2024 Georgia WMA Turkey Special

Brad Gill | March 3, 2024

Tommy Hightower, of Mansfield, took this big gobbler April 15 on a Clybel WMA quota hunt.

With WMA quota-hunt drawings being held a few weeks ago, some hunters have already put in for a vacation day or two in preparation for warm weather and hopefully gobbling birds. However, as low turkey populations across the Southeast continue to get the focus from biologists and researchers, there’s a big question mark on how this plays out for Georgia’s public-land turkey hunters.

GON has been compiling state-provided WMA turkey harvest data for more than 30 seasons. When you dig back into the newsprint-on-your-fingers issues from 20-plus years ago, it’s a little difficult to compare some of that really old data to what is happening today. For example, in the March 1994 issue, we only reported dead-gobbler numbers (not hunter numbers or success rates) from 45 WMAs that hosted turkey hunts during the spring of 1993.

The information got heavier through the years. The chart to the right, which spills over onto page 47, reports on 102 WMAs that hosted turkey hunts last season and includes hunter and turkey harvest numbers, along with hunter-success rates and even harvest-per-square-mile data on each WMA.

With this pool of growing information through the years, we feel we can look at hunter-success rates (total number of turkeys harvested divided by the number of hunters) from the last 20 years to get some sense of public-land successes, and failures, along the way.

However, keeping all things in context, hunter success isn’t the best way to see if we’ve got a rebounding population as we look to the future. The best metric used for population status is one WRD calls “poults per hen,” which is how many young turkey birds are walking with mama over a period of time in the late spring and summer. More on that metric in next month’s statewide Turkey Special, but it’s not a measurement that has been historically taken over time on individual WMAs. Poults-per-hen data is collected and compiled by WRD physiographic regions and sheds light into the current state of reproduction over time in a larger area.

“While hunter success is a metric that we keep track of, and one that is important to us, it tells us less about the health of the population,” said Emily Rushton, WRD’s State Wild Turkey Coordinator. “Many factors can contribute to hunter success other than the number of birds on an area. For example, weather during the season. Last year it was cold and rainy on public lands opening weekend. That can play a big factor.”

There was a new wrinkle in the WMA equation that started with the 2022 season. Georgia public-land hunters found themselves required to start turkey hunting two weeks later than they normally did. This was an across-the-board play by WRD to allow toms more time to breed hens without hunter interference on hard-hunted public lands. In addition to a later start date, WMA hunters could only shoot one gobbler per piece of public land. In other words, once a hunter signed in and killed a bird on a WMA, they had to sign in and hunt a different WMA to get their second, and final, gobbler for the season.

While it’s only been two seasons since the new regulations on public lands—and I get that’s not a lot of data to work with—we do need to look at what has unfolded. The 2022 WMA turkey season was a spring where we had a very poor, 4.9% hunter-success rate—the lowest WMA hunter-success rating ever recorded in a GON WMA Turkey Special.

The success rate rose a tad in 2023 when WMA hunters yielded a 5.1% hunter-success rate. Compare these numbers to the 20-year hunter-success average of 6.5%, and it does make this WMA turkey hunter wonder if the lower-than-average success rates are in some way a reflection of the new public-land regulation changes. At some point, can public-land turkey hunters expect at least a return to what we’ve seen as average hunter-success rates in spite of the new regulations?

“I don’t think we can say for sure, but I hope so,” said Rushton.

Let’s dig deeper. Consider that WMA turkey hunter numbers fell in 2022 and 2023, a certain result in a later start date. It makes sense that fewer hunters would kill fewer overall birds; however will those overall hunter-success rates once again be like we saw in 2019-21 (6.2, 6.8. 6.7)? Or do turkey hunters need that extra two weeks back in order to bump success back up toward a rate in line with the 20-year average?

“While we expect overall harvest to decrease on WMAs—and that is one of our goals with the regulation changes—I hope with increased reproduction in the future, we will see population improvements and increased hunter success over time,” said Emily.

Let’s get back to that low hunter success in 2022 an 2023. Yes, it’s well below average; however it’s not quite as bad as it appears. Hunters may now only kill two toms—not three—and those birds must come from two different WMAs. Prior to 2022, a WMA hunter who killed two or three birds off the same WMA was only counted as one hunter in that hunter-success equation. Are these factors driving the needle south on what we saw as hunter-success rates in 2022 and 2023?

“Yes, since the hunter-success metric prior to 2022 didn’t parse out which birds were a hunter’s second or third bird harvested,” said Emily. “While overall hunter success as we now measure it is lower than WMA hunter-success rates prior to 2022, a lower hunter-success number going forward doesn’t necessarily mean odds were lower that a hunter was successful.”

A question we hear from hunters is whether a two-week later start date means less gobbling, resulting in harder-to-hunt birds?

“Researchers have tracked gobbling activity on several hunted populations in the Southeast, both before and after regulation changes,” said Emily. “They have seen that no matter the start date, after a couple of days of hunting activity, gobbling decreases. Of all the factors that affect gobbling activity, hunting pressure is near the top in terms of causing gobbling to die down.”

Emily shared that Dr. Michael Chamberlain at UGA has been monitoring gobbling on the Savannah Research Site (a non-hunted site), and found that gobbling continues to be high in April. There is no such data on WMAs because once hunting pressure enters the picture, whether that is a March start date or one into April, gobbling goes down.

“It’s hard to know what peak gobbling is supposed to be on a particular highly pressured WMA because of the influence of hunting,” said Emily. “But we can look at the SRS data and see that in the absence of hunting, gobbling is still going strong through April.”

Cedar Creek Research: Cedar Creek WMA was part of a 2014-2022 study that used data from turkey research projects that took place in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. The study researched the survival and reasons for mortality of gobblers.

“The study found that the current rate of male turkey mortality, combined with low production rates, may not provide sustainable population levels and continued hunter satisfaction,” said Emily.

Researchers and turkey managers have suspected as much for a while, which was certainly some of the ammo that led to tighter statewide turkey regulations beginning in 2022. However, even before the 2022 later start date, Cedar Creek WMA in Putnam, Jones and Jasper counties implemented a two-week later start date beginning with the 2019 spring season. With five later season start dates under their belts, data has shown there has been no improvements in the turkey population or poult survival on the mid-Georgia WMA.

“The poult numbers on Cedar Creek have remained below one poult per hen,” said Emily. “If these observed numbers are indicative of reality, there’s not enough reproduction to sustain the population.”

So if a delayed start the last five seasons hasn’t at least provided a glimmer of hope that things could be turning around, it’s worth looking at what else could be causing the problem. A question I think we’ll be asking a lot more as we keep looking at this turkey issue is this: Who owns the property?

Cedar Creek WMA is federally owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The state leases the hunting rights and can perform some management tasks—like food plots—but things like timber management and the timing and size of prescribed fire burns is controlled by federal hands.

“It’s a habitat problem first. The Forest Service’s primary management objective is not turkeys,” said Bobby Bond, WRD’s biologist who oversees Cedar Creek. “If the timber was thinned more often, it would help. They need more nest cover. The juveniles travel far to fields to eat insects. While the area is being burned, which is a benefit, it typically is burned in larger blocks than what would benefit turkeys the best.”

Again, as we all keep our thumb on WMA turkeys, we need to keep all things in perspective by knowing who owns the property. In addition, as Bobby suggested, we need to know what’s the priority of that owner and that property. Is it growing baby turkeys, selling timber or making money selling it to developers? Ownership and property priority matters.

We will be digging into the turkey situation more next month as we tackle turkeys on a statewide scale, not just WMAs. I got a feeling we’ll be looking at the 93% of Georgia’s private lands and asking, who owns it and what are the objectives?

Look at the WMA numbers from last season and figure out where to hunt this season. In spite of the storm, I am encouraged at high hunter-success rates on places like River Creek (54.5%), Buck Shoals (30%) and Clybel (11.2%). These are quota-only WMAs, but at least we know the landowners have a vested interest in growing turkeys.

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