With the first hint of spring, turkey hunters in Mississippi and Louisiana are ready to get into the woods. That wild, sweet call of a love-struck gobbler doesn't just attract the hens; it also speaks to the thousands of hunters who love nothing more than chasing wild turkeys.
Dave Godwin, wild turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), said hunters won't have as easy a time harvesting birds in 2015, as years in the past.
"When we forecast what we expect in the coming turkey season, a primary factor that we consider is what the hatch was like during the previous few years," Godwin said. "With wild turkeys, we see a great deal of variance in reproductive success from one year to the next, and this variance can significantly impact turkey hunting. The number of 2-year-old gobblers we have in the population is a particularly important factor that we look at; 2-year-old birds tend to gobble more than other age-classes and can be more susceptible to harvest."
A high number of 2-year-old gobblers generally means high gobbling activity and high harvest rates.
"When we have lower numbers of 2-year-old birds, we normally see lower harvest rates and hear less gobbling," Godwin said. "Therefore, when forecasting the 2015 spring turkey season, we look first at the hatch of 2013. Since that hatch was not great, we expect that hunters will encounter fewer 2-year-old gobblers than average during the 2015 season, and we would expect that harvest rates and gobbling activity could be down some from the 2014 season. There will, of course, be some local exceptions to this."
In some parts of the state, hunters will see higher numbers of birds, as overall Mississippi turkey hunters typically enjoy good turkey numbers in different regions of the state. According to Godwin, two of the last three hatches have been good, and the 2012 hatch was the highest statewide hatch recorded in a decade, which should equate to a good carryover of 3-year-old gobblers for hunters in 2015. A good statewide hatch during the summer of 2014 also means that hunters should encounter more jakes during the 2015 season, which is good news for the coming year.
Of course, wintering success and last year's summer weather also will have an impact on the birds.
"In our part of the South, we really don't see much variance in the winter survival of turkeys," Godwin said. "The key impact of weather is what weather we get during the nesting and early brood-rearing period of late spring and early summer."
Significant amounts of rain typically produce lower hatches. Also, flooding can wipe out nests in local areas, but rain is the largest factor. One theory is that wet hens are easier for nest predators to find and therefore nest depredation goes up during wet periods.
One area with a lot of birds, Godwin said, is southwest Mississippi, because the region offers great turkey habitat and typically produces some of the state's best turkey hunting in recent years.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Mississippi Delta area, which Godwin refers to as "a regional area of concern.
"Here, flooding from the Mississippi River and other watersheds has had a negative impact on turkey reproduction during three of the past seven years," Godwin said. "The good news for the Delta is that this region saw a great hatch during 2012, and also had good reproduction during 2014."
One overlooked region, Godwin said, is southeast Mississippi.
"While this area has been down some in turkey numbers in the years following Hurricane Katrina, the region did lead the state in hatch during 2013," he said. "As a result, hunters there should encounter decent numbers of 2-year-old birds during this coming hunting season."
Quite a few WMAs across Mississippi offer turkey hunting in the spring. In the North Delta Region, hunters can look for turkeys on Malmaison WMA. This 9,483-acre WMA is diverse and unique. About 800 acres of the WMA lies in the fertile loess hills, while the rest is in the equally fertile Yalobusha/Mississippi River floodplain.
Turkey hunting opportunities in the South Delta Region include Twin Oaks WMA, which is a 5,847-acre tract located approximately 40 miles north of Vicksburg. Although the area adjoins the approximately 60,000-acre Delta National Forest to the east, the WMA is considered somewhat isolated as a result of agricultural practices on the northern, southern and western boundaries.
Also in the South Delta Region, Sunflower WMA is approximately 60,000 acres in the Delta National Forest. The WMA is located in Sharkey County, about 10 miles east of Rolling Fork.
Continuing south, one place to look for turkeys in the South West Region is Canemount WMA, which is composed of approximately 3,500 acres in the Loess Bluffs of Claiborne County near the Mississippi River. Other options in this area for turkeys include Copiah County WMA near Hazlehurst, Caston Creek WMA near Meadville, Wolf River WMA near Poplarville, Old River WMA, also near Poplarville and Marion County WMA near Columbia.
In the Southeast Region, young hunters can go for turkeys in a special youth hunt at Ward Bayou WMA in Jackson County, Little Biloxi and Red Creek WMAs near Wiggins, Leaf River WMA in Perry County and Pascagoula River WMA in George and Jackson counties. Mason Creek WMA in Greene County and Chickasawhay WMA near Laurel also are open for youth turkey hunts.
Turkey hunting opportunities in the large Central Region include Black Prairie WMA in Lowndes County, Nanih Waiya WMA near Philadelphia and Yockanookany WMA Attala County. Young hunters also have a special youth-only season at Choctaw and John Starr WMAs near Ackerman, Pearl River WMA in Madison County and Okatibbee WMA near Collinsville, along with Bienville, Caney Creek and Tallahala WMAs.
Rounding out the state in the Northeast Region, turkey hunters can look to the Canal Section WMA for opportunity. The 32,000 acres of Canal Section are primarily hardwood and swamp bottomland with shallow meandering streams and open lands, which were previously farmed. John Bell Williams WMA near Booneville also has turkey hunting opportunities, as does Divide Section WMA near Iuka, and Calhoun County, Chickasaw and Upper Sardis WMAs. Youth hunters have opportunities at Tuscumbia WMA in Alcorn County and Charles Ray Nix WMA in Panola County.
Jimmy Stafford, wild turkey and resident small game program leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), believes that the date the season opens has a lot to do with hunting success.
"Because of the way the calendar works out, we're going to have a late opening in 2015," he said. "The season is going to open on March 28, which I believe will work to the advantage of harvesting turkeys. Generally by that point in the year some of the hens will have started nesting, which makes gobblers receptive to calls. Those years when the season opens much earlier, many times hunters find the turkeys are with hens and it's sometimes more difficult to kill birds. So I think the ability to call birds up with be a little better at the start of the season this year."
Having said that, however, Stafford also said that turkey production hasn't been the best for the past couple of years. In 2014, the production was less than normal, so jake numbers will be low. However, the 2013 hatch was quite good in many areas of the state. One of those areas was northwest Louisiana.
"There was decent production in the Atchafalaya and Lower Mississippi Delta Region," Stafford said. "I expect that area to have a few gobblers to harvest. Most of the rest of the state had lackluster production in 2013, so I wouldn't expect any big changes in harvest for those areas."
Stafford said that biologists divide the state into several different "eco-regions," based on the dominant habitats in the area. There is the Northwest Loblolly Shortleaf Hardwood Region, the North Mississippi Delta Region, the Western Longleaf Region, the Atchafalaya and Lower Mississippi Delta Region, and the Southeastern Loblolly Region.
Northwest Loblolly Shortleaf Hardwood Region
This area is primarily piney woods, and is part of the Coastal Plains habitat in northwest Louisiana.
"This is the area where we had good production in 2013," Stafford said. "I think they will have a good harvest this spring. Private land is probably your best bet if you have access to it."
If planning to hunt on public land, though, Stafford recommends Jackson Bienville WMA and Bodcau WMA. Bodcau WMA is located in Bossier and Webster parishes. The area is about 17 miles northeast of Bossier City, with numerous easily accessible roads.
Jackson Bienville WMA is located in Bienville, Jackson and Lincoln parishes, about 12 miles south of Ruston in north-central Louisiana. Numerous roads enter the area with the major access being U.S. Highway 167 and Louisiana Highway 147. An extensive system of gravel roads is available for use by the public. Jackson Bienville covers about 32,185 acres.
In addition, Stafford said, Kisatchie National Forest also has some good hunting opportunity, particularly in the Caney Ranger district.
North Mississippi Delta Region
"Most of the North Mississippi Delta is farmland," Stafford said. "There are a few little islands of habitat scattered around; one of the largest islands of habitat is the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge. We also have the Big Lake WMA that butts up to it. Those two areas would probably be your best bet for turkeys."
Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1980, contains nearly 80,000 acres of prime bottomland hardwood habitat in the Tensas River Basin. The Refuge is composed of extensive bottomland hardwood forests intermingled with sloughs, swamps and lakes.
Big Lake WMA is located in Franklin, Madison and Tensas parishes, and is about 12 miles east of Gilbert. Major access routes to the area are Louisiana highways 4 and 610.
"Then if you go south a little bit, you'll get into the Richard Yancey WMA," Stafford said. "It was formerly called the Red River and Three Rivers WMAs. They were combined and renamed."
Western Longleaf Region
This area is south of Alexandria on the western side of the state and was historically longleaf pine.
"This area has traditionally been our backbone as far as turkey harvest is concerned," Stafford said. "It probably will continue to be, although we've had lackluster production here the last couple of years. Here, the Kisatchie National Wildlife Refuge has the Calcasieu Ranger District, the Winn Ranger District and the Kisatchie Ranger District; the Kisatchie Ranger District is probably the best of the three for turkey hunting."
When it comes to WMAs, Stafford suggests Fort Polk, Clear Creek, West Bay and Peason Ridge.
"Those are our hot spots in that region," Stafford said.
Fort Polk WMA is located 10 miles southeast of Leesville in Vernon Parish, just east of U.S. Highway 171, one mile south of Louisiana Highway 28 and one mile north of Louisiana Highway 10.
Peason Ridge WMA, more than 33,000 acres, is 18 miles north of Leesville in Sabine, Natchitoches and Vernon parishes.
Atchafalaya And Lower Mississippi Delta Region
A great deal of this area lies inside the Atchafalaya Basin.
"A lot of this area still is recovering from the 2011 opening of the Morganza spillway to relieve the pressure out of the Mississippi River back when we had the big flood," Stafford said. "We lost a lot of birds then, but those birds are continuing to recover, and we did have at least decent production there in 2013. The production for 2014 was kind of lackluster again. If you're hunting areas that fall outside of the levees where it was flooded, you'll probably have a season pretty similar to last year, which for some folks was fairly good."
Stafford believes the best hunting opportunity here is on private land, although there's a little public opportunity on the Sherburne WMA.
"However, Sherburne's turkey population has continued to struggle since that flood," he said.
Southeastern Loblolly Region
"This area also has had pretty lackluster production for the last several years," Stafford said. "Most of this region is private land; we've only got a couple public areas where turkeys can be hunted. One of them is the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge and the other one is the Tunica Hills WMA. But you'll have to work for birds on those areas."
Tunica Hills WMA is small (just under 6,000 acres) and is composed of two separate tracts lying northwest of St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish.
Of course, there are other good turkey hunting locations in both states, but these should definitely be considered.