Turkey season is approaching: time to get ready for some hunting. Which areas rule the roost for finding gobblers this year? (March 2009)
Less than a month after Mississippi's wild turkey season ended last spring, I got an e-mail from one of my turkey hunting buddies who signed off with: "Only 297 days until turkey season opens -- can't wait!" That attitude is pretty typical of most Magnolia State turkey hunters that I know. It's certainly true for me -- and thank goodness that the long wait is almost over!
Mississippi turkey hunters can expect to find numbers of gobblers similar to those encountered last season. Photo by Steve Gulledge.
Mississippi's spring gobbler season opens March 14. If you haven't already done so, it's time to make plans for getting your bronze baron.
Our state boasts some of the best turkey hunting in the nation. The responsibility for managing the wild turkey flock falls on the shoulders of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks through its wild turkey program, recognized as one of the best programs in the nation. And MDWFP biologist Dave Godwin, small game and wild turkey coordinator, is a great source of information about wild turkeys in your neck of the woods.
WHAT'S NEW WITH TURKEYS?
According to Godwin, several things are worth mentioning. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the addition of two new wildlife biologists to the turkey program: Adam Butler, who joined the MDWFP as program leader, and Joe Koloski, who came aboard through a co-op program and whose position with the agency is funded in part by the Mississippi Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Godwin is excited about the new Private Lands Habitat Program that employs three additional biologists solely for working with private landowners in the state. The goal of that program is to get landowners actively involved in habitat management on their properties. The biologists, available free of charge for on-site visits, make habitat management recommendations to landowners that can lead to improved habitat and better hunting.
WILD TURKEY FORECAST
Wild turkey populations' fluctuation over time will be affected by many factors. The all-important hatch influences turkey numbers yearly. A wet spring is usually understood by turkey hunters as bad news for the hatch. Predation on turkey nests too will have an effect on the number of poults surviving to adulthood.
Carryover of turkeys from season to season is another determinant of annual population size; disease can contribute significantly to variability here. Often we see turkeys doing well in some areas and not so hot in others.
By some accounts, Mississippi's wild turkey population hit its peak in 1987. I remember hunting back then and finding plenty of gobbling toms, but not in the immediate area where I lived and preferred to hunt. Based on my own observations, turkey numbers in my area were much higher in 2003 and 2004 than 20 years earlier.
Not to be forgotten is the role of habitat. When turkey numbers are high, you can find turkeys even in habitat considered marginal; when low, you can count on more birds being present in the best habitat. Turkey hunters having a lean year should keep this in mind. A one-county move can mean the difference between locating gobblers or being met with silence on those beautiful spring mornings.
Lack of a place to hunt is no excuse in Mississippi, as we're blessed with plenty of public hunting opportunities. Covering approximately 676,000 acres in total, the 49 wildlife management areas operated by the MDWFP are strewn through every section of the state.
This area of Mississippi is in the MDWFP's Wild Turkey Region 1. Consisting of 21 counties from Clay north to the Tennessee border, west to the north end of the Mississippi Delta region and east to the Alabama line, this area of the state features a mix of habitat types. Mostly hilly, with a scattering of flatwoods and prairie thrown in for good measure, the region is sprinkled with agricultural land, industrial pine forests and upland hardwoods.
A couple of not-so-great hatches have led some hunters in this region to believe that fewer turkeys now haunt this neck of the woods than did four of five years ago. Even so, most of the region has a solid supply of gobblers and lots of hunting opportunity.
MDWFP biologist Brad Holder has management responsibilities for several WMAs in the region; he's upbeat about the season. The possible exception to that enthusiasm concerns the north Delta counties, where land use leans heavily to agriculture. According to Holder, hunters saw lots of jakes in 2008, which should translate into a good number of 2-year-olds this spring. Based on data collected in the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey, Godwin expects this year's hunting in the region to be very similar last year's.
If you're looking for opportunities to hunt on public land, this region fits the bill. The 42,000-acre Upper Sardis WMA, in Lafayette County within the Holly Springs National Forest, is a good place to start your search for a longbeard. Another section of Holly Springs NF, this one lying west of Coffeeville, is also promising; I did some pre-season scouting on that tract in Yalobusha County last year and heard quite a few gobblers within earshot of public roads.
To the west, in the edge of the Delta, is 9,854-acre Malmaison WMA, which contains some likely-looking bottomland hardwood habitat.
Moving back east to the hills, and to the opposite end of the habitat spectrum, is Calhoun County WMA, a 10,900-acre tract composed mostly of industrial pine plantations. While in this neighborhood, you can also check out the hunting on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land in the vicinity of Enid and Grenada reservoirs.
Conservation Officer Matt Gray was happy to report that after a very poor showing in 2007, Chickasaw WMA, its 28,000 acres sited within the Tombigbee NF in northeast Mississippi, bounced back to an average or slightly better than average gobbler harvest last year. Gray is optimistic about the 2009 outlook as well.
The northeast portion of the region is also home to the John Bell Williams, Divide Section and Canal Section WMAs, all on Corps land along the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Hunters reported respectable turkey numbers on these areas, which cover a combined 44,000 acres. But be prepared to work a little harder for them there -- and, because of standing water, to get your feet wet.
Turkey Region 2 encompasses 10 flood-prone counties in the Delta Region along the Mississippi River. As you might guess, floodwaters have a major impact on
wild turkey reproduction in this region. Three consecutive years of the best hatches in the state -- from 2005 to 2007 -- had this area expecting the best turkey hunting in memory for 2008, but Mother Nature had other notions, keeping parts of the south Delta underwater through much of the spring hunting season and negatively affecting both turkey reproduction and, thus, turkey hunting.
Because turkey hunting was so limited last year, Dave Godwin is very optimistic about the prospects for an outstanding season this year, especially in the batture lands west of the Mississippi River levee. The reason for his optimism? The carryover of gobblers. "It is not unusual for 40 to 50 percent of the hen population to die every year," he explained, "but gobblers not taken by hunters have an excellent chance of surviving." He went on to say that the poor reproduction caused by the flooding would begin to show up in 2010, but added that, as he understands the matter, some of the northern parts of this region had decent reproduction after the floodwaters receded.
Jackie Fleeman, the MDWFP biologist who has responsibilities for WMAs in this region, echoed Godwin's assessment of the reproduction situation, suggesting that public-land hunters start any search for gobblers on the larger blocks of public areas rather than the smaller ones. Falling into that category is 58,480-acre Sunflower WMA, near Rolling Fork. With its large expanse of bottomland and wetlands within the Delta NF, this area is one that you won't want to take on without being equipped with a compass or GPS unit. And don't forget your bug spray or Therma-Cell!
Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge in Bolivar County should also be on your list of venues to check out. If you applied by Feb. 15 for a permit and were lucky enough to be drawn, you can add to your list 12,675-acre Mahannah WMA, where turkey hunting is by draw only during the entire season.
Twenty-one counties from Webster on the north eastward to the Alabama line and south to Clarke, Jasper, Smith and Simpson make up Turkey Region 3. Primary forest types are shortleaf and loblolly pinelands and upland hardwoods. Hills dominate the landscape, but the interior flatwoods extend into the region on the east side.
Most turkey hunters in this region have been able to find an ample supply of gobblers to keep them busy during the last couple of springs. An exception to this is Webster County, where hunters reported seeing and hearing fewer gobblers over the last two years. Most of these same hunters are optimistic about the 2008 hatch, however.
This year, hunters should expect a season similar to last season. The number of jake observations reported last year was very similar to 2007 data, according to Godwin. The hatch also looked very similar as well.
Based on the information gleaned from hunters and biologists, the southern portion of the region may be somewhat better than the northern section.
In this region, Caney Creek, Tallahala and Bienville WMAs are worthy starting places for the public-land gobbler-chaser. Each of the first two covers roughly 28,000 acres, while the third covers about 26,000. Turkey hunting on all three is by draw permits only for the first nine days of the season, but from March 23 to May 3 you only need your hunting license and WMA permit.
In the northern end of the region, Choctaw WMA's 24,000 acres in Choctaw and Winston counties are greatly favored by the locals. Longtime WMA manager John Taylor offered good news, reporting that last year's harvest returned from the low numbers of 2007 to a level that he considers normal; he expects 2009 to be roughly similar to last year.
Just to the east, look for the John W. Starr WMA to provide a good supply of turkeys, as will Noxubee NWR; expect a correspondingly large contingent of turkey hunters as well.
Also heard: reports of hunters finding lots of birds in Holmes and Leake counties.
Turkey Region 4's counties stretch from Yazoo in the north to Wilkinson and Amite in the south. Dave Godwin anticipates that turkey hunting on this end of state should be better than in the counties to the north. And data collected in 2007 and 2008 support Godwin's projection: Both observations of jakes from the hunter survey and poults per hen from the brood survey gave rise to his optimism about turkey numbers for the upcoming season in the region.
Copiah County is home both to lots of turkeys and to Copiah County WMA, just over 6,500 acres in area, It boasts 45 acres of new permanent openings -- their creation made possible through funding by the Mississippi chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation in 2007 -- that should improve brood habitat.
Looking for a larger expanse of turkey habitat? Try Sandy Creek or Caston Creek WMAs, both of which are part of Homochitto NF. Also with big acres and a big turkey population is Panther Swamp NWR. Composed of mostly bottomland hardwood, the refuge is subject to annual flooding in some sections.
Running from Wayne west to Lawrence and Pike and then southeast to the coastal counties, Turkey Region 5 takes in 18 counties in the southeast corner of the state. You'll encounter topography ranging from rolling hills to pine flats in this region. Longleaf and slash pine forests are common, along with hardwoods and waxy-leaf species along the drainages.
Except for the counties abutting the coast, said Godwin, turkey hunting in the southern third may be expected to be better here than the rest of the state. Observation data collected in Region 5 indicated that you can expect to see a substantial number of 2-year-old gobblers, and more turkeys in general. Additionally, hunters that I talked to in this part of the state are hopeful as well, reporting having heard and seen lots of gobblers last season, and so expecting 2009 to be a good year also.
On the other hand, one hunter I spoke with in Pearl River County wasn't very upbeat about the number of turkeys in his area. Turkey habitat in parts of this region is still subpar, having not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina.
Covington, Jones, Wayne, Greene and George counties are favorites for many hunters. Public hunting is available at Chickasawhay WMA in Jones and Wayne counties. In Greene County, try Mason Creek WMA. Further to the south, in De Soto NF, are the Leaf River and Red Creek WMAs.
Overall, turkeys are doing well in most of the state. The northern two-thirds of Mississippi should expect 2009's season to be similar to last year's, with the south positioned to look forward to a slightly better hunting season. If you have access to land in the batture area of the Delta you can expect an outstanding year.