Tennessee turkey hunters have been killing over 33,000 turkeys a year in recent years. Will the good times continue to roll? (March 2007)
Photo by Phillip Jordan
It's no secret that the 21-year run of consecutive turkey harvest records in Tennessee ended when the numbers were tallied after the 2005 hunts. But with so many strong years of hunting following a virtual turkey rebirth in the Volunteer State, and with the turkey populations now covering almost every part of the state with suitable habitat, it's not surprising that the harvest would eventually level out. The real question on hunters' minds entering the 2006 season was: Will the great hunting continue, perhaps with some modest growth, or are we facing a multi-year decline in the harvest?
Turkey flocks are still growing in some areas, and in others they appear to be maintaining at reasonably high levels, so the question is: Did last season's harvest rebound?
The answer is a resounding yes and in a big way. What you'll find on the next few pages is not only a look at last year's harvest figures and where the top turkey-producing counties and wildlife management areas (WMAs) lie, but also a look at what biologists and hunters expect to find in 2007. Put it all together and you have a bona fide turkey trip planner.
BACK ON TRACK
The record turkey harvest in 2004 was 34,000 turkeys killed; that year was followed in 2005 by a harvest of just over 33,000 birds.
In 2006, the spring harvest, including WMA hunts, was a new record, and a substantial one at that: Tennessee hunters last spring tagged a total of 36,052 birds.
When you break the new record down, there were 34,353 turkeys harvested statewide by hunters and an additional 1,699 killed on the spring WMA hunts. Those are both strong comeback numbers when compared with the two prior spring seasons. Again in the past record year of 2004, hunters took 32,461 statewide with 1,539 on the WMA hunts. During 2005, we harvested 31,762 turkeys statewide bolstered by another 1,297 WMA birds. The 2006 rebound showed increases both statewide and on WMA hunts.
The final total for 2006 should fall somewhere just over 38,000 birds when the fall hunt totals are added into the mix. Tennessee hunters take nearly 2,000 birds on the additional fall quota gun and archery hunts each year. The totals from the fall hunts were not calculated when this forecast was put together.
THE WORD FROM WITHIN THE TWRA
We have a new turkey coordinator at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Gray Anderson has been on the job less than a year and took over the reins from Randy Huskey, who took a new position within the agency and was also filling some big shoes with the retirement of Jack Murrey.
Based on the spring hunt we experienced across the Volunteer State in 2006, Anderson believes the 2007 season will be another great year for hunters.
Another positive sign: Anderson said the initial look at the poult count shows that we are about on average with prior years -- 2.57 poults/hen, 6.0 poults/brood, and late data was still coming in from counts.
Tennessee experienced another crazy spring and summer of weather last year, and weather does play a role in turkey survival rates. From his unofficial reports from the field, Anderson said it looks like there may have been an extended nesting season with many young broods being seen late, quite possibly because of the weather.
Not only were the spring hunts a major success, last fall's seasons across much of the state were stable and comparable to the previous fall hunts. Anderson said hunters are harvesting fewer than 2,000 birds in the fall out of an estimated population exceeding 300,000 turkeys.
The agency plans to look at any potential impacts of the fall harvest in the near future, but he doesn't expect to see much of an influence. The fall archery and quota hunts are doing what they were designed to do -- give Tennessee hunters an opportunity to get in the field. For now, at least, the harvest levels are too low to serve as population control or management tools.
Looking at the overall population, Anderson said from what he can tell the state's population is thriving. There may be fluctuations within counties, but it's difficult for the agency to recognize small shifts in local populations. Hunters shouldn't expect any regulation changes in the four-bird statewide limit in 2007.
The good news is Anderson feels all of our counties have great potential for a quality hunt. What hunters need in any case, is someone with local knowledge to help them find the birds. He said turkeys are out there and the population is growing, we just need good access to huntable lands to go after them.
For hunters with limited access to private lands, Anderson said the public hunting opportunity is another viable option. He suggests that hunters look for a WMA that has actively been planting native grass habitats. The agency has directed WMAs to replace fescue and other non-native plants with plants that are native to Tennessee. Anderson noted that as these habitats are established on our WMAs, we should see turkeys and many other wildlife species respond positively. These native habitats have great cover potential and most importantly, they produce a great amount of insects for our birds.
THE TOP TENNESSEE TURKEY COUNTIES
Not only did we set a new turkey harvest record in 2006, a couple of counties reached new milestones of their own. Dickson County in Region II was the reigning leader in statewide hunt totals in 2005. That title has been relinquished to Greene County in Region IV with the highest turkey harvest among the state's 95 counties.
Greene County hunters led the way across Tennessee with 1,106 turkeys tagged last spring. Dickson County was second with 1,014 turkeys killed. Dickson County hunters led the state in 2005 with a harvest of 982 birds. The significant milestones were the harvests of over 1,000 turkeys for the first time for both Dickson County and Greene County hunters.
Greene County was fifth statewide in 2005 with 829 turkeys harvested. The move from fifth to first was obviously directly related to a one-year harvest increase of nearly 300 birds. If you'll refer to the accompanying table of statewide turkey harvests, you'll see one other significant change in 2006. The Top 10 counties statewide remain unchanged from last year with just one exception. In the Top 10, Hardeman County was replaced by Rutherford County.
Looking at the remaining Top 10, Wayne County hunters held onto the third spot for consecutive years with a harvest of 948 birds.
Maury County moved up the ladder from the ninth spot in 2005 to the fourth spot in 2006 with a take of 896 turkeys. The Top 5 was rounded out by Giles County with a harvest of 894 turkeys and a drop from the second spot in 2005 when they took 944 turkeys.
Montgomery County fell one spot to sixth in 2006 with a harvest of 891 turkeys. Hunters there had 864 in 2005. Hardin County hunters maintained their hold on the seventh spot statewide again in 2006 when they tagged 772 turkeys compared with 726 in 2005. Likewise, Hawkins County finished in the eighth spot for consecutive seasons. Hunters there took 759 birds in 2006 compared with 674 in 2005. Rutherford County made its Top 10 appearance in the ninth spot with a harvest of 736 birds. Williamson County took the last Top 10 spot again in 2006 as they did in 2005. Hunters there tagged 697 birds in 2006, slightly better than the 2005 harvest of 643 turkeys.
Statewide, Region II still reigns supreme in Tennessee turkey harvest lore. The rest of the state's four regions are comparable to each other for the most part, but Region II is in a class by itself in terms of quality habitat in nearly every county, and hunters there helped to tag more than a third of the statewide harvest. Region II hunters harvested an impressive 14,197 birds in the spring of 2006.
In comparison, Region I kicked in a total of 8,100 turkeys followed by the 6,577 harvested in Region IV. Region III hunters also contributed 5,479 turkeys to the new record harvest.
Each fall, the turkey quota gun hunts in select counties and opportunities during the deer archery season in the same counties across most of state give Tennessee hunters another option at taking turkeys. As mentioned previously, these additional hunts have little effect on the overall turkey population and generally produce less than 2,000 birds in the overall harvest. In the fall of 2005, the hunts bagged 1,921 turkeys statewide.
During the 2005 fall quota hunts, Region II flexes its turkey muscles again. Of the 1,921 fall birds, Region II was responsible for 1,419 of them. The two top fall counties in Region II were Giles and Rutherford with 102 turkeys harvested in each. Region I hunters tagged 104 fall birds and Region III hunters tagged 169. Region IV hunters were second best on the fall hunts but far behind Region II with a take of 229 turkeys.
There are currently 65 counties in Tennessee that feature the fall hunts. There is a one-week hunt, usually held in November just in time to get that Thanksgiving bird, in all of the 65 counties. There's also an additional five-day hunt in December in 24 of those counties.
THE BEST WMA TURKEY OPPORTUNITIES
The WMA hunts wouldn't have been a major part of the 2006 comeback if not for the harvest at Fort Campbell. The military reserve normally leads the way on WMA hunts each year, and in 2006, Fort Campbell was far above the rest.
About five seasons ago, Fort Campbell set its high-water mark with 435 turkeys harvested. In 2006, Fort Campbell hunters came close by tagging 342 birds. Andrew Leonard, a Fort Campbell wildlife biologist, said the increase can be directly attributed to the amount of hunting lands available. Unfortunately, the increased area available to the public is at least in part a by-product of the war: With the base's soldiers deployed in Iraq, more lands were available for the hunting public.
Hunters utilizing the South Cherokee WMA didn't fare badly at all either. The South Cherokee harvest of 231 turkeys had the area firmly holding the second spot in the WMA harvests. Chuck Swan posted the next best spring harvest with 150 turkeys killed. Catoosa took the fourth spot in the WMA hunts with a take of 114 birds. The fifth spot in the Top 5 in WMA harvests went to LBL with a harvest of 110 turkeys.
The Top 5 WMAs from 2005 remained unchanged in 2006, though the relative rankings of those WMAs changed somewhat. LBL's slip from second place in 2005 to fifth in 2006 allowed the rest to move up the leader board. Cherokee was third in 2005, while Catoosa was fourth and Chuck Swan fifth, respectively.
The remaining Top 10 WMA harvests included AEDC, Cheatham, Milan Army Ammunition Plant, Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Laurel Hill WMAs. Each of these WMAs was in the 2005 Top 10 WMA harvests with one exception. The Royal Blue WMA harvest fell from the Top 10 and was replaced by the totals at the Tennessee NWR.
The fall WMA hunts play a small role in the overall harvest at best. For example, the 2005 fall hunts on public lands produced a whopping 109 turkeys. The reason for even bringing it to light is the opportunity found at Chuck Swan, where a draw hunt is held. Of the 109 WMA turkeys killed in the fall of 2005, 79 of these birds were tagged at Chuck Swan.
ENJOY YOUR TURKEY TIME
In case you hadn't noticed, you're living in one of the best states in which to hunt turkeys in the country. Tennessee now has good turkey-hunting opportunities in every county. Sure, some are better than others, but it's really hard to go anywhere within our borders without running into a gobbler at one time or another. Tennessee's turkey woods are truly blessed, with plenty of toms and a healthy bunch of hens.
Last season, a friend and fellow outdoor writer, Jim Spencer from Arkansas, had traveled to eight states killing turkeys before ending his season in Tennessee. He was in the process of working on his latest wild turkey book. Spencer called me to inquire about public opportunities, and he and a friend spent two days chasing birds in the Weaver's Bend area of the North Cherokee WMA.
Spencer had little luck in his efforts and was ready to return home without hunting his last day. It was the last Saturday of the season and there was no way I was letting him leave the Volunteer State without getting a chance on a Tennessee gobbler after taking birds everywhere else. Fortunately, I had worked a bird in recent days on a farm in Greene County near the Nolichucky River.
It wasn't hard, but I talked Spencer and his pal into hunting that last Saturday with me. It was a damp and cool morning and late in the year, but my crow call at first light made the bird sound off like it was mid-season. The old bird had been with hens on the two prior times that I'd tried him. There was no way this late in the season he was still going to be henned up.
The three of us headed for the edge of the woods along the field the bird had been using as a strut zone and about 100 yards from his last gobble. Less than 30 minutes later, he broke from the tree line and headed toward the decoy, and in doing so cantering toward Spencer's calling as he strutted and half ran into the open. He was still walking sideways when Spencer's 12-gauge sounded off. It was the perfect end to a great season and helped Greene County in becoming last year's season leader. The best part is that Tennessee won't be left out of Spencer's newest book on pursuing the wild turkey.