Ohio's turkey hunters face a spring season similar to last year's in terms of the state's turkey population, according to the state game agency's Ken Duren, who is the resident turkey biologist for with the Ohio Division of Wildlife (ODOW), and is frank with his assessment of the state's turkey numbers, how to crunch them and how those figures relate to hunter success.
"It can be really tough to predict what hunters will see in the woods each spring," he said. "There are a number of factors that affect (turkey) populations and then you have the X-factor offered by weather and how that affects what hunters see and their success."
Duren cited three factors that biologist use to determine the relative number of turkeys that may be available to hunters in Ohio each spring.
"Last year's spring turkey hunting season harvest was down," he said. "So that's a sign that populations may be off a bit this year as well. The second thing we look at is the poult production over the summer, which was down this year as well.
"Another factor we weigh is the fall turkey harvest, which was up 20 percent," Duren said, adding: "That's a 30 percent swing, so you can see how, when assessing all three to try to get a handle on the overall population, you can get some mixed signals."
But all things considered, Duren thinks that turkey populations this year remain about the same as in the spring of 2014, when hunters harvested 10 percent fewer gobblers than they did in 2013. And it's that spring harvest, he said, that biologists use to determine overall turkey populations in Ohio.
Even so, spring turkey hunter harvest itself is not a factor in the following year's spring turkey population, he explained. "We only take males out of the population, and only after they have reproduced, during the spring season. Males don't contribute anything to rearing the young, so essentially it's completely safe to take males in the spring; it will not affect the future population."
The Weather Factor
What does affect that population is weather, because the weather affects poult production. Much of the year, typical weather patterns don't bother turkeys, but the weather that occurs when the hens are nesting in early May and through early June can determine the number of poults that survive the summer.
"We don't want wet or cold in May and June," said Duren. "And that's pretty much what we got last spring. We want dry weather when the hens are nesting in early May and when the poults are really young, through into June. The first two weeks of June are crucial; they (the poults) are so small at that time that they can't regulate their body temperatures without their mom's help and the heat of her body.
"As the poults grow larger," he added, "it makes it hard for the hen to protect and warm them all, especially if she's wet from rain.
"Last spring was wet," Duren said. "We had a lot of rain at a bad time for the young-of-the-year turkeys, and as a result our poult production was poor — at least compared to the previous year."
The biologist explained that the process for determining poult survival and population numbers includes efforts of private citizens as well as ODOW employees. People who see hens and poults in the spring and summer are asked to count the poults they observe with each hen and report those sighting and figures to the ODOW via a web site dedicated to the annual effort. Duren and his team at the Division of Wildlife use those sightings to survey the population and come up with hen to poult ratios for each county in which they are observed.
"The ten-year poult-per-hen average is 2.5 — an average of 2 1/2 poults seen with each hen," said Duren, who added that in 2013 the Ohio average was 2.53 poults per hen (pph) and that in previous years the state has seen an average of as many as 3 pph.
In 2014 the average was just 2.0 poults per hen, Duren says, pointing out that the rate is the lowest average on record.
The Food Factor
The poults that do survive the spring feed primarily on insects and berries through the summer and into the fall before switching over to grain crops and acorns in the fall. Acorns in particular are an important food source for turkeys over the winter months.
"And we had a good mast this year," said the biologist. "So there were plenty of acorns for the turkeys to feed on."
That heavy mast crop may offer a key to hunters, based on information Duren shared. The biologist explained that while acorns are a major protein source, they don't hold much moisture and therefore the nuts can't supply much in the form of fluids to the birds' diet. That means turkeys feeding heavily on acorns may need to visit water sources, such as creeks, springs and ponds, at intervals to drink.
On the other hand, following seasons of low mast production, when turkeys must to turn to berries and other food sources that happen hold more moisture, the birds may not need to frequent water sources. Reading between the lines, following last autumn's high mast production, it might be worthwhile to factor in nearby sources of water when considering where to hunt gobblers this spring.
By late March, said Duren, the mature gobblers are feeding and looking for places they can eat, dust themselves and be seen by hens, who they expect to join them, he explained, adding that jakes will often follow suit — while being much more vocal about it.
The key to taking a spring gobbler, said Duren, is to set up between where the long-beards are roosting in the woods and the open areas where the males will eventually go to be seen by the hens they hope to hook up with.
"Obviously, if you can find where a gobbler has roosted the night before, that's a bonus," said the biologist. "If you can set up between that bird and the nearest open area — whether that's a forest opening or a big cut bean field — you stand a good chance of being along its probable path of travel."
Sooner or later, anyway.
"The single biggest mistake I think that turkey hunters making is giving up and leaving a spot too soon," he said. "Sometimes gobblers will go quiet, but that doesn't mean they've left. They may be sneaking up to the spot where a hunter has called. If you get up and leave and spook 'em, you'll may never even know they were within range.
"Even if you have one roosted, you may have to wait it out," he added. "The turkey may fly down and head to water to get a drink first, then head into the open areas.
The best strategy, said Duren, is scouting the birds and learning their travel routes before opening day.
"You can start scouting back in the fall to at least determine where there are birds," he recommended, adding that closer to the hunting season the better when it comes time to fine-tune the movements of the turkeys, and, in particular, the gobblers. Their movement patterns will likely change, based on food sources, between winter and spring.
By early March, he said, the turkeys will begin to separate from their winter range "and the toms start to get aggressive, strutting and gobbling, and they will starting trying to be nearer to the hens."
Whether hunting public land or private, Duren recommends driving roads through the area and looking for turkeys out in the fields, or listening for gobbles early in the morning. Where you do that driving is key to locating places that hold huntable populations of turkeys.
The eastern half of the state continues to be the best place to hunt turkeys in Ohio. Ashtabula County led the state in 2014 harvest, followed by Guernsey, Muskingum, Coshocton, and Tuscarawas counties. The 2014 harvest declined in most counties, but a few areas did see an increase. Auglaize County saw the highest percent increase in harvest from 2013.
Hits and Misses
Duren also shared the following recommendations and information with regard to relative turkey populations for each Ohio wildlife district:
Central Ohio/Wildlife District 1: Delaware County showed a spring harvest up 11.5 percent from 2013-2014 and the pph was up as well. Logan County showed improvements of poult numbers and similar harvest numbers of gobblers the past two seasons. Fairfield County's poult-per-hen-wise count was up, but the harvest was off.
In Northwest Ohio/Wildlife District 2:, Fulton County's was down in the 2014 spring harvest, but the county showed above average pph ratios over last season.
Defiance County hunters bagged 2 percent more gobblers last spring over 2013 and their poult counts were above average over the same period as well. Putnam County's spring harvest was up in 2014.
Wyandot County, on the other hand, "took a hit" and the harvest was down 30 percent last spring as compared to 2013. The poult count, however, was above average this past summer.
Ditto Seneca and Erie counties, which were both off in their spring harvest but up on the number of poults per hen compared with the state average.
In Northwest Ohio/Wildlife District 3, four counties showed better than average pph ratios this past summer, but were down in terms of how many gobblers were checked by hunters last spring. These counties were Wayne, Geauga, Portage and Columbiana.
In Southeast Ohio/Wildlife District 4 only seven counties did not have above average pph counts. Athens County saw an increase in both its spring harvest number and pph ratio.
The pph across the southeastern counties in general was above average and "looking good," said Duren, who says that despite the wet spring "it looked like they had a pretty decent year for production."
All counties in Southwest Ohio/Wildlife District 5 had lower harvests in 2014 than in 2013 and only Clark, Montgomery and Clermont showed above average poults-per-hen ratios.
"Ohio is one of the better places in the country to be a turkey hunter," said Duren. "With multiple habitats found together across the state and a mix of hayfields and pastureland and among the forested areas, a two-bird bag limit and simple regulations, even if a season is down a bit numbers-wise it's still a good place to hunt turkeys!"