March 17, 2015
The 2015 spring turkey hunting season is about to debut. Although it could be good news that lies ahead for hunters, there is probably more to the story. We could see a surprising harvest this season, or not! Let's hang on to this turkey hunting forecast for just a moment. Here's a look at some of the factors that will affect the number of turkeys we can expect to see in the woods this season.
Hunters harvested 10,482 wild turkeys during the 45th spring hunting season in 2014, based on reports from 367 check stations and the remaining 43 percent of the harvest records from web check-in systems. Hunters harvested birds in 88 of the state's 92 counties.
Surprisingly, the harvest was 4 percent less than the 11,374 taken during the 2013 spring harvest. But, the news gets worse. The 2013 harvest was 10 percent less than the 2012 harvest of 12,655 birds.
According to Steve Backs, wildlife research biologist, the decrease in the 2014 harvest was likely related to continued low summer brood production over the last decade and possibly what appeared to be a general two-week delay in the onset of the breeding season, perhaps as a result of the abnormally harsh winter.
"Annual harvest levels have been in a slight decline the last few years, with the last two seasons below the 12,000 bird harvest level," said Backs.
In 2013, Backs suggested that the 10 percent harvest decrease was likely related to inclement wet and cool weather that prevailed during the first five days of the hunting season. That's when the tables turned, at least partially. The 2012 harvest showed an 8 percent increase when compared to the 2011 harvest. Even better news were the number of juvenile gobblers sighted during the early summer of 2012. But this didn't last for long. The jake harvest of 2014 accounted for only 17 percent of the total.
Statistics by County
Of no surprise, there were only 17 counties with a harvest of 200 plus birds, compared to 24 counties in 2013. In the spring of 2013, harvests increased in 64 counties, whereas 52 counties showed harvest declines in 2014.
In rounding out the top of the spring 2014 harvest counties, Switzerland ranked No. 1 with 394 turkeys, followed by Harrison, with 363, Jefferson 360, Dearborn 313, Steuben 306, Perry 269, Franklin 268, Greene 260,Washington 248, and Clark and Ripley tied at 241.
There was little difference in most of the Top 10 spring harvest counties of 2013. This time Harrison and Switzerland County swapped the No. 1 and 2 rank with a harvest of 408 and 366 birds respectively. Jefferson County showed a harvest of 363 turkeys, followed by Dearborn 319, Steuben 308, Warrick 291, Marshall 282, Clark 283, Perry 270, and Franklin 269.
North and South
It's not unusual for the southern counties to produce the highest harvests. Such was the case in 2014.
However, a surprising number of counties in the northern half of the state came through in 2014. These included Marshall and Steuben counties. Even in 2014 when harvest statistics were somewhat lower and do not rank in the Top 10, several northern counties show promise. These counties include Allen, Cass, DeKalb, Jackson, Jasper, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Newton and Pulaski.
Yet in west-central Indiana, there has been a decrease in harvests since 2008 due to major flooding that occurred along the Wabash river system. Backs also said that we used to see flocks of 100 turkeys or more, but no longer.
Are there any "sleeper" counties out there? According to Backs, it's difficult to say. However, he does see some shifting when it comes to the last few years of harvests and the how the Top 10 counties have fared.
Examples include Parke and Warrick counties in the southern half of the state. They once ranked near the top, but then the bottom fell out of the better 10 counties. Harrison and Switzerland counties are still holding their own and ranked high.
Also, Steuben County in the north has moved up in ratings and is considered a sleeper. He added that some counties went up in harvest numbers nearly 70 percent and could be considered sleeper counties. He suggested Johnson County where the harvest increased from 23 birds in 2013 to 40 birds in 2014. But, most of these counties, such as Johnson, had low overall harvests and increased only slightly.
"You can go through a few years of boom and bust with turkeys and it kind of goes over a 3- to 4-year period. I can't really tell you if something occurs right after the chicks hatched. It was much easier to keep track when we didn't have turkeys spread across the whole state, " noted Backs.
The real concern, though, could be that we are using up our stockpile of mature gobblers.
It's no big news that harvest numbers have survived off of the accumulation of birds 2 years old and older. Poor brood production and poult survival over past years has caused us to find and kill "older" toms.
One example occurred on opening day in Spencer County last spring when my 10-year-old grandson Luke Trout took his first gobbler ever with a crossbow during the youth season. The huge turkey weighed 24 pounds and carried 1 3/8-inch spurs. He was one proud young hunter!
Two weeks later, I shot shot a Spencer County bird a few miles away. That was probably a 3-year-old tom that also carried a hefty beard and long spurs.
Many of us still remember the good-old-days from nearly 10 years ago. In 2005 we enjoyed a fabulous hatch and excellent brood condition. This large number of juvenile birds carried us for a number of years and allowed us to live off the landâ€¦so to speak. Then, we enjoyed another good year of brood production in 2012. Did these "batches" of young gobblers help to carry us over?
"2012 was an improvement but I wouldn't put it in the same ball park as 2005. You're going to see across the whole Midwest and Southeast decreasing turkey production. We've just had a string of 10 or 12 years of cool and wet summers," explained Backs.
Backs said that this was the new normal. We went through 10 to 20 years of accelerating growth in our turkey population, but as the population in each state starts to age, you are noticing subsequent declines.
"We have seen that prior to 2011, harvests made up 22 to 29 percent of birds 3 years old and older. We also saw that in 2011 when the older birds made up 31 percent of the harvest," explained Backs.
In 2014 harvest reports indicated that 53 percent of the total harvest included gobblers that were 2 years old and older, while 30 percent of those birds harvested were aged 3 years old and older. Two-year-old toms are good news for "gobbling" birds, and good news for finding mature turkeys. However, has the large number of adult birds taken telling us anything?
Backs said that he really looks more at the low 17.1 percent jake harvest. He suggested that if he looks at the better years, when he showed a harvest of 24 percent jakes and higher, you have to ask yourself if you have a harvest of jakes that are 20 percent or lower. How many adult gobblers are out there that hunters select?
"We know that hunters will select adult gobblers, but do we have fewer jakes out there? We had really good summer production when you look at 2004, and we had the 33 percent jake harvest in 2005," explained Backs.
Backs added that the cicada years, the season for all those tasty insects, really helped turkey production in 2004 and 2005. He said that you really see the jump in the number of 2-year-old birds harvested in 2006. Thus, we know that we carry from the good years of turkey production for 2 to 3 years. Backs suggests that if we have 6 to 7 bad years of production after the last 10 years, you are starting to creep into those adult hens. Then you have to wonder how many years it could take to recover from a few years of poor production. He noted that we really don't know.
"I think that's why we are seeing a gradual decline in our harvest," Backs said. "We're not seeing the number of poults to adult hens like we used to."
It has been said that many Midwestern states have been somewhat liberal with their harvests. According to Backs, the fall harvests have been trimmed back. Indiana has also heard suggestions for reducing the number of fall permits that could assist the spring harvest.
By 2004, an estimated 40,000-plus hunters participated in the spring turkey season. That increased to more than 50,00 by the 2006 season, and 60,000 hunters in 2013. However, in 2014, the estimated number of hunters appears to have leveled off to about 59,237.
Backs says when hunters had great hunting seasons, they wanted to participate season-after-season. However, after a couple of bad years, hunter numbers would fall off. Then came along the poor economy. Some hunters quit thinking about turkey hunting.
When you stop and think about things, an estimated 62 hunters pursued the spring wild turkey in 1970. In 1993, more than 13,000 hunted the elusive gobbler, compared to 40,000 plus in 1995. That boom in hunter participation is understandable when you consider the turkey restoration projects, the major expansion of wild turkey flocks over years, and the fact we are now allowed to hunt in all of the state's 92 counties. However, take into consideration that we no longer see a major expansion of wild turkeys into the state.
Hunter Success Rates
When hunter success is calculated, all license types are taken into consideration, including lifetime licenses, those sold to residents and non-residents, youth licenses since 2007 (special 2-day season held prior to the regular spring season opening date), and those permit holders who participated one or more days since 1986 in the spring season.
Hunters showed a success rate of 18 percent in 2014. This compared to a success rate of 19 percent in 2013, and 22 percent in 2012. Fluctuations continued over the next few years, ranging from a whopping 27 percent in 1997.
However, that was the trend when brood production had stabilized. Success rates were extremely lower during much of the 1970s and 1980s. But those were the days when hunters were still "learning the ropes" so to speak and when turkey restoration projects were in high gear. Hunters are now dependent upon brood production.
2014 Brood Production
There was a day 15 to 20 years ago when Backs believed that in most states good fall turkey production was considered four poults per adult bird. That theory has now been scaled back. He now thinks that seeing two poults per adult hen would be great.
The 2013 brood production doesn't appear to be overwhelming, which could have helped the number of 2-year-old birds in 2015. This was demonstrated by the low harvest of juvenile birds taken in 2014. In fact, I also saw only two jakes while hunting the entire season during 2014.
At the time of this writing, brood observations were still under way, with statistics not yet known for 2014. As you know, those brood reports could indicate several poults per hen and plentiful juvenile gobblers in 2015, or not.
According to Backs, early observations showed mixed reports. However, he stated that he often does receive estimated statistics from the late-summer brood reports. For the summer of 2014, he suggested that we had a lot of cooler, moist days, but we didn't have a lot of those fog-choker type of rains that occurred right after the peak of the nesting season.
"In some areas, we've had some pretty good reports, while other folks working in our office report that in their areas, they are not seeing turkeys, rather they are poults or adults," said Backs.
Nonetheless, Backs added that in past years it seemed like they had totally lost the summer production. But when the data came in, it might have been down in a localized area, yet picked it up in another location. Good production has come from the north, although the southern counties have still come through with significant harvests.
"When I look at the northern part of the state, we still have relatively good production, but these are also the last ones (counties) that we put birds into. These counties will also eventually level off," noted Backs.
A Look Ahead
Now for the rest of the story. Does Backs anticipate a great turkey harvest in 2015?
Backs said that we have a lot of unknowns to predict. Yet, he doesn't see any reason for hunters to have a significant harvest increase. Additionally, he hoped we would keep the harvest above 10,000.
"When you look at the (harvest) graph the way things are going, you've got to say that it's dipping down," explained Backs.
As for seeing the harvest dip below 10,000, Backs thought that the possibility does exist. He wrapped up the prediction by saying that we are probably going to observe the harvest leveling off. That's until we see a big increase in turkey production...one of these years.