Overall, things look pretty good for Bayou State hunters intent on taking a gobbler in 2004. Here's the lowdown.
By Glynn Harris
The morning dawned cool and foggy - extremely foggy, in fact. I'll admit that the fog had me a bit concerned, because my duty on this mid-March morning last year was to help 12-year-old Sarah, a first-time turkey hunter, bag a wild gobbler.
A barrage of thoughts assaulted me. What if the fog keeps the gobbler's lips zipped? What if he stays in the tree because he can't see the ground? What if we don't see a thing? What if we don't hear a thing? What if ... what if ... what if ... ?
Just as dawn was penetrating the fog draped over the woods of the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area like a thin gray blanket, my fears abated, at least for a moment, when I heard a gobble. A few strokes on my slate call produced another gobble, and 10 minutes later, I saw the tom - saw two toms, in fact, their red heads manifesting themselves through the milky fog.
In preparation for seeing Sarah standing over her first longbeard, I had placed two decoys, a hen with a jake behind her in a breeding position, some 25 yards in front of Sarah, a comfortable range for her 20 gauge.
Glynn Harris with 12-year-old Sarah Hebert and her first gobbler, which the author called up on a foggy morning at Jackson-Bienville WMA. Photo courtesy of Glynn Harris
What happened next went almost as if it'd been scripted. You know how you play out in your mind just how and where the bird or buck is going to appear? The two gobblers did exactly what I'd envisioned: Once they spotted the jake about to breed the hen, the lead bird rushed over to the fake pair to whip the teenaged turkey's hind end. I putted sharply on my mouth call, the gobbler raised his head - and Sarah lowered the boom. Just as I had imagined it. Young Sarah Hebert was soon standing over her kill, an event no doubt indelibly imprinted in her memory bank now. I know it is in mine.
This was a day to remember for several reasons. First and foremost, I'd guided a youngster to success on her first turkey hunt. When we drove into camp, we learned that of the five youngsters participating in this youth hunt the week prior to general season opening, four had bagged gobblers, and the fifth had come within a whisker of getting his.
This special day also pointed to the promise of a bountiful harvest of gobblers during the 2003 spring season at Jackson-Bienville. Alas, it was not to be. The 16-day season, when hundreds of hunters converged on the WMA, saw a total take (the four harvested by the youth hunters included) of just 14.
"The gobblers were with hens early in the season, and it was difficult for hunters to lure them away," explained Steve Hebert, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wildlife biologist in charge of Jackson-Bienville (and, incidentally, Sarah's father). "There were plenty of turkeys on the management area; they were just tough last season, especially the early portion. Later in the season, there was more gobbling, but most hunters had given up and moved to other areas of the state to hunt, which could have accounted for the lower harvest numbers."
So what's the picture for the 2004 spring season? What do poult surveys reveal? Was there a solid hatch around the state? Which areas of the state seem to offer the best prospects for harvesting a gobbler in 2004?
To find answers to these questions, we talked with wildlife biologists around the state to take their pulse on Louisiana's turkey numbers and prospects for the upcoming season.
After what happened last season, Hebert, who works out of the LDWF's Minden District, admits to being a bit skeptical. "Early reports from the field this spring and summer (2003) revealed very few poult sightings," he said. "I hope they were there and we just didn't see them, but I can't help but be a little concerned about the lack of sightings. We had favorable weather during the period when most poults hatch. There were no spring floods in our region, which can impact young turkeys before they become full-feathered.
"In the event that our lack of sightings is correct, and we did indeed have a poor hatch, there will still be lots of gobblers around in 2004. They'll be mostly mature birds and fewer jakes, which could again lower the harvest numbers because jakes are easier to kill than mature birds."
The situation at Jackson-Bienville may have been unique, because at other management areas in northwest Louisiana, the woods rang with gobbling. "On Loggy Bayou, for example, hunters heard gobbling all day long," said Hebert. "This is a small area that featured only a two-day lottery hunt for 10 hunters, so the harvest is always low there. The point is, the birds were there, and they gobbled all day long."
With any luck, Hebert's doubts about poult production during the past year will prove to be unfounded. According to Fred Kimmel, biologist and upland game study leader for the LDWF, the picture appeared less grim once all the reports came in from north Louisiana. "There were few poult sightings reported early on," he said, "but it seems now that quite a few young birds were observed across north Louisiana later in the summer, which gives us some hope."
Northeast Louisiana has never been known as a wild turkey hotbed. However, Charlie Booth, wildlife biologist with the LDWF's Monroe District office, notes that a couple of bright spots can be found in the region. "The best area we have had up this way over the past few years has been what was formerly the Georgia Pacific area near Bastrop," he said. "Plum Creek, a timber company, purchased Georgia Pacific, and last year, the company pulled this land from the management area program. It was one of the best public land turkey producers but is no longer available for public use.
"The Bayou Macon management area, located near Oak Grove in East Carroll Parish, has a good many turkeys, but lottery hunts only are allowed. The Union Wildlife Management Area also has quite a few birds featuring lottery hunts only. The fact is, we didn't see very many poults this past spring and summer. They may be there; we just didn't see many."
Moving downstate from northwest and northeast Louisiana, prospects improve considerably. Wildlife biologist Wendell Smith, who works out of the LDWF's Lake Charles district office, is optimistic about the upcoming season, given what was observed in that area this past spring and summer.
"We saw a lot of hens with poults with enough mixed age groups to let us know that there are plenty of turkeys of all ages in our district," he said. "I think one of the reasons for our improved nesting success has to do with the reduction of wild hogs that
have been a big problem here. Lots of hunting clubs are taking out all the hogs they see, and this has helped reduce the number of these animals, which can be tough on turkey nests.
"The wild turkey population in Beauregard Parish is exploding, with the Boise Vernon and West Bay wildlife management areas having lots of birds. Fort Polk in Vernon Parish also has a lot of birds this year. However, hunting opportunities on Fort Polk are dependent on what the Army is doing during hunting season. They can have operations going on that close part or all of this area, and there is usually only short notice.
"Boise Vernon features two weekends of lottery hunting only," he continued, "with the balance of the season being open to the public. West Bay has two lottery hunts the first two weekends of season, with 50 hunters allowed on each hunt.
"If I had to rate this area by parish, I'd say that Vernon Parish has the best turkey hunting, followed by Beauregard second, with northern Calcasieu Parish third. Summing it up, I'd have to say that the turkey situation down this way is quite good."
A region that consistently ranks high on turkey hunting success scales each spring is south-central Louisiana; at Sherburne WMA, for instance, 50 gobblers were harvested last season. Tony Vidrine, a wildlife biologist working out of the LDWF's Opelousas District office, likes what saw this past summer.
"We saw lots of poults this past summer and it looks like we have all the prospects for another good season in 2004," he offered. "There is some excellent turkey habitat on Sherburne, with the area being predominately hardwood bottomland. However, it can be hard to hunt, so hunters need to learn the area and do plenty of scouting prior to season to locate concentrations of birds.
"Hunters who are consistently successful on Sherburne often utilize boats to travel canals and bayous to get into the heart of the area, where most hunters aren't willing to go. It pays dividends for them to make this extra effort.
"The Grassy Lake management area in Avoyelles Parish is another area with lots of turkeys," he added. "We saw lots of poults here this past spring and summer, and believe it will be a good area to hunt this spring. I think Sherburne will be as good this season as last, and Grassy Lake may be even better than it was a year ago."
Among the first portions of Louisiana to have a turkey season were southeast Louisiana's Florida Parishes. However, Fred Kimmel reports, turkey populations in this regions have been in a slow decline over the past decade.
"These parishes east of Baton Rouge and northeast of New Orleans have been our state's turkey stronghold for a long time," Kimmel said. "However, the encroachment of humans and the changes in forestry practices have not been favorable to the turkey population there.
"Some of the areas closer to New Orleans have become almost like suburbs of New Orleans. Numbers of people who choose to commute to the big city while living in the country are growing rapidly. This human encroachment has absorbed quite a bit of turkey habitat. Add to this the loss of hardwoods and the displacement of the small farm and pasture that has been largely converted to a pine monoculture, and the turkey populations have suffered.
"Three wildlife management areas in southeast Louisiana have some good turkey hunting, with Tunica Hills probably being the best," Kimmel continued. "Lottery hunting only is allowed here - we had four two-day lottery hunts here last season - and the harvest was fairly good.
"Ben's Creek is another area with good turkey numbers. This area does not have lottery hunts and is open for 23 days to the public. Hunters took 12 gobblers off this fairly small area last season and from what we've seen this past summer, there were enough poult sightings to give us hope for another good season in 2004 on Ben's Creek.
"Another management area in this district with a good turkey population is Sandy Hollow. The area is small but the harvest of turkeys per acre is pretty high."
It could be that the state's most promising region for turkey hunting overall is east Louisiana. Several wildlife management areas - most notably Big Lake, Sicily Island Hills, Red River and Three Rivers - and the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge offer in the aggregate hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwood habitat in which turkey populations abound. Granted, the acreage in bottomland hardwoods is much reduced from what it was before areas were cleared to make room for soybean and cotton farming. Still, there's a lot of prime habitat there for turkey hunters to enjoy.
In his 40 years of service with the LDWF, Reggie Wycoff has amassed a vast store of wisdom based on the experience with managing wildlife in this area out of the Ferriday district office. "I'm encouraged by what I've seen in our district this year regarding wild turkeys," he said. "There was some good reproduction over the area with some of the northern management areas probably best. When you put this year's poult production in with the carryover of adult birds from last year, I'd say that the season in 2004 should be above average. We saw a lot of young birds early last summer. Add to that the fact that we had no adverse weather conditions to negatively impact the survival of young turkeys, and the end result should be a good season for 2004.
"In our district, there is some excellent habitat, and there are other areas where it is just too wet. For example, the Boeuf management area is hardwood bottomland, but, in spring especially, there is just too much water on the area. Red River and Three Rivers management areas contain some 70,000 acres combined, but only about 15,000 acres of these areas is good turkey habitat. Big Lake management area, on the other hand, offers about 75 percent of its land as good turkey habitat.
"With the increased popularity of turkey hunting over the past decade or so, some areas may be over-hunted," Wycoff observed. "Turkey hunting is not like deer hunting, where you get on a stand and even though there may be another hunter a few hundred yards away, you have a pretty good chance to get a deer. With turkeys, one gobbles from the roost, and in areas that are heavily hunted, you may have half a dozen hunters move from half a mile away on that bird and call to him; it can be dangerous. Plus, it doesn't take an old gobbler long to realize he's better off if he shuts up. The result can be not very rewarding for hunters who want to hear and see gobblers."
So what does this all mean for Louisiana's turkey hunters for the spring season in 2004? Overall, it appears that there will be plenty of good turkey hunting to go around this spring. The areas holding the most promise seem to be: the Delta parishes and the state management areas bordering Tensas NWR; the northern part of southwestern Louisiana, especially in Vernon and Beauregard parishes; southeastern Louisiana sites like Tunica Hills and Ben's Creek; and south-central Louisiana's ever-popular Sherburne WMA. The jury may still be out on northwest Louisiana, although late summer reports were much improved over those earlier in the summer.
Would you like to experience a turkey hunting thrill that's even better than calling in a trophy longbeard to your gun? Then volunteer to guide a youngster on a youth hunt. I can assure you that whether or not you're successful in calling in a bird for a youngster, being there to teach and instruct, as I was privileged to do with young Sarah Hebert, is guaranteed to create memories that will last you and the young hunter you mentor a lifetime.
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