I must begin by saying that turkey season was always one my husband John and I looked forward to from one year to the next. However, my beloved hunting buddy went home to the Lord on Dec. 22 of 2014. John's best friend, Tim Hilsmeyer, asked me if I would accompany him in the turkey woods. He knew John and I always enjoyed double-teaming turkeys, and I happily accepted his offer.
I could not believe my eyes when a dandy tom arrived just beyond gun range. One gentle cluck later, the gobbler was on the ground. Even more astonishing is another longbeard that seemed to materialize out of thin air was on his way to stomp all over my dead turkey. Tim wasted no time in taking him down. And — just like that — we were both done on opening day!
Also worth mentioning is that both gobblers were taken in the late afternoon. Morning hours consistently boast higher harvest statistics than afternoon. And even though many hunters (myself included) were complaining that turkey sightings and gobblers heard were down, Tim and I both killed mature birds. This left me scratching my head as I pondered how other Hoosier spring turkey hunters were faring.
Hoosier hunters have three different methods for checking in their turkeys. This includes 335 check stations, the internet at "Check-IN-Game" and via phone.
An estimated 55,531 hunters harvested 11,853 wild turkeys during the 46th spring hunting season in 2015, an increase over the spring of 2014 when 10,872 turkeys were harvested. Also worth mentioning is that the harvest of 2014 was the lowest number since 2004, when 10,765 birds were taken.
Although last year's (2015) harvest increased, 19 counties experienced decline. For example, Clinton and Greene, located in Central Indiana, reported decreased harvests. Clinton County had no harvest, while Greene declined by 27 birds since they reported 233 birds taken in 2014. Jefferson County (southeast Indiana) has made the top 10 for the last several years. However, they suffered a decline of 4 percent when only 233 birds were reported harvested, compared to 260 in 2014.
According to Steve Backs, wildlife research biologist, "We are in transition from a growing population of a decade ago where we reached a peak, to a leveling off production maintenance."
Backs also shared that because we are no longer in the restoration (growth) phase, there are changes in poults per hen ratio, impacting hunter opportunity and success rates.
In the spring of 2015 turkey season, 65 counties increased harvests, eight counties reported no change and 19 counties had declined harvests. There were 26 counties in Indiana that boasted harvests of 200-plus birds, compared to 17 counties in 2014.
Top counties for spring 2015 turkey harvests included Harrison (380), Switzerland (360), Jefferson (346), Steuben (337), Dearborn (331), Perry (308), Warrick (297), Franklin (269), Clark (268) and Crawford (250).
Harrison County's harvest rated second in 2014, when the tally included 363 turkeys. However, in 2012 and 2013 they were number one, reporting 512 and 408 birds, respectively. Switzerland County led the harvest in 2014, when hunters took 394 turkeys, but reclaimed their second place title in 2012, 2013 and 2014 with harvests of 437, 306 and 360, respectively.
Washington County made the top 10 list in 2012 with 308 harvested turkeys and 2014 with 248 birds. Warrick County spring turkey hunters claimed 298 birds in 2011, 306 birds in 2012, and 291 birds in both 2013 and 2014.
In 2008, 71,052 permits were sold throughout the state. However, there were only 55,022 hunters. Then in 2014 the number of permits sold was 73,279, yet there were 59,237 hunters. I questioned Backs about the number of permits sold compared to the number of hunters, and he agreed that participating turkey hunter numbers have declined. This can be attributed to several reasons, including harvest decline, inclement weather and even the time change.
"Guys could get a couple of hours in to hunt before going to work prior to the time change," shared Backs.
I recall several years ago, when I worked at another job and it required me to be there early in the morning, I could hunt a couple of hours before the time change, but only an hour preceding the time change. That did not leave much time to hunt, and on one occasion, John and I were working a pair of gobblers when I had to leave. He was successful that day, whereas I added to the "unfilled tag" statistic that year.
Backs commented that it is hard to put an actual assessment on the declining number of hunters. However, officials fully realize several factors affect hunters afield.
Youth license sales are another consideration that affects total license sales or license usage. Youth licenses only cost $7.50 and are comprehensive (not limited to the youth weekend and are applicable in deer season). Add to that, our youth can hunt through the week because we have all day hunting.
There was a surge in 2005 when turkey hunters were allowed to hunt all day. The number of youth licenses sold by spring turkey season has declined the last few years. He attributes this to kids growing up and a lack of new children turkey hunting.
"My opinion is that when the turkey population was doing well, dad would take Johnnie or Susie out turkey hunting," noted Backs. He went on to say that as the harvest numbers decline, children chose to do other things on the weekends or after school.
Of course, there is always Mother Nature to contend with. Spring turkey hunters are hard pressed to go turkey hunting when the rain is falling or a thunderstorm is imminent. Gobblers tend to shut down during inclement weather, making hunting really rough. And none of us likes to be out in a storm or when there is a cold rain falling.
Some of the northern Indiana counties have even contended with snowfall. Add to that, the hunting has gotten rougher in recent years, making it even more of a challenge to go hunt when the weather is less than perfect.
Another consideration to take into account is those hunters that have other interests besides turkey hunting, such as fishing. A good salmon run in Lake Michigan may put a turkey hunter in the boat rather than the woods.
Backs reported that when hunters had great hunting seasons, they wanted to participate season-after-season. However, after a couple of bad years, actual numbers of turkey hunters declined.
All license types (lifetime, youth, apprentice, resident and non-resident) are included when officials calculate hunter success. The success rate has fluctuated over the last several years. For instance, Indiana spring turkey hunters harvested 13,193 birds in 2006, then decreased to 11,163 taken 2007, rose to 13,742 in 2010 but dropped to 11,853 birds in 2015.
We must also keep in mind that as the turkey restoration project gets farther into history, hunters are relying solely on poult production.
"Based on other states, I don't see our poult production jumping up," Backs noted. "Most states are settling between 1.8 and 2 poults per adult hen in the fall. That's where things seem to be stabilizing." Of course, there will always be variables that affect poult production.
Northern counties were last to be included in turkey restoration projects and are still enjoying higher harvests because of that. However, Backs advised that they, too, will be seeing lower harvests in the very near future.
"The populations we see now are the new normal. We may see ups and downs and occasionally see increase harvests, however, human population growing, farming increasing, human demands on landscape are direct competition on wildlife," shared Backs.
We fully realize that there has been a downward trend in turkey harvests, and some hunters blame it on bobcats. I asked Backs his opinion as to the increasing number of bobcats. He stated that, while bobcat numbers have increased, officials have examined stomach content of bobcats, which has proven the bobcat would starve if its staple food was turkey. As a matter of fact, Backs shared that studies have proven the bobcat mainly feeds on other nest predators such as chipmunks, squirrels and bluejays.
A major portion of public hunting land in Indiana (Hoosier National Forest), located in the southern portion of the state, has been a turkey hunting hotspot for hunters many years. However, it seems Hoosier is changing.
Backs noted that serious problems are facing our national forest lands. Mast trees (especially oak and hickory) provide a rich food source for all wildlife. However, these mast trees are slowly disappearing. And the maple, which provides nothing but a canopy that wipes out ground cover (another food source) is slowly taking precedence.
"Managing Wild Turkeys in the Face of Uncertainty," written in part by Steve Backs and presented at the 10th National Wild Turkey Symposium, states the following: "Much of the wild turkey restoration took place in the eastern United States after the reforestation period that followed the initial clearing of the land for agriculture.
Farmlands that proved uneconomical were abandoned and reverted to second growth forests often dominated by the mast-rich oak-hickory, intermixed with old fields and shrub thickets composed of many soft mast-producing species. But ecological succession continued, and eastern forests are now transitioning into closed canopy forests dominated by maples and other shade-tolerant species (Nowacki and Abrams, 2008).
The change in forest composition has been driven by 50 years of fire suppression and introduced exotic pathogens such as chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) and beech bark disease. These forests, devoid of American chestnut and with fewer oaks and hickories, may leave many wild turkey flocks without the energy-rich food sources they had in the past (McShea et al, 2007).
Reversing these trends requires active forest management, but public disfavor of timber harvesting and preference for wildlife area limits restoration efforts and growth of wild turkey populations on public land."
Obviously, there is a real sense of urgency in saving our public hunting land forests.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2016
Now — the moment of truth — what does Backs think we are likely to experience next year?
"While it is too early to assess at this time, the success of the 2015 summer brood production, the excessive rain and spring flooding through June 2015 likely adversely impacted our overall brood success, especially those turkey populations associated with major river drainage corridors.
But we just don't know for sure if the success in the upland areas compensated for the apparent losses in bottomland habitats," Backs noted. "Based on the recent lower production trends of turkey production post restoration and the leveling off of turkey population growth rates, our turkey populations, like many others in the eastern U.S., are settling down into new lower population levels."
Backs noted in recent years spring harvest hovered around 11,000 birds and that we should probably expect something similar next spring.
"All this being said, it does not mean we will not have some jumps in population levels following a couple of summers of higher brood survival or vice versa as we have experienced the last decade," advised Backs.
It appears that we should have a "wait and see" attitude. But the important thing is that we go hunting and take a kid with us. The youth are our future hunters and forest managers, and without them the future would be very bleak.