With turkey season finally upon us, let's take a look at what hunters can expect this spring and explore some of the areas that promise to serve up the finest hunting. (March 2006)
As the end of winter plays out, you'll be raking the last of the pine straw from your yard when you hear a familiar sound high above your lawn. Shading your eyes against the sky's brilliance, you'll search until you find the source of the sound.
There, gliding on the breeze, will be a black speck that has found its way across the Caribbean to send its lilting tune across the still-sleeping Louisiana landscape -- the season's first purple martin.
The martins' return signals that spring's on the way. Soon after they arrive, crimson clover will flower along the roadsides, and pine buds will swell, preparing to spew their yellow dust onto cars and porches, and into twitching nostrils. The blooming of the dogwoods won't be far behind.
While all this is taking place, something else will be happening. Out in the woods, an old tom, content to have spent the winter foraging for enough to eat, will respond to primal urges he hasn't felt since late last spring. He'll awaken from his roost high in a pine, and when a barred owl calls from a nearby swamp, out of the turkey's throat will thunder spontaneously a sound that, as he hasn't made it in months, might even startle him: a gobble.
A quarter-mile away, a hunter who parked his pickup before dawn at the crest of a hill will get out and sip from his coffee when he hears the bird. Smiling to himself, the man will mentally mark the direction from which the gobble came, and its approximate distance from the truck.
The next morning he'll carefully his way through the dark woods, get a fix on the bird's location and find a tree large enough to cover his back. When full daylight is just moments away, the hunter will slip a diaphragm call into his mouth and emit an ever-so-light tree call -- three yelps so soft that he'll wonder if the gobbler can hear. An immediate and thundering double-gobble from the bird in the pine will let him know that he's been heard.
Showtime. Hearing a branch crack, he'll peer through the slit in his facemask to watch a dark form sail out of the pine and land 50 yards in front of his position. A soft purr and cluck will be all it takes to induce the gobbler to home in on the decoy.
The gobbler will strut up to the decoy; the hunter will "putt" on his call. Breaking his strut, the gobbler will thrust his head up in alarm. Too late: A well-placed load of high brass number No. 6s does the trick. Mission accomplished.
Thousands of Louisiana turkey hunters will toss and turn in their beds on Friday, March 24 -- the night before the season opens. They'll find sleep hard to come by, because at dawn the next morning, they'll be joined from one end of the state to the other by similarly afflicted hunters who'll be at their favorite listening spots to welcome the opening of turkey season.
And what will these hunters find when they get to their favorite woods? Will the devastating hurricanes of last summer and fall have had any effect on hunting success this year? What about reproduction? Were there factors that compromised the hatch, or did Louisiana see a strong one last year?
Since we knew you'd be interested in such questions, we turned to Louisiana's wild turkey expert, Larry Savage, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' wild turkey study leader.
"Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?" Savage asked. Cringing a bit at the prospects of hearing gloom and doom, we gritted our teeth and told him to start with the bad news.
"The bad news is that Hurricane Katrina did a number on the turkey habitat in much of southeast Louisiana," he said. "In fact, we closed the season on the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area because, quite frankly, the forest is basically gone; the trees are on the ground.
"I'm sure we had a good many turkeys survive the hurricane, but there is no habitat for them in that area. Also, this part of the state where the overstory was destroyed will begin growing up this spring as a thick tangle of jungle. Turkeys don't thrive in that sort of habitat. The impact in areas affected like Pearl River will be felt several years down the road."
Several decades ago, the southeastern portion of the state -- the "Florida parishes" -- was the state's hotspot for wild turkeys, which were there when the majority of the state had few birds. But for a couple of reasons, according to Savage, that area has been on the decline for years.
"We have seen land-use changes take a toll on turkey habitat in the Florida parishes," he said. "What was formerly thousands of acres of dairy lands is now being converted to pine plantations. The habitat is more fragmented, meaning that turkeys have had to survive on smaller tracts and getting from one good tract to another is difficult.
"Ideally, you want to see the month of May being dry, because this is when lots of poults are being hatched. We had that over most of the state, which gave their survival a boost." --Larry Savage, LDWF
"Another factor that has had an effect on the wild turkey population in that area is urban sprawl. Located not far from New Orleans, people are clearing land and building subdivisions on lands formerly occupied by wild turkeys. The picture there is rather bleak.
"Our studies have established that for the past several decades, about two-thirds of the state's turkey hunters have lived in that region," he added. "This means they have fewer suitable areas to hunt where they live, and they will either have to drive to other portions of the state to hunt or find other things to do on spring mornings."
So sobering an account of the situation for wild turkeys in southeast Louisiana made us wonder if hunters in the rest of the state had anything to look forward to. Happily, the majority of what Savage had to report about turkeys fell into the good-news category.
"Things in general are looking good for turkeys in the rest of the state," he stated. "For statistical and planning purposes, we divide the state into five geographical areas and with the exception of much of southeastern Louisiana, the picture is pretty bright."
These geographical areas are: the Northwest Loblolly/Shortleaf/Hardwood area, which encompasses all of the northwest quadrant of the state and a portion of its north-central se
ction; the North Mississippi Delta area along the Mississippi River in northeast and east-central Louisiana; the Western Longleaf Pine area, which generally comprises western and southwestern Louisiana; the Atchafalaya and Louisiana Mississippi Delta area, that being, basically, south-central Louisiana, taking in all of the coastal areas of the state; and, finally, the Southeast Loblolly area -- the site of the devastation.
"Statewide, the picture is fairly bright for the upcoming season," Savage said. "The main reason for this, we believe, is that we had ideal weather over most of the state during a critical time, May and June. Ideally, you want to see the month of May being dry, because this is when lots of poults are being hatched. We had that over most of the state, which gave their survival a boost.
"Then you hope that June is fairly wet, because this contributes to the profusion of food plants as well as insect production, which poults need to thrive. We had a fairly wet June this past year, which should have helped the young turkeys get off to a good start.
"When you get extreme conditions at the wrong times on either end of the spectrum -- cold and wet, or hot and dry -- this affects turkeys. Weather conditions somewhere in the middle of the extremes is what you hope for, and, in general, that's what we got in 2005."
Savage mentioned several public hunting areas around the state at which turkey hunting has been offered for years. "The Fort Polk Wildlife Management Area, located in the Western Longleaf Pine area, is a sleeper," he noted. "That place is full of turkeys -- but there is a problem. Fort Polk is a military installation, and the Army is usually active in operations over the area. If you can hit it right when things are quiet there, it can be a great place to hunt. It can be disheartening, though, to be waiting for a gobbler to strut in and a tank comes roaring by. You have to stay in touch with the headquarters there to find out when you can hunt and what the military is doing at any given time.
"The Sherburne Wildlife Management Area in the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Delta area should be a good place to hunt this year. They had a good hatch there, and hunters should be able to have some action. They have a couple of lottery hunts and a short regular season, so hunters should keep this in mind when planning hunts.
"Over in the North Mississippi Delta area," Savage continued, "there are some good public areas where turkey populations are in good condition. The Tensas National Wildlife Refuge along with state areas -- Big Lake, Red River and Three Rivers wildlife management areas -- are all looking good for this spring.
"The hatch over the Northwest Loblolly, Shortleaf and Hardwood area was good this year, with the Jackson Bienville Wildlife Management Area having a particularly good hatch. Another huge area where the public can hunt is the Kisatchie National Forest, which takes in a big chunk of northwest and central Louisiana. This is an area where hunters willing to walk a long way can get in on some prime hunting away from other hunters not willing to log some walking time."
Another positive thing that Savage took note of: the good mast crop over much of the state in 2005. "It's a bit unusual," he observed, "but we've had a good crop of hard mast in the form of a variety of acorns over much of the state for three straight years. The birds should have plenty to eat, which puts the adults in better condition for breeding and nesting. If the adults are healthy, the chances of poult survival are enhanced."
Yes, there's some bad news related to the upcoming wild turkey season in Louisiana -- but we can be grateful that Savage was able to pass along more good news than bad. This means that the majority of Louisiana's turkey hunters this spring will find that their fitful night's sleep on the eve of the opening of turkey season will likely be rewarded.