Despite recent challenges, doom and gloom don't define turkey hunting prospects in the South. In fact, the region has many reasons for renewed optimism
The South remains the heart and soul of turkey hunting, as the sport's traditions run deep throughout the fiber of the region. So it seems ironic that this area has prompted serious concern the past few years, as turkey populations have decreased, hunting has become tougher, and managers have tweaked season structures to reverse or at least halt the downward trend.
But the news isn't all bad. In fact, biologists say some states might be on the upswing, and a few longtime hotspots continue to provide good hunting. Even in states where the situation has turned bleak, folks remain upbeat that the tides will turn.
Here's a quick look at what Southern turkey hunters can expect during Spring 2023.
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Steven Mitchell, upland game-bird coordinator for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said prospects for this spring are expected to be about the same as the past several years. Surveys estimate that Alabama hunters shot about 35,740 gobblers in spring 2022, 15,673 of which were reported through Game Check.
Based on statewide brood surveys over the last several years, there is no reason to assume the state turkey population has grown, he said.
Statewide, average poult-per-hen numbers have consistently been less than 2 poults per hen, which is considered the threshold for a sustainable population.
2021 brood observation numbers were slightly better than in 2020, and jake observations from our annual Avid Turkey Hunter Survey were up in 2022, hopefully translating into a few more hard-gobbling 2-year-olds in 2023, Mitchell said.
The Piedmont region of east-central Alabama and the Southeastern Plains in the central and southern parts of the state saw good poult production in 2021, Mitchell said, so those areas might be promising this spring.
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After enduring what seems like years of doom and gloom, Arkansas turkey hunters have some bright news.
"The 2023 turkey season in Arkansas looks promising," said Jeremy Wood, turkey program coordinator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "Following poor reproductive years from 2015 through 2019, reproductive estimates have improved or been stable every year since. The summer of 2022 saw the highest reproductive index on record since 2012-2013."
The Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain ecoregions saw some of the highest reproductive estimates during summer 2021. Hunters 16 and older are only allowed to shoot adult gobblers during spring, so this spring will be the first year birds from that 2021 year class are legal to harvest.
"I suspect harvest should remain stable or slightly increase in these regions," Wood said. "And young birds should be observed across much of the state, providing some promise for the 2024 season and beyond."
Spring 2023 hunting in the Sunshine State should be similar to the previous few years, according to Buddy Welch, wild turkey management program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Wild turkey populations often fluctuate from one year to the next, and these changes are influenced by many factors including weather, habitat quality, predation, and hunting, he said.
Florida monitors turkey population trends through several techniques and uses the data to estimate populations and develop models to better understand habitat quality. FWCC produces an interactive map that shows the quality of habitat and distribution of turkeys in the state, and it's a great tool for initial scouting efforts. Welch said folks planning to hunt a wildlife management area might want to review WMA harvest reports, which are available from areas that operate check stations. Also, the 2022 Annual Wild Turkey Hunting Status Report lists the top WMAs (with check stations) in terms of hunter effort and harvest totals.
During Spring 2022, Florida hunters shot an estimated 12,866 turkeys.
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Emily Rushton, state wild turkey biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division, had good news for Peach State turkey hunters.
Every region of the state saw higher-than-average poult production in 2021, which should lead to a higher than usual number of 2-year-old gobblers on the landscape, she said. Though we are expecting a bump in harvest since last year, this is the second year that changes to season dates and bag limits are in effect, which will likely reduce harvest compared to historical levels.
Rushton said every region of the state saw increases in 2021 poult production.
But in particular, the Northwest Ridge and Valley Region and Lower Coastal Plain had averages of over 2 poults per hen in 2021, so we expect those areas to have particularly high numbers of gobblers.
Georgia hunters took about 10,970 turkeys during Spring 2022.
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Bluegrass State turkey hunters can expect a strong harvest in 2023 — perhaps better than those of recent years going back to 2017.
This is because in 2021, two summers ago, our hatch was the best it's been in many years, said Zak Danks, wild turkey and ruffed grouse program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. It wasn't as crazy good as the 2008 cicada year, but poult-per-hen figures were over 3.
The central and western thirds of the state appeared to have better hatches — 3.6 poults per hen and 3.1 poults per hen, respectively — than in the east (2.6 poults per hen), although those are aggregate figures and local situations might differ. Still, Danks said he expects a stronger harvest in the west and central regions of Kentucky.
The 2022 harvest — 26,862 — was down about 8 percent from 2021 totals.
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Cody Cedotal, resident small-game and wild turkey program manager with the Louisiana Deptartment of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the state's overall turkey hunting outlook was good, thanks to increased production in recent years.
Turkey populations in management regions along the Mississippi River continue to struggle due to excessive rainfall and flooding, he said. However, we have seen better reproduction in the last three years in the southeastern and northwestern regions of the state, which should translate to increased sightings and encounters for turkey hunters in those areas.
During spring 2022, Louisiana hunters shot about 9,100 turkeys.
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Turkey hunters in Mississippi have many reasons for optimism. In 2022, spring turkey hunters took 28,390 birds, which marked a 30 percent increase from 2021. Further, Adam Butler, wild turkey program coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, said several regions of the state have been on a clear upswing the past two or three years, and this past summer's hatch was arguably the best of the past two decades for almost every corner of Mississippi.
While those birds hatched in 2022 will not be longbeards until 2024, hunters throughout the state should notice quite a few more turkeys in the woods this spring, he said.
Danks said it's been a long time since the southeastern piney woods could be considered a bright spot for turkeys, but 2023 might be the year that the once turkey-rich region returns to some of its former glory.
This region has posted three hatches in a row with 2 poults per hen or better, and comments from the field indicate that turkeys are being spotted in places they haven't been seen in quite some time, he said. For those lucky enough to have access to private hunting clubs along the Mississippi River, things could be pretty spectacular in 2023, also. These river bottoms have finally received a multi-year reprieve from flooding, and turkey populations have responded tremendously.
Large areas of central Mississippi also look better than they have in several years, Danks said, thanks to three consecutive solid hatches.
Bottom line, nearly every Magnolia State turkey hunter with decent habitat to hunt should be posed for a much better season in 2023 than they've had in several years, he said.
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Hannah Plumpton, upland game-bird biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, said results from summer observation surveys were similar to 10-year averages. Coupled with continued high harvest numbers — 20,576 birds in 2022 — this suggests that statewide turkey populations remain stable.
For several years, our surveys and harvest monitoring continue to suggest that the most robust turkey populations are in eastern North Carolina, she said. That's not to say that good hunting doesn't exist in the piedmont and mountain regions, but in general, those regions have not been as productive in recent years.
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Sooner State hunters have taken some hard hits the past few years, as this once-bucket-list state has seen tough times turkey-wise. Still, Eric Suttles, Southeast Region supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the situation isn't all grim.
The season outlook will be similar to last year, with pockets of the state having good success, he said. Turkey populations statewide have declined in recent years. This has caused pockets or strongholds around the state. The southwestern and southeastern portions of the state have been impacted by population decreases the most.
In spring 2022, Oklahoma turkey hunters shot about 4,500 turkeys.
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Charles Ruth, big-game program coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said the turkey hunting outlook for spring 2023 is probably only fair. He cited declining harvest figures and the continuing trend of less-than-desirable poult recruitment as the major indicators.
Still, the turkey hunting tradition remains strong in the Palmetto State, and some spots will produce good opportunities. He pointed to the Sumter National Forest in the Piedmont Region and the Webb Wildlife Center Complex in Hampton County in the Coastal Plain. During Spring 2022, South Carolina hunters took 13,488 turkeys.
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Volunteer State turkey hunters might be in for a better season than in 2022, which is saying something, as hunters took about 29,940 birds this past spring. Roger Shields, wild turkey program coordinator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, mentioned a couple of reasons for optimism.
First, we were still coming off the exceptionally high harvest year of 2020 — the COVID bump — when a lot of birds were harvested, he said. On top of that, 2020 saw one of our worst productivity years on record, so not many of those birds were replaced. However, reproduction in 2021 was really good, so there should be an abundance of noisy 2-year-old birds for harvesting.
Central Tennessee has the highest density of birds and always sees the highest harvest, Shields said.
While western Tennessee is a distant second in terms of harvest, that part of the state has seen below-average productivity for many of the past six or seven years, so I suspect harvest will not increase as much there as in the rest of the state.
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News from this Rio Grande hotspot wasn't good in 2022, as an abnormally hot, dry spring and summer resulted in poor production. However, the state experienced a decent hatch in 2021, so hunters should encounter good numbers of 2-year-old birds, according to Jason Hardin, wild turkey program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife. Further, Texas has a very low harvest rate at the ecoregion scale, which results in great carryover and many 3- to 4-year-old gobblers.
Hunting conditions are often dictated by weather, Hardin said. A mild, wet winter often results in early reproductive and nesting behavior. Hunting may be difficult at the start of the season and improve as hens initiate nesting. The lack of jennies [young hens] on the landscape will reduce competition for hunters dealing with live hens pulling gobblers away from calling. As long as we get some green-up and can avoid another year of extreme heat, hunters should be able to get into some active birds.
Hardin said most of central Texas offers great hunting opportunities.
The Texas Hill Country is always the best area for Rio Grande turkeys, but southern Texas and the Cross Timbers region offer great hunting opportunities where hunters can find access, he said. Portions of the Rolling Plains offer great hunting, but that landscape along the Oklahoma line in Texas is not seeing the numbers they once did. Populations have seen a marked decline since 2016. There are still huntable populations, but the very large flocks we are used to seeing in those areas are not as robust as we would like to see.
During Spring 2022, Texas hunters shot 20,168 turkeys.
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The Old Dominion has experienced several consecutive years with good spring harvests, including 19,711 turkeys in 2022. Mike Dye, upland game bird biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, said data indicates that trend should hold.
We will likely have a fair number of 2-year-old birds, as the poult surveys in the summer of 2021 indicated slightly above-average recruitment — 2.9 poults per hen, he said. The 2020 and the 2022 poult surveys were below average, so older birds — 3-years-old and older — and jakes might be slightly less common. I anticipate a good harvest this year, although it will probably be down slightly from the highs of the past few years.
Dye said eastern Virginia continues to outperform other areas of the state. Harvest and brood surveys in that region continue to show good progress.
We have several areas we are watching due to lower numbers or declining harvest — primarily the northern mountain counties [Bath, Highland, Augusta and Rockingham], a few counties in the central and southern piedmont and a cluster of counties in far southwestern Virginia, he said.
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