Mississippi has one of the largest turkey flocks in the nation, so that should translate to great hunting action. Let's see if that holds true this year.
Mississippi has a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best turkey hunting and some of the best turkey hunters in the nation. Whether you are a beginner or an obsessed turkey hunting addict, it's time to get your yelper out and make plans for getting your Magnolia State gobbler. With a very generous spring season framework that begins March 12 and ends May 1 you have plenty of time to connect with a gobbling longbeard.
But, before looking at the best places to hunt in the Magnolia State, let's see what else is going on that affects these birds and the folks that hunt them.
WILD TURKEY RESEARCH
Wild turkey restoration efforts are continuing in the north Delta area. According to Dave Godwin, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks Turkey Program Coordinator, biologists captured and released 122 wild turkeys in Quitman and Coahoma counties in 2009. An additional 57 birds were released into the interior Delta in 2010.
The releases of the radio-tagged turkeys are part of an ongoing cooperative study, now in its second year, between MDWFP and Mississippi State University to determine the suitability of Delta habitats for wild turkeys and the effectiveness of such restoration efforts.
Dave Godwin and Turkey Program Biologist Adam Butler have responsibility for managing the state's turkey flock. Along with others in the department, they are responsible for habitat management on state-owned wildlife management areas. While park-like conditions found under mature timber stands appeals to many hunters, large expanses of that habitat are not best for wildlife.The MDWFP has taken a more aggressive approach to improving habitat through Timber Stand Improvement, thinning and prescribed burning. While efforts to maintain some level of supplemental plantings are likely to continue, wildlife mangers realize their biggest bang for the buck comes from improving natural habitat.
The Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey was initiated in 1996 to collect long-term data about turkey activity and hunting. Survey participants record information about their turkey hunts during the spring season. Biologists use the information to track trends to better manage the state's turkey population.
The MDWFP would like to increase participation in the survey by 30 percent. Not only do hunters get the satisfaction of knowing they are part of the conservation effort, but they also receive a complimentary copy of the annual Wild Turkey Report. It is a summary of the data collected. Additionally, surveyors have their names thrown in the pot for a drawing for a new shotgun.
Visit the MDWFP Turkey Program Web site at www.mdwfp.com. The follow the links through Wildlife & Hunting, and Turkey Program to sign up.
WILD TURKEY FORECAST
Now let's get down the meat and potatoes -- where are the top places in Mississippi to find gobblers this year.
First, the bad news; unfortunately, wild turkeys are not prolific reproducers. According to MDWFP 2010 Wild Turkey Status Report, harvest data indicates that the turkey population has been declining since 2005. The decline has been primarily due to successive years of poor hatches.
Godwin believes wet and cool weather during the nesting season is a major cause of the poor success rate of hens.
Godwin and Butler track the hatch each year using data collected in the statewide brood survey. Observations of hens and poults are recorded on a county basis from June through August. Once the data is compiled the biologists have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the next couple of years in the way of turkey numbers.
In 2009 the statewide average of poults per hen was 1.1, the lowest result since MDWFP record keeping began. Those results are important for the 2011 season, because gobblers hatched in 2009 will be the 2-year-old gobblers of 2011, which make up the bulk of the harvest.
Based on that number alone, Godwin believes that hunters will encounter fewer mature toms this season. Now for the good news; while the results of the 2010 brood survey were not finalized at the time of this writing, Godwin projected the hatch to be up by as much as 65 percent on a statewide basis. That should translate into hunters seeing lots of jakes this spring and more 2-year-old gobblers in 2012.
Even though turkey numbers in the state have been declining, there still are plenty of gobblers in most areas.
The 2009 hatch was not kind to most of this 21-county region in the north central and northeast part of the state. In fact, the region average of 0.94 poults per hen was the lowest in the state, except for the Delta.
Given that poor hatch, hunters in most of this region should expect to encounter fewer gobblers this year. There are some bright spots within the region, however. Alcorn, Calhoun, Monroe and Pontotoc counties had hatches that were considered to be average or good. Grenada, Lafayette, Union and Clay counties should have good turkey hunting also.
The number of turkeys harvested has been trending downward in this region. Past experience tells me that the number of turkey hunters usually declines with a declining turkey population. That may be the proverbial "silver lining," especially for hunters pursuing gobblers on public land.
Upper Sardis WMA typically is one of the best public hunting areas and, at 42,000 acres, one of the largest in the region. Hunters harvested 54 gobblers on the area in 2009. Located in Lafayette County on the Holly Springs National Forest, the area offers an early youth hunt and then two weeks requiring a draw permit. The rest of the season is open to all hunters.
Malmaison WMA in Grenada County and Calhoun County WMA are similar in size, but have very different habitats. Malmaison is 9,700 acres of primarily bottomland hardwoods and Calhoun County has 10,700 acres of industrially owned and managed upland pine plantations. There also are some hardwoods found along drainages. Expect to find more turkeys on Malmaison and proportionally more hunters than Calhoun County. Both areas offer early youth hunts and Malmaison has a draw hunt for the first two weeks of the regular season.
Late spring flooding in the 10 Delta counties is especially problematic for wild turkeys trying to nest. Turkey reproduction in the Delta has taken a hit due to flooding the past couple
of cycles. In 2008 the poults per hen was a paltry 0.12 for a record low. In 2009 the rate was only 0.39 with only 21 percent of the observed hens having at least one poult. The number of turkey observations by hunters has been declining as well.
This season Delta hunters in most of the region should expect to harvest fewer gobblers. Godwin believes the 2010 Delta hatch is much improved from the last two years, so there is hope for a comeback.
Because of the previously mentioned turkey research being conducted, all of Quitman County is closed to turkey hunting. Parts of several other counties are closed as well, so be sure to check the hunting regulations for those closed areas.
While there are numerous smaller size WMAs in the region, turkey hunters are usually better off concentrating their efforts on larger public hunting tracts. Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge, with more than 8,000 acres of extensive bottomland forest, usually has a good turkey population.
Sunflower WMA may offer the best opportunity for hunters to experience action in an expansive bottomland habitat. With roughly 60,000 acres located within the Delta NF, Sunflower is subject to seasonal flooding. The area has more than 200 acres of managed openings for wildlife. The clearings also attract hunters.
In 2009 hunters harvested 61 turkeys in 856 hunter-days.
The first two weeks of the season are by draw permit only.
Joining Sunflower to the west is Twin Oaks WMA on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land. It's much smaller at 5,700 acres and offers turkey hunting by permit only.
Also on Corps land is Mahannah WMA with more than 12,000 acres of various habitats. Turkey hunting is by permit only and has only been allowed on the area since 2009.
This 21-county area that corresponds with MDWFP Turkey Region 3 had the best reproduction in the state in 2008, with a poults per hen average of 2.3. The 2009 hatch followed the statewide trend and was down to 1.16 poults per hen.
Kemper and Winston counties bucked that trend last year with hatches considered to be at least average. In 2009, jakes observations were up significantly as you might expect following the good hatch in 2008. This year hunters should expect fewer two year olds in the flock but should see some carry over of older age-class toms to bolster the hunting opportunities. With the better hatch in 2010, expect to see more jakes and hens than last year.
In the southern portion of the region, the 28,000-acre Tallahala WMA is usually one of the best for harboring longbeards. Located in parts of Newton, Scott and Smith counties, hunters took 61 toms from the area in 2009.
Of similar size are Bienville and Caney Creek WMAs, with both located within the Bienville NF. Hunters reported harvesting 21 and 32 birds respectively on the two areas. Hunting is by draw permit the first few days of the season.
If you could only hunt one area of the state this season, the 12-county southwest region should be it. According to Dave Godwin, the 2009 hatch in this part of the state was down, but still had the best regional average at 1.52 poults per hen. Approximately 44 percent of hens observed nested successfully, with an average brood size of 3.45 poults. Hunters in this region should expect another good season, but with a few less gobbling 2-year-olds than the previous year.
The Homochitto NF offers the best public hunting opportunities in this region. The Homochitto is home to both Caston Creek and Sandy Creek WMAs.
At nearly 28,000 acres, Caston Creek's habitat is mostly pine or a pine and hardwood mix. In 2009 hunters on Caston Creek took 30 gobblers.
With 16,407 acres, Sandy Creek WMA lies along the Homochitto River and offers hunting in both bottomlands and uplands. Hunters reported harvesting 28 birds from the area in 2009.
Habitat improvement projects, funded in part by the Mississippi Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation have been undertaken on 6,600-acre Copiah County WMA near Hazelhurst. Hunters took 8 gobblers from the area last year
Like most of the rest of the state, turkey reproduction in this region trended downward in 2009 to 1.07 poults per hen. This season, expect fewer of those hard gobbling 2-year olds.
Plenty of opportunities exist to encounter longbeards when you head to the Desoto NF. Desoto is home to Chickasawhay, Mason Creek, Leaf River and Red Creek WMAs.
The size of the Chickasawhay WMA has been reduced from 120,000 acres down to 30,000. Harvest on the tract in 2009 was 21 birds.
Located in Greene County is Mason Creek WMA with 27,000 acres. Hunters reported taking 14 gobblers there in 2009.
Further south lays Leaf River WMA, a hunter favorite with more than 41,000 acres. The 2009 harvest was 29 with 2,087 man/days of hunting logged.
Hunters on Red Creek WMA located in Stone and George counties reported taking 4 birds with 367 man/days expended.
Two smaller WMAs that hunters should consider are 10,801-acre Wolf River, located on land owned by Weyerhaeuser Company, or the state owned Marion County WMA with 7,200 acres. Hunters took 21 and 14 birds respectively in 2009 from the two tracts.