The first hint of spring is in the air, which means turkey hunters in Mississippi and Louisiana are ready to get into the woods. That wild, sweet call of a love-struck gobbler does more than just attract hens; it also beckons to hunters who love nothing more than listening to wild turkeys singing in the swamps.
According to Dave Godwin, wild turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), the spring 2016 season looks like it will be much better than the 2015 season.
"We look both at data from previous years of hunting, and at the brood surveys that our agency collects annually," he said. "We use that information to make predictions about the coming season. The spring 2015 season was one of the more difficult seasons we've had in many years."
For good or bad, turkey numbers fluctuate yearly with reproduction, meaning the turkey population isn't nearly as consistent as the whitetail population, which changes gradually over time. Turkey populations ebb and flow sharply with good reproduction years and poor reproduction years. While this can be bad during poor years, it only takes one or two good years to put huge amounts of birds in the woods.
To complicate things further, biologists make projections about upcoming seasons by looking at the expected 2-year-old bird population.
"Two-year-old gobblers are really important in spring turkey hunting," Godwin said. "They tend to be more vocal and to gobble more. They're a little more susceptible to hunter harvest because of their increased gobbling, so in years where you have a lot of 2-year-old birds, you usually end up having a pretty good season."
The spring of 2013 was one of the worst hatch years that MDWFP has ever seen, according to Godwin. As a result, there were few 2-year-old birds awaiting hunters last spring.
"We anticipated that it would be a bad year, and, in fact, it was," Godwin said. "I think that was probably compounded by the fact that we had a very late spring and bad weather during the early part of our turkey season."
Fortunately, the 2014 hatch was significantly better than the 2013 hatch, and biologists anticipate that there will be more 2-year-old birds in the woods across the state. Of course, with that in mind, some parts of the state still will be better than others.
"Based on the data we have, I would expect that the best region would be the east-central part of the state," Godwin said. "That area had the best hatch in 2014, and they should have the most 2-year-old birds this year."
Over the past several years, turkey populations have been in decline in Mississippi, as well as across the mid-South. Year to year changes can be huge, but the overall trend in turkey populations in the past decade has been declining. This, of course, is concerning to game departments, including MDWFP, which has partnered with other interested groups, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, to refine the turkey management plan for the state to address stakeholder concerns.
"We want Mississippi to have the best turkey hunting in our part of the world," Godwin said. "It's not just Mississippi that's troubled; it's this entire part of the bird's range. We're trying to figure out everything we can do about it to make things better.
We're looking at how to manage habitat differently on public land, what can be done on private land that we can be involved in helping with and is there anything we can do different in terms of regulations that would be smart. We're also looking at predators and predation, because that's a big part of turkey population dynamics."
While it is too early in the process for specifics on what the turkey management plan might look like, Godwin says that nothing is off the table, and that the user groups and the MDWFP decision makers are working together to determine what can and should be done.
In terms of the spring 2016 season, Godwin declines to target specific wildlife management areas or counties, saying that hunters should be thinking in terms of regions of the state.
"My hotspot region would be east-central Mississippi, just based on the data," Godwin said. "With the data we have, it would be very difficult to predict which one or two of the wildlife management areas there would be slighter better than the others. The second best area would probably be southwest Mississippi. Those two areas statistically look like they'll be the better two regions of our state this coming season."
In Louisiana, longtime wild turkey and resident small game program leader Jimmy Stafford has retired from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), and Cody Cedotal has stepped into that position. According to Cedotal, hunters should expect to have a bit of a tough time finding gobblers statewide this year, as the 2014 poult production — the year that would have produced this year's 2-year-old birds — was poor.
"Louisiana is broken down into five habitat regions, and the best area was our northwest Loblolly Shortleaf Hardwood region," Cedotal said. "It only had 1.7 poults per hen."
Cedotal went on to say that biologists once believed that 2 poults per hen was kind of the "break even" point for maintaining a population, but recent research tends to indicate that once the population reaches a certain point, the number of poults per hen needed to sustain that population may be a bit lower.
"A bird need only replace itself," he said. "So one poult per hen is enough, assuming that the poult lives to maturity and produces one offspring. And of course, you need a few more than that for both sexes."
Obviously this doesn't take into account hunting pressure, which means that birds need to produce more than one poult per hen to provide a supply of birds for hunters to take.
The area with the lowest poult production last year continued to be the Atchafalaya-Lower Mississippi Delta region, which has struggled since the 2011 flood. However, biologists are hopeful that 2017 will be a better year for hunters, even though the results from the 2015 poult survey have not been finished.
"I thought that was going to be terrible because we got a lot of rain early in the year, but anecdotal information is indicating that it's not as bad as we expected," Cedotal said. "The hatch still won't be great anywhere for 2015 once we get the numbers crunched, but I suspect it will be better than 2014."
Of course, most hunters only really want to know if they will have turkeys to harvest this spring. Cedotal says yes, but success will vary greatly by regions.
"The western part of the state, which is kind of a stronghold for turkeys, seems to have had a little better production," said Cedotal. "In that west-central area, the Kitsatchie National Forest represents about 600,000-plus acres, most of which is upland. It's a habitat that is mature timber for the most part, and is regularly burned. All of that is conducive to wild turkeys."
Another area that has consistently produced turkeys for the past several years is the north-central region, which may be due to less hunting pressure because the area has lots of private land. Either way, those two areas have remained stronger in regards to turkeys in the past several years.
"People are hanging on to their property, if they have any," Cedotal said. "The southeast used to be our stronghold for turkeys, and was for several decades. But after Katrina, and after people started to move into that area, that started carving up those big blocks of land into very small woodlots that really can no longer sustain turkeys. So the habitat there has really been carved up and diminished."
Basically, in areas with big blocks of timber company land or lands in state or federal ownership, turkeys are continuing to thrive. Thankfully, Louisiana has large sections of each.
Beyond those trends, Cedotal says, he can't foresee any statewide policy or rule changes that should affect turkey numbers or turkey hunting in the near future.
"There are no big changes in the short term that I can anticipate," Cedotal said. "I do fear that as large private habitat blocks continue to be carved into smaller habitat blocks, as one generation passes and property gets subdivided, and one person clears all his land and puts it into fields or a subdivision, our total habitat base will continue to shrink. Louisiana doesn't have a real big habitat base for turkeys to begin; we're nothing like Mississippi or Arkansas. We're just doing the best we can with what we have."
When it comes to specific areas for turkey hunting, Cedotal recommends Kisatchie National Forest, in part because of its size.
"Another area is the Tensaw National Wildlife Refuge," he said. "The West Bay Wildlife Management Area should be pretty good, as should the Fort Polk Wildlife Management Area. Also look at Peason Ridge Wildlife Management Area and the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area. Those are probably the best places to go."