Yelp, yelp, yelp.
The striker extracts notes from a slate covered box, and the sound descends the ridge and mingles with the morning fog. In the distance a woodpecker hammers away at a potential meal in a rotting tree. A cardinal calls and a wren darts and flits through the understory.
Yelp, yelp, yelp.
Again the slate produces the mimicking sound of a hen turkey, only this time with more volume, more determination, more wanton for a response. From a stand of tall oaks comes the response, a robust gobble that suddenly puts the hunter’s heart is in his throat.
The battle is about to begin.
The morning music of the dawning forest is one of the balms turkey hunters use to cope with the stresses associated with the pursuit of this noble bird. Second only to deer season, the Eastern wild turkey spring season is highly anticipated by Mississippi hunters.
So just what do hunters have to look forward to this season? Will the birds be numerous or few, callable or contrary? We ask veteran hunters and biologists alike and have their answers just for you.
A forecast Berra would love
The promise of the 2017 turkey season started decades ago with the carryover of the first reintroduced birds following the first modern era spring season. Every year biologists consider the hens that have survived, the young hens that will nest for the first time and the gobblers and jakes that have survived to challenge hunters. To paraphrase the legendary Yogi Berra, when asked if this season will be above or below average, most experts respond “yes.”
But what is the official response?
“This season should be better than the last few for most hunters,” said Adam Butler the state’s leading turkey biologist. “The hatch two years ago was really good in the northern part of the state. Southwest Mississippi should also be okay due to a carryover of older birds. The central portion of the state and parts of the Delta may be a little light on 2-year old gobblers and that could lead to frustrated hunters.”
The good news, Butler said, is that overall turkey numbers in most places, especially in the central part of the state, will likely be up due to a good hatch last summer. The not-so-good news is that most of the flocks will be young of the year birds, so hunters will encounter lots of jakes.
Southeast Mississippi is still struggling in a lot of places, but may finally be starting a turnaround after last summer’s hatch.
As turkey program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, Butler is privy to the harvest and research data that can indicate trends or shifts in populations. Some of this data comes from hunter data collected at wildlife management areas, while other input comes from actual flock surveys. Capturing and releasing birds is an ongoing practice that allows biologists to check weight, age and general health of turkeys across the state. All of the factors that influence wild turkeys has been examined and re-examined. The result is a set of management practices that have allowed turkeys to rebound statewide.
The model management program
Mississippi’s turkey reintroduction program has been an absolute success and is being replicated in other states.
“In 2016 hunters harvested just over 22,000 gobblers, which was better than 2015, but still below (long term) average statewide,” Butler said. “The agency is taking steps to improve harvest reporting, and initiating partnerships with landowners and managers to enhance wild turkey habitat. The removal of predators is also being encouraged where state statutes allow.”
“To recommend a single WMA or even a top 10 is a difficult task. Those hunters who have put time in the woods will be wise to start scouting those same areas where they have hunted in prior seasons. For new hunters perhaps a brief tutorial will help point you in the right direction. Hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler this year.”
According to Butler turkeys have the same needs as the rest of the game animals on earth: Quality food; habitat that gives them security; and a chance to age into trophy status.
“That may be a simplistic overview, but let’s break it down,” Butler said. “The greatest food for turkeys is grasses, seeds, and insects, followed by acorns and soft mast, invertebrates, lizards and worms. Even ticks are not safe from the turkey’s savage peck. I’ve heard it said turkeys are the goats of the bird world. They will eat just about everything except carrion.”
In choosing places to turkey hunt this spring look at those areas where a wide variety of foods is available. In the early portion of the season open hardwoods will offer places for turkeys to scratch, finding all manner of consumables. April will see the big green-up and with that insects take a greater place on the menu.
So hunters who seek mature hardwoods near old fields, harvested grain fields or pastures will have the advantage in finding a trophy gobbler. That is where the food and roosting sites are.
Report provides useful info
“As far as trends from area to area hunters, need to secure a copy of Spittin’ & Drummin’, the MDWFP’s annual turkey program report,” Butler said. “The hard copy is available at MDWFP offices and is available online at mdwfp.com. This pamphlet updates hunter and harvest data from season to season. Each region is broken out as to show the influence of environmental factors on local flocks.”
As the season advances look for the birds to be in open areas where secure nesting sites can be found. Hens are masters at finding a secure nesting area, but predators such as coyotes and raccoons have developed techniques to hunt these nesting sites. Evidence exists that coyotes will revisit a nesting site periodically after finding and raiding a nest.
“Much of Mississippi and the southeast as a whole is in managed reforestation,” said Tom Hughes, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Interesting, research from hens fitted with tracking transmitters have shown a preference for replanted pine land, adjacent to mature forest (for roosting) and open areas, such as fields.
“They are frequent users of the young pine plantations that are 2 to 4 years old, but they avoid those same areas until the trees are 15 to 20 years old and have had a thinning. The thinning allows the canopy to open and sunlight to reach the forest floor, spawning the growth of grasses and forbs. These strips made in the thinning are prime nesting and feeding areas.”
All this may seem like a long introduction in the state of the Eastern wild turkey as the Spring 2017 season looms on the horizon. Perhaps what follows will begin to pull the pieces together.
According to Hughes, studies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia show turkeys have an average range of 1,000 acres, and prefer habitat with a balance of mature forest and openings.
This gives hunters a starting point when searching for a place to hunt. Turkeys shun those forests with a thick, understory.
They’re there; go find them
Scouting, putting the boots on the ground, is critical.
“I spend a lot of time in the woods during deer season and even more during turkey season,” said veteran hunter Richard Latham of Lena. “Turkey hunting is my passion and I’m always scouting and watching every time I’m in the woods. The best advice I have for a new hunter, or a hunter who is new to an area is walk, look and listen. The birds are there, once you encounter them start to pattern their behavior. Then the rest will begin to fall into place.”
Latham said populations have appeared to be cyclic at times, but the general trend is upward. Using flock counts in open areas he has learned to judge which are older hens and which are about to start their first nesting season. This serves him as an indicator of brood survival.
Dr. Bobby Dale of Tupelo, an avid turkey hunter and outdoor writer, has published three books on the subject and when not practicing medicine can be found in the turkey woods. He believes there are more turkeys in Northeast Mississippi than at any time in recent history. He credits a diverse habitat and conservation-minded land management as the key to the increase.
“Start scouting early and look for tracks, droppings, dusting sites, scratching, and, of course, birds,” Dale said. “Pattern the birds, as to where they are roosting and where they are feeding. Do this enough and you’ll have a good idea where to set up on opening morning.”
Dale said hunters should leave their calls at home during the pre-season scouting excursions. While it may soothe the ego to hear a gobbler answer a sweet call, it only educates the bird that no hen is there. Save the calling for the actual hunt.
Dale has written three books on turkey hunting: Double Gobble, Turkey Roost Tales and Bearded Rednecks.
A look to the future
For decades, Paul Meek, a turkey calling champion and call maker from Morton, has given children their first opportunity to use a turkey call, always at the busy Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganza, as well as other venues. Some of his “students” are now parents bringing their children to him.
“Children love to learn new things, and the turkey woods are a master classroom,” Meek said. “They want to know how nature works, and why turkeys do what they do. They open themselves to instruction and respond amazingly well.
“If you want your child to become a hunter and a sportsman, get them into the woods, and be a good parent. Teach them about conservations and the importance of the environment. There is no app for that on their cell phones.”