Best Bets for Boss Gobblers in Carolina

South Carolina's 2004 turkey season should be a good one. Here's the information you need to get that gobbler you've been waiting 11 months to hunt!

Photo by Bruce Ingram

By Terry Madewell

The 2003 turkey-hunting season was unusual in many regards. Most hunters had high expectations for the season - and while there were plenty of gobblers in the woods, the weather frequently played havoc with hunters, and the rain and wind made conditions quite tough on occasion.

In the end, there were more turkey hunters than ever chasing gobblers in the South Carolina woods, but the overall harvest did not match up to the record-setting year of 2002. The lack of a new record was disappointing to some. However, hunting any species is always impacted by weather. In particular, turkeys can be much more difficult to hunt in bad weather, and because the season is relatively short, bad weather on a few key Saturdays can reduce the harvest significantly, even if there are plenty of turkeys around.

And there are a fair number of birds out there; the 2003 season was certainly full of quality hunts for many hunters.

When the conditions were right, the turkey hunting was excellent. Overall, the season would be rated as successful based on data from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) wild turkey project coordinator Dave Baumann. Baumann noted that the total harvest depends on many external factors, but that overall, there were plenty of gobblers in the woods for the 2003 season and he feels that the prospects for 2004 are also good.

But based on data we'll discuss later on, the prospects for a bumper harvest are not quite as good as they have been for the past couple of years.

If you've turkey hunted much at all, you have learned the hard lesson that even when conditions are right and the gobblers are all around you in the woods, there's no guarantee of success. Turkey hunting, like some sporting endeavors, can be a game of inches in terms of being successful or not. At any one time during April in South Carolina, you could be that turkey hunter saying to himself (or anyone else who will listen), "If he'd just taken one more step. . . ."

I experienced both sides of this story last year and relearned some valuable lessons about not pressing a gobbler too hard.

First, let's examine the screw-up. I was hunting with a buddy who had a gobbler located and knew his roosting area, the field where he flew down and the old bird's early-morning movement pattern. He'd heard the gobbler on the roost and couldn't get set up in time to work him, but followed behind him and observed his tracks on the road and open areas.

He had a good game plan and most likely it would have worked if we hadn't been stupid (or perhaps overanxious is a better word).

In the pre-dawn light, we reached the open field about five minutes too late to take full advantage of the dark. My buddy had cleared a blind the previous morning back in the heavy brush along the edge of the field and the road that the gobbler used daily. It was a great blind and perfect setup, but it was a close call to get to the spot unseen. We'd have to actually step into the field for just a moment and then hunker down in the blind.

Even so, unless the gobbler was in one specific tree, the odds of us being seen were very slight. Of course, this leads right into the stupid part of the story. I should have learned many years ago that the less likely you figure that a gobbler is in a given spot, the more likely it is that the bird is, in fact, in that spot.

But my buddy's confidence was so high he had his video camera and was going to tape his son killing this gobbler. In retrospect, if we'd sat down right there and backed up to some of those big longleaf pines behind that corner, we would certainly have been in a good position to document this gobbler's death. Instead, we took that final step around the corner and although it was 15 minutes earlier than we'd heard a bird gobble all season, a booming gobble came from a tree on the edge of the field just as we sat down.

We tried to think of it as a good sign, but I had this gnawing feeling in my gut. Deep down I knew the gobbler had made us and we actually heard him gobble two more times in the next couple of minutes, then heard him and some of his henchmen fly down and march directly away from us, long before we normally would hear the first gobble of the morning. We hunted for several hours and never heard another gobble all morning. The next time, my buddy and I have to consider whether we'll take that final step or not, we'll not take it. I hope.

Another instance occurred when I was hunting alone and had three gobblers hammering at dawn, but they got hush-mouthed about 30 minutes after daylight. We'd had a good rain during the night, so the woods were quiet and I began slipping though the woods, occasionally calling softly, working my way toward a food plot.

I did not get any gobbled response, but I knew the longbeards had to be somewhere in the vicinity. I finally slipped to within 80 yards of the field and could see just a corner of the opening. I considered taking one final step to the right - if I did, I'd be able to see the entire length of the field - but I would be in the open and I got that peculiar sensation that I'd been in this position before and flunked the common sense test.

This time I stayed put and about 10 seconds later, I was looking at a gobbler that had just stepped into the corner of the field and was staring right in my direction. I was standing behind a tree, gun up and leaning on a tree. I just stayed motionless until he turned and started picking at the grass, then I gave him a subtle series of soft calls that I knew he could hear. At first, he seemed totally oblivious to the calls, but just as he slipped into the woods to the right of the field, he looked back once in my direction.

"You sly ole devil, you're circling for a better look," I whispered to myself. (Yes, I will talk to myself if no one is there to talk to when hunting these ghostly gobblers.) In ultra slow motion I eased the gun to my shoulder and propped it against the tree so I had no strain as I held the gun. I stood there expecting a nerve-racking wait.

Five minutes . . . 10 minutes . . . 15 minutes . . . nothing.

I'd figured him for a slow-sneaky approach, but I was again getting the urge to take a step for a better view. I reconsidered and thought I'd give him five more minutes, and then I'd head to the truck. Four minutes later, I caught an almost imperceptible moment in the woods, and it was a red head peering around the trunk of an oak tree.

The gobbler had only traveled 45 yards in that length of time, but he was now about 35 yards out and looking right down my gun barrel. I froze rock-solid motionless for a few moments. Finally, he, not I, took the wrong step.

His next trip was a free ride home in my pickup.

Everyone seems to have stories to tell from the 2003 season. There are stories of success, close calls and major screw-ups. But overall, the many, many hunters I have talked to consistently report hearing a lot of turkeys gobbling in the woods in 2003.

Although the prospects for a record-setting season may not be in place this year, Dave Baumann does believe we'll have a good 2004 season.

"Hunters in South Carolina harvested a total of 13,502 turkeys in the spring of 2003, which certainly makes it a good year, but not great. For your information, of this total, there were 66 bearded hens taken. We had some days that were just plain ole difficult in terms of weather, and when it's raining hard, the birds don't seem to gobble as much. It's hard to hear and hunter success just goes down," Baumann said.

"I think the prospects for the 2004 season harvest should be about what we harvested in 2003. All our data from our poult counts this summer indicate that there's still a good number of adult birds in the woods and while the recruitment into the population in terms of juvenile birds was poor this spring, we'll have enough adult gobblers, particularly from the good nesting season of 2001, to enjoy a good season."

He quickly added, though, that the weather can play a significant role in the total harvest. He believes that with really good weather, South Carolina hunters would have taken quite a few more birds in 2003.

"If we have tough weather on several days, then the harvest total in 2004 will likely reflect that," Baumann added.

Baumann did note that one positive indicator was that a record number of sets of turkey tags were sold by the SCDNR, with 48,003 hunters getting their tags in 2003.

As noted above by Baumann, based on the poult counts from the 2003 nesting season, we won't likely be seeing a lot of jakes or juvenile hens in the woods this season. The biggest impact for most hunters will be in 2005, when these birds would be 2-year-old gobbling adults. But jakes do add a lot of excitement to many hunts, and newcomers to the sport often earn their first spurs with these turkeys.

"On a statewide basis, the average number of poults with hens observed during August of 2003 was 3.3 poults per hen," Baumann begins. "This figure by itself is not that bad. I'd like to see a 3.5 or larger number in this category, but that's with a normal year of seeing hens without poults."

The problem was that during the survey, an unusually high percentage of hens simply didn't have any poults at all.

"In 2003, 52 percent of the hens observed did not have any poults and that meant the figure that I rely on heavily, the Total Recruitment Ratio, which is the total number of hens and total number of poults, was only 1.7 on a statewide basis. This figure is one that I'd like to see at least 2.5, and really 3.0 or above is what we need," Baumann said.

For example, in 2001, when South Carolina turkeys had a good reproductive year, only 32 percent of the hens observed did not have poults. The difference between that year and 2003 is that 20 percent more of the hens had no poults.

"That's a big difference and I cannot remember a year when we saw more hens without any poults than 2003," Baumann noted.

The breakdown of data for the portions of the state is as follows: You can see how your specific area stacks up. Unfortunately, none of us get much of a break here.

The central Piedmont area had an average Brood Size (number of poults with hens that had poults) of 2.8 poults per hen. The Total Recruitment Ration (TRR), however, was only 1.6.

In the western Piedmont, the Brood Size was 3.8 but the TRR was only 1.9.

In the Mountain Hunt Unit, the Brood Size was 2.2 and the TRR was 1.2.

Finally, the Francis Marion National Forest had an average Brood Size of 3.3 but the TRR was 1.1.

Baumann also has extensive harvest data that will help you plan your hunt for 2004 and can lead us in the direction we need to go for what we may consider a trophy gobbler. There's data by total harvest, weight, beard and spur length. In addition to seeing how your local area stacks up, you can figure where you want to go if you are seeking a trophy gobbler.

We'll consider total harvest first, because for most of us, any longbeard that we take home is a trophy.

The No. 1 county in South Carolina, by a wide margin in 2003, was Williamsburg, where a whopping 772 gobblers were taken, all of them on private lands. The second place county was Fairfield, with 642 gobblers harvested. Of these, 594 were taken on private lands, the remainder on WMAs. The No. 3 county was Chester with 605 gobblers harvested, 556 of which were taken on private lands.

The fourth slot was claimed by Union County where hunters killed 593 turkeys, 425 of which came from private lands, but a highly respectable 168 birds were taken on WMAs.

In fifth place was Laurens County with 534 turkeys taken, 497 taken on private lands. The sixth slot was taken by Colleton County with 514 birds, and all but four were taken on private lands.

Berkeley County No. 8 with 468 turkeys harvested, 388 of which were taken on private lands. The ninth-place county was Abbeville with 394 turkeys taken, of these, 312 were taken on private lands. Rounding out the top 10, and close behind, was Orangeburg County with 392 turkeys taken and all but one turkey was taken on private lands.

The good numbers of harvested turkeys are scattered out pretty well on a statewide basis and except for the counties that are highly populated, which obviously have much less land to hunt, good numbers of turkeys were harvested just about everywhere. The lowest number statewide was Lexington County with only 18 turkeys reported taken, but take out the acres that are lake surface or highly developed and there's very little land left to hunt. What land is available is likely quite good.

We'll also take a look at other factors that are very interesting in terms of taking a trophy gobbler. There's data on total weight, beard length and spur length. We'll look at each of these individually and you'll note some areas rank high in more than one of these.

If you're simply into weight of the turkey, then go north for bigger birds. Pickens County was the No. 1 county in terms of average size and was champion by a huge margin. The average gobbler taken in Pickens County weighed 19.44

pounds, which is over a half-pound larger than the second-place county (Calhoun, where the birds averaged 18.90 pounds per gobbler).

Granted, Calhoun may not be in the upstate, but the next three are. In third place was Cherokee County with an 18.84-pound per gobbler average and fourth was Oconee County with an 18.77-pound per gobbler average. Anderson County was fifth with an average weight of 18.73, and Lexington County's 18 birds averaged a hefty 18.63 pounds per gobbler, putting that area in sixth place.

There's a definite tendency for upstate birds to average larger based on this data, so if big birds are your quest, you can get some good information on where to go from this data.

If you're into beard length (and really, who isn't?), this data will whet your appetite for longbeards. The average beard length champion county was Aiken County, where gobbler's beards averaged 10.46 inches. Calhoun County makes another No. 2 appearance in beard length, in addition to average weight, with an average beard length of 10.40 inches. In third place was Lee County with a 10.17-inch average, and Williamsburg was fourth with a 10.07 beard length average.

Florence County was fifth with a 10.06-inch average, and there was a tie for sixth between Sumter and Chesterfield counties with a 10.01-inch average beard length. In eighth place was Dorchester County with a 10-inch average. The next three counties - Cherokee, Darlington and Richland - all tied with a 9.99-inch average.

The final category we'll consider is spur length. In this category, Sumter County leads the way with a 1.04-inch spur length average. In second place, once again, is Calhoun County with a 1.02-inch average for spurs. Calhoun County is certainly a place to consider if you're looking for an all-around quality gobbler.

There were only 97 birds harvested in this county and all of them were on private lands. You'll need to make arrangements with landowners having good turkey territory if you plan a trip to this county. There is a lot of agriculture land and plenty of swamps and the two land types apparently work well to grow trophy gobblers if you can find your spot to hunt.

The No. 3 county in terms of spur length was Darlington County with a 1.01-inch average and in fourth were Pickens and Aiken counties, all of which had a 1-inch average. There was also a tie for sixth between Allendale and Richland counties with a 0.99-inch average spur length. Bamberg and Dillon counties tied in eighth place with a 0.98-inch average. There were three counties tied for 10th - Union, Florence and Barnwell - with a 0.97-inch spur length average.

Based on the data provided by Baumann and the SCDNR, we should have plenty of opportunities to hear and harvest gobblers in the 2004 season. Armed with all this data and a good shotgun, you should have what you need to plan your 2004 season to reach the goals you set for your personal enjoyment.

Just watch that last step you take when setting up on a gobbler. Those few inches may mean more to your success or failure than the previous quarter mile you just trekked. I just hope I take my own advice this year.

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