The 2023 Georgia Turkey Hunting Special

Last season’s shorter turkey season and a new two-bird limit yield an expected lower statewide harvest, but the drop in hunter numbers is concerning.

Mike Bolton | March 3, 2023

WRD’s Wild Turkey Coordinator Emily Rushton with a banded turkey that is part of a current project in the Piedmont region that is mentioned in the story.

The second season of Georgia’s plan to slow its wild turkey decline is now just a few weeks away. The state’s anxious turkey hunters are curious to know if their sacrifices last season are showing any dividends.

Those wanting answers may be jumping the gun a bit.

Keep in mind that WRD said that it would take some number of years to get a true picture of how the changes might affect the turkey decline. That still stands. 

“It is going to take some time to see how the changes affect turkey production,” said WRD’s State Wild Turkey Coordinator Emily Rushton. “It will be several years before we get a clear picture.”

The numbers from the first season under the new regulations did reveal a few interesting tidbits, however. One of those was expected, one was quite surprising.

“Our harvest numbers were down, and that was expected,” she said. “Hunter effort was down, too, much more than expected.” 

Numbers from the 2022 season showed that the Georgia turkey harvest dropped by 7,793 birds last season over the 2021 season. That was to be expected with the new restrictions, Emily said. 

What wasn’t expected, was that 16,941 fewer hunters participated in the 2022 season than the season before. A 31% drop in turkey-hunter numbers is alarming. Do a significant number of hunters believe that with the new regulations turkey hunting in Georgia is just not worth it anymore? Or did a shorter season mean hunters found it a struggle to squeeze in some hunting? Not likely, at least not on a large scale.

A closer look at the decline in turkey hunters may not be quite as bad as it appears. It’s suspected the 2021 season that saw 54,509 hunters was a result of COVID, when many hunters were either out of work or still working from home and had more relaxed schedules. Then, there’s another theory that says some 2021 hunters knew regulation changes were coming, so they hit the woods a little more frequent. 

So the 2021 season—at least the hunter numbers—may have been an anomaly. Regardless, last season still saw a decline of 7,637 hunters over the 2020 season—a 17% drop. That number is one that Emily does find surprising since hunters interviewed prior to the changes last season overwhelmingly agreed that there had to be changes.

“Hunters said they had been concerned for years and most agreed that changes had to be made,” she said. “There was a more mixed opinion on moving the opening-day season dates back, but when we explained why, hunters did get on board.”

As a reminder, here are the changes that went into effect last season and will be in effect this season:

• The statewide bag limit has been reduced to two gobblers per season, with a one gobbler daily bag limit.

• The bag limit on WMAs, VPAs and National Forest lands (outside WMAs) is one gobbler per area.

• On private and leased land, the statewide turkey season opened later (this year’s date is April 1, 2023).

• On WMAs, VPAs and National Forests, the turkey season opened a week after private land was open (this year’s date is April 8, 2023).

Emily says the reason for opening the season later is simple. She said the delay in hunting pressure allows more breeding to take place. That allows hens to begin nesting during the peak incubation period. She said it was not a knee-jerk reaction, nor based on theory. She said it was based on good science from a number of different sources.

One of those sources was a thorough, five-year study commissioned by the National Wild Turkey Federation. That study was done using radio-collared turkeys, poult counts and other study methods. That study found that 26% of the gobblers taken in the study were taken during the first week of the season and almost 50% of the birds taken during the season had been taken by the end of second week.

The research of wildlife biologist Dr. Michael Chamberlain of the University of Georgia also contributed into WRD’s decision to start the turkey season later. His research also showed that most of the male turkeys were taken during the first few weeks of the season, but his research went a step further. He said that the males taken early were usually the dominant gobblers that the females had chosen for breeding partners. He said the loss of the dominant males forces the females to start the breeding process over again having to settle for less dominant males.

Emily believes these changes will help Georgia’s wild turkey population, but there’s still plenty of underlying problems that can’t be controlled by changes in season dates and bag limits.

She said at the root of the turkey decline in Georgia is urbanization and other habitat problems. She points to the decline of turkeys in the Piedmont area as a good example.

“Historically, the Piedmont is one of the state’s best areas for turkeys, but we’re seeing more declines there than anywhere else,” she said. “Urbanization there is really changing the habitat.”

She says when forests and fields become urban areas, they typically are no longer managed for wildlife. That opens the door for predators like raccoons, opossums, bobcats and coyotes to exploit the ground nests of turkeys and even their poults.

Georgia is a mosaic of different types of habitats, some more conducive to turkeys than others.

“The coast and lower coastal plains have less habitat that turkeys prefer,” she said. “Northwest Georgia, on the other hand, has a lot of open forest and agricultural land and has a really good population of turkeys.”

Although it’s true that some regions of the state are more conducive to better turkey populations, it is not accurate to rate one county better than another. Success in a county is on a property-by-property basis with those landowners who manage for turkeys being far more successful than maybe their own next-door neighbors.

Emily points out that almost 93% of the property in Georgia is privately owned, and DNR is available to assist individual landowners in developing turkey management plans.

While DNR is extremely interested in what the new regulations will eventually show, she insists her agency is not taking a “Let’s just sit back and see what happens” approach.

“We are continuing, and actually extending, our turkey research,” she said. “We still have an ongoing project with the University of Georgia, and we have extended that project several more seasons.

“We are monitoring poults, we are banding birds on several WMAs across the state and putting satellite transmitters on birds to monitor their movements.”

WRD can control some aspects of wild turkey production, but the one thing it cannot control is the weather. Weather can affect all aspects of a turkey’s life. A dry fall and dry winter do not bode well for the growth of greenery that both adult turkeys and poults need for cover in spring. Droughts in spring result in brown fields not conducive to insect production, a primary source of food for growing poults. A wet, cold spring is rough on young poults that have no escape other than cowering under their mother’s wings.

Emily says it is too early to know how the spring weather will play out, but it appears that it has been a good winter for turkey production. She said a wet winter makes everything green up for spring, and that creates the insect abundance that poults need to survive.

“It has been pretty wet,” she said.

Has the weather cooperated to make the habitat better? Will the weather cooperate for good poult production? Will the weather cooperate with hunters’ efforts? Will more hunters return to the fold?

Another season is upon us.

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  1. Morrell on January 31, 2024 at 11:26 am

    Florida does have a higher average poult recruitment but there is abundant predator trapping. Plus, the density of the turkey population is not where the city development is. Whats interesting is the national forests have the lowest populations of turkeys as well. The density map shows this and it also shows the areas of agriculture and cattle farming hold the highest populations. Same as Georgia. Florida also has a spring AND fall season and the northern part of the state has their season open in early March. So, that is evidence that hunting has little to do with the impact on the turkey population and supports moving Georgia’s season back to mid March like it should be.

    • pdupree on March 4, 2024 at 6:10 pm

      Take a look at the Poults Per Hen chart above (the big blue box). Find out why the poults per hen started dropping around 2000 and has not recovered and well have our answers.

  2. Mike Hataway on March 13, 2023 at 3:47 pm

    I don’t find the drop in hunter numbers alarming. I find it encouraging. Public land turkey hunting has become a rat race.

    • Morrell on March 22, 2023 at 9:00 am,escaped%20to%20establish%20wild%20populations.

      I don’t think we are having enough conversation around nest predation and is impact on poult recruitment. There is a significant correlation between the increase in hog population statewide and the reduction in poults. We also don’t talk enough about the reduced number of coon hunters over the years. I believe these to be two of the larger impact predators on turkeys. Simply reducing the tom harvest won’t stop these predators. Now we are reducing hunters drastically and that includes license fee revenue which is supposed to conservation efforts…I guess that’s not important anymore.

      Move the season back to mid March. Keep the reduced bag limits on Toms. Don’t punish the hunters for predators causing damage. I have one word, bounty.

      • pdupree on April 10, 2023 at 10:40 am

        I wonder why Florida’s turkey population is not declining (like the rest of the country, especially the eastern half) in the midst of urbanization, the highest feral hog population in the southern US, and very limited predator trapping.

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