To learn spring-turkey season expectations, the area of the state holding the most turkeys, the best week to hunt during turkey season and the benefits of volunteering as a Mississippi turkey cooperator, Mississippi Sportsman talked with Dave Godwin of Starkville, wild turkey program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP). Godwin has gathered research on Mississippi's turkeys and has learned an astounding amount.

Spring expectations

"From our brood survey and our Spring Gobbler Hunter Survey (SGHS), the two programs from which we get the most information to forecast the upcoming season, we expect the 2009 season to be similar to the 2008 season with a few exceptions," Godwin said.

Biologists have based most of the state's seasonal recommendations on the number of 2-year-old gobblers expected in the flocks this season.

"The number of jakes hunters saw in 2007 per hour of hunting was similar to the number of jakes seen in 2008," Godwin reports.

In the last few years, Mississippi has had several productive seasons, with each season seemingly better than the previous one. Due to exceptional weather conditions during the breeding and the poult-rearing time of year, the state had its best seasons in 2002 and 2003.

However, biologists expect regional differences in the upcoming season.

"The biggest regional difference for the 2009 season is in the Delta section of the state, especially on the land between the Mississippi River and the levee," Godwin said. "This area will have a good turkey season for two reasons. The Delta had a good turkey hatch in 2006, but the river flooded, preventing hunters from having a productive season in 2007 and causing the gobblers born in 2007 to be carried over to the 2008 season. Most of the hunting clubs along the river were able to hunt a few days in 2008, but the river flooded again for most of the season.

"Only a few of the northern counties along the Delta were able to hunt toward the end of the season. So there should be a good carryover of birds from 2008 to 2009, besides the jakes reported from last season."

Godwin has spent a good amount of time in the Delta surveying the after-effects of the flood, and he reported seeing numbers of birds in the section between the levee and the river. He's predicting the Delta region will have the most gobblers in the state this year.

Although the entire state will have plenty of turkeys gobbling, the southern two-thirds will have a few more turkeys than the northern one-third, based on hunters' observations from last season and the 2007 hatch report.

"We had the lowest hatch in 2007 in the northeastern third of the state, but this region still will have a productive turkey season," Godwin said. "The 2007 hatch was much better from Starkville traveling toward South Mississippi."

Best week to hunt

If Godwin could pick one week to hunt turkeys, he wouldn't pick the first week of the season.

"We have a tremendous number of hunters come into Mississippi for opening week," he said. "Because we have an early opener, and our state offers turkey hunting before many other states, hunters from other states who want to get a jump on their seasons come to Mississippi to hunt.

"However, I've learned that Mississippi turkeys tend to be the most vocal the first week in April. So if I only could choose one week to hunt, I wouldn't start until the first week of April. Not only is that when the most gobblers seem to be gobbling, but by this time, there's not as many hunters in the woods."

In Mississippi, one of the few states in the nation with a beard-length limit, a turkey has to have a 6-inch beard.

"From a five-year study with 130 radio-collared gobblers, we learned that 93 percent of all jakes not shot during turkey season will survive in the wild," Godwin said. "By the time a male turkey becomes a jake, he's got an increased chance of survival. If we pass-up the jakes we see on our lands, we'll carry over a large number of gobblers to the next season, which will provide more gobbling turkeys for more Mississippi hunters every year.

"On heavily-hunted public lands, hunters harvested 50 to 60 percent of the gobblers each season on that land when there was no beard restriction in years past."

Godwin has learned from his studies that gobblers experience almost no predation.

"If we can protect the jakes and allow them to make it to 2-year-old status, the jakes we leave this year will be the gobblers we hunt next year," he said. "Although March 15 is generally the opening day for turkey season, the youth season opens March 8 and runs through the first of May. The young hunter can have one jake in his or her bag limit each season. So Mississippians take a lot of turkeys during turkey season.

"By having this 6-inch beard rule, we can carry over a number of turkeys every year. Then instead of having a boom-or-bust season some years, we can have long, liberal seasons most every year."

The beard restriction has become popular and even welcomed by many private landowners already enforcing this rule on their properties. However, Godwin doesn't think this regulation will start a nationwide trend because hunters in every state abide by hunting rules as traditional as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"This beard regulation states that the gobbler has to be an adult bird with a 6-inch beard to take him because occasionally you'll see an adult gobbler with a full fan, spurs and plumage with a beard less than 6 inches," he said. "You also can legally harvest a jake with a 6-inch beard. In Mississippi, most jakes have 3- to a 4-inch-long beards, and most 2-year olds have 8-inch beards or longer."

Since this regulation protects jakes, the state will hold more 2-year-old birds.

Godwin and his research staff have broken new ground in turkey research with the help of sportsmen willing to serve the state as turkey cooperators and record data while they're hunting. You can plan to join this season with other hunters to gather information and learn more about turkey hunting statewide. Also, by volunteering as a turkey cooperator, you'll have a chance to win a new shotgun.

"We have about 700 turkey cooperators, who are hunters who volunteer to help the state collect information on turkeys each spring season," Godwin said. "Next year, we hope to recruit more than 1,000 hunters to help us collect data on turkeys."

John Woods of Clinton has volunteered his time to serve as a turkey cooperator.

"When I turkey hunt, I take along a logbook, which the state provides, and during the hunt, I record the data I've collected in the morning and the afternoon," Woods says.

On each hunt, Woods notes in his logbook the number of different gobblers he's heard, the number of times each turkey has gobbled, how many gobblers, jakes or hens he sees, the number of hours he's hunted, the county in which he's hunted and whether he's hunted on public or private land.

At the end of the season, Woods sends his logbook to the MDWFP, which gathers this information from each turkey cooperator and analyzes it to gain detailed knowledge about gobbling activity, hunter effort, harvest rates, age structure, sex ratios and characteristics of harvested gobblers.

From the report, biologists can learn the numbers of jakes seen both statewide and regionally during the season to help predict the number of gobbling turkeys hunters can expect to see during the upcoming season. Also, they can tell from the gobbling information where and when the turkeys have started gobbling the most.

Godwin and his team then send Woods and the other turkey cooperators personalized reports on their seasons.

"In this personalized analysis, I learn how many hours I've hunted during the last turkey season, where I've hunted, how many gobbles I've heard and the weeks I've heard the turkeys gobbling," Woods said. "The state also plots the peak gobbling season for the areas I've hunted and the peak turkey-observation dates. Also, I get a statewide profile of the peak gobbling days both statewide and regionally."

The turkey cooperators help the state collect plenty of data. This year, the state has encouraged their turkey cooperators to recruit more turkey hunters to become turkey cooperators. Through the efforts of the MDWFP and the Mississippi chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), as a turkey cooperator, you also have a chance to win two new shotguns.

When you volunteer to become a turkey cooperator, the state will provide you with a logbook in which you record the data from the entire turkey hunting season, including the lengths and the spurs of any harvested birds. The state will send you a postage-paid envelope to return your logbook.

"I kept a logbook before the state started this program, and I always enjoyed keeping up with my turkey season," Godwin said.

If you participate in this program, you'll also get a copy of the "Spittin' & Drummin'" report, the annual statewide summary that provides information on the previous turkey season, as well as gives a forecast on the upcoming season, based on this data and the hatch report. Also, you'll receive an individual report that tells you about your season and provides all the statistical information you've gathered, as well as compares your season to the regional average and the overall state average reports.

Finally, each hunter who participates in the SGHS will be eligible for a drawing for a new shotgun, and any hunter enlisting another cooperator also becomes eligible for the drawing of a second new shotgun - both provided by the Mississippi NWTF.

"We hope the shotgun drawing will encourage hunters to recruit more hunters to help us gather this valuable information," Godwin said. "Each hunter's report book has a place where he or she can name the person who's encouraged him to participate. Each new person can give one other hunter credit for encouraging them to volunteer. We're hoping the 700-plus turkey cooperators will encourage their friends to become cooperators."