The Game Check numbers from the recently completed wild turkey season are in, and a slight uptick in hunter success was indicated.
According to Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes, those numbers need to be viewed with caution. Last year, hunters reported the harvest of 9,177 turkeys through the mandatory Game Check system. This year, the harvest reported was 9,628 birds.
“Statistically, that’s not a big difference,” Sykes said. “That’s not the number of turkeys that were killed in Alabama. That’s the number that were reported. I think about three times that amount were killed both years.
“Last year, we estimated about 40-percent compliance with Game Check. This year, some of our estimates are up around 65 percent. So, it depends on which guesstimate you want to go with. If it’s 40 percent, we’ve probably got plenty of turkeys. If it’s 65 percent, then, yes, we have a problem. And we won’t know until we get better compliance. For every call I get that says we don’t have any turkeys, I get another call that says it’s the best season they’ve ever had. Until we get concrete numbers, we have to do the best we can.”
Sykes, who was a professional hunting guide early in his conservation career, said his turkey season fit into that latter category of success.
“I had the best season I’ve had since I became director,” he said. “When we talked earlier in the season, I predicted the last two weeks of the season would be good. That’s exactly what happened. We burned them up the last two weeks.”
But that didn’t mean the season was typical for Sykes and his hunting partners. He said turkeys weren’t in their usual hangouts, which meant they had to cover a great deal of territory to find the turkeys.
“Last year, the first two weeks of the season couldn’t have been any better,” he said. “The last two weeks, I couldn’t buy a turkey. This year, the first two weeks were tough, but, as predicted, the last two weeks were great. Turkeys didn’t gobble good. There were still turkey tracks, and we found turkeys in places where we hadn’t found them before. You just had to get out and hunt them.”
Sykes said his turkey season diary from last year indicated that during the 16 days he hunted in March there were nine turkeys killed and three missed. The 20 days he hunted last year in April resulted in one kill and two misses. This year, Sykes hunted 13 days in March with five turkeys killed. In April, he hunted 19 days with seven turkeys harvested and a whopping five missed. Sykes said his days hunted often included hunting from 6-7:30 in the morning before he headed to the office or 6-7:30 in the evening.
“I have averaged a turkey being shot at every 2.3 days for the past 10 to 15 years,” Sykes said. “This year, that average was 1.8. Last year, during the month of April, I hunted bits and pieces of 20 days. I had one turkey killed. This year, that last 10 days I went to the woods, we just about shot at a turkey every day.
“I know I’m not the norm. I talked to some people who killed their limit (five per person per year) in March, and I know guys who didn’t kill a bird this year. It’s all site specific.”
In the Southeast, concerns that turkey populations are declining prompted WFF to contract with Auburn University for a five-year study on turkeys. This was the fourth year of the study.
WFF also enlisted a number of dedicated turkey hunters to participate in the Avid Turkey Hunters Program to report turkey activity witnessed in the field. The results are reported annually in the “Full Fans and Sharp Spurs” publication. Go to this link to read the report.
“Looking at ‘Full Fans and Sharp Spurs,’ our recruitment is not what it should be,” Sykes said. “The number of poults per hen is not where we want it, and the number of hens with no poults at all is definitely a lot higher than we want.”
Sykes said he heard the talk that ‘turkeys were gone’ four years ago. But when he looked at his hunting records, the turkey harvest was the same that year and this year.
“Numbers may be down, but I attribute the numbers being down where I used to have turkey to habitat changes,” he said. “Places that have stayed pastures and ag fields that I hunt, nothing has really changed around it, and the turkeys are fairly constant. But on our place outside Butler, 10 years ago we’d kill a couple a year on that 200 acres. I haven’t killed a turkey off that place since you and I went because we cut a bunch of mature timber, and longleafs are in their early stages of growth. I’m not saying the turkeys disappeared. I know why the turkeys aren’t there. The habitat changed. But in a couple of years when the habitat is back right, we’ll have turkeys again.”
Factors in turkey population changes include urbanization, unmanaged timber and predator numbers as well as the number of hunters who pursue turkeys these days.
“A lot of things have changed with hunters,” Sykes said. “You’ve got shotguns now that will kill a turkey at 70 yards. You’ve got decoys and pop-up blinds.
“There’s a big difference between turkey hunters and people who hunt turkeys. Turkey hunters can kill turkeys whether they’re gobbling or not, whether weather conditions are great or not. People who hunt turkeys can’t. Therefore, there is a perceived problem. I’m not saying that’s bad. We want more hunters. But sticking a decoy and a pop-up blind up in a food plot, that’s hunting turkeys, not being a turkey hunter.”
Sykes thinks that added pressure has resulted in a decrease in gobbling. He sees the evidence in tracks that the turkeys haven’t gone anywhere, but some hunters mistakenly surmise there aren’t any turkeys around when the birds don’t gobble.
“I hunted places this year where we’d go one day and hear eight turkeys,” he said. “Then it may be two weeks before you heard a turkey gobble again. That didn’t mean all of them died. It didn’t mean all of them packed up and left. For whatever reason, they didn’t gobble. Seriously, a lot of the turkeys we killed this year didn’t gobble but two or three times.
“Or, you get an old turkey on a hunting club that’s been shot at two or three times and spooked two or three times. He’s got every turkey in the area beat down where they won’t gobble. You’re not going to kill them. You can’t kill him without basically deer-hunting him. So, if you don’t kill him, you’re not going to have gobbling turkeys on that place. It doesn’t mean they’re gone. They’re just not vocal because of the hunting pressure and one old turkey.”
Back to the Game Check numbers, Jackson County in northeast Alabama led the way again in the number of turkeys reported killed with 340. The other counties with the highest harvests reported include Barbour, Dallas, Coosa and Pickens.
“I hunted Jackson County for one day for 30 minutes and called up a big one, so I’m not surprised,” Sykes said. “I probably hunted seven or eight counties this spring. How the hunts turned out depended on the day and where we were.”
Sykes said his hunting parties took a majority of older-age-class birds this year. Out of the 12 birds that Sykes witnessed being harvested, only two were 2-year-old birds. The other birds were 3- and 4-year-olds.
“And I saw quite a few jakes (year-old gobblers) this year,” he said. “That is encouraging.”
Sykes also got to introduce a colleague to the sport of turkey hunting. He took Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, whose background is in marine fisheries, on his first turkey hunt.
“Chris lives a charmed life,” Sykes said. “He deer-hunted one afternoon last year and killed a 200-pound, seven-point that he got mounted. He wanted to go turkey hunting. I took him to a good place, and within 45 minutes of his first hunt, he harvested a good, 3-year-old bird. Granted, he takes direction well. He listened and did everything he needed to do. He killed his first turkey with a brand-new gun he had bought just for this hunt. So, we are creating hunters and creating people who support conservation by buying guns and ammunition.
“I applaud him for taking up something new. Being a fish guy, this was completely outside his comfort zone, and he did very well.”
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.