impacts the hunter success ratio," states Shelton.
Eastern wild turkeys outsmart hunters every year. The early season (before hens are nesting) is particularly tough because the hunter calls and the hens invariably take the gobbler away from the calls. Gobblers have no curious bones in their bodies. They believe in asking no questions, and when things don't make sense to them, they cover ground faster than the speed of light (or so it seems). Also, keep in mind, their eyes are on the sides of their head allowing them to see behind them. They also see in color.
Another interesting harvest statistic of 2008 shows that of the 15,159 birds harvested in the state, 9,501 came from the North Zone. That number dropped to 9,135 in 2009. As you can see, that is not a staggering decline. In 2007, North Zone sportsmen bagged 8,637 of the total 14,767 gobblers. In 2006, the North Zone hunters took 9,769 of the record-breaking total 16,140.
Top producing counties in 2009 for the South Zone include: Jefferson with 363 birds, Randolph with 352, Pope with 332, Marion with 329, and Wayne with 325 turkeys.
Not far behind the South Zone's top five was Jackson County with 280 birds. Jackson County's harvest only dropped by seven birds from 2008 to 2009. In 2007, its harvest was 245, in spite of poor reproduction and hatches. Johnson County hunters harvested 213 birds in 2008, but increased to 237 turkeys in 2009.
Franklin County hunters had a harvest increase last year reporting 157 birds taken. In 2008, they harvested 145 turkeys. Johnson County sportsmen also increased their harvest by 24 when they reported 237 birds taken.
In 2008, top producing South Zone counties remained the same; however, in 2007, Wayne County lost out to Madison County. Prior to 2007, Madison County had not been in the top five since 2000.
Jefferson County in the South Zone increased its harvest from 299 in 2008 to 363 in 2009, w
hile Washington County increased by 47 turkeys.
The North Zone's top five harvest counties include: Jo Daviess with 612, Pike with 549, Adams with 421, Fulton with 417, and Macoupin with 351 birds. Interestingly, the North Zone's top five counties reported a harvest of 649 more gobblers than the South Zone's top five counties.
Carroll County, in the North Zone, is worth mentioning even though it did not make the top five. The county's harvest went from 208 in 2008 to 240 birds taken in 2009. In 2006, when Illinois set a new harvest record, Carroll County reported a harvest of only 219 birds.
Mason County, in the North Zone, jumped from 182 gobblers taken in 2008 to 199 birds last year. Ogle County harvest increased by 24 birds for a total harvest of 173 last spring.
Two North Zone counties that stand out compared with the rest of the counties include Adams and Morgan counties. Adams County (even though it ranks in the top five counties) harvest dropped from 507 in 2008 to 421 in 2009. Morgan County has fluctuated high-low-high-low the last four years with harvests of 273 in 2006, 207 in 2007, 257 in 2008, and 200 in 2009. Jo Daviess County in the North Zone increased its harvest by 44 birds in 2009.
Paul Shelton feels the fluctuations of county harvests could be because of fewer 2-year-old gobblers, less availability of hunting land, and weather.
"Sometimes it's (the harvest) related to age composition of the turkey flock (a poor cohort of 2-year-old birds, etc.), but sometimes it's as simple as a couple of rainy weekends, which can significantly impact harvest. More important are the longer-term trends. For example, we have seen declines over time in both deer and turkey harvests in areas where the number of outfitters (and amount of land tied up in outfitting) has increased significantly. This is probably a result of the much more limited land access and lower hunter densities," said Shelton.
Youth turkey hunts in both the North and South zones continue to add to the number of birds harvested. Illinois began issuing youth permits in 2001. A total of 263 permits were issued and 199 birds were harvested by youths that year. There were 2,942 youth permits issued in 2008 and 633 turkeys were harvested.
Turkey hunters in both the South and North zones have seen good times as well as bad when it comes to harvest results. As you have read, there are several reasons for this rise and fall, with weather playing a major role in turkey reproduction. Illinois has seen everything from droughts to floods and temperatures that fluctuate from steamy hot to snow.
When hens are nesting, weather impacts the incubation and hatching. An egg that gets too wet becomes soft. This means the poult cannot peck through its shell and dies trying to hatch. If weather patterns provide inadequate amounts of moisture, the egg stays too dry and does not develop. Once the hen hatches her eggs, they leave the nest immediately because predators are attracted to the scent of the hatched eggs.
Poults are at risk moving from the nest to feeding areas because predators from the ground, as well as birds of prey, can readily see them.
Mature hens that have reared previous broods seem to have a higher poult survival rate. As the saying goes, "Experience is the best teacher." Juvenile hens, known as jennies, nest their first year and are in the learning process. Nesting hens are vulnerable and at extreme risk because of predators.
"Hens have low mortality rates except during the reproductive season. Once they go to nest, everything starts getting them. Hens usually lay from 12 to 20 eggs. A survival rate of four poults per hen is excellent, but we have not been seeing near that. For the past few years, we would have been happy to see two poults per hen, but our brood survey shows hens are averaging one poult each," claimed Shelton.
Surprisingly, hunting pressure also can influence turkey harvest statistics. Crowded areas can play havoc on hunters bumping birds. We have all been through it -- you think you are alone only to have someone else in the woods thinking they are the only one out there as well. The problem is the turkey realizes it is not alone and takes off for parts unknown. Typically, public lands harbor more turkey hunters than private land.
As Paul Shelton previously mentioned, outfitters are leasing a lot of private land, which causes even more hunting pressure on public land. If you choose not to use an outfitter, it is hard to find private land. There are many state turkey hunters who choose to hunt on their own. In fact, one primary complaint is state hunters who have a problem finding private land to hunt. Nonetheless, some public areas such as the Shawnee National Forest in the South Zone do offer excellent potential.
What does 2010 hold for turkey hunters? Over the last few years, wild turkey reproduction has remained low. But our state's turkey population still remains strong even though reproduction is down. Some areas have seen increases whereas others have decreased. When compared with other Midwest states, Illinois is staying compatible with their statistics.
"We have seen three successive years of poor reproduction. They have been the lowest on record. And that's not limited to Illinois. This is a trend that has been seen throughout the Midwest states," explained Shelton.
As Shelton explained this, I recall neighboring Indiana where I also hunt. It compared with Illinois, with fewer birds heard and spotted, as well as flooding and cool temperatures that severely affected the hunting.
"In some areas, turkey populations have been thriving, and we have seen all-time highs. In other areas that have not done as well, it might take a couple of good years of reproduction to see a measurable jump in harvest statistics. Turkey seasons have been really good the past few years, all things considered. In the range that we have been harvesting in the past, there has not been a significant change in spite of the poor reproduction," stated Shelton.
We could assume that hunters will likely see a favorable harvest this spring. Perhaps it won't be a record breaker, but at least there should be gobblers to hunt.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the weather of 2009 was anything but perfect. Although I was in the South Zone and feeling the unusual bitter cold temperatures of spring, down deep I know it is sure to have an effect on the number of turkeys we see and hear in the spring of 2010. However, rest assured there will be counties in both the North and South zones that will somehow provide a pleasant surprise and show harvest increases.
For John and me, we can hardly wait to see the start of 2010. There's just something about heading out in the pre-dawn hours, standing next to a tree and listening for the first gobble of the day as the sun peeks over the horizon. There is never a guarantee of coming out of the woods with a bird in your vest, but we all know the exuberant joy of taking on a gobbler.