Falling For Hoosier Turkeys

Falling For Hoosier Turkeys

Though harvest numbers continue to trend downward, excellent autumn sport is still available to those hunters who are up for the challenge. (October 2009)

Fall turkey hunting is a different ball game than the spring season, which may be one reason fewer hunters tend to try this exciting time of year.

Photo by John Trout Jr.

As I silently moved toward a potential roosting area on opening day of the 2008 fall turkey season, my mind shifted to the previous spring. Somehow, the memories of gobbling and strutting turkeys were so much more exciting than the fall hunt that was about to unfold. Nevertheless, I knew that my focus point must stay on the current morning. It was autumn. The toms would not gobble and strut. It was an entirely different challenge that, as many Hoosiers have discovered, require new strategies and techniques far different than the spring hunting season.

Perhaps that is why fall turkey hunting in Indiana still lingers on the backburner for many hunters. Unlike spring harvests that have surpassed five figures for many years, fall harvests have struggled.

Before getting into the depressing fall harvest statistics, let me first say that it has little to do with the potential for success. The opportunity is there. After all, Indiana's turkey population has exploded -- beyond belief in the opinions of some. I still remember the old days when there were few areas open to spring hunters. Fall hunting was unheard of, and you were lucky to hear a turkey gobble even if you started the spring season in the best area of the state. Of course, those days are long over. Restoration projects have made certain that turkeys are found throughout most of Indiana. Hunters have a lot of turkeys to pursue -- if they decide to become fall turkey hunters.

Consider the hopes and worries of many Hoosier hunters before the first fall turkey season, hosted in 2005. Many hunters wanted a fall season, while others opposed it, concerned that fall hunting might negatively influence the state's turkey population. According to Indiana's Wildlife Research biologist Steve Backs, several Midwestern states faced the same concerns.

"We have not seen the interest in fall turkey hunting, but neither has Ohio, which has really liberalized their season," said Backs. "I wrote up everything in 1994 to propose a fall turkey season in Indiana. It kept getting shot down. I sent the proposal to Ohio's turkey biologist. He replaced the word "Indiana" with "Ohio" and used the same criteria. They (Ohio) got a fall season before us."

Backs mentions this to emphasize how Ohio has since increased fall turkey-hunting opportunities, yet have not seen any effect on the spring hunting season. On the other hand, though, Backs has remained cautious since the introduction of Indiana's first fall season. He recalls Iowa and Missouri in the 1980s, which were hit with poor turkey production for a couple of years. This affected future spring harvests. Production was partially to blame. If brood production is low, a fall season could play a major role in future harvests.

Nevertheless, Backs does not believe Indiana has seen any impact from fall turkey hunting as it is currently practiced. He reminds us of one important fact: It is more exciting to walk out of the woods with an adult gobbler than a small hen or jake. This fact has contributed to low hunter participation. Another contributor to low hunter interest is the deer season, which occupies the time of many outdoorsmen during the fall.

In 2008, fall turkey hunters harvested 610 birds throughout Hoosierland. Surprising to some, this figure was 15 percent lower than the 2005 season harvest, when hunters cashed in on 716 turkeys. Although the 2008 harvest was also less than in 2006, as hunters took 646 birds, it did surpass the 2007 harvest by 4 percent when hunters harvested 585 birds. With these statistics in mind, hunters can rest assured that fall harvests are not affecting spring harvests. In fact, Backs said that road kills typically surpass the fall harvest take in Indiana.

Could the slight harvest increase last year be the beginning of an increasing fall harvest trend? According to Backs, it was probably more hunting opportunities that contributed to the increase in 2008.

"Last year we opened west-central Indiana to fall gun hunting. More hunters participated in those counties. We also saw a surge in deer hunting license sales last fall," noted Backs. He felt this might lead to additional hunters pursuing fall turkeys.

Another important statistic that might reflect on future fall harvests is the number of adult birds that are typically taken during the fall season. Last year, juvenile birds comprised about 25 percent of the total harvest. So why is it that so many adult birds were shot in 2008?

Backs said that Indiana has seen poor brood production for the past four years. He believes this was partially because of the natural saturation process. In other words, it's common for the number of poults per hen to drop, as populations get older. Backs said we are still seeing growth in northern Indiana, although it will never add up to the number of turkeys there are in the southern half of the state.

Adult hens made up 47 percent of the harvest last year. Backs reported that based on observations in other states, it's common to see a high proportion of adults in the fall harvest (particularly hens) to occur following poor brood production during summer. In fact, he claims that poor brood production has occurred each summer in Indiana since 2005.

In the fall of 2007, there was little difference in the number of juvenile and adult birds harvested when compared with 2008. Juveniles accounted for 27 percent, while adults made up 63 percent. Adult hens composed the major proportion of the harvest that year with 42 percent (5 percent lower than in 2008).

As for me, I was one of those hunters who headed for the woods last fall with the hopes of bringing out a mature gobbler. I knew that it's far more likely to encounter hens and juvenile birds that are typically much more vulnerable to turkey talk, but like others who have enjoyed tagging spring longbeards, I made it a point to wait on the best, or nothing. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with tagging any legal fall turkey and enjoying the usual bragging rights of doing so. Nonetheless, most Hoosiers first learned the ropes of turkey hunting during spring. The challenge of taking a tom turkey has been carved into their minds and won't let go.

Last fall, 74 counties were open to archery turkey hunting. Of those counties, 34 were also open to shotgun hunting. The shotgun counties are limited primarily to the southern portion of the state. Shotgun hunters typically get only five days to pursue fall turkeys, whil

e archers get 19 days.

As for 2009, Backs said there would be no changes in the fall hunting criteria. However, he did suggest that within another year or two, it is likely that the fall hunting season will expand. This will probably mean more counties and possibly more days open to gun hunting.

Surprisingly, archery hunters accounted for 32 percent, or 198 turkeys of the total statewide fall harvest in 2008. It is suspected that many archery turkey kills occur by incident, such as hunters on stand in pursuit of deer. Many deer hunters make it a point to carry a turkey tag just in case an opportunity arrives.

In the northern portion of the state that is limited to archery hunting only, Steuben County accounted for nine birds in 2008. Marshall County in north-central Indiana reported a harvest of six birds. Other counties, such as Elkhart, LaPorte, St. Joseph, Starke, Fulton, Newton and Jasper had a harvest of four turkeys. Some northern counties open to fall hunting added the proverbial goose egg to the statistics.

In the southern half of the state, the three top counties in 2008 actually showed higher harvests last fall compared with the previous year. For instance, Harrison County, located in south-central Indiana, led the way with a fall harvest of 40 birds in 2008. That was considerably higher than the 2007 harvest of 28. Switzerland County, in the southeastern portion of the state, which often ranks No. 1 in spring harvests, followed close behind with 36 turkeys. It also was higher than the 2007 harvest of 29 turkeys. Southwestern Pike County was next, showing a harvest of 31 birds, compared with 28 birds taken in 2007. Several others reported double-figure harvests of 20 or more, including Greene, Perry, Warrick, Spencer, Crawford, Jackson, Dear­born, Jefferson and Clark counties.

So where does one go to find a fall turkey? Statistically speaking, the southern half of our state offers the most opportunity. This also is where you will find the largest concentration of turkeys. However, it's unlikely that Hoosiers are going to travel far to hunt fall turkeys. In fact, it is unlikely they will travel to a neighboring county.

Personally, I believe most fall turkey hunters stick close to their stomping grounds. Where you find turkeys in the spring, you could find them in the fall. Nevertheless, because turkeys are bunched, and because you must locate the flocks with visual sightings or by locating sign, the task of finding the right location is often more difficult.

No doubt, private lands where agricultural fields are present, or public lands that border fields, offer great opportunities. Consider my hunt last fall. I started in a wooded area where birds often roosted. One hour after dawn, I encountered a flock of several hens, which included adults and juveniles. An accidental bust was made, which is a common tactic for fall hunting. However, because I had hopes of encountering a mature gobbler, or group of toms, I chose not to try and call to regroup the birds. Instead, I headed for an agricultural area nearby. A recently harvested corn field seemed the perfect location. It did not work, but it did prove beneficial for a good friend of mine.

Pike County hunter Tim Hilsmeyer started the season with bow and arrow. However, after failing to tag a bird, he took out his trusty shotgun on the last day of the five-day season. Not long into the hunt, he encountered a gobbler along an agricultural field where he had spotted turkeys on several occasions. He wrapped up the season with a bang!

As for the better public-land oppor­tunities, Backs suggests the Hoosier National Forest as a great place to try. Abundant forestlands are found in portions of nine counties. There are also several state forests adjacent to the national forest lands. He recommends Pike, Martin, Jackson-Washington and Clark state forests. Backs also mentioned that harvests have increased at the Deam Lake State Recreation Area in Clark County. Another good possibility is Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County.

Although not open to fall gun hunting, Backs said that Pigeon River FWA located near the northeastern corner of the state in Lagrange and Steuben counties, offers one of the best opportunities for archery turkey hunters.

Other primary public areas for wild turkeys can be found in north-central Indiana in LaPorte, Marshall and Starke counties. Within these counties, hunters should consider Kings­bury and Winamac FWAs.

Although the northern half of the state is open only to archers, Backs does hope to add gun-hunting opportunities there in the future.

Although much of the fall hunting statistics reported in this story don't appear promising, I would like to pass along yet another tidbit before wrapping up. In 2008, resident fall turkey hunters who purchased a license (135) accounted for 23 percent of the harvest. Whereas, comprehensive lifetime hunters (347) made up 48 percent of the total number of birds taken. Landowner, youths, non-resident hunters and military folks also contributed to the harvest. However, when you consider that the largest percentage of harvest came from lifetime license holders who have owned them for many years (I'm included), we could assume that there are few new hunters taking an interest in fall turkey hunting.

Indiana has made it a point to see just how many hunters participate in fall turkey hunting. A questionnaire was sent to spring turkey hunters, asking if they participated in fall turkey hunting. Officials knew this could tell them what kind of interest hunters had in fall hunting.

Interestingly, the results showed that in 2006 that our fall participation was less than 14 percent of what we see in the spring. Officials noted that about 7,500 folks actually participated in fall turkey hunting. However, about 5,000 of those hunters participated in the archery-only season. Officials added that participation was highest with the comprehensive lifetime license holders (58 percent), probably because it involved no extra cost.

In other words, these hunters do not have to purchase additional licenses/ tags to pursue fall turkeys. Backs adds that these facts, as well as cost to purchase an additional license, have to be taken into consideration when the state considers future management practices, such as expanding fall hunting opportunities.

We have now reached our fifth fall turkey season in Indiana. Will harvests statistics increase this year? Could we possibly surpass a harvest of 1,000 birds? Or will we remain within the same static and slowly fluctuating trends we have experienced for the past four years?

"I've got to believe that our fall harvest in 2009 will be 800 or fewer birds," said Backs. "With the poor brood production we've seen, I've been telling people that I don't expect the fall harvest to go over 800, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was just over 500!"

Backs claims that the current recession might have an influence on the number of future license sales. Unemployment was on the rise as this went to press. Nevertheless, the state did see an increase in deer license sales of

15 percent in the fall of 2008.

Backs said that this could have been because of some people having more time on their hands due to being unemployed. He noted that some of these folks were probably drawing unemployment checks, which could have been used in part to purchase a hunting license. But he warned that if the economy doesn't improve, these monies might dry up by the fall of 2009, which could lead to fewer license sales and how far people will travel to hunt.

I assume that our biologists will continue to watch fall harvests closely, yet place their primary focus on the spring hunting seasons. That is similar to what I will do this fall. I will head for the woods in search of autumn turkeys -- but my thoughts will probably switch to flowering dogwoods and serenading gobblers. That's a little how Backs summed it up.

"I think after 2009, we'll be looking at increasing fall turkey hunting opportunities. I also think we have gone through an adequate evaluation phase under our license structure, competing seasons and hunter interest. We can make some sound management decisions towards expanding opportunities without adverse impacts. But our primary emphasis is always going to be on the spring turkey season," explained Backs.

Lastly, Backs reminded me just how far Indiana has come. There were previous turkey-hunting battles. One was the initialization of all-day spring hunting. Now, for many hunters that has become, in his words, "the greatest thing since gravy." Who knows? Maybe there's something on the horizon for fall turkey hunters as well.

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