With a bumper crop of turkeys still on hand, Tennessee has become known as a great turkey-hunting state. (March 2010)
The end of March marks the renewal of two traditions. First, there's the springtime turkey mating rituals with all the gobbling and strutting that goes along with it. Second is the tradition of hunting those gobblers.
With a longstanding tradition of harvesting a lot of turkeys in the spring in Tennessee, things really couldn't get much better than to be in the Volunteer State for the next several weeks.
You already know we set consecutive harvest records for 21 years as the turkey population rebounded big time in the modern era. The string was broken in 2005, but a new record of over 38,000 birds being harvested was set in 2006. The last two or three years have been a little up and down, but who could ever complain about living in a state where more than 30,000 birds are harvested annually in the springtime alone?
Tag on another 3,000 birds being taken on the fall hunt opportunity each year, and the turkey situation here in the Volunteer State is the envy of many other states across the country. If you live in Tennessee, you live within the borders of one of the best turkey destinations out there.
As you'll read a little farther down, the springtime weather has hurt turkey hunting slightly in the last few seasons, but the weather's effects may work to our advantage finally this year. There are a lot of birds in the 2-year-plus category roaming the woods and fields of the state this spring. Put yourself in their way, and this could be a great spring!
With a bumper crop of turkeys still at hand, Tennessee has become a state known not only for serious fishing and great deer hunting but also for its turkeys. Let's take a look at where you need to be to get your bird this spring.
The State Of The Turkey Union
Before we get into the meat of this look at where your springtime birds will come from this year, let's a take a look at the state of Tennessee's Turkey Union. In other words, how our turkey population is doing through the eyes of our state turkey coordinator, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) Gray Anderson.
There's no doubt the turkey hunting has been just a little tougher the last two springs in certain areas and better in others. Colder than normal springtime weather and late frosts can be blamed for the most part, but things are definitely looking up this year. Anderson likes what he thinks hunters will find this spring. He believes we will have another good year in 2010.
"Last year our 2-year-old birds were hatched from the 2007 Easter freeze and the 2007 drought, and we saw a significant increase in jake harvest as a result," explained Anderson. "There were not that many 2-year-plus birds out there. This year should be better for that two-plus age-class, so I hope our hunters see the results in their bag."
The nasty spring weather last year will still be playing a slight role this spring. Anderson said the poult counts came out okay, but the wet spring probably lengthened our nesting season and therefore lengthened our brood-rearing season. So far, brood counts appear similar to previous years, except that we are seeing young broods later in the year. The end results are that hunters may see quite a difference in jake sizes in the spring harvest because of this extended nesting season. But that's something we hunters can deal with readily. It'll make it even easier to distinguish them from more mature birds.
In recent years, we've had to deal with drought effects more than that of too much rain. Last spring and throughout most of 2009, we had plenty of rain. Anderson said he thinks adult birds should have no problem. But too much water can harm nesting efforts and very small poults. Again, the agency believes there was an extended nesting season this year because of the heavy spring rains.
With the overall harvest in 2009 remaining about the same as 2008, Anderson said hunters would have the ability to harvest four birds again this spring and plenty of opportunity this season. Anderson said the agency plans no regulation changes this year and all limits remain constant, including the option of taking a bonus bird on quota hunts and specifically designated WMAs. And don't forget, the young guns get the first crack at turkeys on the spring hunt, with a youth hunt opportunity happening the weekend before the regular spring season.
Over the years, I have put biologists and wildlife officers on the spot by asking them where they would hunt in the state if they could choose anywhere. Anderson was quick to say he would choose to hunt the counties in extreme northeast Tennessee and in the south-central counties of the state. When it comes to springtime WMAs, Anderson said he would love to hit Cherokee, Chuck Swan and Natchez Trace.
If you don't get your fill of turkey hunting this spring, don't forget the fall opportunity in many of our counties. The fall hunts aren't really as much of a harvest management tool as they are an extra chance to be in the field for hunters in the counties that have sufficient turkey populations.
In fact, Anderson said fall hunts have very little impact on the total turkey harvest. All told, we take less than 3,000 fall turkeys per year out of an estimated population of 300,000 birds. Anderson added research shows you can take up to 10 percent of the flock in the fall without harm, and we are well below that number.
One regulation change that hunters do need to keep in mind is that the fall turkey season has changed from a split season as in years past to a combined 12-day season in December. On an even more positive note, Gibson County was added to the fall hunt lineup and opportunities were expanded in Clay, Carroll, Henry, Madison and Weakley counties.
2009'S BEST SPRING TURKEY COUNTIES
Governor Phil Bredesen signed a Bill in June of 2009 naming Giles County as the "Turkey Capital of Tennessee." That happens to be the county that hosts the Governor's One Shot Turkey Hunt each year, but it may not have sat well with hunters in the other counties, such as Dickson and Greene, that usually lead the state harvest.
But before we get into the top 2009 turkey counties, we're going to tease you 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 -- a figure that still stands as the overall state harvest record. In 2007, we were significantly below that figure with a harvest of 34,256 turkeys. The 2008 and 2009 seasons had similar harvests of just over 33,000 birds, respectively, but the 2010 hunts look very promising with some older birds now in the population.
The 2006 season was also the last time any county eclipsed the 1,000-bird mark: That year, Greene County produced 1,106 birds, while Dickson County posted 1,014.
This year, the turkey population is stable after surviving some hard freezes and droughts the last two or three years. If the weather cooperates this spring, this year's harvest should be at least in line with the last few years' harvests.
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.
For a few years now, Dickson County and Greene County have battled it out for the right to be called the best turkey-hunting county in the state. Last spring, however, Greene County hunters killed significantly more birds than hunters in any other county did. While Greene County did not break its 2006 record, the 2009 total of 917 birds was head and shoulders above everyone else: No other county exceeded 800 birds harvested.
Montgomery County hunters were in a familiar spot with the second highest harvest last spring with 790 birds tagged. Likewise, Henry County hunters were in familiar territory in third with a total harvest of 781 gobblers.
Dickson County fell from the No. 1 spot in 2008 to fourth in 2009 with a harvest of 736 turkeys. This does not indicate some sort of long-term quality decline for Dickson County, though. For example, Greene County suffered a similar fate in 2008 when it was in the fourth spot.
Giles County, the State Capital of Turkey Hunting, moved up from sixth in 2008 to the fifth spot in the spring of 2009 with a take of 663 birds. Hawkins County made a return to the top 10 after an absence in 2008 with a harvest of 645 turkeys last spring.
Robertson County hunters also cracked the top 10 of turkey-hunting destinations with their tagging of 643 birds. Rutherford County moved from ninth in 2008 to eighth in 2009 with an impressive harvest of 636 turkeys.
On the flipside, Hardeman County stayed in the top 10 with a harvest of 625 birds but fell from the fifth spot in 2008. Maury County hunters held on to the last of the top 10 spots as 10th with a take of 609 birds. They were seventh in 2008. It's also interesting to note that all of the top 10 harvests in the spring of 2009 were above 600 birds. That wasn't the case in the spring of 2008 when Hardin County rounded out the top 10 with a take of 516 turkeys overall.
Also, hunters again have an increased harvest option each fall with the quota hunts held in several counties across the state. A huge majority of the state's 95 counties now participate in the fall hunts with more added this year. Over 2,000 birds are normally added on these fall hunts each year. Region II counties produce the most fall birds, with anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 coming from these areas, respectively. Region I and Region III's fall harvests usually total around 150 birds or so each. In Region IV, the ante is upped a little with a normal fall harvest falling around 300 or so turkeys.
LAST YEAR'S BEST WMA SPRING HUNTS
Looking at the WMA spring harvest, you'll see which public hunting grounds are on top in Tennessee. The Cherokee WMA was way out front during the 2008 spring hunts. This year, we'll break down the Cherokee totals into two separate categories to shake things up a bit, but the WMA's totals are still strong even when separated.
For those wondering where the Fort Campbell totals are, the TWRA didn't list those in the 2009 WMA harvest figures. Again, 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. For the record, Fort Campbell has kicked in as many as 180 turkeys to the WMA spring totals.
Despite separating the Cherokee WMAs, the South Cherokee Unit still led the WMA spring harvest totals with 150 birds harvested. The Land Between The Lakes was again second in 2009 with 110 turkeys taken. Chuck Swan WMA and Milan AAP held onto their respective spots in third and fourth again in 2009. Chuck Swan produced 105 springtime birds, followed by Milan's harvest of 98 turkeys. The top five was rounded out by the other unit of the Cherokee WMA, with 85 turkeys taken at North Cherokee.
Cheatham WMA remained strong in the spring of 2009 with a harvest of 84 turkeys to take the sixth spot, followed by another strong outing by Catoosa WMA hunters with a kill of 77 turkeys. Chickasaw NWR is a fresh face to the top 10 WMA harvests with 70 turkeys tagged for the eighth spot. Despite an increase from 2008, AEDC fell from the seventh position that spring to the ninth spot in 2009 with a harvest of 66 birds. Yanahli WMA is another newcomer to the top 10 with a take of 60 birds to round out the best WMA hunts in the spring of 2009.
Make note that the Tennessee NWR, Natchez Trace WMA and Big South Fork WMA fell out of their top 10 positions from the spring of 2008. Increased harvests at the WMAs in 2009's top public hunts pushed these three good WMAs out of the top. None of these three that were in the top WMAs in 2008 had more than 30 birds killed that year and even fewer kills in the spring of 2009.
Also, keep in mind that the fall hunts on WMAs kick in another 100-plus birds annually. The WMA fall turkey hunts are led in a big way by the opportunities at Chuck Swan WMA, which usually produces a fall harvest of 60 to 70 or more birds each year. Yanahli WMA is the closest public fall hunt behind Chuck Swan with a fall harvest up to as many as 30 birds or so.
In case you've forgotten, count yourself lucky to be living in one of the best states in which to hunt turkeys in the country. Yes, some counties in Tennessee 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 -- it's turkey time in Tennessee.