The State of Bayou State Turkey Hunting

The State of Bayou State Turkey Hunting

You should hear lots of gobbling in Louisiana's turkey woods this season. Try these hotspots to make the most of your time afield.

By Glynn Harris

Nothing pleases a turkey hunter more on opening morning than to wake up to a sky full of stars, a chuck-will's-widow sounding off in the hollow below the camp, the aroma of wild azaleas in the air without a breath of wind and temperatures that are cool, but not cold.

Louisiana turkey hunters were wishing for just that sort of opening day last year, but those of us in north Louisiana got anything but these ideal conditions. For starters, the wind was howling out of the north. There were stars overhead, but they pierced like ice crystals in the 28-degree chill. Wild azalea blossoms had already shriveled and dropped from the late season freeze. The weather was more appropriate for sitting in a deer stand or duck blind than to be in the spring woods to hunt wild turkeys.

Granted, some hunters got lucky that morning and brought a few birds to the check stations. Not me. I finally heard a solitary half-hearted gobble far in the distance that in turkey talk sounded more like "I'm freezing!" than "Hey, girls - let's make whoopee."

Two days later, the weather had moderated considerably. I hunted the same woods and was able to call in and take a magnificent old longbeard. Weather, according to wildlife biologists I spoke with when researching this article, should be about the only deterrent to most Louisiana turkey hunters enjoying a good spring turkey season this year.

Fred Kimmel is the upland game study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He keeps tabs on the state's wild turkey situation.

"The upcoming turkey season should be pretty good overall. We've had good production during the last two years in the northern and western portions of the state, so there should be a good crop of 2- and 3-year-old birds," said Kimmel.

Things are looking good for Louisiana's turkey hunters in 2003. Sights like this should be common this year. Photo by Glynn Harris

This past nesting season was generally good around most of the state, so hunters from Bernice to Breaux Bridge should see more birds, according to the biologist. "Reports indicate that we had good production across much of the state this spring and summer. That would indicate that hunters are likely to encounter a lot of jakes during the 2003 spring season," Kimmel noted. "Determining the state's wild turkey population is, at best, an educated guess. It's very difficult to know within reason how many wild turkeys Louisiana now has. However, we feel that our population runs between 60,000 and 75,000 birds with a reported annual harvest of around 9,000 a year for the past few seasons."

Can Louisiana ever expect to see the number of birds that other Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia have? It's unlikely; Kimmel believes we're not far from the numbers our habitat can support.

"Our land base available to support big numbers of turkeys won't ever reach that of some of the other southern states. We have so much of our state's habitat that is in coastal marsh where there are no turkeys. In addition, much of the Mississippi delta region is in farming with good turkey habitat mostly in relatively small plots. There are turkeys in some of those bottomland hardwood blocks, but they won't proliferate in soybean fields. There should be some increase in suitable habitat in the delta where CRP and WRP lands are being converted from farms back to hardwoods. Although some of these acres are being planted in hardwoods, it takes a long time for a mature forest to emerge. All things being equal, these areas will one day be good wild turkey habitat again. Today, our habitat is supporting about the number of wild turkeys the state's available habitat can handle," Kimmel noted.

When forestry practices are done properly, Kimmel believes that wildlife responds in a positive manner.

"Two practices utilized by the forest industry that really help the wild turkey are thinning timber stands to open the understory, and prescribed burning which clears litter from the ground, allowing turkeys access to nuts and insects and promoting the growth of tender young vegetation. It is my hope that the timber companies don't go to a shorter rotation and cut back on their prescribed burning programs - two issues that they are considering. This would negatively impact the state's turkey population, I'm afraid," Kimmel said.

One area of the state has seen a slightly lower rate of poult production and hunters in this area might not see as many birds this season as they have in past years.

"The southern portions of the state - the Atchafalaya region and Florida parishes - have had lower production than the remainder of the state during the last two years. I expect that hunter success will be somewhat lower in these regions," Kimmel added.

With this in mind, Kimmel has noted a shift in the wild turkey population over the past several years from southeast and south-central Louisiana to areas in the north of the state. As a result, the number of turkey hunters, while remaining basically the same, has diminished somewhat in the southern half of the state and increased in the northern.

"In 2001, we estimated that Louisiana had around 22,000 licensed turkey hunters. Ten years ago, we had about the same number of turkey hunters in the state, but more of them are in the northern parishes today, while most came from south and southeast Louisiana a decade ago," Kimmel said.

In order to give Louisiana's turkey hunters a heads-up on which public areas should be the most productive during the spring 2003 season, let's take a look at the state's public hunting areas and what hunters can expect come turkey season this year.

For ease in identification, we've divided the state into five geographical regions: northwest, northeast, central, southwest and southeast.

As noted earlier, this portion of the state is an up-and-coming region for the state's turkey hunters. Mild spring weather coupled with the absence of the most dreaded poult-killer - cold wet conditions in late spring - have put a lot of young turkeys on the ground in this area. The primo management area in northwest Louisiana has to be Jackson-Bienville. This 42,460-acre plot of land, owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, is home to a growing flock of wild turkeys, as evidenced by last season's harvest of 30 birds, up from just

12 gobblers taken three seasons ago. Steve Hebert, District 1 wildlife biologist at the Minden office, is quick to praise the success of Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area.

"There is a direct correlation between our increased harvest last season and the growing number of birds on Jackson-Bienville," said Hebert. "The reason our turkey population has grown has to do with improved habitat. This area is somewhat unique in that we have a habitat program ongoing involving the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Weyerhaeuser Co., the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited and Entergy Corporation, among others.

"With the funds and in-kind assistance from our partnership, we're planting lots of openings for wildlife and what we're doing benefits bobwhite quail, turkeys and deer.

"Entergy has pipeline rights-of-way that run through the area, and they've allowed us to use these areas to create food plots. This has created an abundance of prime nesting areas as well as foraging areas for young birds," said Hebert.

"Jackson-Bienville is the only wildlife management area in the state I know of where you can go for a drive and expect to see wild turkeys. Things have really been working well there," Hebert added.

Another area in northwest Louisiana that features fair to occasionally good turkey hunting is the Bodcau WMA near Minden. "Bodcau features one of the largest hardwood bottomland tracts left in northwest Louisiana that is public land. A major tornado went through here in the spring of 2000 and really tore up the timber, about 3,000 acres total. The area is being reforested now, and it will be quite a few years for the area to return to its former state. However, Bodcau is one of the better areas of northwest Louisiana for wild turkeys, although with all the downed timber it can be hard to hunt," Hebert added.

This portion of the state has wild turkeys on several wildlife management areas, but when hunters begin looking around the state for public spots to hunt, most go to the northwest, the central or the southern part of the state. Although this region is not known for great turkey hunting, there are a growing number of birds on at least two WMAs.

Charlie Booth is a wildlife biologist with the District 2 office in Monroe. He mentioned two areas in particular that have good wild turkey numbers.

"The Georgia Pacific Wildlife Management Area has quite a few wild turkeys. It might surprise you to look at the land because it doesn't look like typical wild turkey habitat. It's really not very pretty to look at. However, there is a growing wild turkey population here, and, with the good hatch reported from this past spring, I look for some good turkey hunting here," said Booth.

"Another area with a good many turkeys is the Union Wildlife Management Area east of Farmerville. This tract, leased by the state from Plum Creek timber company, features a lottery hunt only.

"Three other management areas in our district, Russell Sage, Ouachita and Bayou Macon, have never had very good wild turkey production. So, Georgia Pacific and Union are the two that hunters should concentrate on," Booth said.

Some of the state's better wildlife management areas for wild turkey hunting are located right in the heart of the state - from border to border, east to west, with Alexandria being the central point.

One of the best areas in the state is located in east-central Louisiana and includes several wildlife management areas along with the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge. One of the better state-managed tracts is the Big Lake WMA, which is adjacent to the Tensas NWR. Reggie Wycoff, wildlife supervisor with the District 4 office in Ferriday, oversees Big Lake among others.

"Big Lake consists of predominately bottomland hardwood habitat. It doesn't have a flooding problem to the extent some of the other bottomland areas do. This is one portion of the state that has had a wild turkey population forever. Long before wild turkeys were introduced to the rest of the state, there was a population of turkeys over here," said Wycoff.

As a youngster, I spent a week in this area with my dad, an employee of the LDWF, when he was working in Tensas Parish in the early 1950's. A vivid memory for me was seeing wild turkeys for the first time in my life as they flew up to roost behind the cabin where we stayed.

"This area consists of a lot of mature timber stands with open understory - good habitat for wild turkeys. We have seen quite a few poults this past summer, which means we should have a decent season in 2003. There is one problem here, though," Wycoff noted. "Because of the popularity of Big Lake, Tensas and other areas in east-central Louisiana, there's usually a lot of pressure."

Another prime area in east-central Louisiana is that comprising the Three Rivers/Red River management areas located east of Alexandria.

"We'll have 40 to 50 gobblers taken each year on average from these areas. This is another heavily hunted area that is flood-prone. However, there are some high ridges with marginal habitat that insure the entire area isn't covered with water during wet springs," Wycoff added. "Depending on spring rains and floods, we should have a good season over this way in 2003," he noted.

West-central Louisiana has several WMAs that have decent flocks of wild turkeys. According to C.R. Newland, wildlife supervisor for District 3 in Pineville, Beauregard WMA is probably the best all-around area.

"Timber management here is conducive to production and maintenance of wild turkeys. This is a large intact tract of mixed pine and hardwoods with a better-than-average population of turkeys. Because of its proximity to Alexandria, it sees a good bit of hunting pressure," said Newland.

"Probably the best public area overall in this part of the state is the huge Kisatchie National Forest. It consists of about 600,000 acres and 400,000 acres are in this region. Our turkey hatch throughout our region was pretty good this past spring, so I expect we'll have some decent hunting in 2003," he added.

This portion of the state features four public areas with a good population of wild turkeys. Two of the areas, Fort Polk and Peason Ridge WMAs, are often closed on short notice because of military activity there.

According to Wendell Smith, wildlife biologist in the Lake Charles District 5 office, there is usually pretty good hunting on the other two areas, West Bay and Boise-Vernon management areas.

"West Bay has lots of birds concentrated in fairly small areas. This area features lottery hunting only with a youth hunt being held the week before the season opens. Once the season opens, there are two lottery hunts of 50 hunters each," said Smith.

"Boise-Vernon Wildlife Management Area has lots of birds with good habitat, but these gobblers are sometimes hard to call in and harvest. They are heavily hunted and usually get wary in a hurry.

"We have noticed quite a few poults across the entire district this past spring and summer, so hunting should be pretty good in 2003," Smith added.

This portion of the state covers the Baton Rouge and Opelousas districts and contains management areas that have traditionally been some of the best in the state. However, as was remarked at the beginning of this article, the turkey populations have slowly dwindled in much of this area while growing upstate.

Sherburne WMA has long been a favorite of hunters across the state, and although hunter success was down last season, biologist Tony Vidrine looks for some improvement here in 2003.

"We had a fair to good hatch this past spring, and, barring bad weather, our success should improve over last year. We feature a two-part lottery hunt - two segments of two days each - followed by the rest of the season being open to the public," said Vidrine.

Another management area that looks fairly bright for 2003 is Tunica Hills, according to Don Mullins, biologist with the District 7 office in Baton Rouge.

"Tunica is looking pretty good for this coming season. The turkey population dropped off significantly during the early 1990s but is steadily building back up. This is a lottery-only hunting area and those who apply and get chosen have a good chance to bag a gobbler here," said Mullins.

With Louisiana's spring turkey season just weeks away, we hope we've given you enough to whet your appetite for hunting some of the state's prime public lands from one end of the state to the other.

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