The harvest trend in recent years on turkey hunting in South Carolina has not been a positive topic of discussion for turkey hunters. Based on the results of the 2015 season, that trend continued and does not shine bright for a breakout 2016 season.
With an estimated harvest of 15,237 birds, the spring turkey harvest was down about 6 percent from 2014 and down cumulatively 40 percent from the record harvest established in 2002, according to Charles Ruth, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer and Wild Turkey Program coordinator. Ruth said the harvest decline was expected due to the low reproduction in recent years.
"Each summer during July and August, DNR wildlife biologists, technicians, conservation officers, and private cooperators participate in an annual turkey observation survey," Ruth said. "Reproduction in wild turkeys has generally been poor during the last decade and the spring harvest following each year of low recruitment has been down. The overall effect has been a significant decline in turkey harvest."
Recruitment 2012 and 2013 was significantly down. In 2014 recruitment was slightly better but not what could be termed "good." To put this into perspective, the 2013 recruitment was the lowest since the summer reproductive survey began in 1982, so fewer 2-year-old gobblers were in the woods during 2015. That also means that this spring there were be fewer older gobblers.
The slight improvement in 2014 recruitment may mean a few more adult gobblers in 2016, but on a statewide basis the 2014 recruitment was not a highly significant upward number. The 2014 recruitment was simply a little better than the worst on record.
"Since hunters most frequently have success calling and harvesting 2-year-old gobblers it was a given that harvest figures would be down in 2015," said Ruth. "But we also expected an increase in the harvest of jakes, or juvenile gobblers, with a 36 percent increase compared to the 2014 harvest. Jakes comprised 16 percent of the total harvest in 2015, which is the highest proportion of jakes in a number of years."
Much of the 2016 turkey hunting information is not just a forecast, it's new hunting information. Extensive legislative and regulatory change has occurred since the 2015 turkey hunting season and these changes directly impact the 2016 hunting season in South Carolina. The turkey hunting season dates and limits in South Carolina have undergone changes.
Some of the regulatory changes will impact turkey hunting dates and limits on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) as well.
According to Ruth, the major change is that turkey hunting season dates on private lands are now uniform throughout the state.
"The legislation passed in 2015 consolidated the turkey hunting seasons to one season statewide, not separate seasons with one opening on March 15 and the remainder of the state opening on April 1," Ruth said. "The legislation established a statewide private-land season from March 20 through May 5, while dropping the season limit from five gobblers to three. Hunters can still harvest two gobblers per day.
"The new legislation also changed the annual Youth Hunt Day to a two-day Youth Hunt Weekend on the Saturday and Sunday prior to March 20," he said. "For 2016, those dates will be March 12 and 13."
Ruth said the turkey hunting regulations on WMAs will change in the 2016 season from previous years but will not reflect the same season dates as the new statewide turkey hunting season.
"The traditional April 1 opening day will remain for WMAs, but the season will extend to May 5 unless otherwise noted for a particular WMA," Ruth said. "Some WMAs have specific limits lower than the new public land limit of three, but the season limits on turkeys on WMAs are also at a maximum of three on a few areas.
Also several WMAs have special seasons and guidelines such as being open only on certain days or for specific hunts, quite similar to what's been done in the past. I strongly suggest every turkey hunter read this carefully to ensure they understand the regulations."
Ruth notes that in reality little changes with most WMAs except the season will extend to May 5 in WMAs with daily hunting. He said the Youth Hunting day on WMAs will be March 26 for all WMAs normally open to turkey hunting except: Bear Island, Donnelley, Keowee, Santee Coastal Reserve, Santee Cooper, Hatchery Waterfowl Area, Bonneau Ferry, Belfast, Wateree River HP.
Ruth said the bill also contained a sunset clause, directing the agency to report back in three years with data gathered on how the change in season dates, length and bag limit has affected the statewide turkey population.
"Unless the General Assembly acts at that time, the season and bag limits would revert back to what it was before," Ruth said. "As part of the sunset clause they asked DNR to be prepared to make recommendations on future season dates at that time. We're already conducting studies on wild turkeys so those will expand and we will be prepared with current and pertinent data."
Ruth said a large study using radio telemetry is ongoing now; it attempts to refine biologists' understanding of the timing of turkey nesting. Another study is investigating the timing of gobbling using sophisticated recording devices. He said the studies are recording gobbling on a number of study areas.
The split-season system in effect for many years seemed to create controversy among hunters and members in the legislature.
"It became clear that the legislature wanted to change the season dates," Ruth said. "When the March 20 to May 5 proposal came about, we supported it because of the reduction in the bag limit, which our agency and the vast majority of turkey hunters had been looking for over a number of years. While the bag limit dropped from five to three per season, while retaining the maximum of two gobblers per day, most of the state got a substantial increase in opportunity with the expanded season.
With seasons now set statewide, for individual hunters the next step to success is planning hunts for the best potential for success.
As Ruth says, the recruitment numbers into the population have not been good in recent years as an overall trend. But data exists that may help hunters in terms of where to focus hunting in 2016 based on recent historical patterns.
Turkey populations are cyclic and the overall population number for turkeys depends on the recruitment success, or lack thereof, of young turkeys into the statewide population. According to turkey biologists, the good and bad news is that turkey populations recover quickly from a down cycle with a couple years of good recruitment, but they also suffer big downward spirals when conditions are poor and recruitment is down for consecutive years.
Despite discouraging data, many turkey hunters throughout the state had success last year and many gobblers will likely be taken in 2016. The fact is there are fewer gobblers available than most would prefer but by targeting the most productive areas and improving your calling and woodsmanship skill-sets, your opportunities can improve.
According to the SCDNR data the top 10 for total turkey harvest in 2015 were Williamsburg, Berkeley, Fairfield, Colleton, Newberry, Orangeburg, Laurens, Spartanburg, Charleston and Hampton counties. However, because counties vary in size, Ruth says a better method of comparing harvests between counties is the harvest per unit area (for example, turkeys harvested per square mile). Using this method the top counties were Cherokee, Spartanburg, Pickens, Anderson, Newberry, Edgefield, Fairfield, Charleston, Laurens and Union counties.
The harvest by total numbers reveals two areas of the sate with high harvest;. the Per Unit harvest for 2015 shows a heavy harvest lean to upstate areas. When searching for gobbler hotspots, some of the best data available may be recent historical trends in harvest data in addition to the 2015 data.
The SCDNR complies these numbers on a county-by-county basis, giving hunters a good perspective of where the most turkeys have been harvested. The leading counties change over time but we've compiled a three-year composite of harvest from 2012 through the 2014 seasons. Compare these with the 2015 productive areas and some patterns emerge in terms of consistently productive areas.
The "turkeys harvested by square mile" data shows that there are several counties that were in the statewide top 10 lists for all three years in the 2012-2014 time period.
Since ranking positions tend to change annually, these are in no particular order. Seven counties were in the top 10 all three years: Union, Newberry, Cherokee, Laurens, Anderson, Edgefield and Chester counties.
In addition, several more counties were in the top 10 one or two times in this period: Fairfield, Bamberg, Abbeville, Spartanburg, Saluda, Greenville and Pickens counties.
These counties are most definitely top-loaded in the upper half of the state, but that doesn't mean good hunting doesn't exist elsewhere. Turkey hunting can be very site specific and Charles Ruth said turkey hotspots can occur in localized areas throughout the state.
In terms of simple total harvest the larger counties do have an edge. The counties that made the top ten lists for all three years in terms of total harvest are Williamsburg, Union, Newberry, Orangeburg, Laurens, Berkeley and Fairfield counties. In addition, the counties making the list at least once in this period include Abbeville, Chester, York, Greenville and Spartanburg counties.
While these counties are certainly not the only places you can successfully tag a turkey, they have been among the most consistent counties in recent years. Compare the lists of Harvest per Unit Area and Total Harvest and remember the county names that are in either, but especially both, of these lists. Those should be very good choices for the 2016 turkey season.