Poor spring weather has driven turkey recruitment lower for the last couple of years. Find out how that affects you. (March 2010)
While the turkey population increased slightly before the 2009 season in South Carolina, it looks like the run of positive news was very short-lived. In 2009, both the harvest and recruitment numbers were down. Coupled with an extended string of poor recruitment seasons, the harvest numbers were not only down in 2009, but the forecast for the 2010 harvest is not good.
Mike Cox, member of the NWTF's Lowcountry Longbeards chapter, was able to lure in and kill these two gobblers with the aid of his Pretty Boy decoys last spring.
Photo by Terry Madewell.
If you thought last year tested your turkey hunting patience because of fewer gobblers in the woods, there's no relief in sight for 2010.
According to Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor, the downward trend in harvest and recruitment numbers continues.
"While we had hoped we'd see a good recovery in the turkey population in 2009, (but) that certainly did not turn out to be the case," Ruth said. "With yet another poor recruitment year in 2009, this marks six of the last seven years when the turkey reproduction figures have been poor. This also could have implications on the 2010 harvest, as the spring harvest following each year of low recruitment has been down."
Ruth said that during the 2009 spring season, 13,546 adult gobblers and 2,598 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 16,234 turkeys.
"This figure represents a 9.4 percent decrease in harvest from the total of 2008 with 17,304 turkeys harvested," he said. "Also, it continues the trend of dropping harvest figures with a 36.3 percent decrease from the record harvest, which was established in 2002, of 25,487 turkeys. The reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one primary factor: poor reproduction."
Ruth said that the statewide harvest for turkeys is considered on a harvest per unit basis by his staff, with the number of turkeys taken per square mile being the standard used.
"When considering the estimated turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2009 was 0.7 gobblers per square mile statewide," Ruth said.
However, the recruitment figures are disappointing too, he said. After increasing slightly in 2008, reproduction by wild turkeys decreased once again in 2009, according to the SCDNR's annual survey.
Ruth said the survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public.
"Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer," Ruth said. "Therefore, the survey statistics document poults that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall. Although average brood size was good this year, with hens averaging 3.7 poults, 54 percent of hens observed had no poults at all by late summer, leading to a total recruitment ratio of 1.8."
Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. Both of these statistics were lower than biologists would like to see and continue the recent trend in poor reproduction by turkeys in the state.
"At the regional level, it appears that reproduction improved somewhat in the Piedmont and mountains; however, the figures were not as encouraging in the Coastal Plain and midlands," Ruth said. "In the Southeast, Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations with heavy rainfall coupled with cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood-rearing season leading to poor reproductive success. There was much more widespread thunderstorm activity, which produced significant rainfall across the lower half of the state, which may have caused problems in that region. On the other hand, it was much drier in the Upstate, and reproduction tended to be a little better. In both cases, it makes sense."
Ruth also suggested that habitat changes in the state might also be a factor. "We have seen a decline in the deer population in most areas in the last six to eight years, and this is likely linked to the amount of habitat in pine plantations that (is) greater than 10 years old. This type of habitat simply does not have high productivity and (that) may be playing a role in turkey reproduction."
Ruth said the poor reproduction in 2009 likely means a negative impact on the next season.
"Harvest trends have followed the trend in poor reproduction in recent years, and we have seen about a 30 percent decline in harvest since 2002," he said. "This trend is expected to continue. The number of mature gobblers 2 years and older available during the spring of 2010 should be about the same as in 2009, if not lower across most of the state. The number of jakes, or immature gobblers, should also be somewhat lower than hunters like to see. This is significant because jakes can make up 25 percent of the spring harvest following years of good reproduction."
"On a positive note, the gobbler-to-hen ratio remains relatively good with a statewide average of 0.66 gobblers to each hen," he said. "The exception was in the Piedmont and midlands where the gobbler-to-hen ratio was less than 0.4. Many experts believe that when gobbler-to-hen ratios get below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be impacted because hens are extremely available, which affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters."
There is information from the report that can help you find the best places to hear birds gobbling and put yourself in position to call a bird to the gun or bow.
We'll take a look at the top counties in terms of 2009 production. The harvest data noted is also separated into a county-by-county breakdown.
There were three counties that had double the statewide harvest rate of 0.7 turkeys per square mile. Cherokee, Anderson and Union each had a harvest rate of 1.4 turkeys per square mile. A further breakdown of acres per turkey harvested was used to establish the final county ranking.
Another perspective to consider for picking hunting spots in 2010 is the percentage of jakes in the 2009 harvest. As Ruth noted, after a good recruitment year, 25 percent of the total harvest often consists of jakes. Good numbers of jakes in the population could mean more 2-year-old gobblers in 201
In Cherokee County in 2009, the overall turkey harvest consisted of 35.7 percent jakes. In Anderson County, jakes accounted for 30.6 percent, and in Union County, only 17 percent of the harvest was jakes.
Fairfield and York were the next two counties with harvest rates of 1.3 turkeys per square mile. Fairfield County had 14.9 percent of the total harvest being reported as jakes, and York County had 26.9 percent.
There were three more counties with 1.1 turkeys harvested per square mile -- Newberry, Pickens and Spartanburg. Newberry had a 23.1 percent jake harvest, Pickens had 21.7 percent of the harvest reported as jakes, and Spartanburg County had 16.3.
These top eight counties also share another common denominator -- they are all in the mid to upper portion of the state.
The next three counties in the harvest-per-square-mile ranking were Bamberg, Berkeley and Orangeburg counties, all with a harvest rate of 1.0 turkey per square mile.
Bamberg had only 7.5 percent of the total harvest being reported as jakes. Berkeley had 8.6 percent reported as jakes, and Orangeburg reported 17.5 percent of the total harvest as jakes.
Another way hunters like to look at data is the actual total harvest in specific counties. While not as scientific as the harvest per square mile method, it does provide an idea where turkeys are located in respectable numbers. If you have, or can gain, access to prime hunting in these areas, then you can enjoy some quality hunting. Some of these counties are among the largest in the state in total landmass but may have areas not really conductive to turkey hunting. But they can provide exception localized hunting opportunities.
We'll name the top 10 counties in terms of actual total harvest and you'll see several repeats from the above list, adding to their potential as 2010 hunting hotspots. All 10 of these counties did have harvest rates above the state average of 0.7 turkeys per square mile.
The top 10, in order, were Berkeley, Fairfield, Orangeburg, Colleton, Williamsburg, Newberry, Union, York, Anderson and Laurens counties.
The annual report generated by the SCDNR also produced some additional information hunters can use to plan their 2010 season. During lean years when the population is down, hunters need to maximize their time to be successful. The survey and report documents when most turkeys are harvested on a week-by-week-basis.
"With respect to both biology and effective hunting, the timing of the spring gobbler season should take into account three primary factors: peak breeding, peak gobbling and peak incubation," Ruth said. "Considering these factors, seasons can be set to afford hunters the best opportunity to hunt during the best time, such as peak gobbling, without inhibiting reproductive success."
Ruth said that South Carolina currently has two spring turkey season frameworks. Throughout most of the state, specifically Game Zones 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, the season is April 1-May 1. This season is based on a recommendation from the SCDNR following gobbling and nesting studies conducted in the 1970s.
The other season framework is March 15-May 1 and is only in effect in Game Zone 6, which is the lower Coastal Plain.
According to Ruth, if seasons are set appropriately, the greatest proportion of turkeys should be harvested during the first week of the season because hens should be nesting resulting in gobblers that are most responsive to hunters' calls. Harvest by week of season demonstrates that the timing of the April 1-May 1 season affords higher turkey harvests, as most turkeys are harvested following the April 1 opening date.
In areas where the season begins March 15, Ruth said only 28 percent of the total harvest is accounted for during the first week of the season. This is likely because late March is the time of peak breeding and males gobble less because, as hunters typically describe, "they are all henned up."
On the other hand, 40 percent of the harvest occurs during the first week of the season in areas where the season begins April 1. Ruth said this is because by the first week in April, a significant number of hens have left the gobblers and begun continuous incubation. This lack of hens stimulates peak gobbling, resulting in hunters being able to locate and call responsive birds.
Comparing the first two weeks of each season format, Ruth said the report documents that where the season opens March 15, 45 percent of gobblers are harvested, while the figure is 65 percent where the season opens on April 1.
The report also documents hunter success in terms of percentage of successful hunters. Ruth said that for determination of hunting success only those individuals that actually hunted turkeys were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one turkey.
"Overall hunting success in 2009 was 28.9 percent, down from the 2008 season," Ruth said. "This is likely related to the declining trend in turkey reproduction that the state has experienced in recent years, which (means there are) simply fewer turkeys available for harvest. On the other hand, unlike deer hunting which typically has high success, turkey hunting can be an inherently unsuccessful endeavor, relatively speaking. As would be expected, the majority of successful hunters take one gobbler. However, the percentage of successful hunters who take two birds is quite high as well. This indicates that successful hunters had nearly the same chance of taking two birds as they did one bird.
"The statewide bag limit in South Carolina is five gobblers," he said. "Obviously, most successful hunters harvest only one or two birds. However, it is interesting to note the relative contribution to the total harvest of turkeys by the few hunters that harvest multiple birds. Ironically, the percentage of hunters taking more than three birds was only 2.4 percent; however, this small percentage of hunters harvested 23 percent of the total birds taken in the state."
One final point to consider for the 2010 season is the many wildlife management areas (WMAs) around the state. Ruth has some very good data on WMAs.
In an effort to evaluate participation by turkey hunters on WMA lands, the 2008 Turkey Hunter Survey asked participants if they hunted on WMA land during the 2008 season and how many turkeys they harvested.
Ruth said approximately 18 percent of turkey hunters indicate that they hunt on WMA lands, a percentage that equals approximately 8,695 individuals. Although the figure is below the number of deer hunters that hunt on WMA lands (18,445), the percentage of turkey hunters who hunt public land (18 percent) is greater than that for deer hunters (12.7 percent).
"Success rates for WMA hunters were lower in 2008 at 20 percent than for hunters on private land that year, which was about 30 percent," Ruth said.
"This should come as no surprise because hunters on private land typically have more familiarity with the property than hunters on public land. The data enables us to estimate that approximately 1,799 turkeys were harvested on public land, representing 10.4 percent of the statewide turkey harvest. This figure should be considered good because WMA lands compose less than 10 percent of the turkey habitat in the state. Finally, it is estimated that hunters spent approximately 49,561 days afield on WMAs in South Carolina during the 2008 turkey season."
While the 2010 season is not shaping up to be the best of years in terms of number of turkeys available, Ruth does offer some hope for the future.
"The bottom line is that it will likely take a couple of years of better reproduction to overcome less-than desirable-reproduction the last six years," Ruth said. "That is the nice thing about turkeys, though -- given the right conditions, they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time."