"Ohio's wild turkey population is looking pretty good for the 2016 spring season," according to Ken Duren, the lead turkey biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife (ODOW). "We measure populations primarily through spring harvest, and last year we were up compared to the year before.
The 2015 spring harvest actually saw 6.6 percent more bearded birds taken than the number of toms hunters bagged in the spring of 2013.
"That's still a little off from seasons in the recent past," admitted Duren, referring to 2008-1010, when spring hunters killed over 20,000 birds annually. The numbers peaked in recent years in 2010 with a tally of 23,410 turkeys. By comparison, the all-time best spring turkey season was back in 2001, when 26,156 bearded birds fell to hunters.
"But we're trending upwards, and with turkeys you have that sort of fluctuation in populations," explained the biologist. "Numbers will continue to go up and down slightly, but I believe we'll hold onto a strong population in the long run."
A factor in turkey hunters' favor — if not for the 2016 spring season but for the fall and several seasons to follow — emerges this spring. The state's strongest class of cicadas, the 17 year locust, is due to hatch this spring and summer, offering turkeys a windfall of protein that is sure to boost survival rates of poults. The turkey population as a whole should benefit from the raucous bounty, according to Duren, and that means that there should be a healthy number of birds for hunters to target in years to come.
"Those cicadas should offer an extremely rich source of food for turkeys, especially the hens and the poults," he explained. "Next summer I expect to see really high production rates and that should carry over into an excellent fall season for hunters and great opportunities for success next spring as well."
The health of this spring's anticipated hatch will come on the heels of an average number of poults surviving through last spring. That last spring was "average" is actually good news, because 2015 had a wet spring that initially caused biologists to fear poult survival would be lower than usual.
"We do a survey every spring into the summer asking people to report when they see turkey hens and poults," explained the turkey biologist. "Using that data, we estimate how many poults are with each hen. The average is about 2.5 poults per adult hen, over the 10-year period of the survey.
"Surprisingly, last summer were a little above that average. I'd still call it an average year, based on the fact that the year before (2014) the count was really down, on the lower end of what we've ever seen. I remember that year we had some really cool and rainy weather in late May into June which really hurt them," said Duren regarding the recently hatched chicks. "But the year before that (2013) was an average one survival-wise, so all-in-all I'd say our last year's hatch and current population is about average."
The fact that last June was one of the wettest on record had Duren predicting another low production season.
"Historically, a wet June is not good for hatch survival," he explained. "When the poults are young they can't regulate their temperature very well, so when they get wet in June a lot of them don't survive. That's what we anticipated having happened last year; but the summer survey data proved us wrong."
Duren said that when he started getting reports of people seeing very small poults in July, he suspected that a second nesting may have occurred.
"And all the rain earlier in the spring likely spurred the growth of vegetation and insects that the turkeys feed on," he surmised. "The result was better than average cover and food sources, so the second hatch, if that's what occurred, had abundant food and places to hide — and thrived."
He admitted that is all speculation on biologists' part, but the reality is that the surveys last summer showed that populations were not down, and even up a bit compared to the past few years, and that should spell ample opportunities for turkey hunters to see more birds this season.
The fall turkey harvest is another indicator of overall populations, said Duren, who added that at the time of this writing the fall 2015 season numbers were not yet available.
Winter weather doesn't usually affect Ohio turkey populations across most of the state, the biologist explained. The exception, he said, is the northeast "snow-belt" region of the state, which can experience lake effect snows that can be deep enough and linger long enough to prevent turkeys from reaching food sources at a time when more food is needed to keep the birds' metabolism's up. Predation isn't a big problem either, he said, at least over the winter months.
"Nesting season is when predation presents the most dangers for turkeys," Duren said. "When the hens are on eggs or with poults, coyotes can be a problem, as are smaller mammals like possums" and feral cats, he added.
The fact that spring wild turkey hunters harvested 6.6 percent more turkeys in 2015 that in 2014 bodes well for the 2016 season, Duren explained.
Last season, youths harvested 1,589 turkeys during the two-day youth season, and an additional 16,063 turkeys were killed by hunters during the regular four-week season. That's despite spring turkey permit sales dropping 4.5 percent in 2015 from the previous season — and sales were nearly 11 percent lower than they were in 2013.
However, overall permit success rate jumped from 18.8 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in 2015. As an aside, year in and year out, nonresident hunters have the highest success rate when pursuing turkeys here in Ohio.
The data offered by the ODOW shows the eastern half of Ohio continues to be the best place to hunt turkeys. Ashtabula County led the state in 2015 harvest, followed by Belmont, Guernsey, Monroe and Muskingum counties.
The 2015 harvest increased in most counties, but a few areas, notably several northeast Ohio counties, did see a decline in harvest last season. Cuyahoga County saw the highest percent increase in harvest from 2014, followed by Hancock County.
The majority (90 percent) of successful hunters harvested a turkey on private land last season, compared with a 10 percent take on public ground. What's interesting is that the number of turkeys harvested per square mile of public land was three times greater than on private land. Also notable is that landowners harvested 3,786 gobblers, some 21 percent of the total harvest. Hunters had the most success during the first half of the 2015 season, when 73 percent of the spring turkey harvest was tallied.
When asked why more hunters aren't successful when hunting spring turkeys in Ohio, Duren cited patience — or a lack thereof.
"I think one big factor is patience," he said. "When it comes to calling turkeys, and the bird stops gobbling back, people think more calling is called for — and it's not. Too much calling sounds unnatural and can actually scare the bird off.
"We've all given up on a bird that gobbled back but then went silent," Duren explained. "Only to have the bird flush or run off when we stood up to make a move! It's important for beginners to realize you have to have patience; don't give up on those birds so easily. And don't over call. Especially when hunting public land that you may be sharing with other hunters, it's easy for a turkey to pick up on a hunter who's calling non-stop and realize it's not another bird."
The state's turkey biologist believes turkey decoys have their place, "but you don't need them in all situations." Hunting deep woods, he said, is an example when he wouldn't use decoys.
"Especially once the season is underway and the foliage is up, by the time a turkey sees a decoy it can spot you too, and I just don't know how much benefit there is to that. On the other hand, they can hang up out of range on a decoy as well, and you may never even see the bird."
Hunting turkey in a mix of woods and open fields does present a case where Duren feels that turkey decoys are of benefit. He said that the fakes can draw a gobbler off an open field and in range of a hunter hunkered down at the edge of the woods behind a decoy or two placed in the open. "The best recipe for success is spending time in the field and watching the birds, and seeing how they react to different set-ups and calls and learning how to fool them," he explained. "There's no substitution for experience."
When asked for suggestions on public areas to hunt turkeys in each wildlife district, Duren said start with Delaware Wildlife Area (WLA) in central Ohio. Some 1,200 birds were taken in that county last season. "Licking and Knox have the highest harvest rates, so any public or private ground in those counties could be productive."
In northwest Ohio Duren said Lake La Su An WLA, in Williams County, is as good as any — although Killdeer Plains in Wyandot County offers significantly more acreage that holds gobblers in what is typically the least productive district for turkey hunting.
Northeast Ohio offers a bounty of places to find wild turkeys, he said. "Take your pick of some of those big wildlife areas in District Three and you're likely to find birds."
Ditto southeast Ohio, Duren says, pointing to the state and national forests there as "excellent" places to seek spring turkeys with the bonus of "being able to get away from the crowds" that often descend on the more popular wildlife areas of that turkey-rich region District Four.
District Five turkey hunters have their share of public and private land that holds gobblers, according to Duren, "especially in the Adams-Brown-Clermont-Highland (counties) quadrant" where harvest figures last spring were 300-plus and, in Adams, where 413 sway-beards were dropped by the efforts of hunters.
No matter where you spot them, Duren urges that folks who see hens and poults this spring and summer to try to count the poults they observe with each hen and report the sightings and figures to the ODOW via the web site https://apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/TurkeySurvey/. Duren and his team at the Division of Wildlife use those sightings to survey the population and come up with data for each county — which helps the continued management of a valuable resource.