February 26, 2016
When it comes to turkey hunting, everything can change in mere minutes. Still, you have to be at the right place at the right minute to be successful. And the conditions need to be just right.
As an example, compare my 2015 season opener hunt with the previous year. During the opening week of the 2014 spring turkey season, weather conditions felt more like late winter than spring. Last year, we enjoyed daytime temperatures more comparable to early summer.
While many wild turkey hens had not even begun seeking out a suitable nesting site at that point in 2014, hens last year were already in the process of laying eggs for the annual reproductive season.
At this point in 2014, wintering flocks were just beginning to disperse. In 2015, many of the wintering flocks had separated and scattered throughout their normal range.
Carlinville resident Randy Link and I spent the first three days of the 2015 North Zone season peering out tiny windows of our over-sized blind. Though the blind would be considered roomy for most hunters, our large chairs, hunting bags and abundant supply of food items filled the camouflaged dwelling to near capacity.
In Macoupin County, Link and I had been on a relatively long success roll until 2014. The only turkey dinner we each enjoyed that year originated in a local grocery store.
While 2015 brought more success, a pre-Thanksgiving trip to the grocery store was still in the plans. This trip, however, was only for cranberries.
When it comes to hunting, I always follow a strict routine. In my opinion, this routine has proven to be the reason for success. If anything changes, I run the chance of an unsuccessful hunt.
For instance, during my annual Pike County deer hunt, I follow a long-established routine. It begins during my drive to Pike County. I always stop at the same service station, purchase the same snacks and arrive at our clubhouse the same time.
Any variation to this effort can prove detrimental to my hunting success. This same unwavering routine comes into play during the annual turkey hunt.
We arrive at our designated parking spot at the same time, set up in our blind at the same time and dine on bacon or sausage sandwiches. A bit later, we enjoy the same famous chocolate chip muffins provided by a friend living nearby.
Like much of the week, rain was in the forecast on opening day. Much of our opening morning was devoted to listening to nearby thunder and hearing the pitter patter of occasional raindrops hitting the roof of the blind.
In fact, the highlight of this day was listening at first light to nearly a dozen different birds gobbling in the trees anywhere from 100 to several hundred yards from our location. Slightly later, we could hear clucks and purrs from numerous hens also in the same location.
As most experienced hunters will admit, competing with real hens is virtually a useless proposition. Still, we tried and nothing happened.
Gertrude, our decoy who has helped in our previous success, seemed like she was no longer attractive.
Anyway, that special minute we needed never happened.
Day two brought more of the same. Once again, the day began with multiple birds gobbling in the trees. And the hens again made their presence known almost immediately.
Like the first day, the hens led the gobblers off to some unknown location and we were allowed to enjoy our snacks in peace.
Our highlight this day was watching a young hen deposit one of her eggs in a nearby nest. This was something Link and I had never seen. The nest was located about 60 yards from our blind, and once the egg was laid the hen went on her merry way to enjoy breakfast.
Though we heard plenty of gobbling from all around the blind, day three began much like the others. We again found ourselves surrounded by hens. And the birds again strolled off to distant locations.
This time, however, the nesting hen returned to deposit another egg. Best of all, she was accompanied by an entourage of gobblers and jakes (young male turkeys).
Though the hen went straight to her nest, this did not discourage the gobblers. The big males strutted and gobbled all around her, while the younger birds acted more like lovelorn teenagers.
Still, this did not impact the actions of the hen. She continued with her nesting efforts and ignored all the male birds. She finally hopped off the nest and made a sudden exit to another part of the woods.
After a couple of soft clucks from our calls, they immediately turned their attention to Gertrude. Her charm had apparently returned, and our minute had finally arrived.
All of the males quickly came to our decoy, and the remainder is history. Our plan was to count backwards from five and shoot on one. After years of rehearsals, the plan worked perfectly.
We both returned home toting the main ingredient for our Thanksgiving dinners.
A LOOK AT LAST SEASON
Apparently, there were plenty of other Illinois hunters enjoying success last year. Success rates in many Illinois counties were running ahead of the previous year.
As with several of the recent spring seasons, Illinois' 2015 spring wild turkey hunt was significantly influenced by the early-spring weather. That time, however, it was good weather that positively impacted hunter success rates.
Following the nearly five-week 2015 season that concluded May 14 in the North Zone and May 7 in the South Zone, Illinois hunters bagged an unofficial total of 14,999 wild turkeys.
The 2015 total compares favorably with the statewide turkey harvest of 13,514 in 2014. The 2015 statewide preliminary total included the youth turkey season harvest of 896 birds, compared with youth season harvest of 781 turkeys in 2014.
The record spring season harvest occurred in 2006, with a total of 16,605 birds. During this record year, harvests were 6,530 in the South Zone and 10,075 in the North Zone.
Turkey hunters in 2015 took a preliminary total of 6,387 wild turkeys during all season segments in the South Zone, a slight increase over the 2014 harvest of 6,184 in the south. The 2015 North Zone preliminary harvest total of 8,612 wild turkeys was considerably higher than the 2014 total of 7,330 in the north.
"Turkey hunters in the North Zone (during 2015), particularly in west-central Illinois, benefitted from improved turkey reproductive success during the spring of 2014," said IDNR Forest Wildlife Biologist Paul Shelton. "This was evident from the improved harvest numbers in those areas and a higher proportion of jakes in the harvest than we've seen in many years."
The top counties for spring wild turkey harvest in the South Zone in 2015 were Jefferson (433), Pope (366), Marion (333), Union (312) and Randolph (300).
The top five North Zone counties for spring turkey harvest this year were Jo Daviess (601), Fulton (401), Adams (389), Pike (341) and Macoupin (328).
At the close of the 2015 season, most biologists were hopeful that the good spring weather would help turkeys rebound in some areas where populations had declined somewhat. In many areas throughout the state, hunters could see a major increase in numbers.
However, the most important long-term key to improving wild turkey populations will be habitat management, particularly for nesting and brood rearing habitat.
During 2015, spring turkey hunting was permitted in 100 of Illinois' 102 counties. The 2015 seasons were April 6-May 7 in the South Zone and April 13-May 14 in the North Zone.
The youth spring turkey season was March 28-29 in the South Zone and April 4-5 in the North Zone.
THIS YEAR'S OUTLOOK
Though much of the 2016 wild turkey population information was not yet available as this story was prepared, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist Ed Zwicker said the outlook was certainly somewhat improved from recent years.
Zwicker, who is also an avid wild turkey hunter, said last year's harvest contained a much larger percentage of jakes than it has in several years. This is a prime indicator that the 2013 wild turkey reproduction was significantly improved over the last few years.
"Many local hunters also reported seeing more jakes than they have in several years," Zwicker said. "In addition, I heard numerous reports last year from folks seeing more turkey broods."
While these incidents may not sound all that dependable, they do give turkey hunters hope that these bird populations are improving.According to Zwicker, The IDNR has designated spotters watching for turkey broods each summer. The number and size of these broods can heavily impact the following spring's wild turkey outlook.
Though this information had not yet been compiled, the reports are in, and the preliminary comments seem mostly favorable.
There is still one more factor to help determine the spring turkey season outlook. That would be the results from the previous fall's hunt. While these statistics alone would likely be a poor indication of the spring outlook, it carries much more weight when combined with other information.
Last year brought a nearly 20 percent harvest increase for Illinois fall firearm turkey hunters. And many hunters are now claiming the greatly improved results from the annual fall firearm hunt may be a harbinger of better things ahead for spring hunters.
During the nine-day fall firearm season that wrapped up on Nov. 1, hunter harvest totals in many open counties showed the best improvement in several years. The preliminary harvest figures show hunters bagging a total of some 532 birds, up from the 444 wild turkeys taken during the 2014 fall firearm hunt — a very disappointing season.
According to some hunters, the improvement in harvest is likely due to a significant improvement in turkey reproduction efforts last spring.
While this may be partly true, some of the improved harvest can be most likely attributed to better hunting weather during the fall hunt.
The early and unofficial figures show Illinois' top five counties for turkey harvest during the 2014 fall firearm hunt included Jo Daviess and Union County, both with 37 birds, Marion and Williamson, tied with 29 each, and Wayne County, which grabbed the fifth spot with 23 turkeys.
At least 36 counties showed increases in harvest, while 18 recorded decreases. Interestingly, many of the greatest increases in harvest came from southern and west-central Illinois.
Compared to the spring hunt, fewer counties are open to fall firearm turkey hunting. And unlike the spring hunt where hunters are limited to taking only bearded birds, fall hunters may harvest birds of either sex.
The fall season does attract considerably fewer hunters. And this may play a significant role in hunter success.
Wild turkeys are basically a very private bird, and coming up with an accurate forecast for a season can be difficult, if not impossible. Still, a hunter can greatly improve his or her odds by scouting the hunting area before the season ever opens. Turkeys are birds of habit and, if left undisturbed, will likely continue the same routine day after day.
YOU NEED TO GO HUNTING
Any veteran hunter will admit, there are few things more heart-stopping than an unexpected thunderous gobble of adult male turkey as it approaches from the rear.
Turkey hunters are typically an unexcitable bunch. Things that send most normal people into a panicky fit are nothing more than everyday occurrences to the average turkey hunter.
Admittedly, it takes a certain type of person to aimlessly wander through the spring woods well before daylight. I've watched many rookie turkey hunters casually stroll into a large spider web, then shout and wave their arms about as though flagging a New York taxi.
On the other hand, I've seen experienced hunters stumble over logs, fall into ground hog holes and step in a deep creeks, all in complete silence, as they carefully maneuver toward a gobbling bird.
It is the gobble, not the kill that excites those who enjoy the thrill of turkey hunting. In fact, most turkey hunters measure their success by the number of gobbles heard each day.
"It was a great day — I must have heard a dozen different birds" is a remark commonly heard from turkey hunters who didn't bag a bird. On the other hand, I've heard many successful hunters almost grudgingly admit the bird they bagged was the only one heard that day.