After two consecutive years of increased turkey harvest in South Carolina, the numbers dipped a bit in the 2018 season, according to the annual harvest data generated by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).
In 2018 the total harvest was 17,939 turkeys compared to 19,939 turkeys harvested in 2017, a modest 6.4 percent decrease.
But Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the SCDNR said the “rest of the story” is where things get really interesting in terms of evaluating the current status of the turkey population.
“In 2016 a new season and harvest framework was begun as enacted by the South Carolina General Assembly,” Ruth said. “The season dates in the state were lengthened considerably in 34 of the 46 counties while the total season harvest limit was reduced from five to three birds per season.”
Ruth said these changes made statewide turkey hunting season dates and harvest limits uniform.
“On the surface the turkey harvest, and by association the statewide turkey population status, may actually appear to be improved,” he said. “Over the past three seasons with the new season and harvest limit framework, the annual turkey harvest averaged about 18 percent higher harvest than the year prior to the new season framework.”
Ruth said that this initial perception doesn’t account for several other crucial factors that weigh heavily on the overall status of turkeys in South Carolina.
“The legislative changes that went into effect in 2016 provided an earlier starting date and increased number of days in 34 of the 46 South Carolina counties,” Ruth said. “The effect of this season change was a 50 percent increase in opportunity in terms of days available to hunt for the majority of the state.”
Ruth said the noticeable increase in harvest since 2016 can be explained in two ways.
“First, perhaps turkey numbers have increased since the new season structure went into place, leading to an increase in the harvest because more birds are available for harvest on the landscape,” he said. “Alternatively, more hunter effort can clearly increases the harvest regardless of the number of turkeys available.”
Ruth said by digging deeper into this issue he’s found that turkey production, as measured during the Summer Turkey Survey which has been conducted annually since 1982, has been poor since the new season structure began.
“The simple fact based on data we have since 1982 is that the recruitment of turkeys into the population during the past five years has been the lowest of any five-year period since the survey began,” Ruth said. “Typically, low recruitment in one summer is followed the next spring by a decreasing harvest and good recruitment is followed by increasing harvest. Based on this analysis of data, the trend of higher harvest under the new season structure doesn’t fit with the notion of a recent increase in the turkey population.”
> Putting Poults into Perspective
Charles Ruth with the SCDNR put the recruitment number of poults into perspective when he said this past five years (2013-2017) of recruitment in South Carolina has been the worst five-year segment since the survey began in 1982.
But there’s more bad news.
In terms of poult recruitment success the important number is the Total Recruitment Ratio (TRR). This is a measure of young turkeys entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. For 2017, the statewide TRR was 1.5. Looking the previous four years the TRR in 2013 was 1.3, in 2014 it was 1.6, in 2015 it was 1.5 and in 2016 it was 1.8.
Ruth said the biggest issue with these numbers is that the standard for simply maintaining a turkey population at a current level is a TRR of 2.0.
“To see a growing or expanding turkey population in South Carolina I’d want to see something considerably higher than a TRR of 2.0,” Ruth said. “So the issue over the past five years is our TRR is actually well below what is accepted as needed for simple maintenance of the population.
“We’re currently at a low level of recruitment that we’ve never been in since the survey began,” he said.
Ruth said that other data collected by the SCDNR via the Turkey Hunting Survey depicts a 23 percent increase in hunter effort, or days hunted, under the new framework compared to the 2015 season.
“This new season structure increased opportunity, measured in days hunted, for hunters in 34 of 46 counties by 50 percent and this data clearly indicates that hunters have taken advantage of the additional opportunity,” he said. “With turkey production and recruitment being low recently, it appears that increased effort rather than increased turkey numbers is more influential on the harvest increase.”
Ruth said one other component of the overall measure of the harvest versus effort issue is the catch per unit effort (CPUE), the effort or number of days it takes to harvest a turkey.
“Statewide CPUE prior to the new season was 12.7 days per turkey harvested,” Ruth said. “It was virtually the same for the 34 counties that received more days under the new season framework (at 12.4 days per turkey) as the 12 counties which received no additional days under the new framework (where the CPUE was 13.4 days). Under the new season framework the CPUE in the 34 counties receiving more days increased 36 percent to 16.9 days per turkey harvested, whereas it remained essentially the same in the 12 counties that received no additional days, at 12.6 days per turkey.
“This may be indicative of hunters in the 34 counties that received more days under the new framework using the additional days to kill more gobblers from a population that had no more birds than it previously did,” Ruth said. “That’s something that everyone needs to think about.”
Ruth said that the turkey related data collected since the new season structure was passed will be utilized in a detailed report to the 2019 S.C. General Assembly.
When the new season framework was established, a sunset clause was added to the bill that requires the SCDNR to present a report to the legislature 180 days after the end of the third season, which was the 2018 season. The sunset clause that stipulated without further action by the legislature the season structure would revert back to the framework that existed prior to the 2016 change.
“With the data collected since the new season structure we’ll present the most comprehensive study done in the Southeast on turkeys, so the legislature can make an informed decision on how to proceed,” Ruth said.
Ruth noted that any action to change the season structure would most likely not take effect until the 2020 season. He anticipates the 2019 season to be under the guidelines implemented in 2016.
Looking forward to planning for the 2019 season and deciding where to find turkeys, hunters can benefit from reviewing data from the 2018 harvest in South Carolina. This data provide a county-by-county look at how many turkeys are being harvested.
Ruth said comparisons can be made between turkey harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a “harvest per unit area” is established. Basically, counting how many turkeys per square mile were taken in a county gets rid of the distortion present when total county harvest is compared between a small county and a large county.
“Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among the counties regardless of the size of the individual counties,” he said. “One measure we find useful is the number of turkeys taken per square mile. When considering the estimated turkey habitat that’s available in South Carolina statewide, the turkey harvest rate in 2018 was 0.8 gobblers per square mile. Although this harvest rate is not as high as it was many years ago, it should be considered good and is similar to other Southeastern states.”
The top five counties for harvest per square mile in 2018 (ties broken by further calculation) were Union with 1.7 turkeys per square mile, followed by Spartanburg with 1.4, Cherokee with 1.3 Anderson with 1.3 and Fairfield with 1.2.
The number six county was Greenville with a harvest rate of 1.2 followed by Laurens and Williamsburg also at 1.2. The ninth and tenth spots were taken by Lancaster and Pickens counties with a 1.1 harvest rate.
The top county in the state by total harvest in the 2018 season was Williamsburg with a total of 935 turkeys harvested, followed by Berkeley with 832 birds. Orangeburg was third with 746 gobblers and Fairfield was fourth with 731. In fifth place was Colleton County with 718 turkeys killed.
The number six county by total harvest was Union ( 695 birds), followed by Laurens (587), Hampton (580) and Florence (570) and Spartanburg (565). Only 22 turkeys separated the number seven spot from the number 10 spot.
While some counties have more good turkey habitat than others, Ruth pointed out that in any county local hotspots can and do exist and hunters can identify these areas.
Good nesting cover is essential. It looks like habitat deer like — young timber stands less than 10 years old. This type of cover interspersed with mature stands of hardwoods and pines, along with water sources, provides a good foundation for strong local turkey populations.
But external factors still exert influence and predation on turkeys as well as poults and eggs in the nest are other issues.
“A lot of factors influence turkey populations and predation is historically been a naturally occurring one,” Ruth said. “Turkeys have a long list of predators and it seems like everything wants to eat a turkey. A short list of prominent predators includes raccoons, opossums, crows, snakes, bobcats, coyotes and foxes.”
The data from the SCDNR harvest survey also has information for hunters regarding when turkeys were harvested, both in terms of parts of the season as well as time of day.
With respect to what part of the season produced the most turkeys, it wasn’t close. The first part of the season (opening day March 20 through March 31) was when 41 percent of all gobblers were taken. The second highest harvest period was the first week in April, when 18 percent of all turkeys were tagged. By the end of that week, nearly 60 percent of the total harvest had occurred. The harvest declines each week, with the lowest harvest during the May 1 through May 5 time period.
Time of day also seems to influence turkey harvest. Historically hunters targeted gobblers early in the morning. But as turkey hunting popularity increased, many hunters now hunt during the afternoon. Gobblers are generally not as vocal in the afternoon, but certainly can be called.
The 2018 data indicates approximately 77 percent of the turkeys harvested were taken during the morning compared to 23 percent in the afternoon.
In addition to private lands many WMA’s offer turkey hunting opportunities. A significant portion of public hunting lands exist in the state and according to Ruth, some areas provide excellent turkey hunting.
“Numerous WMA’s offer excellent hunting and the Webb Center Complex in Hampton County which includes the Webb Center WMA as well as Hamilton Ridge and Palachuacola WMAs is certainly one I’d say is near the top,” he said. “This property offers around 25,000 acres of land.”
Ruth said the 8,000-acre Liberty Hill WMA, which straddles Kershaw and Lancaster counties, offers excellent turkey hunting.
“Liberty Hill has a lot of Piedmont habitat with plenty of hardwoods interspersed with pines,’ Ruth said. “It’s a beautiful setting for turkey and deer. Plenty of opportunities exist here.”
Another large, multi-county area Ruth cites as excellent potential for WMA turkey hunting is in Game Zone 2. It includes the many isolated, unnamed Sumter National Forest WMA tracts in the Newberry, Laurens, Fairfield and Chester county areas.
“This area generally has excellent private land habitat and the smaller, isolated Sumter National Forest tracts interspersed with private lands provide a diversity of habitat,” Ruth said. “The land in the WMAs are primarily wooded, but adjoining private lands are often much more open, some with good nesting habitat. Since many of these areas are not named and relatively small, hunters must ensure they are on WMA’s and not private land. Put the scouting legwork in and these areas can lead to excellent hunting.”
Ruth said the 250,000 acres of the Francis Marion National Forest offers good turkey hunting for hunters willing to get far off the beaten path. He said it’s reasonable to expect hunting pressure at many of the areas with easy access, but much less pressured areas can be found with planning and legwork.
The overall outlook for the 2019 season appears to be a bit clouded, with the past three years under the new regulations producing higher turkey harvests overall. But combined with recruitment levels for several consecutive years that were well below what’s required to simply maintain an existing population, turkey hunters may not know what we’ve got until the season opens.