It's a new turkey season in Tennessee and if the weather cooperates, we could set another harvest record. (March 2009)
The run of record turkey harvests in Tennessee is almost legendary. For 21 consecutive years, Volunteer gobbler enthusiasts set record harvests until we hit a wall with the 2005 season. But we did bounce back in a big way in 2006 when a record harvest of 38,197 birds was set. One year later, the 2007 turkey season fell well short of that mark, as 34,256 turkeys were tagged.
With the lack of help from Mother Nature in 2008, Tennessee hunters have now seen our first back-to-back seasons below a record harvest. In the spring of 2008, we took 30,148 turkeys. The fall harvests haven't been tabulated to this point and should add a few thousand birds, but we still won't come close to eclipsing the 2006 record harvest.
That's the bad news. The good news is it's a new year, and there's a new chance at setting a harvest record for Volunteer turkey hunters this season. If the weather cooperates, the chance is very real this spring. For now, get your hopes up and take a look at how the 2008 numbers break down and what they say about the coming spring hunts. Record or not, it's going to be a good spring in Tennessee's turkey woods. One thing you can bet on for a few years to come, Tennessee hunters will very likely take more than 30,000 turkeys annually. And that ain't bad at all.
A LOOK AT 2008
Gray Anderson, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) state turkey coordinator, is no longer a rookie on the job. One thing is for sure, as time goes on, he's become increasingly respected in his role, and he knows his turkey data and is getting the job done.
Anderson said the overall 2008 spring turkey harvest was almost exactly the same as in the spring of 2007, with more than 30,000 birds harvested. To break it down farther, he said the spring county harvest can be totaled out at 29,165 turkeys, while the spring wildlife management area (WMA) harvests kicked in an additional 973 birds for the spring total of 30,148 turkeys.
Hunters took 2,886 birds in the fall of 2007. Last fall, additional counties had fall seasons and the final fall harvest was expected to be somewhere around 3,000 turkeys. The fall WMA hunts also kick in an additional 100-plus birds. (Cont.)
2008'S TOP SPRING TURKEY COUNTIES
Here we go, the best of the best when it comes to top turkey-hunting counties across the state. When my home hunting grounds of Greene County led the state three seasons back, area hunters were elated -- it is a great thing to say you're on top.
But before we get into the top 2008 turkey-producing counties, we're going to frame the discussion with a few other figures first. In 2006, when all the numbers were totaled, Tennessee hunters took a record harvest of 38,197 birds between the spring, fall and WMA hunts. In 2007, we were significantly below that figure with a harvest of 34,256 turkeys. The 2006 record harvest isn't out of reach and may be attainable as early as 2009. In 2008, when all figures are totaled, we will have harvested just more than 33,000 birds.
The 2006 season was the last time any county eclipsed the 1,000-bird mark: Greene County produced 1,106 birds, and Dickson County posted 1,014. The turkey population is stable, and after surviving some hard freezes and droughts the last two years, the statewide turkey population is strong enough to rapidly expand if the weather cooperates this spring. The following totals will tell you which counties are still the most consistent producers of springtime longbeards -- they change a little from year to year but are pretty consistent among the top 10.
It's no secret that Region I and Region II are the places with the most serious turkey populations. In the spring of 2008, Region I coughed up 8,293 birds. Region II wasn't to be outdone (as has been the case for several years), as hunters there took 10,816 turkeys. Region III produced 4,882 turkeys followed by Region IV's 5,174 turkeys. And now, the best of the best.
In 2008, Dickson County hunters in Region II again claimed their title as being at the top of the heap in Tennessee. Hunters there harvested 810 birds, but that's a far reach from their totals of 982 in 2005 and 1,014 in 2006.
Dickson was followed closely by its Region II hunters in Montgomery County, who tagged 789 turkeys. Montgomery County hunters tagged 866 birds in 2005 and 878 in 2006. Henry County got onboard for Region I hunters in the third spot with a strong harvest of 778 turkeys. Henry County is one of a few counties that continue to see a harvest that's on the rise. They took 608 birds in 2006 and 675 in 2007.
Region IV's Greene County continued to be among the state's most productive turkey counties and claimed the fourth spot statewide with a harvest of 773 springtime birds. Like Dickson County, that total is very different from its 2006 harvest of 1,106 turkeys. But Greene County is the only county outside of Region I or Region II that appears in the top 10 turkey counties statewide. The fifth top position was filled by Region I's Hardeman County: Hunters tagged 673 wild turkeys there. One of Hardeman County's best harvests was in 2005 when hunters tagged 739 birds. They took 637 turkeys in 2007.
Giles County maintained its presence among the elite turkey counties with a sixth place finish in 2008 with 665 birds harvested. Giles County was far better in 2005 with 943 birds tagged and 893 in 2006. Maury County hunters posted a kill of 657 turkeys in the seventh spot. Maury County did have one of the best harvests in 2007 when hunters took 778 birds. Carroll County's harvest of 624 turkeys last spring was good enough for the eighth spot overall. That's much improved over the 2006 totals of 494 and 505 in 2007.
Coming in at the ninth position statewide is where you'll find Rutherford County's harvest of 544 turkeys. Rutherford's best posting came in 2006 with 737 birds harvested. The 10th and final spot in the top 10 turkey counties in Tennessee last spring was taken by Hardin County's 516 birds. Hardin County was much better in 2005 with 722 turkeys taken and with 771 in the record year of 2006.
There are six other counties statewide that deserve an honorable mention for their harvest efforts in 2008. Robertson County took 511 birds. Hawkins and Weakley counties both took 507 turkeys, while Hickman, Lincoln and Wilson counties each posted 506 birds. As a side note, there were another dozen counties statewide that posted harvest numbers of more than 400 birds in each. That just shows how strong the turkey population is statewide. Statistically speaking, that means nearly one-third of our 95 counties featured harvests of more than 400 turkeys.
LAST YEAR'S TOP WMA SPRING HUNTS
Among public hunting grounds in Tenne
ssee, the huge Cherokee WMA was way out front with a 2008 spring harvest of 178 turkeys. Keep in mind that the Cherokee totals include 44 birds taken at North Cherokee and 134 turkeys taken in South Cherokee. Still, that's impressive.
For those wondering where the Fort Campbell totals are, the TWRA didn't list those in the harvest figures. The best guess is that Fort Campbell doesn't differentiate between birds harvested in Tennessee and Kentucky, leaving an inconclusive harvest figure on this side of the border. In the past, Fort Campbell has kicked in as many as 180 turkeys to the WMA spring totals.
Getting back to the numbers that do count, Land Between The Lakes (LBL) took the second top spot for spring WMA turkey harvests with 91 birds. The LBL totals were slightly off its normal harvest, which are generally well over 100 birds.
The third overall best turkey WMA in 2008 was filled by Chuck Swan WMA with 90 turkeys tagged. That figure is close to its springtime average, and Chuck Swan is one of the more consistent WMAs out there. Hunters have taken as many as 150 birds in the past during a spring hunt there, however.
Coming in at the fourth place position for spring turkey hunts is Milan Arsenal with a 2008 spring harvest of 87 turkeys, which isn't far off its normal harvest numbers. Cheatham WMA's harvest of 73 turkeys was good enough for the fifth place spot, but that number is down from hunts in the past. Cheatham produced as many as 98 turkeys in 2006 but has fallen off the pace the last couple of years.
Taking the sixth top WMA spot was Catoosa WMA with a 2008 harvest of 70 turkeys. That figure is well off the harvest from recent years when Catoosa chipped in more than 100 birds during the 2005 and 2006 hunts.
The next spot was filled by another WMA that's seen a turn downward in spring turkey harvests. AEDC was seventh overall in 2008 where 53 turkeys were harvested. The area produced 99 birds in 2006.
Coming in at the eighth slot and farther down the harvest numbers ladder is Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Natchez Trace, both with a harvest of 29 turkeys in 2008. That figure is fairly consistent for Natchez Trace but well off the mark for Tennessee NWR, where hunters killed 75 birds in 2006.
The 10th and final spot among the top WMA spring destinations was taken by Big South Fork. Big South Fork hunters kicked in a total of 22 turkeys to the 2008 spring harvest.
From these WMA harvest numbers, you can see which public hunting lands are more consistent in recent years. If you have a WMA near you, you shouldn't overlook any opportunity to hunt there. But if you're a hardcore turkey guy or gal, there are WMA opportunities better than others across the Volunteer State, and all are within driving distance -- take advantage.
Mother Nature has had a lot to do with lowered turkey harvests the last couple of seasons. But what can we expect in the way of numbers and success in 2009? From what Anderson is seeing and hearing from the field, he is optimistic for the upcoming spring hunts.
"I believe we will have a great season if the weather holds," said Anderson recently. "We have healthy population numbers across the state, but Mother Nature has not cooperated the last two years."
He added we're starting the season on March 28, which is the earliest we can start under our current system.
"This gives our hunters a few extra days before and during peak gobbling," Anderson said. "I expect a record year of greater than 36,000 birds if the weather behaves."
One positive Anderson is looking at is last summer and fall's poult counts. He said all is fine with our statewide poult counts. He added we had an extended breeding season, probably because of the relatively wet spring. Hens were either delaying nesting efforts or re-nesting after failed nests well into June. Believe it or not, Anderson said our peak nesting period actually finally trailed off in early July.
The final estimate was 4.9 poults per brood, which is right on our long-term average. For those of us that aren't biologists, this means about 50 percent of hatched eggs made it out of brood age-classes. And the best news is all regions appear to have similar results.
Despite the continuing drought across the Tennessee Valley, turkey populations and poult recruitment are holding their own. Anderson said all the TWRA's data points to 2008 being an average year. Like he said, given the freeze and the drought, average is a good thing. Last spring's freeze hit before peak nesting. He's sure it affected some hens and nests, but the majority of our nesting population was in pre-nesting stages. Fortunately, poults are not totally reliant on permanent water, so Anderson said they did fine.
One factor that continues to boost our turkey harvest numbers is the fall hunting season. The fall harvest should be higher this year because a handful of "new" counties were added to the fall quota hunt opportunity. Plus, Volunteer hunters still have the opportunity to take a turkey during the statewide archery season.
Anderson said the agency added Anderson, Benton, Blount and Knox Counties to the fall hunt regimen in 2008. The fall harvest opportunities were also increased in Davidson, Moore and White counties. Out of the 95 counties statewide, 69 of them are now open for fall hunts.
From biologists' perspective, fall turkey seasons are not so much a management tool designed to increase harvest as they are a tool that increases the opportunity for hunters to be in the woods. In the fall of 2007, Anderson said, we set a record with 3,007 birds harvested in the fall. About two-thirds of those birds were hens.
The experienced biologist pointed out a population can sustain about a 10 percent fall harvest with no negligible effects. He added that since we harvest about only 1 percent of our population in the fall, that hunt is not having a negative influence on overall turkey numbers. Anderson said the fall hunts were established as a control technique, but with lack of participation, it has turned into an additional opportunity to hunt.
Anderson doesn't expect any regulation changes from bag limit increases or decreases next spring. The best definition of why is that all counties are still open to turkey hunting and the state population is increasing.
"I get local reports of 'no turkeys present' in one area, but then I get a conflicting report of 'record numbers' in a nearby area," Anderson said. "There may be pockets that were hit hard by the freeze or the drought, plus there are areas where hunters overharvest their birds. These areas may be low for now, but overall, we are fine."
When asked where he would hunt statewide or which specific WMAs he would try, Anderson said in the right habitat, all our counties are great. However, as a resident of Middle Tennessee, he would focus on south-central Tennessee -- whi
ch he said has fantastic turkey hunting. But he would also like to get to East Tennessee and try to go after the mountain birds for a change of tactics and scenery.
Again, he would hit the Middle Tennessee WMAs not just out of convenience, but because they do also have great birds. On the other hand, Anderson said he would love to get to the West Tennessee WMAs to hunt the big-timber river bottoms.
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