Biologists predict that there should be strong numbers of longbeards in the woods this spring. Here are some top spots in the state to look for your gobbler. (March 2006)
One thing I noticed last year in the turkey woods was a lot of juvenile gobblers. I love to see that because it bodes well for the following season's gobbler hunting. In fact, I recall one particular instance during the early part of last season when a friend and I were set up in some prime turkey woods and had four gobbling birds approach us as they marched right down our gun barrels. As it turned out, these gobbling birds were all jakes and while they came in to less than 25 yards, we didn't shoot. However, just seeing and hearing the young gobblers sure lifted our spirits. Seems to be that a lot of hunters had the same opportunity to see and harvest jakes and for that reason, the 2005 hunting season was indeed a good season in terms of statewide harvest.
According to the many hunters I've talked with, there seemed to be mixed reactions to the season. Some reported hearing some early-morning gobbling but had less success than usual in bringing the birds within range. It seemed like many turkey hunters were struggling last year to get gobblers, at least based on conversations I had with hunters. However, many folks must have had excellent success because the 2005 harvest figures were very good, according to Charles Ruth with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).
Ruth has been the deer project supervisor for many years with the SCDNR and when long-time turkey project coordinator Dave Baumann retired, Ruth was named to head up the turkey program as well. According to Ruth, there's mostly good news for turkey hunters on a statewide basis for the upcoming 2006 turkey-hunting season.
"With a harvest of 14,353 birds in 2005, spring turkey hunters in South Carolina bagged the second-highest number of turkeys on record. Only the 16,348 birds harvested during the 2002 season eclipsed this total harvest. Harvest figures were up 10 percent in 2005 over the previous year and this was likely because of excellent reproduction by turkeys during the spring of 2004. That meant many jakes were in the woods last spring and that harvest increase is reflected in the harvest data. But that also means 2006 should be a good year for having a lot of 2-year-old longbeards in the woods because of the 2004 nesting success," Ruth said.
Ruth noted that there are nearly 50,000 turkey hunters participating in the sport every spring. Turkey hunting has grown to be a major outdoor recreation sport in the state, and the statewide population of wild turkeys is very good. His estimate is that there are approximately 100,000 birds in the statewide flock.
Every summer, SCDNR wildlife biologists, technicians and private cooperators participate in an annual turkey brood survey. Results from the 2004 survey indicated the best wild turkey reproduction in five years. Thus, going into the 2005 season, the expectations of biologists were high because the success of spring hunters typically is linked to the turkey's reproductive success the previous year. In the Southeast, nature plays a much greater role in regulating turkey populations than it does in regulating deer populations. Turkey reproduction and recruitment can be greatly affected by environmental conditions during the spring nesting and brood-rearing season. Heavy rainfall or cool temperatures can lead to poor success.
"Good reproduction that season definitely showed up in the spring 2005 harvest, with an overall increase consisting primarily of young gobblers," Ruth said. "Although many spring turkey hunters prefer to harvest only mature longbeards, biologists typically see an increase in the total turkey harvest following years with good reproduction. This increase in harvest is generally the result of the availability of juvenile gobblers, also called jakes. The percentage of jakes in the harvest was 26 percent during the 2005 season compared with only 19 percent in 2004, resulting in the increase in harvest."
At the time this story went to print, the 2005 reproductive survey was not complete. However, Ruth did share what the trend appeared to be.
"It's looks like in the 2005 recruitment season that we're not going to have nearly as good a year as we did in 2004. Thus, I don't expect to see as large a number of jakes in the woods in the 2006 season. However, because of the bumper crop in 2004, we expect to have plenty of 2-year-old birds," he said.
WHERE TO HUNT
Let's take a detailed look now at the best places for finding a gobbler. The top places for turkey success in 2005 are certainly logical places to begin in 2006. Ruth noted that there are no major problems with the overall turkey population in the state and areas of success in 2005 should again have good years in 2006.
We'll look at harvest data in a couple of different ways to shed some light on the best places to hunt this spring.
First, we'll consider the top places in terms of total gobblers harvested on a county-by-county basis. That does not take into consideration the relative size of the county, just the total number of birds killed.
Topping this list was Williamsburg County with a total of 810 turkeys harvested. The breakdown of adults to juvenile birds harvested is quite dramatic from county to county, so we're going to look at those figures as well. In Williamsburg County, there were 731 adults harvested and 79 jakes. Jakes accounted for a total of 9.8 percent of the harvest in that county. Statewide, the average harvest of jakes on a county-by-county basis was 25.8 percent, so a very high percentage of the harvest here was made up of longbeards. I've talked with hunters who hunt Williamsburg County frequently and they report seeing quite a few jakes last year. There seemed to be plenty of longbeards last year as well. Based on that data along with the statistics, this county should again be a prime spot in 2006.
The No. 2 county on total harvest was Colleton County. The total harvest here of 686 turkeys was broken down into 565 adults and 121 juveniles. This works out to 17.6 percent of the harvest being juvenile birds. Colleton County has long been a recognized turkey-hunting hotspot, the key being getting access to good land. Much of the private land is in clubs that require membership to hunt.
The No. 3 spot was in the upper portion of the state, Union County. The total harvest of 612 turkeys was divided, with 407 adults and 205 juvenile birds harvested. This computes to 33.5 percent of the harvest being juvenile birds. That seems to indicate a bumper crop of jakes last year and with any luck, there will be plenty to carry over to this season. If so, there should be plenty of gobbling in the woods this spring.
No. 4 on the total harvest list was Chester County, with a total o
f 604 turkeys harvested. The breakdown here was 442 adults and 162 juvenile birds. The percentage of juvenile birds in the total harvest was 26.8, very close to the statewide average. Chester County, too, has a long history of being a very productive and consistent turkey-producing county. Look for this county to be good again in 2006.
Rounding out the top five in this category was Berkeley County. The total harvest was 590 turkeys with 490 adults and 100 juveniles harvested. The percent of juveniles in the total harvest was 16.9 percent.
These counties, you'll notice, are not simply clumped together in one part of the state. Taking a quick look at the next five counties, it rounds out the statewide leaders are even more widely distributed. At No. 6, with a total of 582 turkeys, is Fairfield County; finishing in seventh place was Orangeburg County, with a total harvest of 548 turkeys harvested. In eighth place was Newberry County, with 493 turkeys harvested. Very close behind in ninth was Bamberg County, with a harvest of 490 turkeys. Rounding out the top 10 was York County, with 478 birds harvested.
According to Charles Ruth, another way to understand turkey harvests, and perhaps a more accurate measure, is to look at the number of turkeys harvested in that county to the amount of land available for turkey hunting. Essentially, this measure tells you how many acres of land in a county were required to produce each harvested turkey. As you'll see, some of the counties you saw on the above listing will appear again. When you see the same county names in both lists, you've got a winner, my fellow turkey hunters.
The top county on this list was Bamberg County (No. 9 on the total harvest list). There were 401 acres of land per turkey harvested in Bamberg County in 2005. In addition, this figure represents a 25.6 percent improvement from the previous year. This county made both top 10 lists and showed a big percentage increase in harvest. It will rank high on my list for sure.
The second county on this list is Union County, with a total of 422 acres per turkey harvested. Union County also had a 14 percent increase in harvest from 2004 from this "acres per turkey harvested" perspective. Union County is No. 2 in this list and was No. 3 in total harvest. That combination should make this county a prime spot to target for sure.
Another hotspot for 2006 has to be Chester County. Chester finished third in the acres per turkey harvested category with a figure of 498 acres per turkey. This also reflects a modest 6.9 percent improvement from the 2004 season totals. Ranking fourth on the total harvest as well, Chester County is also a win-win choice based on this information.
Anderson County ranked fourth with a total of 509 acres per turkey harvested. This data is up 12.9 percent from the previous year, which reflects modest growth here, too. While Anderson County did not make the top 10 list on total harvest, it was a very respectable 12th place with a total of 430 turkeys harvested.
In the fifth spot in this category was another repeat from the previous top 10, York County. York finished 10th in total harvest and fifth here, with a total of 579 acres per turkey harvested. This reflects a whopping 60.9 percent harvest increase in 2005 over 2004 totals. That's very impressive.
If you're keeping track, you're seeing that much of the Upstate had an exceptionally good year in 2005.
Rounding out the top 10 in this category was McCormick County with an acres to turkey harvest number of 602. There was a 21.8 percent increase here in 2005 from 2004. In seventh place was Cherokee County with a total of 617 acres per turkey harvested. Cherokee County had a 17.6 percent increase in 2005 over the 2004 harvest. In eighth place in this category was our No. 1 county in total harvest, Williamsburg County, with a total of 634 acres per turkey harvested. Williamsburg had an 11.6 percent increase in 2005. In ninth was Abbeville with 643 acres per turkey harvested. Strangely, there was a drop in harvest from the previous year of 9.6 percent in this category. This was the only county in the top 10 to report a harvest decrease in the acres per turkey harvested category.
Rounding out the top 10 was Newberry County, with a figure of 645 acres per turkey harvested. Newberry County was also No. 8 in total harvest. There was a 23.6 percent increase in harvest here, which is also a very positive indicator.
But let's don't end there. Talking with many hunters and experiencing it myself, I cannot leave out Laurens County from a list of top places to hunt. Laurens ranked 11th in total harvest and 13th in acres per turkey harvested, both of which are quite respectable. However, during the last week of the season, I hunted up there a couple of days and heard numerous gobblers in the woods. I'd call this a sleeper hotspot for 2006. Also, there is a good bit of WMA land available here to hunt.
A few more places are certainly worth mentioning. I know Hurricane Hugo occurred way back in 1989, but some of the habitat devastation produced by Hugo seems to finally be receding, at least from the turkeys' point of view. Berkeley County experienced a whopping 90.3 percent increase in turkey harvest last year, which is astounding, even for a good year. I would expect the recovery trend to continue, so this might be an excellent spot to consider as well. Another county with a huge harvest improvement in the acres per turkey harvested was Lexington County with a 90 percent increase.
Chesterfield did not make either of the top 10 lists, but there was a 51.3 percent improvement in this county in the acres per turkey harvested category in 2005 over the 2004 season.
Certainly, there is the likelihood of finding local hotspots in any county in the state. Often some landowners will focus on turkeys and by managing the land will have excellent populations of turkeys in counties otherwise not listed above. However, for the big picture, this information should certainly give you some good places to hunt in 2006 that will have a higher than usual success rate.
Charles Ruth noted that the turkey season opens April 1 and closes May 1 in most areas of the state and on all public lands with turkey hunting statewide. He added there are 12 Lowcountry counties where the season opens on March 15 on private lands.
Plan now for your spring turkey hunting success and be prepared to stick with it throughout the season. All indications are for another good year for turkey harvest in 2006.
The gobblers are available in good numbers . . . all we have to do is call them in.