Last season was outstanding for turkey hunting in Tennessee. So will that trend continue? Let's have a look.
As my turkey-hunting mentor Larry Proffitt led me up a Sullivan County hillside last April 5, I recalled the last time we had been afield on this particular farm. Three years earlier on another early April morning the wind chill temperature had been in the upper teens, yet the Elizabethton resident had called in a trio of toms for me, with one of them later taking a ride in Larry's truck to a check station.
This time, the temperature just before sunrise was a relatively balmy 45 degrees -- ideal gobbling weather. Sure enough when Larry issued forth the first yelps of the morning, three mature toms sounded off on the ridge directly to our left some, 75 yards distant. Proffitt had situated us right below the hill's lip and at the outburst, he nudged me to turn slightly toward the threesome.
A few minutes later the gobbling ceased and we heard the heavy wing beats of a turkey leaving the roost. I saw the gobbler land just below the summit, and the bird quickly marched toward our setup, seemingly intent on beating his fellow males to the welcoming hen.
Indeed, the gobbler was so focused on reaching us that he overran our position, and I had to shoot when he was on his way past us. No matter, the 2-year-old sported 1-inch spurs, a 9-inch beard, and a weight of a tad more than 21 pounds -- a fine East Tennessee tom. Larry and I have already planned an early April outing for this spring, perhaps to see if the gobbler's two buddies are still available.
I relish going afield in a number of East Tennessee counties every spring, but the truth is outstanding turkey hunting exists throughout the Volunteer State. In fact, the tally for the harvest last spring was a record one of 37,084, easily smashing the previous record of 34,359 in 2006 and the 2009 total of 30,074.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency turkey coordinator Gray Anderson said that the harvest was up in every one of the state's four regions. In Region I in west Tennessee the harvest increased from 7,866 to 8,963. In Region II in middle Tennessee the tally rose from 10,962 to 14,065. The Cumberland Plateau's Region III harvest went from 5,123 to 6,944. Finally, in Region IV of east Tennessee, the total spurted from 6,123 to 7,112.
"Things seem to be going well with our state's turkey flock," Anderson pointed out. "We were pleased with the record spring turkey harvest in 2010 and certainly expect another very good season the spring of 2011. Looking way ahead, there is some concern for the 2012 season because of the flooding that took place in some areas in May of 2010, and the possibility that the hatch was poor. We'll know more about the prospects for 2012, though, after we see the 2011 harvest figures and the number of jakes that were killed. But, again, for right now, 2011 looks like it will be a very good season."
Anderson emphasized that whether or not record harvests occur in 2011 and the years to come is really not that important anymore.
"The state's turkey population is at such a solid point that we're not going to set records year after year," he explained. "What we expect to happen is that the kill will level off and each year the harvest will be up or down a little, but basically the same. From a management perspective, that type of sustained high quality harvest without much oscillation is a positive development.
"In fact, we have already started to de-emphasize the poult to hen ratio as an indicator of whether a season will be a good one or not. In many areas, there are so many turkeys that a poor hatch does not mean poor hunting will necessarily take place."
Chad Hardin, the TWRA big game biologist for Region I, is just as optimistic about his region as Anderson is about the state as a whole.
"In West Tennessee, we have areas that are definitely growing in turkey numbers and others where the population is stable," Hardin said. "Turkey numbers are especially high in the northwestern part of the region. But even when we have a county where the harvest drops, that county is often still a very good place to hunt and turkey numbers are in good shape."
However, Hardin related that some areas have been hit hard because of heavy spring rains and flooding in recent years. He stated that some bottomland public areas such as John Tully, Chickasaw, and Moss Island have seen turkey numbers drop because of that overabundance of precipitation. This may result in hunters being disappointed this spring with the number of birds they encounter.
"For this spring, I am pointing people toward Land Between The Lakes and Natchez Trace," Hardin offered. "Both are large public lands, highly popular with lots of people, and that historically have produced high harvests. For those individuals that like to roam about in search of birds, they are the places to go."
Hardin added that numerous counties across the region offer fine sport this spring. To name just a few of the better possibilities, the biologist listed Henry, Hardeman, Weakley, Carroll, and Benton.
George Buttrey, wildlife manager for middle Tennessee, provided this overview of his area.
"Back in the early 1980s, we were behind the other regions in turkey harvests. But since the 1990s the hunting has been very good, especially since the middle part of that decade. And that's not going to change this spring. In fact, the hunting has become so good that we have added a fall turkey season."
Buttrey agreed that the poult to hen ratio in Region II has become mostly irrelevant in predicting an upcoming season.
"So what if the poult to hen ratio is, for example, only 2.5," he suggested. "We have so many hens out there that it really doesn't matter if we don't have a great hatch. Now, there are some localized areas where the population has gone down some, but generally turkey numbers in middle Tennessee are very strong."
Buttrey related that Region II hosts a number of quality public lands, among them AEDC, Bear Hollow Mountain, Cheatham, and Yanahli Wildlife Management Areas. Be sure to check the regulations booklet for complete information on those tracts' individual regulations
A negative note is that the hunting on Laurel Hill WMA turkey numbers has fallen off in recent years because of the 2007 drought and its after effects, plus some mast failures.
Numerous counties should
be superb destinations this spring. The biologist lists Maury, Montgomery, Giles, and Dickson as among the better ones, but noted that leased land is common in these domains and gaining permission could be a challenge.
The Cumberland Plateau features some of the most challenging turkey terrain in Tennessee and as such this region typically brings up the rear in the overall turkey harvest among the Volunteer State's quartet.
"Per square mile, turkey numbers are lower in Region III than in the other three regions," said Gray Anderson. "Still, a lot of folks like to come here to hunt. The Catoosa WMA is a popular destination for many hunters, because of its large size and the isolation it can offer."
The WMA covers 79,740 acres.
Another possible destination is the Oak Ridge WMA, which is known for its draw hunts and high quality hunting experience. Counties that historically have been good producers for Region III include Clay, Jackson, Scott, Warren, and White.
One public land dominates the acreage in East Tennessee. That's the Cherokee National Forest, which covers more than 600.000 acres.
"People will see that a lot of turkeys are harvested every year in the Cherokee, but they have to realize that that harvest was at least partially due to the large size of this public land," says Anderson. "The birds on the Cherokee are very scattered, but there are pockets where good hunting can be found.
"I suggest that hunters coming to the Cherokee get off the beaten path. By that I mean the best hunting usually exists in areas farthest away from cities and other population areas. I know of hunters who absolutely love hunting for the Cherokee's mountain birds, but those aren't gobblers that are easy to kill."
Allen Ricks, wildlife information specialist for the Region IV office, agreed with Anderson on the Cherokee and proffers more options.
"Wild turkeys can be found throughout east Tennessee from the high rugged mountains of the Cherokee National Forest to the ridge and valley areas," Ricks confirmed
"Although it was necessary at one time to venture to the more mountainous areas to find turkeys, they can now be found in good numbers in fields and farm woodlots.
"Some of the other better public lands in Region IV are the Foothills WMA and the North Cumberland WMA. Chuck Swan has quota hunts," Ricks concluded.
The past few years I have tagged toms in Washington and Carter counties, in addition to the ones killed in Sullivan. Traditionally, the top counties in east Tennessee have often been Hawkins and Greene.
I asked Larry Proffitt for some turkey tips that would be useful anywhere in Tennessee, which has exceptionally variable terrain from the swamp bottomlands of the west to the high mountains and deep coves of the east.
"I think that too many hunters rely too much on decoys," he replied. "Hunters will set up in an area, then they won't move because they put out decoys. That's just not a good strategy much of the time. The best way to view decoys is to treat them as a diversion, not as a lure."
By the diversion not a decoy concept, the Elizabethton sportsman explained that dekes should be something that a gobbler fixates on when he is on his way in to our position. Under that logic, a longbeard will not be looking for danger as much as a possible chance to mate. Of course, that danger comes in the form of us hunters set up against a hardwood.
If bogus birds are looked upon as a lure, they can often fail even if something seemingly as harmless as a jake is part of the spread. For example, many mature gobblers turn away from fake jakes because they have become tired of being harassed by them.
In the predawn period last April when Larry and I arrived near that Sullivan County ridge line mentioned earlier, I asked him if he were going to position a decoy somewhere out in front of us. After all, we had arrived a good hour before sunrise and plenty of time existed for us to set out some fake ladies.
"Decoys are far more effective in Tennessee's fields than in the state's forests," he later pointed out. "The only time to use decoys in the woods is when you are on a shelf and the gobbler comes into view at a distance of 40 yards or less. Then a gobbler will start to give a quick look at a decoy and by then you hopefully will have shot him.
"Whatever type of habitat you do decide to set up a decoy or decoys, put them just 15 yards from your setup. Put them farther away and you run the risk of a gobbler starting to strut out of range."