Turkey Special 2006: Tough Times In The Georgia Turkey Woods

Brad Gill | March 1, 2006

The state’s latest batch of poult numbers are in, and the news isn’t great for hunters gearing up for the March 25, 2006 turkey-season opener in Georgia. Don’t expect to see a pile of jakes this season, and if you look at WRD poult data from the year before, don’t look for too many crazy, love-sick, 2-year-old birds either.

Even though Georgia still has plenty of turkeys that will fly down and come to the gun this season, poor nesting success over the last five years is making for tougher times in the turkey woods.

“This is the first time we’ve had five or six years in a row of pretty poor reproduction,” said Chris Baumann, a WRD biologist and the Turkey Committee Chairman. “Turkeys are very cyclic. They’ll have several really good years and then some down years. We could be in one of those cycles or there could be something real going on that is affecting the reproduction. To give you an honest answer, we don’t have real grasp on why it has declined, if it is a real decline or not.”

Bob Coombs, of Roswell, shot this Allatoona WMA gobbler on March 28, 2005. Bob’s bird was one of 12 birds shot on this WMA north of Atlanta.

Wet springs aren’t good for turkey production, which may actually be the biggest reason why last year’s hatch was so poor. However, biologists are looking for additional answers as to why we’ve seen several back-to-back years of low productioin.

“There is a chance that our turkey population has filled the habitat out there, and they’re not exponentially growing anymore so they’re not having to reproduce as much,” said Chris. “It could be they’re not having to reproduce as hot and heavy as when they were filling out the available habitat. That is another possibility, but without getting into some more research we really won’t know.

“This spring we could see the start of three great years of poult reproduction, and what we’ve seen the last five years we’ll forget.”

Five years of lower-than-normal reproduction means you won’t find a bunch of one particular age class of birds. For example, when the state saw excellent reproduction in the summer of 1995, we knew the woods would be crawling with jakes the following spring. Then the spring of 1997 would promise hunters the chance at hearing a bunch of wild gobbling from 2-year-old toms. This season the state can’t predict that you’ll see a bunch of jakes, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, or 4-year-olds. We’ve just had too many back-to-back years of low poult production.

To get the state’s poult numbers, employees with WRD’s Game Management, Fisheries and Law Enforcement sections, along with a host of volunteers, conduct the state’s turkey-brood survey every summer in June, July and August. These observers record turkey data while they drive around in their normal routine. When they see hens, either with or without poults, they’ll make make a note. They also count how many poults are in a group, called a brood.

Last summer 576 observers put 781,999 miles on their vehicles, and they counted 2,469 poults in 248 broods. This may sound like a pile of young turkeys, but to really get a peek at the success of last season’s overall poult hatch, we look at a number called “poults per hen.”

“The average number of poults per hen was 1.5 in 2005, down 24.7 percent from 2.0 in 2004,” WRD biologist Bobby Bond reported in his “Turkey Production Index Survey” report.

This year’s 1.5 poults-per-hen marks the second-lowest number in 25 years and is 52 percent below the 26-year average.

Bobby said a reading of 3.0 to 4.0 poults per hen is considered a “good” year for turkey-poult production. We haven’t seen a hatch that strong since the 1995 hatch of 4.3 poults per hen.

The best hatch we’ve seen in the last five years was in the summer of 2002 when 2.5 poults per hen was observed, which is in the middle of the “fair” ranking.

Along with looking at the overall number of poults per hen, the number of poults per observer has been another good indicator of hatch success. Last summer observers saw an average of 12.89 poults, down from an average of 18.28 poults per observer in 2004. In 2003, recorders noted 13.11 poults per observer.

Average brood size is down, too.

“The average brood size of 9.96 poults seen in 2005 was 5.6 percent less than observed in 2004 (10.55),” said Bobby.

Another pretty scary observation in last-summer’s study was the large number of hens that didn’t pull off a hatch. Of the 1,640 hens seen, only 611 (37 percent) had poults.

“Our percentage of hens with poults was bad. You don’t want to see it much below 50 percent usually,” said Chris.

Poult data has been a pretty good indicator of what turkey hunters can expect in the spring. Hunting seasons following a poor hatch, or several years of poor hatches, usually result in the overall hunter-success rate taking a nosedive. Unfortunately, due to the fact that hunting licenses are now valid for one year after the time of purchase — regardless of when you buy it — we don’t have an estimate on last year’s hunter and harvest numbers.

“That kind of threw a wrench into the way we were pulling license sales (after the turkey season),” said WRD biologist Don McGowan. “Somebody who bought a 2004 big-game license could hunt in 2005 during turkey season (without having to buy another license). We’re trying to sort through the issue.”

However, WMA turkey harvest from last year shows a significant decrease in hunter success.

Looking at the 2005 season, 14,000 public-land hunters killed 863 WMA gobblers for a success of 6.2 percent, the lowest it’s been since at least the early 1990s when we began keeping track of those two numbers in GON‘s Turkey Special.

“Last year we had terrible weather, particularly on the weekends,” said Chris. “I sure tried to go and couldn’t. Some years when you have bad weathers it will affect your harvest.”

However, when looking at WMA jake harvest from the 2005 season, it adds proof that the number of 1-year-old turkeys just weren’t there last year. Only 196 of those 863 WMA gobblers (23 percent) were jakes.

“There is some selectivity of guys trying to take mature birds, but (in normal years) you still get a fair percentage of jakes harvested every year,” said Chris. “On several WMAs they didn’t even harvest a jake last year, which means you didn’t have much reproduction and you’re not going to have many 2-year-old birds on those WMAs this year. That spells pretty tough hunting. When you get zero jakes, that’s not a good sign.”

However, there’s always a few bright notes for folks seeking a place to chalk-up the box call this spring and try their luck on a WMA gobbler.

Looking at hunter-success numbers for the last two season, Di-Lane and Yuchi WMAs are both on fire.

Di-Lane WMA had the very best hunter-success rate in the state. Yes, that’s right, it beat out Clybel, Blanton Creek and Joe Kurz WMAs, some of the hottest quota-hunt areas.

Hunters in 2005 killed 27 turkeys for a hunter-success rate of 23.1 percent. The spring before 18.5 percent of the hunters folded 33 gobblers, which made it the hottest non-quota area in 2004, too.

Di-Lane sits in east-central Georgia outside of Waynesboro and doesn’t get a lot of pressure. Only 117 turkey hunters showed up to hunt last season. In 2004 only 178 hunters showed up. The WMA stays open the entire state season.

Looking at the 27 harvested birds in 2005, nine of them were jakes. The 2004 hatch may have been pretty good, so this may be one of those areas you’ll find a few flocks of vocal 2-year-olds.

If you’re looking for a pretty quiet place to hunt with a good number of birds, blow an owl hooter at Di-Lane one morning and see what happens.

Just down the road from Di-Lane, Yuchi WMA is another area that reeks of turkey-hunting success. Yuchi was No. 2 for non-quota hunter-success rate. It gets a little more pressure, with 227 hunters showing up to hunt this area. Hunters killed 38 birds for a hunter-success rate of 16.7 percent.

For the 2004 season, 214 hunters shot 34 birds for a hunter-success rate of 15.9 percent, second only behind Di-Lane in 2004.

If there’s a downside to Yuchi, it’s that only two of the 38 birds taken in the 2005 were jakes. You could be looking at a population of mostly wise, old gobblers this spring.

Dixon Memorial in southeast Georgia was No. 3 on the list of best non-quota WMAs, with only 77 hunters chasing a turkey across 36,000 acres. Those hunters killed 10 birds for a hunter-success rate of 13 percent. In 2004, 73 hunters killed 11 toms for a success of 15 percent.

Don’t let the poult numbers scare you too bad. It’s certainly no excuse for staying home on a pretty Saturday in April. You just may have to cover a few more miles than normal. The reward will be worth it when a big strutter walks into range.

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