Last spring, cold weather on a couple of weekends dampened hunters and the harvest. But this spring, the birds will be back. (March 2008).
Photo by Larry Self.
In 2005, Tennessee turkey hunters failed to set a new harvest record for the first time in 21 consecutive years. The run had to end sometime, but we bounced back strong with a new record season in 2006.
So, we're back on track, right?
Well, not so fast. Volunteer turkey hunters hit another obstacle with the hunts of the spring of 2007.
We fell well short of the 2006 record harvest in 2007. What's most interesting is, the harvest shouldn't have been lower. Last spring, Tennessee turkey hunters had another record harvest at hand until Mother Nature reared her cold, ugly head.
In the spring of 2006, the record harvest sat at nearly 36,000 birds. In comparison, the 2007 spring totals were well below the record with 31,166 turkeys tagged. That total could have been much higher. Let's see what effect cold weather and tough conditions had on last year's harvest and what you can expect this spring.
BREAKING DOWN LAST SEASON'S LETDOWN
Gray Anderson, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) wildlife biologist, has more than a year under his belt now as our state turkey coordinator. Just listening to his thoughts on last season will tell you he's learned plenty in his new position.
"I believe the decline in the 2007 spring harvest can be explained almost 100 percent by the weather," Anderson said. "We were down about 5,000 birds when compared with 2006, but we lost about 3,500 of those 'harvest opportunities' in the second and third weekend of the season."
Anyone who hunted that second weekend when temperatures plunged into the teens and snow flurries blew across the state can tell what kind of effect cold weather has on a spring hunt. The worst news is it wasn't short-lived: That weather lasted several days, leading to a record frost in April that even had major hard-mast effects on fall hunting seasons.
"In the opening weekend, we were several hundred birds above 2006, and the temperature was above normal too," Anderson added. He also noted we had very warm months in February and March. Yes sir, things were off to a wonderful start and looking like a banner year for Volunteer turkey hunters. And just like the stock market crash in the 1930s, the cold snap hit out of nowhere and the temperature for the second and third weekends of the spring hunt fell 17 and 12 degrees below average.
The result was, Anderson said, that our 2007 daily harvest dropped dramatically when compared with 2006.
Anderson said after the third weekend, the temperatures normalized, but our daily harvest never really picked up. He doesn't know if the lower daily harvest was because hunters slowed down their efforts (and he did hear that some hunters lost interest), or if the birds' "cycle" was disrupted and they were harder to hunt. Anderson himself said he heard of some strange gobbler and hen behaviors late into the season. Either way, our daily harvest lagged behind 2006.
A new spring is almost upon us, and Tennessee's turkey population should be primed for a new harvest record again, thanks to leftover numbers from last season and good results from last spring's hatch.
Anderson said the brood numbers for summer of 2007 were right on average when compared with the previous years. He added the "brood attrition" showed the average number of poults in each age-class was similar to the long-term average. Basically, in 2007, we had 4.7 poults per brood surviving the summer. Anderson said this is right on the Tennessee average and what he would expect, based on other studies.
The nest initiation curve is what surprised him the most. He expected some disruption in nesting because of the freeze we had in April. But the 2007 curve matches almost perfectly the average of other years, telling him the freeze did not chase hens off the nest. Anderson added that the large Class 1 brood numbers gives good indication there was not a large-scale loss of partial nests either. Again, he said being average is a good thing, considering the extreme temperatures we had during those two less than memorable weekends in April.
On the flip side, Anderson said he doesn't know what to predict for this spring's harvest. But he did say we should have around 5,000 extra birds that were not harvested in 2007 still roaming the countryside. In addition, our production estimates (brood) appear to be average. Anderson said if you put these factors together, he doesn't know why the spring 2008 harvest should not surpass the 2006 harvest and set a new record. He further said we would learn some things about what to expect in this spring after the fall 2007 harvest tally is completed. Overall, he said we should be on track for a good year and hopefully a new record.
For those worried about what effect last summer's horrendous drought conditions had on Tennessee's wild turkey population -- don't worry. Anderson said it should have little effect on the birds because turkeys get a great deal of the water from their food resources like seeds and bugs. He said they don't rely on permanent water from streams and ponds as much as other wildlife.
THE TOP TENNESSEE
The record year in 2006 was led by the turkey harvests in Greene County and Dickson County as the only two areas to ever surpass the 1,000-bird total. Greene County hunters harvested 1,106 turkeys in 2006, followed by Dickson County's take of 1,014 birds.
Last spring in 2007, Dickson County retook the top spot among turkey counties in Tennessee with a harvest of 896 birds, followed by Greene County with a take of 826 longbeards. It looks as if these two counties have established themselves as the premier turkey destinations in Tennessee. They have finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, the last couple of seasons.
Of the 31,166 turkeys taken in the spring of 2007, Region II was by far above the rest with 11,343 turkeys harvested. Region I was second best with a take of 8,463 birds. Region IV hunters were third overall with a harvest of 5,444 birds, followed by Region II's harvest of 4,729.
The Top 5 counties statewide were Dickson County at 896, Greene at 826, Maury at 778, Giles at 743, and Montgomery County at 733 birds harvested. Of the Top 5, all were Region II counties other than Greene County from Region IV.
In a region-to-region breakdown, Region
I was led by Henry County with a total spring harvest of 675 birds. Hardeman County was second in Region I with a harvest of 622, followed by Hardin County's take of 591 birds. Hickman County was fourth with a take of 559 turkeys, followed by Carroll County's harvest of 505 birds in the fifth place slot.
Again, Region II was led by the statewide leader in Dickson
County's harvest of 896 turkeys. Maury County was second in Region II with a harvest of 778 birds, followed by Giles County in third with 743 turkeys taken. Montgomery County was fourth in Region II with its 733 birds, followed by Rutherford County's harvest of 616 to round out the Top 5 there.
In Region III, Jackson County was the top turkey producer with 487 birds tagged. The second spot in Region II belonged to Clay County hunters with a take of 369 gobblers. The third position went to White County's harvest of 339 birds, followed by Overton County's take of 333 turkeys in the fourth spot. Dekalb County rounded out the Top 5 spots in Region II with a total spring harvest of 313 turkeys.
Again, Greene County was the overall leader in Region IV with a harvest way out in front of everyone else there with 826 turkeys harvested. Hawkins County took the second place honors with 585 birds harvested, followed by Claiborne County's harvest of 415 turkeys in the third spot. Cocke County's harvest of 367 gobblers was fourth best, followed by Jefferson Country's kill of 312 birds to round out the Top 5 in Region IV.
Honorable mentions need to go to hunters in Region II in Wilson County for their harvest of 606 birds and Wayne County for a take of 574. Also, Humphreys County deserves a mention in Region I with its harvest of 481 turkeys.
BONUS FALL AND WMA TURKEY OPPORTUNITIES
The fall turkey harvest may seem insignificant numbers wise, but what the fall hunts mean are more opportunities for hunters. There are currently more than 60 counties in Tennessee that feature fall hunts. There is a one-week hunt usually held in November just in time to get that Thanksgiving bird in all of the counties. There's also an additional five-day hunt in December in 24 of those counties.
In the fall of 2006, Tennessee turkey enthusiasts were able to bag 2,247 birds. Region II was the leader in the clubhouse with more opportunities and more birds tagged at 1,649 of the fall total. Region I hunters took 193 turkeys, and Region II produced 183 fall turkeys, followed by Region IV's second-best total of 222 turkeys. On the fall hunts, hunters are allowed one turkey of either sex.
The Region II fall kill was led by Maury County with 124 birds. Region I's best fall turkey county was Henry County with 28 tagged. In Region III, Dekalb County hunters were by far the best with a harvest of 68 birds. Hawkins and Greene counties in Region IV took top fall honors in 2006 with 38 turkeys each harvested.
Fall turkey hunts are also allowed on 19 wildlife management areas (WMAs). On those hunts, a total of 151 fall birds were taken in 2006, with Chuck Swan WMA leading the way as usual with 68 of them.
Of the 31,166 birds harvested in the spring of 2007, a total of 1,187 of them were taken on WMA hunts. Of that figure, Shelby Forest led the WMA count with a total of 154 birds tagged. Land Between The Lakes (LBL) was a distant second with 118 turkeys killed. The Milan Army Ammunition Plant area was third in the WMA total with 104 birds harvested. Rounding out the Top 5 WMA harvests for the spring hunt was Chuck Swan WMA at 94 birds, followed by Chatham Lake WMA with 86 turkeys tagged. Honorable mention has to go to Cheatham WMA with a kill of 75 turkeys and AEDC WMA with a take of 73 birds.
OLD SCHOOL GOBBLER
No matter what it is, you never forget your firsts. My first gobbler came with a blackpowder modern muzzleloading shotgun. It was truly an awesome hunt -- the bird had nice spurs, a long beard and was a heavy rascal. The big tom now sits in all its majesty in my game room, or den if you prefer.
That was a few years back and something that I thought would never be equaled in my turkey-hunting career. Just last season, I had a chance to top that kill or at least equal it on an opening weekend hunt with the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA).
Sunrise couldn't arrive early enough on Saturday morning, the opening day of the 2007 spring turkey hunt. I wanted
nothing more than a shot with a flintlock at a wild turkey. Overnight, I made up my mind, even though I don't usually take jakes, the chance with a flintlock would be wide open.
There was the additional pressure of knowing I was using the 12-gauge flintlock that NMLRA president Winston Roland had used to win the National Flint Trap Championships five times in a row -- he still holds the national record at 28 out of 30 birds. He had taken pheasants with the gun but had never shot a turkey with the traditional weapon.
A local property owner, Omer Drollinger, drove me to his well-designed cedar blind for our hunt. Up until 9 o'clock, we heard nothing -- no gobbling, no clucks, not even a peep from a turkey. We contemplated leaving the blind and changing locations but decided to stick it out.
Just five minutes later, we heard our first hen cluck out in front of the blind. We clucked and purred at her religiously, but she refused to come into the field from the woods line in front of us. Finally, I decided to get righteous with her, using my Gerald Howard box call, which I like to call the Arkansas Hammer. She responded immediately to the box and started our way. I had her torn up.
She walked all the way around the blind trying to locate the source of the high-pitched yelping. I let her go on out of the field and into the woods behind us before calling her back a second time. She left again, and Drollinger told me to hit the box call again. On her third return to the field, she had four jake suitors behind her. Drollinger peeped over the edge of the blind as the four young want-a-bes followed her path toward the blind.
Drollinger said they're all jakes if you want to take one. I was already cocking the hammer on the flintlock. By the time I was able to raise the long gun over the top of the blind, they were closing fast -- too fast. When I settled the barrel down on the third bird, they were at a too-close range of 15 yards. All I could think about was slapping the trigger with my finger and not flinching.
There was no flinch, and those last five yards were the last steps of the biggest jake. He flopped on the ground as the smoke from the barrel and flash pan cleared. Two of the jakes tore off to the left, but the fourth one turned back in the direction from which they all came.
That was a big mistake, because when he turned to look back, Drollinger already had his Mossberg 835, fitted with a scope, trained on him and dropped him at 45 yards -- a clean double.
Back at camp, the NMLRA folks rewarded me with more than a kill; they presented me with an Official Longhunter Pin and welcomed me into their fraternity -- a grand honor. Best of all, I came away from the hunt as a legi
timate "longhunter" and a far greater knowledge and appreciation of blackpowder and long guns than I could ever imagined.
If you're truly interested in becoming a member of the NMLRA or just want to learn more about the organization, you can check it out at their fine Web site at www.nmlra.org
If nothing else, you now have the tools laid out before you to plan your 2008 spring and fall turkey hunts. It should be another record year for Tennessee turkey hunters -- enjoy.
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