In a state full of great turkey-hunting opportunities, here are the top-rated counties from last year's record season. (March 2007)
Though this season probably won't be another record one, it doesn't mean that hunters won't enjoy another excellent harvest.
Photo by Phillip Jordan
As the first gobble of the morning pierced the cool pre-dawn air, I began to get a sense of déjÃ vu.
This was my fifth day setting up on the same bird. And just as on the four previous days, the wise old tom was roosted along a steep bluff bordering an open sod field.
Each of the four previous days he had managed to enter the field in a different location -- always well out of range of my setup. He had also regularly been accompanied by a group of hens. They would quickly pull him into the middle of the field where he would strut, gobble and put on a show that even a city slicker would appreciate.
But this was now the last day of Kentucky's 2006 spring turkey season, and the pressure was on for me to make something happen.
I had strategically set up my blind along the field edge, at what I had estimated was a good midpoint between the two opposite ends where the bird had come out the previous four days. This particular day, though, I had left my jake decoy in the vest and settled on one lone hen decoy -- something that he could associate with the light calling he was hearing.
It wasn't long before the distinct sound of flapping wings told me the bird had come down off the roost.
"Don't get too excited," I told my good friend and hunting partner, Billie Crider. "This is how it's started each of the last four days."
This was Billie's first year hunting turkeys, and telling him not to get excited about a gobbling turkey roosted nearby was like telling a kid not to get excited about Christmas morning. This bird had made me look like a rookie for nearly a week, and though I badly wanted to harvest that old tom, I had promised Billie the first opportunity.
Some light calling on the Knight and Hale Ol' Yeller slate call had resulted in nothing but silence. I was starting to think that we had been given the slip once again, when I heard a second set of flapping wings -- this time closer and lower.
The bird had flown over the 4-foot rock ledge just inside the wood line. Moments later, as I sat staring in the direction of the sound, I saw the gobbler's brightly colored head poke through the edge of the bushes.
Slowly making his way into the field, the tom was directly in line with my decoy. As the bird eased his way towards the plastic hen, he went in and out of half-strut, as if he wasn't completely sure of the situation.
When he got within inches of the decoy, Billie eased the end of his Mossberg shotgun out the blind's window opening and clicked off the safety as quietly as possible.
A light cluck on the slate call caused the old bird to extend his neck with a curious glance.
I could see Billie's hands trembling as he snuggled his index finger up against the trigger and took careful aim.
"Take him," I whispered and watched as, with a squeeze of the trigger, Billie's first turkey -- a nice, mature gobbler -- rolled onto his back. An exciting end to what was another successful spring turkey season in Kentucky!
"Successful" may be an understatement, as hunters across the Commonwealth harvested 28,834 turkeys during the 2006 spring season, breaking the previous record harvest of 28,733 set in 2002. That was also an 11-percent increase over the 26,088 birds harvested in the spring of 2005.
"After three years of slightly declining harvests, last year's increase was a welcome sight to most turkey hunters in the Commonwealth," said Steven Dobey, Turkey Program Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).
"These fluctuations in numbers, however, are typical of growing or expanding wildlife populations that are approaching carrying capacity in some portions of their range," the biologist continued.
In recent years, Kentucky has started to become a real turkey hunting hotspot in the eastern United States. With reasonable license fees, over-the-counter tag sales, nearly 250,000 birds, and a success rate that consistently runs over 30 percent, it's not hard to see why hunters from all over have begun targeting the Bluegrass State to take their eastern wild turkey.
Their immense success today makes it hard to believe that in 1954, biologists estimated that only 850 wild turkeys existed in Kentucky, statewide. But through an intense 19- year restoration project, which resulted in the release of 6,760 birds across 430 sites, that number has grown to over 200,000 birds, with turkeys present in all 120 counties of the Commonwealth.
With such a tremendous season last year, can hunters expect a repeat for 2007? Unfortunately, three previous years of lower-than-average reproduction could finally catch up with us this spring.
"The effect of 2005's poor reproductive success was evident (last spring), as jakes comprised only 14.5 percent of all birds harvested," Dobey explained. "This is down from 21 percent in 2005."
Fewer jakes last year, of course, means fewer 2-year-old birds available this spring. And since 2-year-old birds do most of the gobbling and comprise the bulk of the harvest, hunters might find it a little tougher to fill their tags this spring.
That's not to say that it still won't be a good spring for many Kentucky turkey hunters.
"Kentucky's turkey flock appears to be in exceptional condition," said Dobey. "And while we have potential for exceptional harvests every year, fluctuations will likely be the norm for Kentucky as the turkey population stabilizes."
So just where should the Commonwealth's turkey hunters turn for some great turkey hunting action this year? Try one of these top 10 counties from last year, and you're sure to get in on some of the best turkey hunting that Kentucky has to offer.
OHIO & MUHLENBERG COUNTIES
Ohio and Muhlenberg counties have long reined supreme when it comes to spring turkey harvest numbers. In fact, hunters were harvesting over 600 birds per season in Ohio County, and nearly as many in Muhlenberg County, when
no other county in the state reported a harvest over 400. Last year was no exception, as hunters bagged 689 and 593 birds, respectively.
Ohio and Muhlenberg counties border one another in what is known as the Green River Region of Kentucky. This region of the state seems to have just the right mix of woodlands, crop fields, and pasture for turkeys to thrive. In fact, for last year's spring turkey harvest, seven of the top 10 counties are all located in this same geographic area.
"The Green River Region has the greatest proportion of quality turkey habitat in the state," reports Dobey. "As such, turkey numbers are highest in these counties because there is enough food, cover, roosting habitat, and nesting habitat."
For hunters who don't have access to private land in one of these two counties, over 60,000 acres of public land are available in the form of the Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA). During the 2006 spring season, hunters harvested 329 birds on this WMA, with 296 of them being mature gobblers. That accounted for nearly 15 percent of the entire public-land harvest in Kentucky.
Peabody WMA is a unique area in terms of its terrain. Much of the acreage is reclaimed coal-mined land, with numerous excavated ridges and water-filled strip-mine pits. The terrain can be rough and varies from swampland to high ridges and deep pits. Over the last several years, a lot of habitat work has been done on the WMA, creating an ideal mixture of open grasslands and timbered woodlots.
Peabody WMA is located along the Western Kentucky Parkway and has numerous access points from state Route 70 and 369, and U.S. Route 62. There is an intricate system of gravel "haul" roads throughout the area as well, so be sure and obtain an area map before heading out.
Hunting Peabody WMA requires a $12.50 user permit that you can purchase wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold, and Peabody is one of the few WMAs where primitive camping is permitted. Be aware that portions of the area are closed as a waterfowl refuge, so be sure to obtain a map and check your hunting guide for additional regulations. Questions regarding the WMA can be directed to the local KDFWR office at (270) 273-3568.
Pendleton County, known as the land of meandering rivers and rolling hills, had the third highest harvest during the spring of 2006. It is the only county in the Northeast Region to make the top 10 list. Hunters in that county managed to harvest 591 birds -- an increase of 15 percent from 2005, and an incredible 31-percent increase from the 450 birds harvested in 2004.
No WMAs are currently located in Pendleton County, so hunters will have to rely on private-land opportunities to fill their tags there.
Located in the Green River Region, Butler County borders both Ohio and Muhlenberg counties, sharing much of the same topography and habitat that makes those two counties so productive for turkeys. Last year, hunters harvested 581 turkeys in the county, up 13 percent from the 515 birds harvested in 2005, and 4 percent from the 556 taken in 2004.
Unlike Ohio and Muhlenberg counties, Butler does not have any public hunting land to speak of. Instead, hunters will have to seek permission on private lands to take advantage of this county's great turkey-hunting opportunities.
Breckenridge County also falls within the Green River Region, bordering Ohio County to its southwest and the Ohio River to the north. Like Pendleton County, Breckenridge has been a rising star over the last few years, going from the 12th-highest harvest of 433 birds in 2004, to its fifth-place finish in 2006 with 562 birds.
Falling within Breckenridge County is the 6,000-acre Yellowbank WMA, located in the northern portion of the county along SR 259. It consists of Ohio River bottomlands, upland-forested hills and ridges, as well as the Yellowbank Creek drainage.
Hunters on Yellowbank WMA were able to harvest 35 birds last spring. While that may not sound like a big number, it is slightly more birds harvested per acre than Peabody WMA.
Primitive camping is available on designated sites. Hunters should expect moderate to heavy hunting pressure, depending on what part of the season and which days of the week they choose to hunt. For more information on hunting turkeys in Yellowbank WMA, contact the area office at (270) 547-6856.
The Bluegrass Region's only contribution to the state's top 10 list is Owen County, located in north-central Kentucky, just north of the state capital of Frankfort. Over the last several years, Owen County has gained a reputation as a great place to harvest both deer and turkeys. Spring turkey hunters managed to harvest 539 birds there last season -- an 8-percent increase over the 501 birds harvested in 2005, and a 13-percent increase over the 2004 total of 475 birds.
Public-land hunters have a few options in Owen County, including John A. Kleber WMA at 2,605 acres; Dr. James C. Rich WMA at 1,567 acres; and Kentucky River WMA at 2,620 acres. Both Kleber and Rich WMAs consist of steep hillsides, ridgetops and floodplains with a combination of woods, brush, and grasslands. In 2006, hunters were able to harvest 24 birds and 11 birds, respectively, on these two areas.
Its river floodplain land and associated uplands, old fields and oak-hickory forest distinguish the Kentucky River WMA. Nineteen birds were harvested on the WMA during the spring 2006 season. Again, while these numbers seem low, they are on par with most other WMAs when you consider their smaller sizes.
For more information on any of these three WMAs, contact the local area office at (502) 535-6335.
The only county in the Purchase Region to make the top 10 list was Crittenden County, with a harvest of 511 birds. Harvest numbers in the county have been fairly stable for the last four years, with the 2006 spring turkey season seeing just a 1-percent decrease from the 517 birds taken in 2005 and a 1-percent increase from the 505 birds taken in 2004. Like Pendleton and Butler counties, Crittenden lacks any public hunting areas, forcing hunters to find private land to fill their turkey tags.
Another county that has been a consistent producer of turkeys is Hardin County in the Green River Region. Located just 30 miles south of Louisville, the county contains a diversity of habitat and landscape features. From the forested knobs in the northern part of the county to the more agricultural areas in the west, the area contains all the necessary ingredients to grow lots of big gobblers. In fact, hunters were able to harvest over 500 birds in Hardin County last season, up 13 percent from 2005's harvest of 445 birds and 2 percent higher than the 492 birds harvested there in 2004.
Hardin County hunters have access to public turkey-hunting opportunities in the form of the 109,068-acre Fort Knox Military Reservation. The are
a consists of rolling uplands, broad ridgetops, narrow valleys with steep to sloping cliffs, all in a good mix of hardwood forests and associated open areas. About 60 percent of the area is open to hunting under special regulations, and a special permit is required.
For more information on hunting the reservation, contact the hunt control office at (502) 624-2712.
Hardin County's neighbor to the south, Hart County made the No. 9 spot for turkeys harvested in the spring of 2006. Similar in terrain to the southern portions of Hardin County, Hart County contains just the right mix of agricultural fields and woodlots for eastern wild turkeys to thrive. Because of this, hunters were able to put 503 birds in the freezer for 2006, marking an impressive 19-percent increase over the 421 birds harvested in 2005.
Coming in tenth for total spring turkey harvest in 2006 was Logan County. Those 496 birds taken marked a slight decrease from the 504 and 505 birds harvested in 2005 and 2004, respectively. Also lying within the Green River Region, Logan County borders Muhlenberg and Butler counties to the north and Tennessee to the south.
Prospective hunters will have to key in on getting permission to hunt private land, since there are currently no public hunting areas in the county.
Regardless of which county you choose to hunt this spring, you can bet there will be a good, huntable number of turkeys in the area. While the counties outlined in this article consistently produce high numbers of turkeys, low harvest numbers in any particular county do not always indicate low numbers of turkeys -- it may simply be the result of light hunting pressure.
So wherever you live or hunt, be sure to get out and spend some time in the turkey woods this spring. There's a good chance that you'll have the opportunity to fill your freezer with a big Kentucky gobbler.
Kentucky's 2007 spring turkey season will run April 14 through May 6. A spring turkey permit or sportsman's license is required, and the season bag limit is two male or bearded turkeys, with a daily limit of one bird. The use of electronic callers is prohibited.
Remember that season dates and regulations can differ on WMAs, so be sure and check your 2007 Spring Turkey Hunting Guide before going afield.