2016 Georgia Turkey Special

Best poult hatch in years follows low hunter success rates last season.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | March 10, 2016

Turkey poult numbers are higher this year than they’ve been in four years. This translates into seeing jakes in the woods this year and a nice batch of 2-year-old birds next season. Photo credit Jeremy Wood.

By the time the season was winding down last year, I found myself wondering not how many birds had died over the course of the Georgia season, but rather how many had survived it. According to WRD, I, along with 52,406 other turkey hunters hit the woods last spring, and 26,000 turkeys ending up leaving the woods over a shoulder, on route to a dinner table.

Going into last season, I was expecting a less-than-spectacular experience in terms of gobblers heard and gobblers engaged. Don’t get me wrong, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who gets any more excited about turkey season than I do, but I was a little apprehensive last year.

Turkey population numbers were down, and there was a growing concern as to the future of the wild turkey in Georgia. These number estimates proved accurate. The woods were quieter overall last spring, and I hunted a few times in spots that were usually good in seasons past and didn’t hear a single bird. That’s not good.

Last season’s statewide hunter-success rate was 49.6 percent, the poorest season since 2009. The jake harvest was only 1,200, the lowest at least since 2005. We don’t have jake harvest data older than that.

Both these figures suggest a continued downward spiral. So, is the future destined for doom for our beloved turkey as we trudge through these uncertain times, or can we see light at the end of the tunnel?

I spoke with Kevin Lowrey, wild turkey project coordinator with WRD, and asked him to shed some light on what we can expect in the spring of 2016 and beyond.

“We certainly have some challenges ahead of us with wild turkey management as human populations grow and habitat is lost, but I am optimistic for several reasons,” Lowrey said.

He immediately mentioned the need for perspective and noted that Georgia is still in the top six in the nation in terms of population and harvest. That’s encouraging for sure, however, there is still plenty of reason to pay attention to the numbers as we head into another season.

Reproduction has been very poor for a number of years now, and with fewer mouthy 2-year-olds this season, it will be even more evident. The hope for a brighter tomorrow lies in a point that Lowrey made when he said, “Turkey populations are cyclic and have the ability to rebound quickly.”

While Georgia’s wild turkey population is still on a decline, it is promising to see that this past summer we had the highest poults-per-hen ratio we’ve seen since the summer of 2011. One solid year of reproduction, such as the ones we were accustomed to during the 1980s can turn things around in a hurry.

Lowrey predicts above-average seasons for the next couple of years in the Lower Coastal Plain and Ridge and Valley regions due to better reproduction there than in the other regions. The other regions, with the exception of the Blue Ridge Mountains, saw increases in reproduction, as well.

Lowrey mentioned the current El Nino weather pattern points to a wet spring ahead.

“That isn’t good news for another increase in reproduction this year or for hunter success if the rains continue,” Lowrey said.

“There is plenty being done to ‘right the ship’ by the Southeastern Wild Turkey Working Group as they strive to understand what is driving turkey numbers down. More research projects are being planned with the concept that the more information gained, the better the decision making will be.

“Opportunities are there to improve management on public ground, as well, and the fact that hunters are more engaged now is exciting.”

While some have been impacted more than others, it is interesting to note that most WMAs have been insulated from the decline in turkey harvest, despite slightly higher numbers of hunters.

“There is tremendous potential on north Georgia U.S. Forest Service land, but the area is in need of early successional habitat for nesting and brood rearing. Continued diverse habitat improvement is needed there,” said Lowrey.

The WRD has also implemented a game harvest reporting system (Georgia Game Check) that will require hunters to record each kill on their license before removing it from the field and then confirm the harvest through Georgia Game Check within 72 hours of the kill. For more information on this, turn to page 12.

“Hopefully this information will provide hunters with real-time information throughout the season, provide law enforcement with another tool to deter poachers and give biologists county-level harvest data. It is also a valuable tool in determining where there is a need to increase turkey populations,” said Lowrey.

Lowrey believes the current system is on the correct path to ensure a bright future for Georgia’s wild turkey, but he said, “More information is needed before making any drastic changes that might be needed to improve it and match a sustainable harvest with hunters’ desires.”

So what can we do to help the turkey and ourselves as hunters? Plenty, and it all starts with education. That education needs to focus on the private landowner first.

“The state of Georgia is 93 percent privately owned, so there is a real need to get the private landowner involved with the wild turkey’s management,” said WRD Biologist Bobby Bond, who was recently named Wildlife Manager of the Year by the Georgia Chapter of the NWTF. “It starts with attitude and getting the landowners to buy into improving nesting and poult habitat and teaching the value of timber thinning and control burning.”

While thinning and burning are commonplace on WMAs and forestry lands, it is not as routine on private property. Both thinning and burning not only create a more suitable, open understudy, where turkeys thrive, it also promotes a better food source immediately and in the future.

One big hurdle, according to Bond, is having large contiguous pieces of property that are broken up and owned by several landowners.

“It’s hard to get all the landowners on the same page, and it’s an uphill battle, even if only one landowner isn’t interested in the betterment of the wild turkey and the practices needed to enhance the property,” Bond said. “It’s just harder to be successful if all the neighboring landowners aren’t equally involved and concerned with the management program.”

Management is an ongoing process, and it will take all of us who love our wild turkey resource to ensure a bright future. Positive steps are being taken, and it is exciting to see turkeys in Georgia, and in other states, getting the attention it needs and deserves.

So where do we go from here? With a population of 300,000 wild turkeys in the state of Georgia, there is still reason for optimism concerning the future. We need to wear the responsibility of protecting our turkeys and their future and become the best stewards we can be of this great resource. There is plenty we can do to help. We don’t have to be an owner of large tracts of land to make a difference either. If we simply think about tomorrow today, we can make a difference. Also, make it a point to introduce someone to turkey hunting this spring. Keeping hunter numbers strong is critical to the future of the wild turkey.

As hunters, we must trust that the wild turkey is in good hands and that our rules and regulations that govern the hunting of them are where they currently need to be. I’m just happy that things are being done to preserve the future. If we get to a point that we need to take much more drastic measures, like lowering the limit or not allowing adults to shoot jakes, I’m OK with that. Whatever it takes to get turkeys out of the decline and into stability again.

Moving forward, we just can’t have an attitude that it’ll fix itself without any human involvement or solid decision making in the woods as turkey hunters. In other words, we don’t need to have a “shoot ’em all” attitude. I enjoy counting the beards and the sets of spurs I’ve collected over the years just as much as the next guy does theirs, but I’m probably prouder of the number of turkeys I’ve called up. I can promise you that when I’m gone, there won’t be a single soul who cares how many turkeys I killed. However, I bet most everybody will care about how many turkeys are in their neck of the woods.

I’ve never had a bad day in the woods when the birds were gobbling, but I’ve had a whole bunch of great days when they were gobbling their heads off, and I never looked down the barrel. Personally, I’d rather stand on a ridge on any given spring morning and hear birds than to kill the only three gobblers I heard all season.

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