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A Very Different Turkey Season

Southern Hunters Worked With Shorter Seasons, Reduced Bag Limits

If you haven’t tagged a spring turkey yet, you’re running out of time.

In fact, the season has closed in several Southern U.S. states. Mississippi and Louisiana closed May 1. Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky are about to stick a fork in theirs.

While it’s too early to get a bead on hunter success rates, it’s a fact that this spring has been very different as compared to recent seasons.

Georgia hunters, for example, had a late start to their spring hunt. Game managers there delayed the start but didn’t move the closing date. Hunters there also worked with a reduced bag, from three to two per season and a new daily limit of one. Oklahoma hunters saw similar changes. Alabama hunters also got a daily limit for the first time. In Tennessee, hunters in nine of its 95 counties also had a truncated season. (Check your state or provincial game department website for the latest regulations.)

So, what’s with all the changes? Turkeys had been nearly extirpated in many locations, but they’d recovered, right?

“The purpose of the delay opening in the Mississippi Alluvial Unit and select Middle Tennessee counties is to give birds a chance to breed without disturbance,” said Roger Shields, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Wild Turkey Program Coordinator. “Hopefully this will lead to better reproduction and help increase the population in these areas of concern.”

W. Laird Hamberlin and guide Rob Freeman tagged two Eastern subspecies turkey during the recent Tennessee Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt. The event raises money for the state’s Wildlife Resource Foundation, which helps remove barriers that could prevent individuals from hunting and fishing.

Populations have been down, according to game managers. Less pressure, especially in the early season when birds are breeding, is expected to result in more birds in the future.

Johnny Allred of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Foundation runs a special annual event called the Tennessee Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt. Allred said harvest numbers are down slightly, from 10 percent to 17 percent this spring.

“It’s down a little from what we can tell,” said he. “We’re not sure why, although maybe disease, weather, predator numbers and other factors, and maybe all of them, are part of the equation.”

Allred also noted that turkey poults are very susceptible to weather events, and the South had seen successive wet springs.

The One Shot Hunt attracted many people from around the country to help raise funds for the Wildlife Resource Foundation, which helps remove barriers that could prevent individuals from hunting and fishing.

Kansas, Alabama and Virginia hold similar events.

The Tennessee event was based in Franklin. Hunters and their volunteer guides fanned out across the area to hunt for the biggest-scoring gobbler, based on beard length, spur length and weight. Once a hunter tagged a bird, the guide could tag one as well.

Dignitaries and stars who hunt showed up in droves to chase the Tennessee toms. Director of Wildlife Resources Agency Bobby Wilson, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, NFL star Jay Cutler, Country music singer Bryan White and author Candace Owens among others. Tennessee Gov. Bob Lee could not attend but addressed the 500-plus attendees via video.

SCI CEO W. Laird Hamberlin has hunted with guide Rob Freeman in this event for the past six years and the pair has tagged two toms every year but one.

“It was a pleasure to hunt with Rob and spend time with Director Wilson, Gov. Gordon and many other hunters in the great state of Tennessee,” said Hamberlin. “As a resident of the Memphis area, it is especially pleasing to me that Tennessee offers excellent hunting. Turkeys have been restored here through the good work of the state Wildlife Resources Agency and the agency is now managing the species to ensure there is a healthy, self-sustaining population forever.”

While CEO Hamberlin saw many Eastern subspecies turkeys in Tennessee, I hunted Rio Grande subspecies in Texas with Logan Killam, product manager of Trijicon, a national sponsor of SCI. Logan and I both used Trijicon SRO red-dot sights to kill turkeys and also helped David and Craig Archer of Hargrove Hunts manage the ranch’s wild hog population.

With a 12-gauge Franchi Affinity 3 Elite turkey shotgun, I was able to take an estimated three-year-old Rio tom. I had called him to a hen decoy that I set up in a mesquite flat. Anecdotally, from the large number of Rios we saw during this high plains hunt, the turkey population of northwest Texas is strong.

Texas is a big state with a big turkey population. It’s estimated at 500,000 turkeys, split among Easterns, Rios and Merriam’s subspecies, which can be found in a handful of southwestern mountain ranges.

The only changes Texas hunters saw this year was new mandatory reporting for several counties to help game managers keep on top of population trends.

To the west of Texas, a major symbolic change may soon be coming to the Land of Enchantment.

Author John Geiger recently tagged a mature Rio Grande gobbler in the Texas high plains near Lubbock. These turkeys seem much more likely to return a crow, owl or hen call as compared to Eastern turkeys.

Game managers in New Mexico have revealed that the Gould’s subspecies may soon have a population that is robust enough to allow a regular hunting season.

The Gould’s turkey was first documented in New Mexico in 1892. They live in a few mountain ranges in the very southwestern boot heel of New Mexico.

Arizona and Mexico support much larger populations. But sightings in New Mexico were very limited until the 1980s. The species was put on the State Threatened list in 1975 under the New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Act because of a lack of information on the subspecies and its limited habitat range, according to the Department of Game & Fish.

Only two tags have been issued annually for Gould’s gobblers in New Mexico. They are auctioned off and take in thousands of dollars to fund Gould’s habitat and species management.

But 2023 could be different.

In April, the state Game Commission recommended delisting Gould’s because the population in the Peloncillo Mountains has exceeded the objective of 175 birds. A public comment period will continue until September. (Click here for public dates and locations, or email your comments to [email protected].)

There may never be a large number of tags sold for Gould’s hunts in New Mexico, but the delisting is a major conservation success story. It’s also a positive step toward giving hunters the opportunity to help in the species’ conservation, management and future success. And if you are one of the two people who have a 2022 Gould’s tag, time’s running out. Your season closes May 10.–John Geiger SCI Publications Managing Editor

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