Dogwoods are blooming and countless early morning gobbles are resonating throughout the hills and bottomlands. That can mean only one thing — it's turkey time in Tennessee. Every turkey hunter in the Volunteer State is itching to drop the hammer on a heavy longbeard and fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to make it happen.
Some people claim the turkey population in Tennessee is well over 300,000 birds, but that is not an official figure from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Roger Applegate says there is not a biological measure of the turkey population in Tennessee and there is no feasible method to obtain one. Regardless of whether the number of turkeys in the state can be accurately estimated or not, it is very obvious from other data that the population is doing quite well.
"Overall, the turkey population is doing well based on harvest data and poult counts, which serve as our only source of data on populations," said Applegate. "There are areas, such as southern middle Tennessee, where hunters are concerned with populations, but to date, we do not have reasons to explain this other than normal population fluctuations."
Even so, the TWRA has been looking at the relationship of disease to populations in southern middle Tennessee for the past two years and expects to have the findings soon.
Turkey populations ebb and flow based on a number of factors. Inclement weather conditions during the nesting season can severely impact poult production and survival. Likewise, other environmental factors lead to increased numbers of poults joining the flock thus bolstering the population total in dramatic fashion. These population fluctuations are perfectly normal and no cause for alarm.
Last year, hunters harvested 31,493 turkeys in Tennessee during the spring season. This figure was remarkably similar to the 2012 harvest, when hunters took 31,439 birds. The spring harvests of 2013 and 2014 dropped to 29,027 and 28,316, respectively. It has only been six years since hunters set the state record for turkeys harvested during the 2010 spring season with 36,832 birds.
When these and other figures are plotted on a graph, there are obvious ups and downs, which would indicate normal fluctuations in harvest. These ups and downs may also be an indication of normal fluctuations of the population as a whole. A linear line on the graph shows an upward trend in turkey harvest over the last decade. Applegate said he expects the future harvest figures to look much like the past 10 years or so.
Looking at the data for poult to hen numbers during the month of August, there has been an ongoing downward trend for a number of years. Applegate emphasizes this is not necessarily a big problem and is most likely a result of flocks settling at carrying capacity.
"What it could mean is simply that post-restoration populations have stabilized at the maximum level so that breeding hens are producing fewer poults and there are potentially more hens with no broods in the population," said Applegate.
This downward trend is something being observed throughout the Southeast. For many years, turkey populations were being restored through trapping and stocking, so turkey numbers were almost continuously on the increase. Trapped turkeys were moved into areas where there were few, if any, turkeys, so they literally had empty habitat full of virtually limitless food. This resulted in rapidly increasing bird numbers through the years.
However, as bird numbers reach carrying capacity, poult production, survival and bird numbers obviously must start tapering off as a natural acclimation process. Most biologists believe that is what is being observed throughout the region and that it is definitely no cause for alarm. Nonetheless, they are taking no chances on potentially misreading the numbers.
"Because all states in the eastern U.S. are seeing similar patterns in turkey numbers (as reflected in harvest numbers and poult counts), a large scale multi-state research project is being planned to be implemented within a year or so to determine whether this is just normal behavior of populations after restoration or whether there are other factors," said Applegate.
With turkey populations stabilizing across Tennessee and other eastern states, turkey biologists and wildlife managers must now learn a different management strategy going forward.
"We have been used to seeing turkeys increase for a number of years because we have been actively restoring populations by trapping and moving birds," Applegate explained. "Now that turkey restoration has been completed, we have to shift our approach and expectations to one of maintenance.
That approach is new to managers everywhere in the U.S. and has a learning curve. Much of the existing research we use to base turkey management involves turkey populations that are being restored. We now have to gain knowledge to base management decisions on restored populations."
Even within the state there are subtle management decisions that must be made on localized populations. Overall the statewide turkey population is doing very good, but there are certain local areas that need more directed management.
"It must be recognized that when you scale down to a regional or smaller scale there will be localized exceptions to this," Applegate said. "For example, in the floodplain of the Mississippi River you can expect turkeys to be impacted by flooding. There are localized areas all over the state that cannot be measured with harvest and poult count data."
It is hard to get an accurate idea of what has been happening or what is to be expected in the local neck of the woods by merely looking at the big picture, but past harvest results and other data can be used to paint a more localized picture.
Hardin County led the way in the western end of the state with a total harvest of 561 birds during the 2015 spring season. That total was enough to land the county in the top 10 statewide, coming in at number eight.
However, the only other county in the region to break the 500 mark was Stewart County with a total of 516 birds. Rounding out the top five were Henry County (479), Weakley County (454) and Gibson County (430). Comparing these results to the year before, two counties stand out with noticeable changes. The harvest in Gibson County increased by 42 birds from the 2014 harvest, while the harvest in Henry County fell significantly from 679 birds in 2014 to 479 in 2015.
By far the best public land harvest came from the sprawling Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL). Hunters in the Tennessee portion of LBL took a total of 89 birds last spring, which was consistent with the previous harvest of 92. LBL often gets a bad rap for being difficult to hunt, but there is no question it offers a tremendous amount of space and opportunity. Plus, there has been some specific habitat work done at LBL for turkeys that has started showing results over the past two to three years.
The two keys to success at LBL, besides just pure blind luck, are scouting and patience. Simply parking and walking through the woods calling typically brings little success. This area is hunted hard and birds are call wary, so hunters have to put themselves in very close proximity to the birds and call cautiously.
This region once again monopolized the list of top counties in regard of turkey harvests last season. In fact, nine out of the top 11 counties last spring were found in Region 2. The amount of turkeys, quality habitat and hunter success in this region is staggering.
Maury County once again was at the top of the list with hunters taking 1,045 birds last spring. The year before hunters also topped the 1,000 mark with a tally of 1,159 birds. Consistent success like that is hard to ignore. Other top counties in the region included Montgomery (695), Dickson (693), Wilson (645) and Sumner (638). Hunters also took more than 500 birds in Hickman, Giles, Bedford, Robertson, Cheatham, Rutherford and Marshall counties.
Hunters looking to tap into the big numbers from Maury County may want to consider Yanahli Wildlife Management Area. There are over 12,000 acres spread throughout various tracts along the Duck River. It contains a good mixture of fields, woods and food plots. Hunters scored on 98 birds there last spring, which was down some from the 123 turkeys taken in 2014, but still a very respectable harvest.
In lieu of Yanahli, another great choice in Region 2 is Cheatham WMA. Hunters have plenty of room to spread out over the nearly 21,000 acres. The property yielded 81 birds last spring and 74 in 2014.
The top harvest in Region 3 came from Clay County last spring with a take of 471 turkeys, which was comparable to the 457 birds taken in 2014. The only other counties in the region with a harvest of more than 400 birds were Overton with 456 and White with 427. Hunters took 387 birds in Jackson County and 377 in Warren County.
Although Region 3 did not produce the county totals of Region 2, a public area within the region did dominate all others in terms of public land birds. South Cherokee WMA gave up a whopping 231 turkeys last spring. The WMA always ranks high for harvest, partially due to its massive size of 250,000 acres, but last year's total was significantly higher than the 2014 total of 158 spring birds.
Other good options in the region are the Catoosa WMA, Bridgestone/Firestone WMA and Yuchi Refuge.
The easternmost region in the state contains Greene County, ranking number two in the state for spring harvest last season. Hunters took an impressive 719 birds there in 2015, and an even more impressive 786 birds the year before.
Unfortunately, Greene County was the only county from this region to score in the top 10 statewide. Nonetheless, the region offers some excellent opportunities and several counties had respectable harvests. Hawkins County was second with 510 turkeys harvested. Rounding out the top five were Sullivan (495), Washington (435) and Cocke (380).
North Cherokee WMA produced excellent results last season with a harvest total of 106 birds, but the area is very mountainous and requires some strenuous hunting. North Cumberland WMA is another great choice in the region. Hunters took 76 birds there last spring. The Chuck Swan State Forest produced a harvest of 91 birds last year and provides consistently good hunting, but the hunting is regulated by quota.
As shown, Tennessee has some great turkey hunting within a short drive of most anywhere in the state, but some areas are better than others. It is just a matter of getting out there and making it happen.