March 17, 2015
Turkey populations are cyclic. Their populations depend on the recruitment success, or lack thereof, of young turkeys into adulthood. According to turkey biologists, the good news is that turkey populations can recover quickly from a down cycle if they have a couple years of good recruitment; the bad news is that they also suffer big downward spirals when conditions are poor and recruitment is way down for consecutive years.
Unfortunately for South Carolina turkey hunters, we have entered the latter of the two scenarios. The recruitment in 2012 and 2013 was down and that had a direct and dramatic impact on our statewide turkey harvest in 2014, and indications are that poor recruitment in recent years will also negatively impact the 2015 season.
The 2014 spring turkey hunting season was classified as "poor" for South Carolina hunters as data from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) indicates a 15 percent decline from the 2013 harvest. The 2013 harvest was already down from the previous season (2012).
As an example of the cyclic nature of this species, the 2012 harvest had increased a bit from the previous years because in 2010 and 2011 the recruitment numbers were good. Not exceptional, but good. But with two consecutive bad recruitment years in 2012 and 2013, the harvest was well down and the prognosis for this season in 2015 is not good.
According to Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the SCDNR, the estimate based on extensive surveys is that in the 2014 season a total of 14,649 adult gobblers and 1,599 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 16,248 turkeys taken by hunters.
"This figure represents a 15 percent decrease in harvest from 2013, when 19,211 turkeys were harvested in South Carolina, and a 36 percent decrease from the record harvest established in 2002, when 25,487 turkeys were harvested, estimated by our survey," Ruth said. "The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one primary factor: poor reproduction.
"Reproduction in wild turkeys was generally poor between 2003 and 2009, however it was much better in both 2010 and 2011," Ruth said. "This led to a substantial increase in harvest in 2012. However, reproduction returned to poor levels following the 2012 season, resulting in decreased harvests during both the 2013 and 2014 turkey recruitment seasons.
"Also interesting in the data is the percentage of juvenile gobblers (jakes). The jake harvest in 2014 was the lowest on record and coincident with the lowest recruitment ratio on record, which occurred in the summer of 2013. This association between changes in reproduction and its effects on harvest are rather remarkable in South Carolina's turkey harvest and reproductive data sets. There are very direct correlations and it's not hard to see where we are and what the challenges will be for hunters in 2015."
Ruth said he believes the jake harvest generally corresponds to the number of adult birds in the population and poor reproduction the last two years has also influenced the number of jakes available.
"Most experienced turkey hunters would much rather harvest an adult gobbler," Ruth said. "But with poor reproduction in 2012 we had many fewer 2-year olds in 2014 and that was compounded by the worst recruitment in our record keeping history in 2013. Simply that meant fewer jakes were available in 2014."
Ruth also points out that another factor was that there were fewer hunters in the woods. He said although all individuals receiving a set of Turkey Transportation Tags were licensed to hunt turkeys, only 42 percent actually hunted turkeys. Based on this figure, he said approximately 45,949 hunters participated in the 2014 spring turkey season, a nine percent decrease in hunters from 2013 and also a drop of five percent of overall hunter effort.
"But this is not the main reason for the harvest decrease," Ruth said. "Poor recruitment is the major story here."
In terms of harvest in 2014, Ruth uses comparisons between turkey harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest-per-unit-area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of turkeys taken per square mile.
"When considering the estimated turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2014 was 0.7 gobblers per square mile statewide, Ruth said. "Although this harvest rate is not as high as it once was, it should be considered good and is similar to other Southeastern states."
Even with all the bad news about lower turkey populations, there are still turkeys in the woods and hunters can be successful.
"Some areas fare better than others in turkey recruitment and also, as noted, our overall turkey harvest is not bad compared to many other states," Ruth said. "It's just South Carolina hunters have seen it much better. But it may take a little more planning, scouting and effort but I expect hunters to have success next season. Just not as high as we would all like to see."
Knowing where to hunt to find the most turkeys is one of the crucial elements in successful turkey hunting. You've got to be hunting here they are.
The annual harvest data that Ruth compiles does put a premium on identifying the areas where the most gobblers are taken. Even in a down cycle, those bright spots are logically great places to begin a search for turkeys this season.
We'll look at the top 10 counties for gobblers taken per unit area in 2014.
The top two counties were tied: Union and Laurens counties both produced 1.6 turkeys per square mile for hunters. But when broken down further in the data, the number one was Union County, with a harvest rate of 403.9 acres per turkey. Laurens County had 410.2 acres per turkey harvest rate. Granted, that's splitting hairs: both produced harvests that were essentially double the state average in 2014.
In third place was Cherokee County, with rate of 1.5 turkeys per square mile, followed by Spartanburg County with 1.4 turkeys per square mile. At fifth was Greenville County with 1.3 turkeys per square mile.
Coming in sixth was Newberry County with a 1.2 turkeys per square mile harvest, which was certainly another good showing compared to the statewide harvest average.
The number seven though 10 spots all had the same harvest per square mile, so we'll consider those in terms of acres per turkey harvested.
In seventh place was Edgefield County with 574.7 acres per turkey harvested and in eighth place was Chester County with a harvest rate of 596.4 acres per turkey. Finishing at the number nine spot was Pickens County with 599.3 acres per turkey harvested rate and rounding out the top 10 was Anderson County, with a harvest rate of 600.2 acres per turkey.
At this point it's easy to see a clear pattern of turkey harvest in that all of these counties are clumped in the upper portion of the state. Actually nine of the 10 touch at least one other top 10 county. And Edgefield is only one county removed from being in direct contact with the other nine. For whatever the reason, this is obviously a hotbed of turkey hunting. When planning a hunt, this is a good note to underscore.
To show there is good hunting in the rest of the state we'll simply list the next ten in terms of unit area of harvest. These are more scattered in terms of statewide distribution, but also note that they also weighted toward this sector of the state.
In order, counties 11 through 20, are Williamsburg, Fairfield, Charleston, Abbeville, Dorchester, Hampton, Greenwood, Berkeley, York and Oconee. All of these do have harvest rates in excess of the state average for 2014.
Ruth said that total turkey harvest is not comparable among counties because there is no standard unit of comparison, i.e., counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, some hunters are interested in this type of ranking. The top 10 counties during 2014 were led by Williamsburg County with 814 gobblers harvested. In second was Laurens County with 775 harvested, followed by Berkeley County with a total harvest of 687 gobblers. Union County produced 639 gobblers and Fairfield County 616.
At number six in total turkeys harvested was Spartanburg County with 587; Greenville followed closely with 580 and Newberry County was eighth with 572. At number nine was Orangeburg with 556 turkeys and the final spot in the top ten belonged to Colleton County, where hunters killed 530 gobblers in 2014.
This data can be used as a planning guide for anyone interested in where to hunt this season. A lot of the potential to take a gobbler in 2015 will depend on the individual hunter and their willingness to research the primary areas where they will be hunting and take the time to know where any localized hotspots are.
According to Charles Ruth, the numbers of gobbles are simply down and we're coming off the worst year of poult recruitment in history in 2013. So the numbers of two-year-old birds, which normally make up the bulk of the birds hunters kill, will most certainly be down. So with fewer birds and older birds doing the gobbling, hunters are likely going to have to be well-prepared to fill a tag. But on the other hand, when you do, it's likely to be an old, long-spurred trophy.
Ruth said he has the data he needs to make an evaluation for the 2015 season, although it's not the type he prefers to make.
"I don't like to make predictions but this one is pretty easy based on the historically consistent harvest results based on turkey recruitment," Ruth said. "With fewer adult gobblers available in 2014 because of poor reproduction in 2012 and the lowest jake harvest ever in 2014 because of the worst recruitment into the population in 2013 since we've kept records, (the data) leads me to the conclusion that I don't see how we can expect an increase in harvest in 2015. We simply won't have as many turkeys in the woods.
"But overall, as noted earlier, on a statewide basis our harvest average in South Carolina is still good compared with other states in our area. So it's not a doomsday forecast, but we're not likely to see an upward trend in mature birds harvested."