Mississippi Gobbler Update

Mississippi Gobbler Update

The spring turkey season is fast bearing down on us. Have you picked your place to hunt this year? Here is some information that may make that job a little easier.

By John J. Woods

The best place to hunt gobbling turkeys is where the toms are gobbling. That's a paraphrased quote from one of Mississippi's most legendary turkey hunters, Preston Pittman. His philosophy for picking places to hunt turkeys in the state is quite simple: "Don't call a turkey to hunt, but hunt for a turkey to call."

Locating turkeys to hunt is in fact the most essential element for building a successful turkey hunting strategy.

However, forecasting potential statewide turkey hunting hotspots for an upcoming season is like risking a hard-cash bet on tomorrow's weather. Predicting climate trends with absolute accuracy is like hunting wily woods-wise gobblers: One can watch all the weather reports that are available, but in the final analysis Mother Nature just might have something else in mind altogether. It can be just as tough predicting where to hunt turkeys come the 2003 season.

Mississippi's wild turkey flock is estimated to total between 300,000 and 350,000 birds.

"The annual harvest numbers the past few seasons have hovered around the 40,000 mark. These harvest numbers look to hold steady within this range for the 2003 season," says Eric Darracq, the Turkey Program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).

Luckily for hunters in Mississippi, the turkey flock is doing well across almost all of the state, and it continues to expand in certain hotspots. For the most part, weather has been favorable the past few years, yielding some better-than-average hatches. This has led to good numbers of poults being observed throughout the summer months. In fact, data from the 2001 statewide brood survey puts the average number of poults per hen at 2.7. This level of new turkey hatches far surpasses the numbers recorded for all the previous years' hatches since this data was first recorded in 1994.

According to the MDWFP 2002 spring/summer edition of Wildlife Issues, the no-jake regulation combined with the 2001 hatch will have a big impact on hunting during the 2003 season, when hunters can expect numerous 2-year-old gobblers to be in the population. This sure sounds like good news for hunters going afield this season.

Decatur turkey guide Mike Smith is headed back to camp with this Bienville National Forest gobbler. Photo by John J. Woods

Hunters should be aware of some changes in turkey hunting regulations for this year that will impact young turkey hunters. The amended regulations now allow hunters 15 years of age and younger to take one gobbler regardless of the length of its beard. That bird does count against the hunter's three-bird bag limit (which includes the youth hunt weekend and the regular spring season combined).

The intent of the original harvest rule change (to only gobblers with 6-inch or longer beards) was to allow the younger jakes a chance to mature into 2-year-old gobblers.

Though the arguments were fierce on both sides of the fence, most hunters ended up supporting youth hunters being able to take a jake. Time will tell, but this rule change is unlikely to negatively impact the state's turkey flock.

Also new for the 2003 turkey season is the initiation of a game harvest registration program called TEL-CHEK. This system was first implemented on a voluntary basis last fall for the deer season. The telephone-based harvest reporting and compliance system will also be voluntary for this year's turkey season. Plans are to make the program required in 2004.

The TEL-CHEK system will give Mississippi wildlife professionals a reasonable handle on turkey harvest data statewide. Knowing the when, where and how many turkeys are harvested around the state will generate a database from which state biologists can make more informed turkey management decisions.

A Harvest Report Card, which is needed to participate in the system, is now attached to the bottom part of the All-Game and Sportsman's annual hunting licenses. These are now printed out onsite at license vendors all across the state using the new Mississippi electronic-license machines. Hunting licenses can also be obtained via the Internet (www.mdwfp.com) or by phone on a 24-hour toll-free line at 1-800-5GO-HUNT.

Instructions are on the license for how to contact the MDWFP to register a harvest. The hunter is only required to perform three simple steps. Validate the hunting license by marking the correct harvest information on the license. Then call 1-866-TEL-CHEK to report the harvest. The phone questionnaire only takes a couple of minutes on a touch-tone phone. The system gives the hunter a confirmation number, which the hunter should then record on the Harvest Report Card on the license. It takes longer to explain it than to do it.

The MDWFP breaks the state into five turkey regions. You need to be aware of the vast diversity in turkey habitat and hunting conditions that exist in this state. Land features, terrain and topography vary from flat grassy plains to heavily farmed agricultural areas interspersed with hardwood pockets and swampland. There are also thick pine forestlands; mixed oak, hickory, and pine woodlands; rolling hill country; sandy coastal areas; and deep gullies or steep ravines. Mississippi has it all when it comes to turkey habitat. You also need to be physically prepared and geared up for the various challenges that you might face when chasing gobblers in the Magnolia State.

Mississippi is blessed with nearly 2 million acres of public lands, including six national forests, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir property, nine national wildlife refuges, and 42 state-owned wildlife management areas (WMAs). This is an awful lot of gobbler strutting ground to cover. Fortunately, these regional profiles can help you narrow your choices as you build a spring turkey-hunting plan.

Region 1 encompasses 21 counties in the north-central to northeast portion of the state. Timber resources are of the oak-hickory or oak-pine mixes. Part of this region also lies in the state's Blackland Prairie.

Poult production has been good, averaging 2.4 poults per hen. Turkey observations have been recorded at 139 per 100 hours of hunting, with a gobbler observation rate of 37 per 100 hours. Peak gobbling activity falls into week three of the season, based on past trends. The harvest rate per 100 hours hunted during the 2001

season was three birds.

This region has the second-highest turkey population density in the state. Lots of hens abound, as do 2-year-old gobblers. With a lot of hens available to the gobblers, hunters may find the toms quiet, but they can expect them to be rejuvenated toward the end of the season as hens start to nest en masse.

Rick Dillard, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Mississippi, thinks the Holly Springs National Forest is a real sleeper when it comes to turkey hunting potential. Of particular interest is the Upper Sardis WMA, which is part of this national forest. Upper Sardis has over 42,000 acres and is easily accessed from State Route (S.R.) 6 or 7 through Oxford or S.R. 30 to Etta.

Another good public turkey site to consider in Region I is the Calhoun County WMA, near Calhoun City not far from Grenada. This WMA is not well known even though the property has over 10,000 acres available. With lower hunting pressure, Calhoun WMA is a good site for taking a young hunter for a trial run on the youth weekend hunt.

Region 2 is in the Mississippi Delta portion of the state, with 10 counties lining the Mississippi River shore. Turkey habitat here is composed of oak-gum-cypress timber, with significant wetland swamps subject to annual spring floods. Farm crops are prevalent, with islands of hardwoods that have managed to escape the chainsaw.

An interesting piece of data to note is that although the poult-per-hen count is only 1.34, the overall turkey density west of the river levee is the highest since the 1980s. Recorded turkey observations score 97 per 100 hours, with gobbler sightings at 48 per 100 hours of hunting and jakes at 28 per 100 hours of hunting. This is a high observation number for jakes, which should mean a good crop of 2-year-old gobblers this year. Gobbling activity peaks in week three, then gradually tapers off into week six of the season. The gobbler harvest rate in 2001 was 3.5 per 100 hunting hours.

With the flat farmlands tied in with patches of hardwood roosting areas, the Delta is a good place to turkey hunt. The Delta National Forest, north of Vicksburg off U.S. 61, contains the Sunflower WMA's 58,000 acres. Here turkeys can roost high over waterfowl green tree areas or roam the thick timber. Because this area is usually wet, knee-high rubber boots are recommended.

Farther north of Sunflower in Washington County, is the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge. This is 7,800 acres of federally controlled land with special regulations that need to be checked before any hunt. Yazoo is also noted for its wetlands habitat. Turkey hunting success here has been good over the years. The time to hunt on this NWR is the third week of the season after initial crowds thin out. The nearest towns are Glen Allan and Hollandale. Information on the national refuges can be obtained by calling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Jackson at (601) 965-4900.

Region 3 comprises 21 east-central counties covered by mostly loblolly and shortleaf pines with upland-hardwoods mixes. The region has a longstanding reputation for quality turkey hunting. Observation numbers have been down for jakes, but there is a strong carryover of older birds. This may translate into call-savvy gobblers. Even when you find one, these toms gobble their heads off but do not move much. They are challenging for even veteran hunters.

Poult production has been high, with the most recent brood survey data indicating 2.37 poults per hen. Gobbling action is highest during the fourth week of the season. Region 3 had the second-highest 2001 harvest rate - 3.7 gobblers per 100 hours of hunting. Two-year old toms may be scattered or scarce, but count on seeing more mature birds in the woods. Plan on using a variety of calls and techniques to fool these gobblers.

Two public areas come to mind immediately when one mentions Region 3. Both are part of the turkey-rich Bienville National Forest, between Jackson and Meridian along Interstate 20 near Morton and Forest. The Bienville WMA is north of I-20 and has over 25,000 acres. The other is Caney Creek WMA, south of I-20, which contains 30,900 acres. Both areas offer exceptional turkey hunting.

Hunters need to be aware that popular areas naturally draw crowds, and gobblers can be pressured into hushing up. However, with this kind of acreage available, the trick is to locate a remote forest road with an isolated place to park and then hike in away from the roadway. I'd skip opening weekend in Bienville NF in favor of a later-season hunt during the gobbling peak period.

Region 4, in the southwest corner of the state, has always been a top turkey-producing hotspot. The forest here is an oak-hickory variety, but sectors can be heavy in pine growth. Terrain in these counties along the Mississippi River can be saturated in steep ravines, which are separated by razorback ridges. This makes for good turkey roosting territory but tough trekking for hunters.

The region sports one of the highest turkey densities in the state, along with a high rate of 3.8 poults per hen. The area is likely to have a good showing for 2-year-old birds this season. Gobbling activity in Region 4 exceeds the state average and peaks in weeks three and four, but it continues reasonably steadily through the final week. The harvest per 100 hunting hours is the highest in the state, at 3.9 birds.

Copiah County WMA, near Hazlehurst and south of Jackson from Interstate 55, is a very underrated public tract for turkey hunting. Small at 6,800 acres, the site does not seem to get a lot of hunter traffic, because it is somewhat off the beaten path. Several creek drainages run through the WMA, with good turkey roosting sites nearby. These would be good places in which to start some pre-season gobbler scouting.

Region 4 contains the Homochitto National Forest, as well two WMAs, both of which have good turkey hunting. Caston Creek WMA gets the nod as the most popular. South of Bude off U.S. Highway 98, the WMA has nearly 28,000 acres. Locating on one of the long ridge fingers that lace the WMA is a good tactic for hearing a morning sunrise gobbling session.

Region 5 has never enjoyed a particularly high rating for its turkey hunting. Noted for its sandy soil, this coastal region of the state is heavily forested in tall pine trees, lining numerous small rivers and creeks. Turkey productivity has actually been quite good here the past five years, with 2.8 poults per hen reported in the last brood survey. Turkey observations counted 76 for every 100 hours hunted.

Gobbling action is steady for the first month of the season, peaking in week 5, which is later than other areas of the state. Gobbler harvests per 100 hunting hours reported in the 2001 data were set at 3.6. This indicates the region has good turkey hunting.

The Chickasawhay WMA is far and away the largest tract in the state system, with over 150,000 acres, all of which lie south of Laurel on S.R. 15. This is part of the half-million acres of the Desoto National Forest. The northwest corner of the WMA is a designated still-hunt area for deer, so, in general, the habitat may be less disturbed.

South of New Augusta on County Highway 29 is the 41,000-acre Leaf River WMA. Again, not an area especially noted for turkey hunting, it could be another sleeper. Thick with pine trees bordering meandering creeks, this area is known by locals as productive turkey habitat.

Walk the white sand forest trails looking for gobbler dusting spots. Stick to the more open pinewoods, where gobblers are easier to spot.

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