GON’s Annual Turkey Special

After a decade of lower harvest and dramatically lower poult counts, things are beginning to look up.

Turkey season is fast approaching, and I believe there is reason to smile a little wider now than there was at the end of last season. 2016 was a tough season, even brutal for some. It was a challenge to consistently find a gobbling bird and an even tougher task to bring one home. That is evident by a low estimated turkey harvest from last season.

According to Georgia’s Game Check, 16,108 birds were killed last year. In addition, hunter numbers dropped for the fourth year in a row, and those hunters tallied up a hunter-success rate of 34.6 percent, down from 49.6 percent in 2015.

So why the reason for wider grins? Because things are beginning to look up. I recently spoke with Tom Hughes, Director of Research and Science with the National Wild Turkey Federation. We talked about population decline, habitat loss and the downward spiral in hunter numbers. While he said that habitat loss is still a real-time problem, he did express optimism in gaining and securing more hunter access to more habitat. That is a key to keeping the hunters we do have and creating more hunters.

“I believe we need to do a better job of creating hunters,” said Tom. “The way to do that is to not just take someone hunting, but to actually bring them along for a while. It’s not enough just to take somebody hunting one time and hope they catch on. We need to give new hunters the right tools to work with. The right introduction in a good, safe environment is critical.”

He’s right. In most cases, I don’t believe taking somebody hunting a time or two makes them a hunter. It takes time to mentor new recruits. They also need to realize that there are many ups and downs in the field. Some days it’s non-stop action, and other times you can’t buy a gobble.

While I interviewed Tom about population declines and habitat loss, I asked about growing-season burns. This has been a controversial issue amongst turkey hunters when they see skies blackened with smoke during the middle of turkey season, a time when many hens are sitting on nests.

“Studies are showing now that very few nests at all are being burned by late-season burns,” said Tom. “Burns are such a tremendous tool in wild turkey management, and it’s important to realize that we can burn later without harming the turkeys. It’s also interesting to learn that areas that haven’t been burned in three years or more are much more attractive to predators.”

I’m not saying I am fixing to take a torch to my turkey woods in April or May just yet. However, I am learning that some biologists are confident that growing-season burns appear to have their place in protecting turkeys and providing better habitat long term when done on the right acreage scale and in the right rotation.

As a hard-core public-land Georgia turkey hunter, I have struggled with seeing fire rolling through the turkey woods during turkey season. In fact, I am confident I’ve seen some large-scale growing-season burns on national forest lands in the last few years that wouldn’t constitute what biologists and managers would label as good management designed to create a diversity in habitat to grow more turkeys.

However, my tune on growing-seasons burns is changing, at least somewhat, and I’m willing to look much closer at what the data says in regards to the big picture on what these growing-season burns will do long term in the overall health of our turkeys. I will be taking a closer look at these studies on growing-season burns and reporting on them in GON.

While burns are something entirely controlled by human hands, Tom pointed out that there are some things we simply can’t control.

“There are many things that threaten the existence of the wild turkey, and things like a cold, wet spring is still one of the biggest enemies of a young poult and in turn the success of a hatch,” said Tom.

In order to get an idea of what we can expect for Georgia’s 2017 spring gobbler season, I contacted Kevin Lowrey, WRD’s wild turkey project coordinator.

“I hope we are moving out of the slump,” he said. “I think last season would have been a lot better if the second and third weeks of the season hadn’t been rained out. We still had the best hatch since 2011, with 1.7 poults per hen.”

The poults-per-hen numbers are actually broken out by region, so hunters in those areas can gauge what to expect in the coming season.

“The Ridge and Valley and the Lower Coastal Plain should be good. I believe the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plains will be fair,” said Kevin.

The Blue Ridge region had the poorest hatches in 2015 and 2016, but Kevin is still optimistic about that region.

“I believe the good mast crop and mild winter will translate to a better year than last year there,” said Kevin.

When I mentioned to Kevin that the concern among many is that the decline in turkey numbers is still ongoing, his response was encouraging.

“When we talk decline, we need to clarify,” said Kevin. “We have experienced reproductive declines for several years now. That doesn’t always translate to a population decline.

“If we are seeing more hens with fewer poults when we used to see less hens with more poults, the population can stay the same,” said Kevin.

Still, according to Kevin, we have experienced a drop in overall turkey numbers from 2012-2015.

“We have experienced relatively high harvests combined with low reproduction causing a short-term population decline,” said Kevin.

He added that Georgia turkey hunters have been living off a surplus of birds, but last season it finally caught up with us. However, Kevin continued to point out reason for optimism.

While the overall harvest in 2016 was the lowest in years, the jake harvest represented 11 percent of the total harvest.

“We usually have a good spring when following a jake harvest of 9 percent or higher the previous spring,” said Kevin.

In 2009, the jake harvest was 13.9 percent. The 2010 season total bird harvest jumped from 27,323 the year before to 34,001. The same thing happened in the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

“I’m expecting a better season in 2017, and I’m hopeful we can build on the recent reproductive success that we have had,” said Kevin.

If you kill a turkey this spring, you’ll want to make sure you report it to WRD through Game Check. Reporting your dead turkey is an important and valuable tool in the management of our wild turkey. I spoke with DNR Law Enforcement Ranger Bubba Stanford in Putnam County on what the general consensus has been on Game Check as it heads into its second turkey season.

“I think the public likes it,” Bubba said. “I think hunters enjoy looking around and being able to see what’s going on across the state during the course of the season. I think it’s a good tool to be able to see how the action is going in your neck of the woods, too. You can get on there and see when the action is heating up.”

I asked Bubba how accurate he thought the harvest numbers were at the end of last season.

“I think it was pretty accurate, but I think it will always take a good effort to close the gap between birds reported and actual birds killed. I think it will continue to get better,” he said.

For more information on Game Check, turn to page 12.

I asked Bubba his thoughts on the success of the hatch this past spring and what he thinks this year’s season holds.

“I’ve seen good numbers of birds. I really believe we will have a good spring,” said Bubba.

Coming from a guy who beats the bushes routinely with his favorite turkey gun, this is more reason for optimism.

While biologists continuously study and look at what is causing our reproductive declines, hunters must share the burden in maintaining our current turkey population while helping it get where it needs to be.

Longtime friend and hunting partner Bobby Knight and I, along with several other dedicated sportsmen, hold a 2,400-acre lease. I believe through our sound management practices, such as controlled burning and planting wildlife openings, we have made tremendous strides in helping the wild turkey population on our property. In all the things we do, I believe the best practice we have in place is to protect our seed. As a group, we simply do not overharvest. It is one of the soundest ways that I know of to help offset those lean-hatch years.

Whether or not the state limits will ever be adjusted or not is out of my hands and yet to be seen. Therefore, we have just chosen to take it upon our shoulders to have an influence on the things we can control, like how many birds are taken by a load of No. 6s. By doing this, when we do hunt, it is a quality experience.

There are programs available to private landowners that can be taken advantage of to help the status of the wild turkey on these private grounds. Landowners can contact WRD biologists for free technical assistance. They may also qualify for share programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Georgia Forestry Commission that may help them meet their goals.

If you don’t have private lands to manage and hunt, there are nearly a million acres of public hunting access available across the state of Georgia.

I have hunted turkeys long enough now to see the population rise and fall a couple of times. I am encouraged to see an upswing in the reproduction numbers for two consecutive years. I am glad to know that the turkey projects are alive and well as the search continues for answers concerning population declines, hunter number declines and habitat loss. We have to realize and remember that the only way we can work toward fixing a problem is to acknowledge that there is one. I think we are on the right track.

Do your part and speak up. Be heard and protect your investment, your resource and the future of our younger hunters down the road. If we work together for a common goal, I believe that the good old days of turkey hunting can return sooner than later and that they are just around the bend.

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