Illinois Turkey Forecast for 2015

Illinois Turkey Forecast for 2015
This decoy has been successful at luring in longbeards on a number of occasions.

This decoy has been successful at luring in longbeards on a number of occasions.

Rain, wind and cold temperatures were the conditions Illinois turkey hunters faced the first week of the 2014 spring turkey season throughout the state. The late spring left the woods looking more like late deer season than spring turkey season.

My husband John just so happened to be one of those folks drawn to turkey hunt the first week — also the shortest week of the combined five seasons. This is not the first time John was drawn to hunt the first week. However, it was one of the few times turkey season ended for him unsuccessfully. As we left the woods on the last day of the first Illinois turkey season, we could only wonder how the harvest statistics would compare to last year. Could it be that all Illinois spring turkey hunters were going to sing the blues, or were some areas of the state doing better than others?

The preliminary statistics are in, and spring turkey hunters harvested only 13,513 birds. This is a decrease of 620 turkeys taken when compared to 14,133 birds in 2013. Also worth mentioning is that spring turkey harvest statistics have been on the decline since 2012 when 15,941 turkeys were taken, compared to 14,133 in 2013. Although I hate to sound like gloom and doom, I think it is important to mention that this is the lowest harvest since 2005 when spring turkey hunters took 14,968 birds. So, what is going on with our Illinois turkeys?

Hens are always wreaking havoc on spring turkey hunters; however, 2014 was one of the worst years John and I have experienced. The toms would gobble, and the hens would immediately run to them. We tried everything known to run-and-gun hunters. I recall one occasion that we set up a decoy on the edge of a field and had a longbeard gobbling on the roost approximately 100 yards from our location. He answered our calls, and we thought we might be in business. The tom flew down and continued gobbling and coming our way. Then John saw the dandy longbeard just out of gun range, strutting, drumming and staring at the decoy. However, a hen came running in and took the tom in the opposite direction.

Paul Brewer assumed the position as the Illinois Wild Turkey Project Manager in 2011; however, he retired late last year. Paul Shelton, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Forest Wildlife Program Manager, has been assigned the task of covering his position as well as Brewer's. Shelton was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for me.

I asked him about the vast amount of hens hunters reported seeing during the fall deer season. I wondered if the hen/gobbler ratio might have influenced spring turkey harvests.

"There's no evidence that our rates of gobbler mortality have increased, and our season quotas help guard against that eventuality. Our biggest problem has been a lack of reproductive success, and that doesn't appear to have improved this year (2014)," stated Shelton. He also shared that, in his opinion, there is not much change in the hen/gobbler ratio.

John and I have heard from other hunters that they have found turkeys that seem to have fallen victim to predators. And typically the turkeys found have been toms. There are those that wonder if a strutting bird does not invite predators such as coyotes to sneak up behind them and make an easy meal for the "opportunist" hunter.

Early Season

As mentioned earlier, John has been successful several times in the past while hunting the first week of spring turkey season. Some hunters refuse to apply for that week simply because of the early dates and the short time allotted. Some hunters complain the woods is so open you cannot hide from the eyes of the elusive wild turkey and the breeding oftentimes is at the peak during the early spring season dates, causing hens to be very obstinate and running away with "your" gobbler!

I asked Shelton his opinion on the possibility Illinois would change season dates, giving more time to the first week of spring turkey season.

"Right now, many people will opt for the second (or later seasons) because they offer more days of hunting and/or weekend days. So, if you want to hunt the most uneducated birds (i.e., first season), you have to be willing to give up a little season length and the presence of a weekend day. We have no plans to lengthen the first season," he said.

First Season Zone Stats

Statistics show that both North and South Zone hunters have done well during the first week of spring turkey season. For example, North Zone first season hunters harvested 2,522 birds in 2012, 1,742 turkeys in 2013 and 1,848 toms in 2014. Compare this to second week totals when 2,030 birds were taken during the 2012 season, 1,709 taken in 2013 and 1,744 taken in 2014.

As you can see, the North Zone numbers dropped markedly and by the fifth season, spring turkey harvest statistics declined drastically. Hunters took 905 turkeys in 2012, 1,046 in 2013 and 856 in 2014 during the fifth spring turkey season.

South Zone first season spring turkey hunters tagged 1,907 birds in 2012, 1,568 in 2013 and 1,448 gobblers in 2014. South Zone hunters drawn for second through fifth season also saw declines in the harvest numbers. For example, those hunting the second week of season in 2012 decreased by 512 turkeys since the total harvest included only 1,395 birds, 1,374 taken in 2013 and 1,200 birds harvested during the second week of spring turkey season in 2014. By the time the fifth season ended, harvest statistics declined considerably when 871 birds were tagged in 2012, 1,004 in 2013 and 1,076 in 2014.

An interesting statistic came from a chart provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). It showed that the first week totals for the North Zone decreased by 780 birds in 2013 when compared to 2012. However, in 2014, even though the total statistics dropped, first season North Zone spring turkey hunters actually took 106 more birds, compared to 2013.

Youth Spring Turkey

Youth spring turkey hunting dates for 2014 included April 5-6 for the North Zone hunters and March 29-30 for South Zone hunters.

Preliminary reports indicate that youth with spring turkey hunting permits totaled 4,219 last year and that the preliminary harvest total was 718 turkeys, compared to 923 in 2013 and 1,300 birds in 2012. Also worth mentioning is that the number of youth permits sold in 2012 totaled 4,100, compared to 4,219 in 2014. Birds harvested during the youth turkey season in 2012 totaled 1,300, compared to 718 last year.

These harvest totals do not include successful youth hunters during the regular season dates. Unfortunately there are no statistics available for the number of youth hunters in 2013, but statistics do show that the harvest number declined by 582 birds between 2012 and 2014. It also appears that the number of youth holding permits has increased, whereas the harvest has decreased. This is always cause for concern.

Poor weather conditions throughout Illinois occurred during youth season and the regular hunting seasons. Weather is always a concern for the turkey hunter. When inclement weather occurs, many hunters cancel the hunt and wait for better days. On a good note, many youth also purchase hunting season licenses and get to hunt more than just the short youth season. Of course, our youth have other obligations, such as attending school and sports activities, so their hunting time can sometimes be cut short. Naturally, fewer hunters afield means lower harvest statistics.

So, let us look at how turkey harvest numbers tallied for South and North Zone counties throughout the Prairie State last year.

Top South Zone Counties

Jefferson County has made the Top 5 harvest list every year since 2007. Last year put them in the limelight once again since the preliminary report shows that spring season turkey hunters took 399 gobblers. That was a slight decrease compared to 2013, when 411 toms were taken.

Pope County spring turkey hunters harvested 352 turkeys, Randolph County (326), Jackson County (322) and Union County hunters reported that 301 birds were harvested in their preliminary report.

Also worth mentioning is that Pope and Randolph counties in the South Zone made the Top 5 list consecutively since 2008, whereas Jackson County spring turkey hunters have failed to be included annually since 2005. It is always a plus to see a county that has not been rated high on the harvest list appear, especially when the state harvest tally has declined.

Union County spring turkey hunters occasionally make the grade and have been included on the Top 5 list in 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2014. This is good news considering the fact that even though statistics are down, Union County hunters managed to harvest more turkeys during the spring season last year (2014) than in 2013, and they made the Top 5 list in 2011 — the wettest April in recorded history.

Wayne County spring turkey hunters did not make the Top 5 list last year; however, they were included in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Top North Zone Counties

North Zone counties included in the Top 5 list last year were Jo Daviess with 594 birds, Fulton (364), Adams (300), Pike (298) and Macoupin with 259 turkeys harvested.

Interestingly enough, when you compare Illinois and Indiana, the bulk of the spring turkey harvest occurs in the southern portion of Indiana. This could be because Indiana has a lot of diversity in the southern portion that includes farm fields and woodlots. The southern portion of Illinois consists mostly of farm fields and open pasture, making the North Zone with its diversity more appealing to turkeys.

Jo Daviess County hunters managed to increase their harvest during the spring season by 42 birds taken in 2014, compared to 552 taken in 2013. This is slightly lower than the 638 turkeys taken in 2012, but still good news since Illinois harvest total declined in 2014. In addition, it is worth mentioning that Jo Daviess (located at the very northern section of Illinois) suffered severe winter conditions in 2013.

Fulton County (located farther south in the northern part of the Prairie State) hunters can be proud to claim their preliminary harvest total of 364 in 2014, compared to 328 birds in 2013.

Adams County spring turkey hunters show an increase in the preliminary harvest when compared to 290 turkeys taken in 2013. However, it is important to note that harvest totals from 2008 included 507 birds, 2009 had 421 and 2010 had 406. As you can see, the harvest tally decreases annually. Poor poult production and weather have negatively affected this west-central county located in the lower portion of the North Zone.

I questioned Shelton as to his opinion on decreased harvest numbers and poult production. "Our poult production has been poor for a number of years, with an all-time low in 2013. Our poult/hen index in 2013 was 1.81, compared to a previous 10-year mean of 2.27. We've had more than our share of cold, wet spring weather during the past several years, and that hasn't helped," noted Shelton.

He also shared with me that west-central Illinois counties seems to be some of the hardest hit areas as far as poult production due to long periods of inclement weather.

North and South

North Zone spring turkey hunters have held the lead consistently in harvest statistics for many years. This fact remains unchanged for 2014. Preliminary reports show that North Zone spring turkey hunters took a total 7,330 birds, compared to the South Zone spring turkey hunting participants, who harvested 6,184 gobblers.

When comparing North Zone to South Zone harvest statistics from 2012 to 2013, North Zone hunters decreased by 1,299 turkeys, whereas South Zone spring turkey hunters harvested 513 fewer birds between 2012 and 2013. It just appears that all Illinois spring turkey hunters are struggling, and that is quite evident in the harvest statistics.

What Hunters Can Expect

Illinois is one of many states that seem to be seeing lower harvest statistics. Although this fact does not bring much comfort, it is evident that the Prairie State is not alone. I questioned Shelton as to his thoughts on what we can expect this year.

"I look for us to be in the range of 12,000 to 14,000 birds, very similar to the past couple of years," Shelton said.

He also shared with me that, until we see an improvement in the reproduction success rate over the course of a few years, we probably would maintain lower hunter success rates.

While all this is not necessarily good news, it could affect the number of hunters heading to the woods in pursuit of that most amazing bird —the Eastern wild turkey.

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