Talk to any hunter over 60 years old and they will tell you they feel it is unbelievable Kentucky has so many turkeys.
This group of hunters remembers driving across the state to hunt the mere five or six locations that had turkeys in those days. Even into the 1970’s the harvest was fewer than 50 birds for the entire state!
Turn the page to 2018 and Kentucky’s harvest was over 27,000 turkeys — and that was by no means a record harvest. Turkeys are now present in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties and last year the harvest topped 500 birds in several counties. Since turkey restoration began in the 1980’s turkey numbers increased annually for decades, and until recently it appeared the sky was the limit.
While the news is good about high turkey numbers, there has been a decline. Turkey numbers are basically down — and not just in Kentucky. Neighboring Tennessee is seeing a decline, as are many states throughout the Southeast. While the overall reported harvest for Kentucky was 27,151 turkeys, this is 18 percent lower than 2017. The lower harvest numbers were observed across all wildlife regions. Much of this population decline can be attributed to bad hatch years. Recently, poor nesting success was caused by heavy spring rains.
As annual poult production fluctuates from year to year, harvest numbers soon follow the same trend. Cold weather, too much rain during the hatch, or hardwood mast failure are among a seemingly endless list that impacts both adults and poults alike. Whether a given year’s hatch is bad or good, at least two years will pass before hunters will begin seeing the results of these conditions.
On the opening weekend of 2018, heavy rains and abnormally cooler temperatures also played a factor in numbers of hunters who went afield.
Danks said, “While the rain did not impact numbers of turkeys, the lower harvest was attributed to the abnormally low temperatures and rain over most of Kentucky keeping a majority of hunters out of the woods.”
The heaviest daily harvest rates for the season always come on opening weekend, and although weather conditions improved by the second weekend of season, it was still not enough to compensate for the low opening-weekend harvest.
Danks said, “Unfortunately, we’ve been on the downswing since 2015, which in part led to this past spring’s lower harvest; there simply weren’t as many 2-year-old birds alive to be harvested and hunters were pursuing wily 3- and 4-year-old gobblers.”
Let’s take a look at how things stand in each region of the state.
Northeast District Wildlife Biologist Nathan Gregory said, “Of all the WMAs in Northeast Kentucky, Clay continues leading for harvest numbers (and, unfortunately, for hunting pressure as well) but there are other options.”
Clay WMA has some of the highest per-acre harvest numbers of any WMA in the state, but there are some additional options where the pressure may be less. Gregory said, “my top picks for the region are of course, Clay but also Yatesville, Paintsville and Grayson WMAs.” Yatesville WMA may be a good option this year. Gregory said, “last summer we had a really good hatch, so you can plan on seeing lots of Jakes this spring. I am optimistic hunters will see more jakes in the woods and of course more jakes will mean more 2-year old gobblers in 2020.”
Habitat conditions for turkeys should also be improving in coming years because KDFWR staff are also planning to begin inventorying forests on several WMAs across the state. Using forest management — more specifically, well-planned harvesting — helps create early successional areas beneficial to turkey broods as well as grouse and deer.
Although weather is a major factor in successful hatches and poult survivability, in regions with quality habitat, such as early succession forest, poults will tend to use edges between forest areas of different ages. With a good mix, production should increase. Currently only about 9 percent of Yatesville WMA has open land, so these well-planned cuts will help distribute habitat needed by turkeys.
Yatesville is in Lawrence County and with over 13,000 acres available for hunting, it would be a good choice for hunters in the northeast part of the state. Yatesville Lake also has 2,171 acres and a good way to access to many parts of the WMA is from the water.
Overall, the Northeast saw low poult production last summer as it has over the past several years, but biologists did see a slight uptick during the summer of 2018, noting a survey average of around 2 poults per hen. This, however, is still far below the long-term average of poults. During 2018, May was relatively hot and along with intermittent rain through most of the summer. This weather delayed a lot of hay cutting, which helped a few more broods to survive.
The Daniel Boone National Forest lies within two of the state’s wildlife districts and the Boone is the largest tract of public land in the state. The Southeastern Wildlife District also has the most WMAs of any section of Kentucky. Public Lands Biologist Becky Littleton said, “It’s tough to say which place is the best location to hunt because we now have turkeys everywhere.”
Not so many years ago, Mill Creek and Cane Creek or other WMAs found throughout the Boone were the only locations hunters could find any large numbers of birds. Since restoration, birds are now found across the entire 600,000-plus acres. Hundreds of miles of roads make access to these acres easy. Choose an area and drive the road, stop about every half mile get out and listen.
At some point you will hear a gobbler and you can start working your way to him. This seems to work early in the morning. Where gobblers seem to keep quite most of the day, picking a likely place and listening for a bird to go to roost in the evening may get you on one for the following morning. Even when birds have learned to be quiet, they have a hard time disguising the sound of wings flapping as they fly into trees for the night. Setting up at that location may be the only way to intercept birds that have gotten “hush mouthed.”
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish
GREEN RIVER REGION
Public Lands Biologist Brian Gray said, “We had a fair hatch around the Green River area — it was better than 2017, but the number of poults was still lower than what we were seeing in the area five to ten years ago.”
Gray, who also turkey hunts on the WMA and other locations in the district, said, “It appears numbers of gobblers were down, which of course follows trends of lower poult production.”
Gray said, “Hunters should not overlook some of the smaller WMAs in the region such as Cedar Creek. Even with limited access, this area has produced birds. Another WMA with somewhat limited access is Dale Hollow WMA — but don’t plan on accessing areas from a boat unless you are a good climber.”
Banks are steep, and in fact, according to Gray, are “some of the steepest in the region.”
The best access seems to be near the State Park.
Wildlife biologist Wayne Tammingo said, “Peabody WMA had the largest district harvest with 164 gobblers last spring. A lot of the effort by WMA staff is focused on quail, but what’s good for quail is also good for the turkeys.”
KDFWR staff have been using block disking on small sections ranging from 1 to 5 acres and these sections, along with scattered food plots, have benefitted both turkeys and quail.
Peabody is also the largest WMA in the district. It is characterized by large expanses of open grassland.
Peabody WMA Game Management Foreman, Jarrod Arnold said, “It’s not a hard area to hunt and while one tract such as Sinclair looks wide open, hunters can also find some fairly woody and rough terrain on the River Queen and White City Units.”
Many hunters may overlook Peabody because it is reclaimed coal-mine property, but there is little doubt that this reclaimed mine land has turned into a wildlife paradise.
Originally referred to as “between the rivers,” Land Between the Lakes has a stable turkey population, with 140 gobblers taken in 2017. The history of turkeys on this section of Kentucky goes back to the early 1930s, when the only remaining flock of wild turkeys was found “between the rivers.” Established in 1938, the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge served as the source of many of Kentucky’s turkey populations. Although LBL has maintained a flock longer than any other location in the state, the population of birds remain stable. Nowadays, many other public lands are producing more birds, but LBL remains a desired location where hunters will find camping, fishing and thousands of acres of oak woodlands and open fields to hunt.
Nearby Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge is scattered across three counties, with most of the acreage in Marshal and McCracken Counties. In addition to your state license, a $15.00 refuge hunting permit is now required.
Refuge Manager Michael Johnson said, “The permit is still going through the approval process, so prior to hunting this year, check regulations online or visit our office in Benton.”
Hunters on Clarks River consistently harvest around 15 to 20 birds a year, but according to Johnson, the most challenging aspect of hunting Clarks River is access.
“However, it’s worth it if you find the right spot,” he said. The drawback is the scattered tracts of refuge land among private land. With a map, hunters should be able to find where they are going because all refuge land is well marked with both yellow paint on trees and “blue goose” refuge signs. Johnson added, “Always stop by our office if you have any questions or need information.”
STUDYING THE PROBLEM OF TURKEY DECLINE
The fact that some sections of Kentucky are seeing declines in turkey numbers is not going unnoticed by KDFWR biologists. These downward trends are also occurring across many southeastern states and biologists believe the problem is density dependence — meaning as turkey populations approach or exceed habitat carrying capacity, there are fewer resources for turkeys. The result is that populations stop increasing and may decline due to fewer resources. Among diminished resources is the shortage of quality nesting sites for an increasing numbers of hens. Essentially lower productivity occurs because populations overshoot carrying capacity, causing a decline to a level the habitat can support. Kentucky is approaching this situation.
Work is being planned for improving forests on WMAs and important surveys such as brood surveys are being expanded to get a wider view across the state. One of these surveys being used are brood surveys. While biologists normally conduct these surveys, hunters and landowners will now be able to become volunteer observers. Getting involved is fun and, by keeping daily logs of how your birds are doing, you will increase your understanding this segment of the turkey’s life history. Watch for information about this program later this summer.