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Courtesy / Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Elijah Phillips bagged a trophy turkey at the Hollins wildlife management area this spring.

The Alabama wild turkey season, which ended May 3, will likely have to include an asterisk in the record books for a variety of reasons.

Obviously, the COVID-19 restrictions played a role as did a renewed push for successful hunters to report their turkey harvests.

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes made a significant point at the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting earlier this year that if compliance with Game Check’s requirement to report all turkey harvests didn’t increase, the 2021 season might be in jeopardy. Apparently, the message was delivered.

“I think it was a double factor,” Sykes said. “I think more people did report taking birds this year because of what happened at the Advisory Board. However, I am 100-percent confident more birds were killed this year. I can use myself as a prime example. I am extremely fortunate to be able to hunt in some really good places year after year, and I keep a very detailed record of each turkey season. This was a banner year. The travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus was a contributor.

“I had way more turkeys killed with me in Alabama than in years past just simply because I had more days afield in Alabama. It wasn’t that I did better this year. I still had roughly the same daily average. I just got more days in so there was more hunter effort in Alabama because I couldn’t go out of town. All of my meetings out of Alabama were canceled, so I was in Alabama longer. I wasn’t just a weekend warrior like I’ve been for the past few years. This year, the weather was bad on several weekends, so I got to hunt more good days during the week. Therefore, more turkeys were harvested for me personally.”

With current regulations that state the season will start on the third Saturday in March, the opening day of the 2020 turkey season happened March 21, the latest date possible. Add in relatively good weather, except for a couple of weekends, and Sykes said conditions certainly favored the turkey hunters.

“I think starting the season later put the turkeys farther into their breeding activity and made them easier to call,” he said. “And people had way more time on their hands. I know a boatload of people who hunted public land this year for the first time because they had time to do it, and they killed turkeys.”

That increase in hunting on public lands was affirmed by WFF Upland Game Bird Coordinator Steven Mitchell, who said Alabama’s wildlife management areas (WMAs) had more hunter activity than he’s ever seen.

“I think a lot more hunters were in the woods this year,” Mitchell said. “The WMAs were getting used a lot more than in previous years. We don’t know exactly how much more use right now. As a safety precaution associated with social distancing, we pulled the requirements for daily permits for the spring. But we’re still working the WMAs. By observation, there were trucks at every place to park.”

Mitchell said one lucky hunter was able to bag a trophy turkey on the Hollins WMA. The bird had 1¾-inch spurs.

“We’ve had a lot of use and a lot of harvest,” he said. “With more than week to go in the season, we had 4,000 more birds reported through Game Check than all of last season.”

Sykes said he normally hunts with one of his friends in Choctaw County about three days a year. This year, the hunting buddies spent 10 days in the woods.

“I was teleworking from the hunting camp,” he said. “We could go hunting for a couple of hours before he had to go to work and I got on the computer.

“I got quite a few emails and texts, that people were seeing (the increased harvest) too. People who might normally kill one or two birds, they killed their (five-bird) limit. Others who hardly ever killed a bird, they killed two or three.”

Mitchell also said more hunters participated this season in the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey, which will provide a variety of information for game managers.

“This is a precious resource and we need accurate information,” he said. “We need to know what kind of gobbling they’re hearing and what time. We can see peaks and valleys in gobbling and harvest activity.”

Despite the great season for hunters, the game bird biologists are concerned about turkey numbers trending down in the past 10 years.

Mitchell said Auburn University is wrapping up its five-year study on the turkey population. Dr. Barry Grand is finishing the report and it should be available soon.

“Auburn was looking at a lot of things on turkeys on our research areas,” Mitchell said. “This report will give us the vital statistics we need to develop a decision-making tool concerning seasons and bag limits.

“Some of the research around the Southeast is showing when gobblers are harvested. Usually in Alabama, it’s the first couple of weeks. A lot of gobblers are getting taken out of the population before they have a chance to breed.”

Steve Barnett, who retired as Upland Game Bird Coordinator last year, said Dr. Grand’s report will augment the work done by WFF biologists and public input through the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey.

“The Auburn study took place on the research sites across the state,” Barnett said. “We were updating the vital rates for Alabama in terms of survival, reproduction and harvest rates. We really haven’t had any data since Dr. (Dan) Speake was doing all his turkey work in the 1980s.

“By updating those vital rates, it allows us to update our strategic decision-making tool. Those are key elements that go into that prediction model.”

According to the WFF’s Full Fans & Sharp Spurs (FF&SS) publication for the 2019 season, the turkey population is not rebounding as biologists had hoped. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/turkey-hunting-alabama/turkey-research for the publications for the past six years.

Barnett still compiles much of the information for the FF&SS publication.

“The brood survey is still showing a decline,” Barnett said. “There’s been about a two percent decline in poults per hen and a three percent decline in brood size.”

Barnett said the 2019 numbers estimated poults per hen at 1.8.

“When it’s less than two poults per hen, that’s concerning to us,” he said. “2013 was the last time it showed two poults per hen. It’s not isolated to Alabama. The reproduction is in decline across the Southeast and continues to be.”

The 2019 information indicated a large number of jakes (1-year-old gobblers) were observed last year, the largest number since the survey started.

“That likely accounts for some of the increase in reported harvest, and some of the good turkey hunts can be attributed to more 2-year-olds in the population,” Barnett said.

Sykes said the results of the 2020 turkey season will likely be considered an anomaly.

“In my opinion, it was the factors of hunter effort and being able to hunt during the week when the weather was a lot more conducive,” Sykes said. “Two weekends in row we had tornadoes and violent storms. If you’re working 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and those were the only two days you had to hunt, you probably wouldn’t kill a turkey. But hunters were able to go out on Thursdays and Fridays and were able to kill turkeys.”