Mississippi continues to provide some of the best turkey hunting in North America. That being so, let's see which venues in the state are likely to emerge as this year's hotspots. (March 2006)
When turkey seasons go bad, they really go bad. For many turkey hunters last season, finding a set of hen's teeth was easier than locating a gobbling tom. In many areas of the state, the whole season seemed to be earmarked by two predominant factors -- scant turkey observations, and a constantly blowing wind.
For central Mississippi, where I spent most of my own time in the woods, I dubbed the entire season the "Spring of the Gale-Force Winds." At times, it felt like I was in Kansas or Iowa where those flatland breezes never seem to cease. Of course, on top of that, we had plenty of rains and violent storms, including tornadoes across the state. It was definitely an unusual season.
The irony is that in several isolated spots around the state, other hunters experienced just the reverse. Ronnie Foy, a renowned Magnolia turkey guide, called to provide an example.
"We are hearing so many gobblers we can't get to them all," he reported last season. "I'm talking to other guides around the state and for some reason, we seem to be in a pocket of active gobblers in our area."
All of this just proves that determined turkey hunters have to be creative and flexible with plans to move around to where the gobbling activity is hottest.
In spite of the conditions, hunters still managed to bag roughly 40,000 birds.
TRIALS OF A TOUGH SEASON
The 2005 turkey season was one of the toughest I have ever personally hunted, yet it had a good ending. Since I participate in the annual Mississippi Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey, I keep data on each and every one of my hunts. This survey counts hunting in the morning and again in the afternoon as two hunts. Last season I went on 18 separate hunts, accumulating a total of 62 hours in the woods. I finally connected on a nice gobbler the last weekend of the season, though I had only heard three other gobblers during the season previously.
Participants in the Hunting Survey fill out data cards on each individual "hunt," compiling information as to the county, private or public lands hunted, the date, starting and ending times, and data on turkeys seen and gobblers heard. Successful hunters report harvest data on the bird taken, such as weight, beard and spur lengths. At the end of the season, these cards are mailed in from all corners of the state and tallied up.
The information turned in is vital in judging the status of the flock all over the state. This data is then presented in the annual Mississippi Wild Turkey Report, known as the Spittin' & Drummin' Report. Most of the data is also posted at the wildlife Web page on the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Web site.
This information can be extremely helpful in narrowing down the search for the best areas of the Magnolia State to hunt.
CHECKING THE PREDICTIONS
Last year James Austin, the MDWFP wild turkey program leader, noted that since 2003, the poult hatches had been some of the lowest in many years. He went on to suggest that the impact might not be fully felt until 2005 or even the 2006 season.
"Jakes may be hard to find next season," he explained. "In 2006, turkey hunters will feel the impacts much more."
Boy, was he ever right on the mark with his comments regarding jake sightings last year!
Even though I spent 62 hours in the field hunting turkeys in several locations across the state in 2005, I saw just one jake the entire season. That was the most depressing result to come out of my whole season. Other jake reports I received from across the state were likewise less than optimistic. Obviously, if there were very few jakes out there last year, the number of two-year-old toms is going to be way down this time around. (Cont'd)
On the bright side, though, Mississippi's overall turkey population is fairly stable at around 300,000 birds. The numbers are declining slightly in some areas, but are balanced out by areas that are doing. Spots around the state with good natural turkey habitat and plenty of browse -- such as the Delta region and the southwest sector -- are still reporting good numbers of turkeys, with lots of gobbling activity.
"I think this coming spring season is going to be pretty slow," Austin stated. "Harvest was down slightly last year. Those poor hatches back in 2003 and 2004 are going to show up this year. Harvests could be down again."
So the trick for 2006 is to pre-scout as many potential hunting sites as possible. The game plan is definitely going to be built on the concepts of flexibility and mobility. The odds are good that some of your selected sites are not going to have gobbling action at first light. Being prepared with a plan B -- followed with C and D -- is going to be your prescription for success. Acquiring access to a mix of public and private lands may also work better in the long haul.
NEW TURKEY REGULATIONS
Last year, the MDWFP commissioners voted to impose a user fee for all public wildlife-management areas in the state. The spring 2006 season is the first time this rule applies for turkey hunters.
All resident hunters aged 16 and older now must have an annual $15 permit, along with their regular license to hunt on state WMAs. All non-resident hunters have to pay $30 a year for this permit. In the case of non-residents, the permit is addition to a $20 spring turkey permit and a non-resident hunting license.
The permit is good for all state lands, except for Calhoun County WMA near Grenada. Because of increased leasing costs on that tract, a $30 permit fee was imposed there.
Even with the new fee, Mississippi hunters can access more than one million acres of hunting for just $15 annually. That remains a pretty good deal.
Youth hunters less than 16 years old can participate in the Youth Turkey Hunt scheduled from March 8 through 14, 2006, but the event applies on private lands only. Each young hunter must live in the immediate vicinity and be under the direct supervision of an adult 21 years of age or older. If the youth hunter is under the age of 12, the supervising adult must be a licensed or license-exempt hunter.
Young turkey hunters of 15 years may harvest one gobbler with any length beard, but that tom does count against their 3-bird annual limit for all hunts.
All other turkey hunters must limit their kill to gobblers having beards of at least 6 inches or longer. In all cases, only one gobbler may be taken per day.
The MDWFP encourages all hunters to call in their harvests to the toll-fee Tel-Chek number at 1-866-835-2435. It takes less than a minute to complete the call. The data is then used in making wildlife management decisions.
NATIONAL WILD TURKEY FEDERATION PROJECTS
Last year, the National Wild Turkey Federation returned over $82,000 to the MDWFP to assist with a variety of projects. This money is a payback from the fundraising efforts of the local chapter here in the Magnolia State. From 1987 through 2004, more than $1.1 million have been spent on turkey habitat projects in Mississippi.
Some 40 percent of last year's funds -- or $33,000 -- were spent on land enhancement projects. These activities have a direct impact in benefiting the wild turkey population in Mississippi. Another $23,000 was spent on a variety of education projects, including the Jakes program for young hunters, Woodland Field Days, and information booths at outdoor shows around the state.
The state is divided into six wildlife districts, each of which contains a number of counties that have similar soils, habitats and land uses. Thus, hunting conditions can vary greatly from district to district. Still, regardless of how good or bad the predictions are, they're still just predictions. They offer suggestions for starting your search, but there is no substitute for pre-season scouting and spending time in the woods once the season opens.
Based on the biologists' assessments and current data, the best-bet public option for turkey hunts in this northeast section of the state is Chickasaw WMA. Situated near the town of Houston, off State Routes 15 and 32 in Chickasaw County, the tract covers a bit more than 27,000 acres.
Besides offering hunters plenty of elbowroom, last spring the property had plenty of gobbling reported. With last year's lower harvest, there is every reason to expect that plenty of those gobbling toms survived that season.
This north-central region of the state does not have a particularly shining reputation for good turkey hunting. Still, just like all areas of Mississippi, there are some hotspots.
The Upper Sardis WMA, near Oxford and the Ole Miss campus, has more than 42,000 acres of mixed habitat for turkey hunting. This WMA is located in Lafayette County along SR 7 and 30. The area is expected to provide above average hunts for this region.
The farmlands of the Delta region of the state have all the essential elements to support good turkey populations. But of course, those farms are private. Yet the turkeys of the region are not smart enough to recognize boundaries and move freely between private and public areas!
The Sunflower WMA is always a good bet as a destination for these wandering toms. Part of the huge Delta National Forest complex, the WMA spans almost 60,000 acres. The terrain is covered with pines, hardwoods, and some greentree reservoir habitat.
The tract is located the town of Rolling Fork in Sharkey County, and can best be accessed via U.S. Highway 61 onto SR 16.
This district is composed of the central "belt" of the state between Jackson and Meridian along Interstate 20.
The finest of the public turkey hunting sites here is the Tallahalla WMA. The tract's 28,000 acres sit in Jasper County and have always offered good gobbler prospects. To find the birds, scout the pine woods lanes, looking for scattered hardwoods in which the turkeys roost.
To reach the WMA from Montrose, use SR 15 and SR 505.
Perhaps of all the regions in the state, this southwest sector has enjoyed the strongest reputation over the years as a turkey-hunting destination. Here the Homochitto National Forest holds the Sandy Creek WMA, with over 16,000 acres of steep gullies and narrow rolling hills.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks annually produces wild turkey data in the form of the Spittin' & Drummin Report. Copies can be obtained by contacting the MDWFP at (601) 432-2400. Most of the data is also posted on the MDWFP Web Site at www.mdwfp.com.
This is tough terrain to traverse, but the toms love to hug the ridgetops, where they can easily sail off into the bottoms to avoid predators and hunters. Despite the tough conditions, the hunting is so good that Sandy Creek gets crowded on most weekends. A better option is to plan a weekday hunt here.
To reach the WMA located in Adams County, take U.S. 61 south from Natchez.
The southeast portion of the Magnolia State has remained somewhat in the shadows when it comes to turkey hunting. In the past few seasons, however, this area has been gaining some ground. In recent years, good turkey hunts have been common on the region's private lands. Still, the havoc brought on by Hurricane Katrina raises some question marks for the coming season.
A good bet for this area, if for no other reason than its size, is the Red Creek WMA in Stone and Harrison counties. The tract contains more than 90,000 acres of wildlife habitat.
The landscape here is mostly covered with tall piney woods. The trick is going to be to scout the Forest Service roads and trails, heading deeper into the woods to find the patches of hardwoods along creeks. That's where turkeys like to roost. Fortunately, the area also contains a number of open food plots that attract the birds too.
The closest town of any size is Wiggins on U.S. 49. From there, take SR 26 and then 15 to get to this big WMA.