Kentucky's Statewide Turkey Forecast

Kentucky's Statewide Turkey Forecast

Continued excellent turkey hunting is expected throughout the Commonwealth this season. Here are the best counties for gobblers within each region!

By Tim Herald

Kentucky turkey hunters accounted for another record harvest in the spring of 2002. Just over 28,700 bearded birds were taken last season, and the upcoming season looks to be on track for producing another spectacular harvest.

All-time population highs, good weather and a record 70,000 turkey hunters in the Commonwealth last year were the major factors contributing to the 22 percent increase in total harvest over that of 2001. Turkey hunters enjoyed a 41 percent success ratio, which is also a record high. This ratio ranks well above the national average. The special youth turkey hunt, held the Saturday before the regular season opener, produced a very respectable 937 birds. Kentucky sportsmen just could not have asked for a much better season.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) new Turkey Project Coordinator Jim Lane said that there are a number of reasons that more turkey tags were filled in 2002 than ever before.

"There were more birds in the population, plus favorable weather. Add to that more hunters becoming more experienced, and an abundance of 2-year-old gobblers. We also have landowners managing their lands for wildlife. All of these factors contributed to an outstanding harvest," Lane said.

"We have had good-to-excellent hatches every year since 2000, and our turkey population has continued to grow accordingly. We will eventually have a poor hatch, which will affect the turkey hunting. A lot of hunters will be shocked, but since we had another great hatch in 2002, we should be in pretty good shape at least through 2004," the biologist said.

Statewide populations have gone from about 170,000 wild turkeys before the 2001 spring season to an estimated 203,000 birds currently. Lane said that he expects the population to reach its high point in about five years at around 300,000 turkeys. "Most of the population growth will be in the eastern third of the state, where there are abundant forest lands and available overall habitat that has not reached its turkey carrying capacity," Lane explained.

All five of Kentucky's regions (Green River, Bluegrass, Northeast, Southeast and Purchase) saw harvest increases last spring, and 33 counties recorded harvests of 300 birds or more compared to 17 counties in 2001.

The author bagged this thick-bearded gobbler while hunting in Flemming County. More great hunting is expected this year. Photo by Tim Herald

As usual, the Green River Region of west-central Kentucky led the Commonwealth in gobblers harvested with 8,741 (up from 6,844 in 2001). Eight of the top 12 counties in the state are located in the Green River Region. The top three spots, Ohio (785), Muhlenberg (735) and Butler (660) are all within the region. Fourteen counties in the region tallied over 300 birds.

This region is comprised of fantastic turkey habitat consisting of a mix of broken hardwoods, agricultural lands, fallow fields and plenty of water sources. Wild turkeys have bountiful food sources throughout the year and good nesting and brood rearing habitat. Many private landowners in the area manage their properties for wildlife and plant numerous food plots, etc.

Turkey hunting in this region is a long-standing tradition as far as Kentucky is concerned, and the area has a high number of experienced hunters. That fact, coupled with high turkey densities (Ohio County, 23.9; Muhlenberg, 25.7 turkeys per square mile of forested land), lends itself naturally to high harvests.

The Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA) contains 63,000 huntable acres made up of eight parcels located in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties. It offers some of the best public hunting in the state. A $12.50 user permit is required, and statewide regulations apply. The Green River WMA, located in Taylor and Adair counties, also offers quality public hunting in the spring.

The Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky totaled 6,960 turkeys harvested (up from 5,838 in 2001). Eight counties checked over 300 gobblers, and Owen (584) and Hardin (556) again ended up as the top two spots.

As with the Green River Region, the Bluegrass Region has lots of great mixed wooded and agricultural habitat that holds high turkey densities. Owen County produces 31.7 turkeys per square mile of forested land, and Hardin County's density is 25.4. Biologist Lane said that the No. 1 sleeper county in the state is Shelby. Its density is an incredible 62 turkeys per square mile of forested land. "We will be hearing a lot more about Shelby County turkey hunting in the next couple of years, and especially where big mature gobblers are concerned," Lane stated.

There is a lot of hunting pressure in the Bluegrass Region due to the fact that Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky lie within its boundaries. The area is also comprised of many smaller properties, and that means more hunters as well. With the high turkey densities and high hunter numbers in the region, it is only natural that harvests are high in the area.

The horse country in Fayette, Jessamine and Woodford counties has the least available turkey habitat of anywhere in the state, thus these three counties recorded the three lowest harvests in Kentucky (18, 27, 28, respectively).

Some of the best public hunting can be found on Kleber WMA in Franklin and Owen counties, Taylorsville Lake WMA in Spencer and Anderson counties, and the special hunts on Ft. Knox in Bullitt, Hardin and Meade counties.

As mentioned earlier, the eastern portion of the state is enjoying a dramatic turkey population growth. The harvests are climbing as well. In 2002, hunters in the Southeast Region harvested 5,588 turkeys, which was up from the 2001 harvest of 4,692.

As in 2001, Cumberland and Pulaski were the top two counties with 361 (up from 298) and 360 (up from 300) gobblers, respectively. Casey County was the other county in the region that recorded over 300 birds taken with a total of 323.

Turkey densities aren't quite as high in this region (Cumberland 15 and Pulaski 7.8 birds per square mile of forested land), but there is quite a bit more forested land in the region than in the Green River and Bluegrass regions. The total population of turkeys in the area is still high.

Reclaimed coal mine lands, large expanses of forest and some agriculture make fo

r prime turkey habitat, and this is one of the regions that is expected to see major turkey population growth in the near future. Public hunting opportunities abound in the Southeast Region, mainly due to a large portion of the Daniel Boone National Forest lying within its boundaries. Pine Mountain WMA in Letcher County and Buckhorn Lake WMA in Perry County also offer good public-land turkey hunting opportunities.

The Northeast Region of the Commonwealth showed the least increase in total harvest of any of the five regions. Hunters in northeast Kentucky harvested 4,119 spring turkeys in 2002, which was up from 3,735 in 2001. Bracken County overtook Pike County for the No. 1 spot in the region with 400 birds. Morgan and Pike counties both recorded 304 turkeys, and Lawrence County hunters took 302 to round out the 300-bird counties in the region.

As in the Southeast Region, turkey populations in the Northeast are expected to increase substantially in coming years. Much of the region is heavily forested and mountainous. Turkey densities per square mile of forested land in most counties are fairly low (Pike 3.5, Morgan 8.9), but there are some exceptions (Bracken County 48.3).

With turkey numbers rising and turkey hunting gaining popularity throughout eastern Kentucky, both the Southeast and Northeast regions are poised to produce much higher turkey harvests in the next few years.

Much of the Daniel Boone National Forest lies in this region as well as other quality public hunting lands, such as Yatesville WMA in Lawrence County, Fishtrap Lake WMA in Pike County, Grayson Lake WMA in Carter County and Clay WMA in Nicholas County. Hunters who are willing to walk a good distance from road accesses may find little competition on public lands in this rugged part of the state.

The Purchase Region of Kentucky contains the fewest number of counties and recorded the least number of birds harvested in 2002. Hunters in the region tagged 2,884 wild turkeys, which was a respectable increase from the 2,088 birds taken in 2001.

Four counties had harvests over 300 birds (Crittenden, 544; Christian, 373; Livingston, 348; and Caldwell, 303). The far western counties of Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton all had harvests of under 100 turkeys.

Biologist Jim Lane says that though the eastern part of the Purchase Region has much of the same high-quality habitat types found in the Green River Region, more of the Purchase is low lying and very susceptible to flooding. Spring flooding will devastate a turkey hatch and populations in the far west counties fluctuate dramatically.

Crittenden and Christian counties have fairly high turkey densities (26.3 and 12.4 turkeys per square mile of forested land, respectively) and retained the region's top two harvests.

"After a wet spring, it can be hard to find a wild turkey in the far west on places like Ballard WMA. Populations in the western Purchase counties can be good or bad; it just depends on the weather. Hunters should concentrate on the areas least likely to flood. Those spots will have more consistent turkey populations year in and year out," Lane said.

There are some great public lands in the Purchase Region for turkey hunters to utilize. The two most notable are Land Between The Lakes in Lyon and Trigg counties, and Ft. Campbell in Trigg and Christian counties. Both of these areas have unique permits, seasons and regulations, so be sure to check the KDFWR Spring Turkey Guide for the correct information.

Picking a place to hunt that has a good turkey population is the first key to attaching your tag to a wily longbeard. Kentucky has progressed to a point that good turkey hunting can be found throughout most of the Commonwealth, and if you do happen to live in an area with little quality habitat, you can be in the thick of turkey country after a very short drive. After you find the turkeys in your area, there are a few things to remember that can increase your chances of harvesting a gobbler this spring.

Nationally acclaimed turkey hunting expert and Trigg County resident David Hale said that hunters can use their heads, and in some cases their legs, to be more successful in the turkey woods.

"Understanding the breeding phase that wild turkeys are in at a given time during the spring can really up a hunter's odds of tagging a gobbler. Depending on what part of the state you are hunting, you may start the season with the gobblers all henned-up and finish the season when almost all the hens are sitting on their nests. You have to hunt turkeys differently based on what they are doing naturally," Hale said.

Hale says that in the early part of the season, hunters can call more aggressively because that is what real hens do at that time. "A hunter can call a lot more during the first part of the season. The hens are still vocal and often in small flocks. Also hunters haven't been in the woods calling to every bird that gobbles, so the birds haven't been fully educated yet or become call-shy."

The veteran turkey hunter also said that as the season progresses, hunters should back off on their calling. "As the hens begin slipping off to their nests and more hunters have been in the woods, turkeys don't talk as much. Hunters need to tone down their calling in both volume and frequency. When many turkey hunters get pretty good with a call, they call too much because they like to hear themselves call. During the middle to end of the Kentucky season, loud, aggressive calling isn't what hens are doing, and there is no need for it by hunters. The gobblers get lonely when the hens are on the nest, and they just don't require the same kind of calling as they may have a week earlier. Hunters need to concentrate on soft calling like clucks, purrs and subtle yelps. I often switch to a simple push-pull call because it makes very realistic soft calls," Hale said.

For those who hunt the Bluegrass State's numerous public lands, Hale says to walk, and then walk some more for quality hunting. "We have some great public land here in Kentucky, but it gets hunted pretty hard. If you want a good chance at a public land gobbler, do some extra research and scouting to find birds in more inaccessible and remote areas. Most hunters will start out within 400 yards of their vehicles or a road, so trek back in a mile or so to begin hunting. When you leave the crowds, you will find less pressured birds and a better overall experience," he said.

"I hunt on Ft. Campbell and LBL almost every year, and I have found the farther away from everyone else I can get, the greater the odds are that I will leave the woods with a gobbler in my vest," Hale remarked.

"Public ground hunters especially need to concentrate on soft-calling techniques. They will be hunting the most pressured birds in the state, and the gobblers wise up fast due to the amount of contact they have every day with hunters. Soft calling and patience will bring in a lot more public-land birds than aggressive tactics."

East to west and north to south, Kentucky turkey hunters should experience phenomenal hunting this spring. The Commonwealth's flock continues to grow, especially in the eastern third of the state, and with good hatches the past two years, the woods should be ringing with the gobbles from scores of longbeards. Pick your hunting grounds wisely, scout the area thoroughly, and remember David Hale's advice. If you do, you may add a bird or two to Kentucky's 2003 tally that may well be another record harvest.

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