Nothing speaks to the soul of a turkey hunter like the booming gobble of a Mississippi longbeard. He hears it as an irresistible challenge that must be answered, at whatever cost.

There are very few things in life that prevent a true hunter from responding to the gobble of this magnificent bird. There is something very mysterious, if not magical, about its power of attraction.

Being able to communicate, in its own tongue, with such a marvelous wild creature, is why many of us find turkey hunting so addictive.

Each morning we enter his domain to plead our case with the best calling we have to offer. Sometimes, he responds to our seductive pleas, but more often he will not. It is this rejection that many of us cannot accept. It is what makes us ignore our work, neglect our families and crawl out of a warm bed at an outrageous hour morning after morning. It is indeed a powerful force.

Thankfully, not everyone is infected with turkey hunting fever. Those immune to the clutches of this disease have no understanding of the turkey hunting imperative, which states in plain terms that "if the sun rises on the morrow, all hunters will arise in the dead of night and be waiting on the first streak of dawn."

There are no dispensations given or exceptions allowed.

The ultimate challenge in the turkey woods is to lure an old boss gobbler into shotgun range. The secret to bagging one of these clever birds lies in understanding how he rules his roost. The older and more experienced the gobbler, the harder it is to end the hunt with him slung over your shoulder.

But before you can drop the hammer on a Mississippi longbeard, you must first identify the hunting areas that offer up the best opportunities for success. Here is what the Magnolia State's top turkey biologists are predicting for the 2011 spring turkey season.

 

Statewide

Turkey hunting success in the Magnolia State hinges on the number of 2-year-old birds available for harvest during the spring season.

These inexperienced young birds tend to gobble more than their older counterparts, and are much more susceptible to being harvested than a seasoned gobbler that has strutted around the woodlot a time or two.

"In most cases, it is the abundance or lack of 2-year-olds that make or break the season," said Dave Godwin, wild turkey program coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

A team of MDWF&P wildlife biologists utilizes numerous data sets to aid them in predicting what the turkey numbers will be during the upcoming season. Because jakes are off-limits to adult hunters during Mississippi's spring turkey season, the brood survey data from two years ago and jake observations per hour from the 2010 season are paramount in determining the potential success that awaits turkey hunters in each of the state's five turkey regions in 2011.

Although carryover of older gobblers has some bearing on hunting success, it is the overall numbers of 2-year-old gobblers that hold the key.

Nesting conditions for much of the Magnolia State in 2009 were absolutely abysmal. Bad rain events during the peak nesting period resulted in some of the worst hatch and poult survival numbers on record. And while the 2010 hatch numbers saw dramatic improvements over recent years, gobblers from that hatch will not be available for harvest by adult hunters until the 2012 season.

"Our data from summer surveys indicates that the carryover of gobblers from the 2010 season decreased statewide for a second consecutive year," Godwin noted. "What this means is that fewer gobblers in the older age classes will be around this spring."

Since there are always exceptions to any general statewide forecast, let's take a closer look at the Magnolia State's five turkey regions and see what each has to offer this spring.

 

Region 1

Comprised of 21 counties in Northcentral and Northeast Mississippi, this region has a fairly bleak turkey hunting outlook for 2011. According to the 2009 brood survey, wild turkey reproduction in this region was the lowest on record, with 0.94 poults per hen. Unfortunately, the 2010 reproduction data doesn't show much improvement.

"With a substantial drop in jake observations last season, hunters in this region of the state can expect fewer encounters with mature gobblers this spring," Godwin said.

Region 1 has had a history of poor participation in the Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey, which opens the door for harvest, gobbling activity, spur length and turkey observation data being biased as a result of limited sample sizes. However, Mississippi's turkey reproduction data is collected using the MDWF&P Brood Survey, which is more accurate since it is unaffected by sample size concerns.

 

Region 2

This turkey region consists of 10 flood-prone Delta counties found along the Mississippi River. Spring floodwaters have a significant impact on wild turkey reproduction and hunting in this area. Three consecutive years of record high hatches from 2005 to 2007 were followed by three of the worst hatches on record for this turkey region.

As expected, the dismal reproduction rates resulted in jake observations in 2009 and 2010 taking a major hit. And little, if any, improvement is expected this season.

"The last few years, hunters have relied on carryover of older gobblers," said Godwin. "And with very few of these birds left, turkey hunting in most parts of Region 2 is expected to be extremely tough."

Hunters in the Delta Region can only cross their fingers and hope that the floodwaters and wet weather will stay away this spring and allow the turkey numbers to recover.

In the meantime, Delta turkey hunters may want to take up crappie fishing unless they have a private stockpile of older birds or are willing to travel to more productive areas of the Magnolia State.

 

Region 3

Located in East-central Mississippi, this 21-county region has seen a steady increase in overall turkey numbers over the last few years. However, Region 3's turkey population growth looks like it has leveled off and appears to be headed in a negative direction.

"Following a year with the best reproduction rates in the state, the 2009 recruitment numbers saw a substantial decrease," said Godwin. "As a result, jake observations were down significantly during the 2010 season."

While hunters can expect to encounter fewer of the more vocal 2-year-olds, thanks to a decent carryover of older gobblers, turkey hunting in Region 3 should remain above average in 2011.

According to Adam Butler, MDWF&P wild turkey program biologist, hunters in this region would be wise to focus on the counties along the I-20 corridor. Populations in that area of Region 3 have been booming for the last several years. And even though the population most likely peaked last year, there should still be good numbers of gobblers left in the woods this spring. Just keep in mind that it probably won't be quite as good as it was in 2010.

 

Region 4

If there is a shining star in the Magnolia State turkey woods, it would have to be Region 4. And while the turkey populations in the 12 counties that make up this Southwest Mississippi turkey region may not be at the levels they reached during the late 1980s, they aren't too far off the mark.

"Southwest Mississippi has been the most consistent turkey-producing region in the state over the past several years," said Butler. "And even though the hatch has been down the last couple of years, Region 4 exhibited the highest reproduction rates in the state in 2010."

According to Butler, overall jake observations have declined for the past couple of seasons in Region 4. But since the production level in Southwest Mississippi has been consistently above average for so many years, the reproduction rates in this area can take a pretty good hit and still outproduce other turkey regions in the Magnolia State. Therefore, turkey hunters in this part of the state can expect another very successful season in 2011.

"The Southwest Region will likely be the state's only true wild turkey hotspot," said Butler. "Region 4 is generally one of the best wild turkey producers year after year, and we see no reason why that trend should change in 2011."

 

Region 5

The final turkey region on our list consists of 18 counties in the piney woods of Southeast Mississippi. Much like the other turkey regions in the state, Region 5 experienced a considerable drop in reproduction rates in 2009, which came on the heels of an equally poor hatch in 2008. As expected, jake observations followed suit with significant declines during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

"A great hatch this past summer should help turn this downward trend around," said Butler. "However, the effect of two consecutive poor hatches is likely to take its toll on the 2011 season. With fewer 2- and 3-year-old gobblers available, hunters in Region 5 may find it more difficult to bag a bird."