The woods and fields of Mississippi are home to a growing flock of turkeys. Does that mean that the hunting will be good this spring? Let's have a closer look.
By John J. Woods
Wild turkey gobblers simply have no respect for a hunter's privacy. Sometimes they'll walk unannounced and quiet as a mouse right up on top of you in the woods as you sit there just minding your own business. At other times they'll stroll in to disrupt a perfectly good nap by parading back and forth in that gosh-awful ritual strutting dance and gobbling as if they expected to find a turkey hen ready for romance.
Ha! We should be so lucky!
In Mississippi, the tremendous popularity of the sport of turkey hunting is due partly to the fact that deer season ends a couple of months before the spring turkey season starts, and many deer hunters are still going through withdrawal. It may also have something to do with the long no-hunting dry spell that lies ahead after turkey season. Truthfully, though, turkey hunting offers such exciting potential for one-on-one interaction with America's largest game bird that the challenge of the pursuit stands alone on its own merits.
It's no secret that Magnolia State turkeys have made a legendary recovery from what was once a grimly depleted condition. Indeed, the annals of wildlife restoration efforts in this country as a whole record that the wild turkey has made a landmark comeback from earlier times. At one point the bird was nearly extinct.
Today, even more emphasis is put on expanding Mississippi's turkey flock and assuring it ever greater stability statewide. As a consequence, Mississippi is building a strong reputation as an excellent destination for hunting the eastern species of wild turkey. For this you can thank the hard work that's been done on behalf of our wild turkey by Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks' turkey program coordinator Ron Seiss and the agency's biologists.
Gobblers like the one the author bagged are plentiful on public lands throughout the Magnolia State. Photo courtesy of John J. Woods
MAGNOLIA TURKEY UPDATE
The most recent hunting data for the state reveal a number of interesting tidbits about wild turkeys and hunting success in Mississippi. For the past several seasons the annual harvest has hovered between 35,000 and 40,000 gobblers. This is out of a statewide flock estimate ranging between 300,000 and 400,000 birds. Owing to the new regulation requiring hunters to harvest gobblers with beards at least 6 inches in length, the lion's share of gobblers being taken are now at least 2- to 3-year-old birds. Certainly the new rule helps bolster the total number of mature gobblers for hunters to chase.
What's more, a new youth provision now in place allows turkey hunters aged 15 or younger to take one gobbler, regardless of beard length, as part of the regular seasonal three-bird bag limit. The exception may well serve as a mechanism to bring some additional hunters to the sport.
Mississippi's turkey hunting data are collected in two ways. First, hunters can volunteer to participate in the annual Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey. For this program, information on each morning and afternoon hunt per day is recorded on data cards. At the end of the season, program cooperators return the cards, and the data are compiled by MDWFP personnel into an annual analysis entitled, Spittin' & Drummin' - Mississippi Wild Turkey Report. These survey data are generally reflective of turkey hunting activity on private lands.
The information cards that hunters fill out as they exit public wildlife management areas all across the state provide the second method of data collection. These data are tabulated and also included in the annual report.
Within the report, the MDWFP breaks the state down into five turkey regions, but the boundary lines are not the same as those used for state wildlife districts. This can easily get confusing if you attempt to assess data strictly by region numbers.
The data compiled in the last annual report suggest that hunters statewide heard 43 gobbles for every 10 hours of hunting. It also recorded an average 5.5 different gobblers being heard during that period.
Hunter observations of turkeys in the field are reported for every 100 hours of hunting. During this period, 90 turkeys was observed on average; of these, 18 were gobblers. Jake observations were set at 21 for every 100 hours of hunting. The statewide gobbler harvest success rate averaged 3.8 birds. These data reflect a robust turkey population and significant hunting success. Such numbers bode well both for seasons to come and, in particular, for the 2004 season - and turkey program coordinator Ron Seiss readily agrees with that assessment.
"The prospects for the 2004 turkey hunting season look very good for the state," he noted. "We only had a fair hatch statewide last year, but we have a great carryover of mature gobblers coming up from several previous years of exceptional hatches. Turkey hunters should find plenty of gobbling action this season."
On the other hand, Seiss was less enthusiastic about hunter cooperation with the new Tel-Chek system, and what that meant in terms of monitoring the turkey flock. "Basically," he acknowledged, "the response was pitiful. But the system works."
Now let's take a closer look at hunting activity in each of the five turkey regions in the state and make some suggestions about the potential of public lands you might want to try out this spring.
REGION 1 Twenty-one northern counties make up this turkey region. The primary forest types here are mixed oak-hickory and oak-pine woodlands. During the data year, sportsmen in the region supplied information on 3,415 hours of hunting. Plenty of public land dots this portion of the state; Region 1 contains nine state-owned wildlife management areas.
The data reflect that hunters heard 41 gobbles from of 4.8 toms for every 10 hours of hunting. They also observed 99 birds for every 100 hours afield. Of that number, 36 were gobblers and 21 jakes. Gobbler harvest in the region was 3.1. Again, these are averages from hunter reported data.
The reports indicate that - to speak mainly on the basis of the highest turkey-observation numbers reported in Mississippi - this region has perhaps the highest density of turkeys in the state. Also, biologists note, this region, with the poult-per-hen number at 3.15 poults, has had excellent hatches. The gobbling peak occurred during the third week of the season here.
Five of the WMAs in this region offer turkey hunting. Of these, the Chickas
aw and John Bell Williams WMAs warrant a closer look.
Chickasaw WMA consists of 26,870 acres lying east of state Highway 15 near the city of Houston in Chickasaw County. As with all state WMAs, detailed information and area maps can also be obtained on the MDWFP Web site at www. mdwfp.com. Area manager Matt Gray can be reached at (662) 447-0141.
John Bell Williams WMA is in the southeast comer of Prentiss County, north of Fulton. With only 3,188 acres, it is likely that the hunting pressure is lower and the site more easily scouted in a shorter period of time.
For an update on the status of turkey hunting at this WMA, contact the district field office in Tupelo at (662) 840-5172.
REGION 2 Commonly known as the Mississippi Delta, this turkey region contains only 10 counties, but they contain rich agricultural lands mixed with dense hardwood bottoms and nasty swamplands. The majority of the timber is of an oak-gum-cypress combination. A fair portion of it stands in stagnant water full of cottonmouth moccasins.
More than 2,400 hours of turkey hunting yielded the data for this region. Gobbles heard per 10 hours equaled 34 produced by 5.9 different gobblers. For every 100 hours of hunting, 42 gobblers were seen in a total of 98 turkey sightings; observations of jakes were 21.9. The harvest: 4.4 birds. The hatch in this area was low, only 1.3 poults per hen, though overall, the turkey population has been improving. The majority of the gobbling action took place during the first week of the season. As long as spring floods are not severe, turkey hunting should greatly improve in the Delta.
Of the 12 WMAs in Region 2, turkey hunting is listed as practical on eight. Of those, two public areas have been building solid hunting reputations over the past few years: Mahannah WMA, near Redwood in Issaquena and Warren counties, and Twin Oaks WMA, outside Rolling Fork in Sharkey County.
Mahannah WMA is a good choice because of its youth weekend hunting opportunity. Adult hunters have been locked out of this WMA in past seasons, although this could change. Phone area manager Lee Harvey at (601) 661-0294 for more info.
Twin Oaks WMA is unique in that a special permit is required to turkey-hunt the area. Again, this cuts down on the traffic, and makes a hunt there worth the effort.
Contact area manager Brian Ballinger at (662) 873-2495 to inquire about the permits.
REGION 3 This region comprising 21 counties in the east-central part of the state is forested mainly with loblolly-shortleaf pine, along with oak-pine in the upland portions. It's anticipated that the number of 2-year-old gobblers is on the increase, so hunters should find plenty of birds in the woods for seasons to come.
Gobbling action was 39 per 10 hours of hunting, a frequency derived from an average of 4.5 different gobblers. Gobblers observed were 33 out of 87 birds counted for every 100 hours; observations of jakes were 18.3. Each hen produced 2.69 poults, indicating a good hatch. Peak gobbling came in the second week of the hunting season.
Region 3 has 13 WMAs, making selection of the top ones difficult, but one easy choice is Tallahalla WMA, on state Highway 15 near Montrose in Jasper County. The area's 27,531 acres afford hunters plenty of elbow room, and pressure should be low, since it is somewhat off the beaten path. A public area this big is going to require some pre-season scouting to nail down where gobblers are ranging.
Contact area manager Paul Windham at the district field office, (601) 692-2776, for more information.
REGION 4 Historically, this 12-county region in southwest Mississippi has been a hot turkey hunting area. The oak-hickory forests draped along steep ridges have been very conducive to harboring a large turkey population, although the terrain makes for tough going.
The region has led the state in gobbling frequency for the past six years.
Hunters heard an amazing 50 gobbles every 10 hours when hunting here - which, furthermore, was from an average of 7.4 gobblers!
Veteran of turkey hunting in this area think that more birds inhabit the region now than ever before - and to judge from the observations, this may be right, 45 gobblers having been reported out of 86 birds seen every 100 hours. The average jake observations were a state-high 25.8. Obviously, that bodes well for future seasons.
Oddly enough, the poult-per-hen ratio of 2.14 was below the state average. This follows record-setting reproduction of 3.8 poults per hen back in 2001. Even so, hunters are expected to find a more-than-ample supply of gobblers to challenge their wits during the upcoming season. Peak gobbling came in week two of last season, with a harvest of 3.5 gobblers for every 100 hours hunted.
Only seven WMAs are found in this region, and just four list turkey hunting as important.
The Sandy Creek WMA, part of the Homochitto National Forest, is a best bet for gobbler action. Situated in Adams County near the river city of Natchez, it stretches from U.S. Highway 98 eastward and then south along state Highway 33. Sandy Creek contains over 19,000 acres of ridges and gullies, hardwood bottoms and pines in the uplands.
Hunting pressure can be intense, especially on weekends. To avoid other hunters in the woods, plan for a hunt early in the week.
Area manager David Southerland can be contacted at the field office in Brookhaven, (601) 835-3050.
REGION 5 The final turkey region in the state takes in 18 counties in the southeast quarter of the state. This is an area heavy on longleaf and slash pine forest, although there are pockets of hardwoods scattered about. Sturdy hatches back in 2001 and 2002 give hunters good reason to expect that turkey numbers are on the rise in this coastal part of the state.
Hunters contributed roughly 4,000 hours of hunting data for this region. Gobbling activity yielded an average of 43 gobbles heard from 5.3 gobblers every 10 hours. Observation of turkeys totaled 88 for every 100 hunting hours; 38 gobblers were spotted, with jake sightings reported at 17. 1.
At 4.3 toms, the harvest success rate was the second-highest in the state. Hens produced on average 2.45 poults each; peak gobbling took place during the second week of hunting. Oddly, it then dropped dramatically the third week, but increased again for the last two weeks of the season.
Nine out of the 11 WM
As in Region 5 offer turkey hunting. For this region, the 37,633-acre Pascagoula River WMA, off state Highway 26 to the southwest of Lucedale, looks best.
This is such an isolated, scenic area - positioned as it is along the banks of the Pascagoula River - that it's worth exploring for the beauty of its wilderness alone. The top strategy for Pascagoula WMA is to obtain a state topographic map to locate access roads and walking trails that can get you in close to the river.
Towering pines are prevalent, but small tracts of hardwoods can be found lining creeks and washes that feed into the river; these are fabulous gobbler roosting spots. Also, this is an area at which afternoon hunts can be very productive.
Call area manager Michael Everett at (228) 588-3878 for turkey hunting updates.
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