The 2002 Georgia Turkey Special

A stable population and average hunting expected for the 2002 turkey season.

Brad Gill | March 1, 2002

When that first break of orange appears on the horizon early on the morning of March 23, I’ll be standing in a riverbottom somewhere, covered from head to toe in camouflage, with a Remington in one hand and a wooden barred owl call in the other. I’ll be on full alert — waiting for my favorite springtime sound to verify that Georgia’s gobbler season has begun.

With my ears cupped, I’ll be listening, hoping that a lonesome tom will open his eyes, shake his 20-lb. black body and rattle the woods with the sound of an echoing gobble.

Last month GON prepped you with an article about what to fill your turkey vest with before opening day arrives. You’ve had one month to load your vest, clean your shotguns and annoy your spouse with the constant yelping of diaphragm calls. You’ve got no excuses, you should be ready for 2002 Georgia gobbler season, which opens at daylight on March 23 and runs until May 15.

The No. 1 question on most turkey hunters’ lips are, “How’s the turkey season going to be this year?” In a nutshell, fair to good, depending on where you hunt, but for the most part Georgia is blessed with a good, and stable, turkey population.

“Our population estimate is 400,000 birds,” said WRD wildlife biologist Lee Kennamer. “It’s stable to maybe up a little bit. Based on the areas I’ve been around I’ve seen a lot of turkeys, and most folks I’ve talked to have seen a lot. I think we’re looking good this year.”

Lee gets part of his information about predictions for the upcoming spring through annual brood surveys. These annual surveys, which indicate trends in turkey populations, are run from June to August and require the participation of WRD personnel.

These public-land areas are the best non-quota WMAs from last season that will be open to you on March 23! (Right) This is the top-10 list of non-quota WMAs that received the least amount of hunter pressure. Notice McGraw Ford, King Tract and Altamaha WMAs appear in both lists, meaning high success and low hunter numbers.

The brood-survey cards go to all employees in the Game Management, Law Enforcement and Fisheries sections of WRD. Information like the number of hens without poults and the number of poults per hen are recorded.

“They carry it (survey card) around in their vehicle, and when they see turkeys they record it on a monthly basis,” said Lee. “Poult per hen is the one we really look at the closest. Anywhere between 2.5 and 3.5  poults per hen is good.”

By presstime, Lee had just received all the brood-survey data from the region offices. The information hasn’t all been put together, but at first glance things looked good.

“Based on all the brood surveys, it’s going to be at least fair, maybe good,” said Lee. “It’s fairly close to what it was last year (1.8 poults per hen), if not a little bit better.”

If the numbers hold, it would mean that the number of jakes gobbling from the roost this spring would be higher than last year. This, of course, translates into more unwary 2-year-old birds in front of the gun barrels for the 2003 season. This year, however, with only fair reproduction during the summer of 2000, you’ll be dealing with mostly jakes and old, wise toms.

Brood-survey numbers have been down since the hey-day from 1993-1995, when the state saw good to excellent reproductive years (3.8, 3.6, 4.3 poults per hen). Since then poults per hen have ranged from 1.8 to 2.7.

“I attribute that to the drought,” said Lee. “Weather is the single biggest factor, beside habitat, on turkey reproduction.”

Lee said the period from the first of April until the middle of May is critical to a young turkey’s life. If these five or six weeks are wet and cool, it’s bad news for turkey hunters the following year.

“The weather between the first of April and the middle of May is when you lose birds,” said Lee. “If you get on into June and it rains, it’s not as big a deal because it’s not usually cold.

“The drought in the summer doesn’t help either,” said Lee. “There’s less vegetative cover for them to get in to. You have less insects because of the drought, you just don’t have a good formula for making turkeys.”

Lee said that he’s currently working on ways to improve brood-survey methods.

“We’d like to be able to look at something like a weather index,” said Lee. “What we’re doing right now is looking at the last 10 or 15 years, taking data we have and looking at historical weather data to see what reproduction was with certain types of weather. Instead of having to do a survey all summer long we could look at the weather for April, May and June and get a pretty good idea of what reproduction would be like. We don’t know if that’s going to work or not, but if it does, it’d make it a lot simpler and we’d be a lot faster making our prediction.”

Even though the turkey population is slightly down from 1995 and 1996, when it soared to 420,000 birds after three straight years of good to excellent reproduction, turkey hunters shouldn’t have trouble hearing ol’ thunder lips roar this spring. So where do you go?

“If I had to pick anywhere in the state, I’d go to west-central Georgia,” said Lee. “My next choice would be the Upper Coastal Plain or someplace in the mountains, but the mountains tend not to have as many birds, just like they don’t have as many deer. The Coastal Plains have them, but they’re just scattered a lot more because of the way the habitat is.

“West-central Piedmont traditionally has had the best population of turkeys for the last five or 10 years. The Piedmont is always the highest for numbers, but the western side has been the highest for a while now. Basically everything from Social Circle to the Chattahoochee has our highest densities of turkeys.”

For those of you without a private lease, Joe Kurz, Rum Creek, Blanton Creek, Big Lazer Creek, West Point and Clybel WMAs all lie in the western Piedmont region.

“The only region that is down is the east central,” said Lee. “We’ve seen consistently lower brood survey results in that area.”

When Lee’s not out chasing longbeards with a shotgun, he’s in his office crunching even more turkey data, not just the brood surveys. This additional sheet of data is from turkey hunters afield. Lee mails out 2,000 survey cards every year to turkey hunters (cooperators) asking them to record information about their hunting.

“It’s a real easy thing to do,” said Lee. “It’s a notecard with columns that indicate what county you hunt in, the date, how many turkeys you heard, how many turkeys you saw, how many turkeys you killed. The county you hunt gives us a physiographic region. It gives you some fairly good information when you start comparing them.”

Some of last year’s data is printed on these pages. Use it to your advantage, and let it tell you when the best time to hunt may be.

Here’s a few highlights. Your best chance last season to harvest a gobbler seemed to be opening weekend. It was also the weekend when more hunters were in the woods than any other time in the season. Out of the 583 hunting trips taken, 95 birds were harvested for a hunter-success rate of 16.3 percent, also the best success all season. During opening week the hunter success fell to 13.9 percent success after 509 trips equalled 71 birds. The first seven days of the season accounted for 30 percent of the harvest, the same as it was for the 2000 season. The Blue Ridge Mountains (Region II) and the Lower Coastal Plains (Region V) seemed to be the two areas that opening week wasn’t the very best time to be in the woods. For these northeast Georgia mountains, the best time seemed to be a period between April 14-22. For the southeast portion of Georgia, the peak harvest was the week of April 9-13 when 52 hunting trips produced nine birds for a success of 17.3 percent. All other areas showed a noticeable increase in harvest during the first seven days.

Statewide hunter success fell after the first seven days to 12.0 percent the second weekend, 9.2 percent  success the following week. It fell drastically the weekend of April 7-8 to a success of only 6.6 percent.However, things picked back up as Georgia neared the peak gobbling time. Hunter success nearly doubled in a matter of days. During the week of April 9-13 there were 58 toms rolled out of 469 trips taken for a success of 12.4 percent. During the weekend of April 14-15 the success continued to grow to the second highest hunter success of the year, with 16.0 percent of hunters busting a bird. The next week (April 16-20), which happened to be peak gobbling week, fell back to 11.8 percent hunter success.

The success numbers slowly fell after this until another jump in success during the last nine days had 256 hunting trips end in 34 dead turkeys for 13.3 percent hunter success. It’s believed this late-season hunting can be good, since a large majority of the hens are on the nest during this period.

“We have a list of cooperators we use every year,” said Lee. “We have 1,200 going to repeat cooperators and then about 800 that went to the turkey federation members of Georgia.”

Lee received 526 surveys back that were considered useable.

The original cooperator list was created when WRD officials attended turkey banquets and Fisharamas to sign folks up.

“I’m probably going to try and do that next year,” said Lee. “It’s a lot easier to do cooperators off the list than randomly select names out of the turkey federation. I feel like we’d probably get better results. Each year we get some back with no valid address, so we have to take them off the list. So the list every year gets a little smaller, and the smaller it gets we have to fill them out with turkey federation members. I’m going to try to see about recruiting extra people to put on the cooperator list. If you’re a turkey hunter, we’ll add you to the list.”

Lee would like to see cooperators call the Fort Valley office at (478) 825-6354 and ask to sign up to be a part of this turkey-hunter survey.

“We’ll be happy to add them to the list,” Lee said. “The cards usually go out the first week of March or so. We’re going to send 2,000 total surveys. Based on what we got now, I could put 1,000 people on the list and not cut it off.”

If most of your hunting is spent on WMAs, then you’ve got plenty to chose from. The charts on these two pages will help shine the light on where you may want to go. They include data from the last two years, along with  top non-quota picks, and which WMAs where you are least likely to see another hunter. You’ll see some surprises. I don’t think many of us would have predicted that McGraw Ford would be the No. 1 WMA for hunter success out of the non-quota WMAs and No. 2 overall. Only Rum Creek beat it — with a hunter success of 44.7 percent. If turkey hunting a WMA is on the agenda this spring, here’s a few highlights that may interest you from last year.

There were 14,371 hunters who signed in at one of 74 WMAs across the state. These turkey-hunting WMAs saw nearly a 10 percent increase in use when compared to the 2000 season when 13,079 hunters signed in to hunt.

WMA popularity shows when you consider that 4 percent of the state’s total turkey range is WMA land, but 35 percent of Georgia turkey hunters hunted a WMA or other public-land area in 2001.

In 2001, 969 WMA gobblers were signed out at check stations for a hunter-success rate of 6.7 percent, down slightly from 7.0 percent in 2000. However, with increased hunters, harvest was up 6.3 percent.

Another piece of good news is that not only are turkey numbers steady, so are hunter numbers. “Hunter numbers the last year or so haven’t really dropped,” said Lee. “They’ve stayed stable, which is good because they’ve been going down nationwide for 20 years.”

Things won’t be as dynamic as they were in the mid-90s, but you’ve still got a great chance to bag a gobbler this spring —things are good and stable if you’re a turkey hunter. If you hunted last spring, expect about the same amount of gobbling and your chances for rolling a turkey are about the same, maybe a little bit better. Grab your shotgun and owl hooter and hit the woods early on March 23!

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