It is a very familiar scene, but one that instantly brings good memories. A hunter is not far from the truck and faced with the choice of two paths in the early morning darkness. He knows which direction he wants to go, but he needs confirmation the tom is still there. He gathers himself, raises an owl hooter to his lips and breaks the morning stillness with the practiced cadence. Before the sound has even faded, a booming gobble echoes from somewhere ahead.
Very soon, scenes similar to this one will play out all across the Bluegrass State as thousands of turkey hunters converge on favorite haunts with hopes of tagging a Kentucky longbeard. The odds are very good for success, whether it comes on opening day or on the last day. Kentucky has a thriving turkey population and is home to some of the best turkey hunting around.
Steven Dobey, who serves as the black bear and wild turkey coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), says that statewide the turkey population is doing very well.
"This past spring the harvest was back over 30,000 birds, which is phenomenal," said Dobey. "Kentucky is one of the few states in this region with those kind of numbers."
Turkey populations fluctuate due to various reasons, such as weather. However, the turkey population has been on a very good up cycle and the five-year average harvest is 31,718 birds, which is an all-time high.
Looking at the states surrounding Kentucky, the Commonwealth is at the top as far as number of birds taken. Of course Missouri is always high in harvest, but it is also a much larger state. When looking at the number of birds taken per square mile, Kentucky always ranks No. 1 or 2, typically running neck and neck with Tennessee. In fact, prior to 2010, Kentucky had never had a harvest over 30,000 birds. Now the harvest is above that figure every year.
The KDFWR conducts a brood survey every year in July and August as a gauge to determine reproduction output. Over the last five to 10 years, there has been a bit of a decline in those numbers, but it is not just in Kentucky. Several southeastern states are seeing similar declines in brood survey numbers. However, the dip is no cause for alarm at this point.
"I suspect across the region this is a normal event," said Dobey. "We put out a lot of birds back when we were in the restoration phase and there was a lot of empty land out there for the birds and plenty of food sources. It was basically like living at an empty buffet table. Now I believe we are just seeing a leveling out as the population is settling itself at the carry capacity of the land."
In some areas, it could just be a product of not being able to see the birds, such as in eastern Kentucky where the forests and topography make it very difficult to see turkeys. The biologist explained there is really no cause for concern from a dip in numbers from one year to the next. But he says they are being very mindful and watchful, especially in local areas.
"If we saw a declining trend, we would need to make some changes."
However, right now biologists are very comfortable with where the population numbers are at and the current hunting regulations. According to Dobey, a preliminary look at the data from the 2015 brood survey indicates that production was up last spring.
That is very exciting for the upcoming seasons for a couple of reasons. First, it means a lot of jakes on the ground this year for hunters only looking to tag a legal bird. Next season it means a lot of 2-year-old birds available, which should translate to an excellent bump in success.
It is really amazing how just one good year of brood production can impact hunter harvest. A perfect example is back in 2008, when there was a huge statewide emergence of cicadas. That year the insects helped feed new poults and there was a huge jump in poult survival.
Two years later, the turkey harvest topped 30,000 birds for the first time ever and smashed the previous record with a total harvest of 36,097. The harvest has remained over 30,000 birds every year since. If there is a good bump in production one year, hunters typically reap big rewards a couple seasons later when those birds hit the 2-year-old stage.
This most recent bump in production will definitely have an effect this year with more jakes available, but its real benefit will be seen next year. Nonetheless, the current population is in excellent condition and the season forecast is excellent statewide. However, even though the overall picture is bright, bird numbers and hunting conditions do vary from one region to another.
Looking first at the central part of the state, the Bluegrass Region comprises much of the area where the famed Kentucky horse farms are located. This is great for national notoriety and a pride of the state, but it creates some problems for turkey hunters. Not much hunting access is allowed on lands where thoroughbreds are raised.
The Bluegrass Region has a lot of birds; there just is not as much land access as is desired. Turkey population numbers are really healthy within the region and the birds do well on the open lands interspersed with forests. The 10-year average harvest in this region is 6,620 birds. Last spring hunters bagged a total of 6,828 birds with Pendleton County having the highest county total at 469 birds.
Dobey says one of the best public lands within the region is Taylorsville Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), because it is a big contiguous block where hunters have the ability to move around and find space away from other hunters and to look for birds. Last spring, Taylorsville Lake WMA led the region with a total harvest of 33 birds. The next best harvest on public land came from the Kentucky River WMA with a take of 20 birds.
GREEN RIVER REGION
This section of the state is what Dobey describes as "kind of a mecca" for wild turkeys. It is a big area and has a great mix of forests and open lands. In addition to the layout of the habitat, the area has significant amounts of agriculture. It is one of the most heavily farmed areas of the state, with thousands of acres of row crop fields. This provides readily available and abundant food sources not available in other areas of the state.
The Green River Region consistently records some of the highest hunter success rates in the state. The 10-year average harvest is 9,238 birds, far outdistancing the next closest region. There were 8,957 turkeys taken in the region last spring, with seven counties harvesting more than 500 birds. Logan County led the pack with a very impressive take of 636 birds.
Without question the No. 1 public land in this region is the Peabody WMA stretching through parts of Ohio, Muhlenberg and Hopkins counties. Hunters tagged a total of 153 turkeys there last spring. The Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center yielded a harvest of 50 birds.
Harvest numbers are not as high in the northeastern part of the state, but the harvest is very consistent from year to year. The lower harvest numbers are not because of a lack of turkeys, but rather because the land is harder to hunt and hunting pressure is less. The steep topography plays a big factor in hunter effort and subsequent success.
This area of the state has the second lowest 10-year average harvest with an average annual take of 4,103 turkeys. Last season was a bit above average with a spring harvest of 4,279 birds. Pike County led with a harvest of 356, followed by Bracken County (326), Morgan County (309) and Carter County (301).
Hunters looking for public land in the region may want to consider the Clay WMA in Nicholas, Bath and Fleming counties. There were 39 turkeys taken there last spring. Much of the terrain is tough walking, but there are definitely plenty of birds. Most of the 7,861 acres at the WMA is forested, but there are many open areas as well.
This section of Kentucky is similar to the Northeast Region as the topography makes it difficult to hunt
"This area is similar to the Northeast in that there is little hunting pressure," Dobey said. "Hunters like flat land."
There is, however, a good abundance of turkeys in the region for hunters who are up for tackling the tough terrain. The 10-year average harvest in the region is 7,035 birds, which is second best in the state. Hunters eclipsed that mark last spring with a take of 7,604 turkeys. Pulaski County gave up 515 birds to lead the region. Hunters also surpassed the 400-mark in Wayne and Adair counties.
By far the most birds are taken on the Daniel Boone National Forest (DBNF). This huge tract of land stretches through numerous counties and totals more than 700,000 acres. Hunters tagged 584 birds there last spring. Other places ranking consistently high are Green River Lake WMA and Lake Cumberland WMA.
The far western end of Kentucky historically has the lowest numbers of turkeys and the lowest hunter harvest in the state. There just are not a lot of trees in the region as much of the land has been cleared for agriculture. There are plenty of food sources during crop season, but there is not enough roosting habitat and forested areas.
Hunters harvested a total of 3,227 turkeys there last spring, which fell a little below the 10-year average of 3,393 birds. Christian County produced the highest harvest with 452 turkeys tagged last spring. Only two other counties topped 300 birds. Hunters took 390 birds in Crittenden County and another 372 were tagged in Graves County.
Land Between the Lakes (LBL) offers one of the best options for public land in the region. Hunters sometimes complain it is hard to hunt, but there are a lot of turkeys there and lots of land. Hunters can get out and walk and not have to worry about walking off the public land. There has been a lot of habitat work done at LBL for turkeys and it has started to pay dividends over the past 2 to 3 years. Hunters tagged 80 turkeys there last spring.
Opening day is almost here and it is promising to be another great season. However, a lot of success depends on the weather.
According to Dobey, Kentucky is actually situated nearly perfectly in that regard, without too much brutal cold or intense heat during the spring season. The breeding season is mostly triggered by day length and photoperiod, but a warm early spring can push breeding activity up. Dobey says to not give up. Once some hens are bred and gone to nest, there are a lot of lonesome toms left and opportunity for success is excellent later in the season.