March can be unpredictable, being warm one moment and cold.
No matter the weather, however, the ides of March will usher in the opening of turkey season, and, with it, all the pinnacles of joy and pits of despair that only true turkey hunters can appreciate. For the coming season the outlook is bright, the pits should be few, and hunters should enjoy many mornings listening to the music of the dawning woods.
“The real good news is that 2012 was a great hatch statewide, the best we had seen in several years,” said Dave Godwin, Turkey Program Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Therefore, we expect to see very good numbers of 2-year-old gobblers statewide during the 2014 season. That, of course, is good news as the 2-year-old birds tend to gobble more and be more susceptible to harvest. The 2014 turkey season should be good for all regions of Mississippi.”
A good carryover of 2-year olds will be a plus for hunters next year, but we are not promised that will be the case. Hunter pressure and predation will naturally take a toll. Research and analysis allow biologists to determine the success of a nesting season and thus predict a coming season months and years in advance.
“The bad news is that we did not have a great statewide hatch in 2013,” Godwin said. “A cold, late spring combined with heavy rain events statewide resulted in a relatively poor hatch in 2013. Fortunately, we did see a fair amount of successful re-nests this past summer, which likely pulled what would have been a terrible hatch year up to a level that was still lower than average.
“Of course, gobblers hatched this year will be jakes during the upcoming season, so the lower than average 2013 hatch should not have a negative impact on most hunters this year, but it will affect turkey populations for the 2015 season and beyond.”
According to Godwin, Mississippi has had some good hatch years in recent history, but have not strung together real good hatches in consecutive years for a while. Looking at the statewide hatch data we see this trend:
2010 – Good hatch year statewide. Population rose.
2011 – Lower hatch. Population down.
2012 – Very good hatch statewide. Population up
2013 – Not very good hatch (terrible early hatch success, pulled up to “below average” by re-nesting success). Population down.
“Looking at regional hatch numbers we expect East-Central Mississippi to be a hotspot this year with a very good hatch in 2012 and a relatively solid hatch in 2011 compared to other regions,” Godwin said. “Southwest Mississippi also continues to be a strong turkey region, with some local areas in the region showing very high turkey numbers.”
Three state Wildlife Management Areas in East-Central Mississippi, Tallahala, Caney Creek and Bienville, all have had steady hunting pressure, created by years of successful hunting. To help control the pressure on the three WMAs, the MDWFP limits the first two weeks of the to draw only. However, not all of the Bienville National Forest, which encompasses these three areas, is included in this early season restriction. For the National Forest lands outside the wma boundaries, turkey season is just as it is statewide.
“I’m hearing from a lot of deer hunters that they are seeing large flocks of birds (turkeys), with good numbers of gobbler groups,” said Mike Hayman, area manager of the Caney creek WMA. “During the year, as I travel around the area, I have seen average numbers of adult birds.”
Charlie Allen, of Lake, hunts deer and turkey on the portion of Caney Creek WMA just south of I-20 and claims to have seen some excellent gobblers during the 2013 deer season.
“Turkey hunting is one of my passions,” Allen said. “The birds have a large range, so a lot of preseason scouting is required to pinpoint roosting areas, but it is well worth the effort. Early in the season the gobblers tend to ‘hen up’ early, making afternoon hunting productive. Later in the season as other hunters begin to slack off, and hens are setting, the gobblers are easier to call into gun range.”
The Homochitto National Forest in southwest Mississippi includes the Sandy Creek and Caston Creek wildlife management areas. Reports from this area are consistent with Godwin’s statements about successful hatches and ample numbers of birds for hunting success. As with every area, hunters with the highest success rate are those who put in the time scouting to locate flocks of birds and learn their feeding and roosting habits.
Phillip Henson of Jackson travels to the Homochitto each year late in the season to scratch his itch for turkey hunting. Each year he locates a boss bird and works it, challenging himself to learn the gobbler’s habits and disposition. Sometimes Phillip wins, sometimes the gobbler wins, but such is the case with this sport.
“By April southwest Mississippi is awash with new foliage,” said Henson. “The little creeks are running clear and dogwoods are starting to bloom. There are some pretty steep banks where we hunt, and can be a blessing as well a curse. In the past 10 years, I have not failed to have an opportunity to score on a decent bird, that being one with a 6-inch or longer beard. I just can’t give away my sweet spot there. But hunters should start along the creek bottoms near older standing pine timber.”
“One thing hunters should never do is call during scouting,” said Richard Latham of Scott County. “The gobblers will respond but the hen is never there. This will condition the gobblers to ignore calls. It is far better to listen for the hens, how they yelp from the roost, how they make a fly-down cackle, how they yelp and purr to each other, then remember, practice and use these calls once the season opens.”
Latham, who is active in state and local chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, goes on to add that hunters from Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee and Kentucky are finding central Mississippi as a destination location for quality turkey hunting. Many of these hunters travel across several states each year to hunt the best locations in the nation for trophy birds.
“When a man will travel 500 miles and spend a thousand dollars to kill a turkey the locals need to be asking why,” Latham said. “The answer is simple, we have some of the best public land turkey hunting available in the whole southeast. I just don’t know why more people don’t take advantage of it.”
A region that could be slower for hunters would be the Mississippi Delta, Godwin said.
“Although it had a strong hatch in 2012, the Delta has been negatively impacted by significant flooding during 2008, 2009, and 2011. Many local areas within this region had very low reproduction during those three years and therefore are below the long-term average, even with the good 2012 hatch. Turkey populations in this region have always been a bit on the boom or bust side, but another good hatch year or two should have the Delta back on track.”
Few consumptive sports have achieved an art form as has turkey hunting. Producing the purest call sounds to extract the wariest gobbler from its lair and into shotgun range is a passion for many. Pursuing an elusive gobbler that raises the bar to test the hunter’s patience and endurance is the stuff that causes sleepless nights and upset stomachs. As a hunter matures, the younger more gullible birds will fill the larder, but it is the wise old bird with the paintbrush beard and limb-hanger spurs that will keep a man, or woman from filling that third tag, metaphorically speaking.
The 2014 spring turkey season promises to be a good one. Take advantage of the good numbers and enjoy a safe season. Most of all, introduce someone new to the chorus nature offers each morning in the dawning woods.