Meet the Challenge of Fall Turkey Hunting

Meet the Challenge of Fall Turkey Hunting
Winning turkey hunting tactics for fall differ quite a bit from the spring game plan. (Shutterstock image)

Here's what you can expect for fall turkey hunting if you take on one of Illinois' most challenging hunts.

Just a few decades ago, turkey time for most folks in Illinois came only once a year. This was during Thanksgiving when we gorged ourselves on roast turkey and dressing, then devoted the remainder of the day to napping and watching football games.

Now, turkey time has a completely different meaning for hunters in this state. Like searching for tasty morel mushrooms and fishing the annual crappie spawn, turkey hunting has become a spring tradition throughout our area.

Along with news about who's catching big crappies and finding lots of mushrooms, the number and size of gobblers bagged by local hunters has become among the chief topics of discussion each spring in coffee shops, various watering holes and other gathering places.

Winning turkey hunting tactics for fall differ quite a bit from the spring game plan. (Shutterstock image)

Historical data tells us wild turkeys were once abundant in Illinois. This was prior to European settlement. During the 1800s, unregulated hunting and the extensive clearing of forests played major roles in the decline of the species.

In fact the population decline was so extensive, the state legislature closed the state to wild turkey hunting in 1903. Apparently, this was done in an effort to preserve the remaining populations. It was too little too late, however, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois.

Just a few decades ago, the remaining forests and woodlands in the southern and western part of Illinois that were too rough for agriculture gave hope for turkey reintroduction in our state. Beginning in 1959, wild-trapped turkeys were obtained from other states to begin our stocking efforts.

From the 1970s through recent years, Illinois trapped wild turkeys from areas where they were thriving and transplanted them to suitable habitat that had not yet been re-colonized.

Illinois now has wild turkeys in virtually every part of the state where habitat is suitable.

Veteran hunters continue to participate in the challenge and tradition of turkey hunting while introducing new hunters to this exciting recreational opportunity.

Here in Illinois, hunters are given a spring season, a fall firearm season and a fall archery season.

Of course, the largest is the spring hunt. Fall firearm hunters are considerably fewer, and the fall archery hunt is primarily deer hunters hoping an opportunity to harvest one will come along.

Interestingly, the 10-day 2015 Illinois' fall firearm turkey season wrapped up with hunters seeing a major decrease in harvest. In fact, the fall of 2016 brought a nearly 25 percent harvest decrease for Illinois fall firearm turkey hunters. And, many hunters were claiming the significant decline in numbers from the annual fall firearm hunt indicated tougher times ahead for hunters.

During the 2016 nine-day fall firearm season that wrapped up on Oct. 30, hunter harvest totals in many open counties showed one of the largest declines in success in several years. The preliminary harvest figures show firearm hunters bagging a total of some 388 birds, down from the 534 wild turkeys taken during the 2015 fall firearm hunt. 

According to some hunters, the 2016 decline in harvest was likely due to a significant lack of turkey reproduction success the previous spring. While this may be partly true, some of the improved harvest could be most likely attributed to difficult hunting weather during the fall hunt. 

The early and unofficial figures show Illinois' top five counties for turkey harvest during the 2016 fall firearm hunt were Jo Daviess with 62 birds, Wayne County with 23 birds, Marion with 21, Jefferson with 20 and Union with 18.

Most counties showed decreases in harvest, while only a handful recorded increases. Interestingly, many of the greatest increases in harvest came from northern Illinois.

The first good look at our 2017 Illinois turkey population came March 25 when young hunters took to the woods for the now annual four-day Spring Youth Turkey Hunt. Young hunters returned to the woods during the second weekend on April 1 and 2.

This was the first year youths from both zones were permitted to hunt during both weekends. Therefore, this effectively turned a two-day hunt into a four-day hunt. It came as no big surprise when the youngsters set a new harvest record.

The much longer regular turkey season began with the first segment of the southern zone hunt on April 3. The southern zone's second segment got underway April 8, while the third segment began April 14. The fourth segment was April 20-26 and the fifth and final segment ran from April 27 to May 4.

Each of the north zone segments began a full week later than those in the south zone.

On the west side of the state, Madison County is the top of the south zone. The north zone includes that portion of Illinois north of Crawford, Jasper, Effingham, Bond and Madison counties.

Illinois hunters are permitted to bag one male turkey or bearded hen per permit. The permits are issued for a specific county or special public hunting area.

One excellent indicator of fall turkey hunting success comes from results of the prior spring hunting seasons.

Unlike the fall hunt, the regular Illinois Spring Wild Turkey Hunting Season and the special Youth Wild Turkey Hunting Season draws large numbers of hunters from across the state.

Though complete results from the 2017 spring seasons were not yet available as this article was prepared, preliminary results from the record setting 2017 Spring Youth Turkey Hunting Season provide offered plenty of good news. 

And it appears that hunters during the regular spring hunt were on their way to an excellent harvest. Unfortunately, heavy rains throughout much of the state adversely impacted the later weeks of the hunt.

Compared to the fungi and fish, wild turkey hunting a relatively new topic. It wasn't until 1970 that Illinois hunters had their first taste of turkey hunting. During that first modern-day spring season, some 1,000 hunters bagged a total of 25 gobblers from the southern counties of Alexander, Union and Jackson. Few of these birds, if any, existed in other parts of the state.

The sport has witnessed phenomenal growth since that first three-day season nearly a half-century ago. Last spring, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued more permits and Illinois gobbler chasers bagged literally thousands of wild turkeys.

This year, most counties and special hunt areas with reasonably decent turkey populations were opened to spring turkey hunting. In fact, wild turkeys now exist in huntable numbers in almost every part of the state that offers habitat capable of supporting these birds.

Typically a woodland bird, wild turkeys appear to do best in areas containing mature mast-producing hardwoods interspersed with open grasslands and crop fields.

Depending upon the time of year, each of these types of areas provide certain foods and needs. The open areas provide the necessary nutrition when forest foods are scarce. The grasslands and crop fields also offer the best nesting and brood-rearing sites.

West-central Illinois, for instance, is another hotbed for those who enjoy turkey hunting. Without a doubt, private land offers the majority of our prime local turkey hunting opportunities. Still, there are certain public lands that have developed a reputation as top notch turkey hunting areas.

Many of these include state parks, fish and wildlife areas, conservation areas and other state-managed sites. In many cases, these were the first sites in the county to receive initial stockings of wild turkeys.

With turkey populations now firmly established in these areas, hunters are assured of finding huntable numbers of these birds. To maintain the quality populations, hunting pressure at many of these sites is controlled through a special permit process.

Along with the regular county-wide turkey tags, the IDNR Permit Office now issues special tags for most of these sites during the regular spring turkey permit lottery. Hunters must apply in advance for a site permit and tag that is for one of the five separate spring turkey seasons.

Interestingly, young-of-the-year birds (jakes) make up a significant portion of the annual fall harvest. Good reproduction can play a major role in hunter success rates during the fall.

Weather, too, can play a big role. This is especially true during the relatively short fall turkey firearm hunt. Of course, weather plays considerably less of a role during the much longer fall archery turkey hunt.

Cool and damp, or rainy, conditions can reduce the reproductive success for the year. However, some rain is required, and temperatures need to be in a moderate range for best success.

It is important to note that last year parts of Illinois had significant rainfall during the spring and early summer and 2016, and some experts were concerned this may have hurt our overall recruitment. However, results from the 2017 youth season and early results from the regular spring hunt do not indicate this situation.

The jury is still out concerning the impact of weather during the spring and summer of 2017. However, I'm confident this will not play any significant role in fall turkey hunting success.

In recent years, many wildlife experts have attempted to predict the number of wild turkeys and their reproductive success in certain parts of the state. Interestingly, these predictions have proved less than accurate in many instances. 

Since turkey hunting is something of an individual sport, these predictions mean little to most hunters. The fact remains that the appearance of wild turkeys at the appropriate place and time determines a hunter's success. And, the absence of turkeys in front of hunters determines a lack of success.

That is why it is important to head afield during every opportunity. No one can predict when a wild turkey will appear within shotgun range. And let's face it, that is just the scenario every hunter wants.

Since the fall season is open only in those parts of the state containing the densest turkey populations, virtually any county open to hunting should yield a good opportunity to fill a tag. As far as top spots for fall turkeys — Jo Daviess County in the northwest corner of the state is again expected to top the list as Illinois premier turkey county.

Pike, Adams and Schuyler counties are again expected to rate high among the state's top turkey hotspots. Southern counties within the Shawnee National Forest also promise the potential for good fall hunting.

Turkey hunters who have never tried their skill at bagging a bird during the fall season will find the fall season considerably different than spring hunting.

These wily birds play by a whole different set of rules during the autumn season. And, many times they even refuse to follow these.

While success rates are generally higher in the fall, it remains one of the most challenging game species Illinois hunters can pursue. But there are plenty of opportunities in our state for bagging a bird this season. Now it's time to hit the woods at one of the hotspots we covered here or another great location near you.

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