2005 Georgia Turkey Special: Tough Hunting Expected

Far fewer poults surviving. What's going on in the Georgia turkey woods?

Brad Gill | March 1, 2005

Opening day of turkey season… what a glorious time in a hunter’s life. You wade through deer season, spend the next two months wing-shooting at wood ducks, chasing beagles through the short pines or lining up your .22 rifle on a flattened-out bushytail sunning himself on a sun-baked hickory branch. It almost seems like passing time for those die-hard gobbler hunters as they anxiously await the time when toting a shotgun loaded with high-brass turkey loads becomes legal.

After a long winter, the moment finally arrives. As you stand in an old logging road with a turkey vest full of your favorite turkey calls, you’re careful not to rustle the leaves. When the first gobbler of the year sounds off, a wave of goose bumps shoots down your back.

There he is… 300 yards down along the creek.”

You hold tight, hoping a closer bird will gobble, but the big tom along the creek is really getting hot. You decide it’s time to go. In an aerobic walk, you begin to cut the distance, periodically stopping to check the bird. Thoughts of a fanned-out gobbler pitching into shotgun range already fill your head as you lean back against a giant popular and reach for your best mouth call.

“Yelp, yelp, yelp,” you manage to squeak out of your mouth.

He gobbles, and you smile.

“You’re mine,” you whisper.

Forty-five minutes later, after a series of your best fly-down cackles, yelps and clucks, you’re left scratching your head wondering why the turkey shut up when you started calling.

“Was I dreaming?” you whisper.

Not hardly. You were just getting warmed up for the 2005 Georgia spring gobbler season — a year that’ll separate the men from the boys.

Warwoman WMA gave up this trio of gobblers to David (right) and Keith Blasen. David, from Carnesville, said that all three marched into a food plot on the afternoon of March 28.

If you remember from last year’s Turkey Special, GON reported that the poults-per-hen number from WRD’s brood-survey results was the lowest number in 25 years. At 1.19 poults per hen in the summer of 2003, it meant the 2004 season would march on with a low number of jakes. After looking at last season’s statistics, the number of jakes in the harvest was below average. For this turkey-hunting season, it will mean lower numbers of easier-to-kill, 2-year-old gobblers in the woods.

This past summer’s brood-survey results show that cooperators saw only 2.0 poults per hen. Although the numbers are up from 2003, a 2.0 rating isn’t real strong.  A rating between 2.0 – 3.0 is considered fair. Anything under 2.0 is poor. So, this hunting season we’re facing a population of older birds.

WRD conducts its annual brood survey in June, July and August, where cooperators from WRD’s Game Management, Fisheries and Law Enforcement sections are asked to record various brood information that helps predict what the upcoming season should look like. The survey also includes information from volunteer cooperators, and you can participate in this summer’s survey by calling (478) 825-6354. You can also download the survey at <>.

The poults-per-hen figure is the best number used to predict how the upcoming season will fare. Looking at last year’s jake-harvest numbers, it’s apparent that the brood-survey does carry some weight.

“Statewide (last season), our jake harvest was about 13 percent,” said WRD biologist Haven Barnhill. “That’s pretty low — we would expect it to be between 18 and 24 percent. If you look at our (WMA) harvest last year, we had lots of WMAs without a single jake signed out. That’s indicative of poor production.”

Last season’s overall estimated state harvest from WRD’s phone survey was 24,000 dead turkeys taken by 36,800 turkey hunters.

“Going into this season, I personally expect us to see a decline in harvest because I don’t expect there to be nearly as many 2-year-old birds on the ground because production was bad two years ago,” said Haven. “Next year we’ll be the seeing the same thing (because of this past summer’s low brood-survey results).

What’s so special about being in the woods where 2-year-old birds seem to be coming out of the woodwork?

“Two-year-old birds make up the majority of our harvest,” said Haven. “Generally, they gobble a lot.”

I got on the phone with seasoned gobbler hunter and GON freelance writer Donald Jarrett to let him know about the upcoming season, and you could almost hear him shaking his head in disgust over the phone.

“I love those 2-year-olds — those are the birds that don’t mind running their mouths, and some mornings they’ll just come running to the gun,” said Donald. “I hate to hammer out the same old saying, but it’s going to be a year of patience for most if you’re going to be consistent in shooting Georgia turkeys this year.”

On a Big Lazer Creek WMA quota hunt, Randy White, of Dallas, rolled this 20-lb. bird. Randy said this big tom came in with five other longbeards.

However, it’s important to remember that the poults-per-hen number is a statewide average. You will find pockets across the state where the hatches were better than others. I spoke with a buddy of mine at the Perry Fisharama, and he said on his hunting club in east-central Georgia, he counted 13 jakes last season in one flock. However, on two other hunting tracts 20 miles away, he saw zero jakes last season.

The Appalachian Highlands region had the best poults-per-hen average in 2003 and 2004 — 1.48, 2.69, respectively. The Piedmont region had the lowest brood numbers last year, with 1.77 poults per hen. Once again, this is an average. Some areas of the Piedmont will be better than others.

However, across the state, if you get to squeeze the trigger on a longbeard, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s got some of the best hooks you’ve seen in a few years. Haven said the gobbling from these older birds should be good.

“Since we had such great mast crop and a mild winter I expect really good fitness on the birds, which should translate into a little better gobbling activity,” he said. “We’ll continue to hear lots of birds, but those 3- and 4-year old birds are less susceptible to harvest.”

Donald will be sitting tight this spring, being very patient.

“You have to keep your calling to a minimum,” said Donald. “Also, the older birds I kill seem to be the ones that take a lot longer to call in to the gun.”

Although Haven said the gobbling on these older birds should be good, Donald said that most years these wise old birds will be cautious before letting loose a chorus of gobbles.

“Every now and then, you’ll get an older bird to run in like a suicide-screaming fool,” said Donald. “But  it’s very rare that you get a bird to gobble his head off and come running in from 300 yards, and he’s got 1 1/4-inch spurs. Those big boys might gobble a few times, and either they never come in, or they get real quiet and the next thing you know they’re in your lap.

“The most gobbling a 3- or 4-year-old bird seems to do is at a distance. When he gets quiet, he’s either gone or he’s coming. That’s a general rule of thumb I use, but it’s been pretty accurate for me over the years.”

Donald said an older bird has learned to be patient. By nature’s law, he’s supposed to be calling you in, not you calling him in. Donald likes to keep the bird interested, but he said there’s a fine line in keeping him interested and over-doing it. My experience from the turkey woods is that it’s real easy to cross that fine line.

“Let’s say you call and he gobbles,” said Donald. “Let’s say you call again, and he doesn’t gobble — older birds do that a lot. This is when I have to make a decision that it may be an older bird, and I’ll be quiet for 10 or 15 minutes. If he ever gobbles again, and he’s moved, I’ll give him a courtesy yelp. He’s playing the game I want him to play. I don’t call again until he gobbles again. If I can ever get him calling me instead of me calling him, that’s murder on an old bird.”

The entire time, Donald is sitting tight on the bird.

“You can’t move on an older bird that isn’t gobbling a lot,” said Donald “I’d rather sit tight than take a chance at bumping him. Patience is the number one way to kill a turkey. It always has been.”

The state was blessed with some excellent hatches in the mid-90s, which resulted in lots of dead turkeys in the late 90s and early 2000s. Despite the current turkey funk we’re in, there’s not too much to worry about.

“Turkeys are going to cycle, they have a tremendous reproductive output,” said Haven. “Even several years of bad production can be overcome by a couple of years of very good production,” said Haven.

The state’s below-average hatches are stemming from two sources — abnormal weather in the late spring and an overall loss of habitat.

“Last year, we had really heavy rains in the early spring where some of the rivers flooded, which would have flooded some nests,” said Haven. “We’ve also had several years of severe drought. When you have summer drought, you don’t produce good brood habitat — insects and seeds.”

Haven said an area needs average precipitation and average temperatures in the late spring and early summer to produce a good hatch.

“In Georgia most of the nesting is initiated in April and early May,” said Haven. “Birds incubate for 28 days, so by the second week of June, the majority of the nests have hatched already. Right at the hatching period, you don’t like lots of rain. The afternoon showers are no big deal. You don’t want three or four days of heavy rain.”

Even with back-to-back years where turkey reproduction was below average, Georgia’s turkey population, and the near future of hunting these birds, is bright.

“It’s not something to be overly concerned about,” said Haven. “From a population standpoint, we’re extremely healthy and probably will be in the foreseeable future.”

Haven said there are turkeys in all 159 counties, and statewide there’s 8.9 turkeys per forested square mile. Georgia’s turkey population is estimated at 350,000 birds.

“There is no easy way to get a statewide turkey population estimate,” said Haven. “The population estimate is a biological guess. We know how many square miles of forested habitat are in every county and the biologist in each county periodically estimates the number of birds per square mile. Then you use that to calculate the total number of birds in each county.

“What we’re mostly concerned about is trends, which is why we do the brood surveys and hunter-harvest surveys. The brood survey provides us the best information to predict an upcoming turkey season.”

Without very many jakes, WMA hunters had a good season on mature gobblers, thanks to a good reproductive year in 2002.

During the 2004 season, 14,928 hunters signed-in to hunt a WMA. These turkey hunters killed 1,113 birds for a hunter-success rate of 7.5 percent. As stated earlier, jakes only made up 16 percent of the total WMA harvest.

Hunter success was highest in the Lower Coastal Plain WMAs (10.6 percent), followed by the Ridge and Valley (8.0 percent), Blue Ridge Mtns. (7.9 percent) and the Piedmont (5.8 percent).

“Georgia has experienced significant growth in the number of turkey hunters using WMAs,” said Haven. “The potential exists for hunt quality to be impacted as hunter numbers increase. For example, the Piedmont region has only 26.6 percent of the statewide WMA land but has over 43 percent of the hunters.”

You’ll find the list of WMA harvest and hunter numbers on page 37. Griffin Ridge WMA, which hosts five quota hunts, had the best WMA hunter-success numbers in the state. The 53 hunters who were picked to hunt killed 13 birds for a success rate of 24.5 percent. Rum Creek, a quota WMA in the Piedmont, had 14 dead birds from 69 hunters for a 20.3 percent hunter-success rate.

Di-Lane WMA in east-central Georgia had the best non-quota numbers from 2004. Only 178 hunters signed in to hunt the nearly two-month-long season, and they rolled 33 gobblers for 18.5 percent hunter success.

Even though it may be a little tougher to kill a gobbler this spring, turkey hunting in this state should continue to be good in the near future. The biggest worry to Haven is not the two below-average hatch years, but it’s the continual loss of habitat that is throwing a kink into the long-range forecast.

“The loss of habitat is the long-term issue with birds,” said Haven. “We’ve seen some pretty significant declines in habitat quality in portions of the state, particularly in the Piedmont. (We’re looking at) the continued suburban encroachment on turkey habitat, the loss of pasture land and land being converted into pines.”

Haven said that turkeys need big blocks of good habitat to do well.

“Where we once had tens of thousands of acres of good habitat in blocks is now becoming much smaller,” said Haven. “You may have 500 acres of good habitat surrounded by 5,000 acres of marginal habitat. In those cases, you would support a lot fewer birds across that landscape.”

It has been proven that turkeys can use several hundred acres in one day, and sometimes a turkey’s daily range can push 1,000 acres.

“Turkeys like mature woods and open areas and a good mix of them,” said Haven. “You can have up to 40 percent of the landscape in open land and have very good turkey habitat. Pasture land and food plots are good.

“You need mature hardwoods with a mid-story to provide a lot of mast in years that you don’t produce lots of acorns. You need dogwoods, gums and all kinds of soft mast.”

Although turkeys need openings to thrive, crop land generally isn’t good for turkeys.

“Most modern agricultural practices don’t produce lots of weeds or insects,” said Haven. “The weeds provide tremendous numbers of seeds and also the open areas provide critical brood habitat —  a high abundance of insects.  A good opening will provide seeds and insects for many months.”

Georgia’s spring gobbler season will begin March 26 and run through May 15. These wiser turkeys will oftentimes separate the men from the boys, so try Donald’s tactics to help coax a sharp-spurred gobbler into shotgun range.

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