Turkey program coordinator points out bright spots in cloudy spring turkey forecast

LITTLE ROCK, Ar (AGFC) - Arkansas hunters again will feel the crunch of a declining turkey flock when they head to the woods on the opening day of spring turkey season. Turkey season for most of the state opens April 11.

Mike Widner, turkey program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, expects harvest to be down slightly from last year, probably 5-10 percent. Gobbler carryover from last year is down in all regions of the state except the Delta. He also says that because of last spring's poor reproduction, the percentage of jakes in the harvest will probably be low. This also indicates that the gobbler harvest will decline further in 2010.

"The two poorest hatches we've probably ever had since we started our turkey brood survey in 1982 occurred in 2005 and again in 2008," said Mike Widner, turkey program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "Statewide brood production has been below average since 2002."

Widner explained that turkeys won't recover until weather conditions during the breeding season allow good reproductive success, preferably two or three years in a row.

"Wild turkeys have a tremendous ability to reproduce if conditions are favorable," he said. "Turkey hen numbers remain strong, so the potential for good reproduction is still just around the corner."

In 2007, the Commission adopted a shorter, later hunting season to help the flock stabilize until weather conditions allow a good reproductive year. The conservative season allows more hen turkeys to breed and nest and increases gobbler carryover.

"I would even encourage hunters to voluntarily pass on jakes this spring to improve the quality of the spring turkey season in 2010," said Widner. "The poor hatch in 2008 will mean very few 2-year-old gobblers in many areas next spring."

Widner said the January ice storm that hit northern Arkansas will impact this spring's hunt as well.

"Turkeys may move away from traditional strutting areas if storm debris is too thick, and calling a gobbler through or around downed limbs may be difficult."

Widner also warns that hunters should be careful not to set up under "widow-makers" - hanging broken tree limbs that could fall with dire consequences.

The picture isn't entirely gloom and doom. Widner points out that although the turkey population is down, it is still much larger than any time during the last 100 years.

"Tell an Arkansas turkey hunter 50 years ago that more than 10,000 gobblers would be checked or that they would hear more than a dozen turkey gobbles during the season and they would have thought you were crazy.  Even though we're down some, we're still living in the good times with turkeys."

There are also a few bright spots for this year's forecast.

"White oak acorn production was good last fall," said Widner. "This resulted in healthy gobblers and hens this spring, and hopefully, increased gobbling activity from each bird."

Hunters who belong to clubs along the Mississippi River should be able to hear and hunt abundant turkeys in spring 2009. The area experienced good reproduction in 2006 and 2007. Although, last year's floods greatly reduced the 2008 hatch, the area was closed nearly the entire season, resulting in excellent carryover of 2- and 3-year-old birds.

Hunters in the northern Ouachitas and northeast Arkansas should also have a decent crop of 2- and 3-year-old gobblers. Hunters in north-central Arkansas and the lower Ouachita River still have quite a few 3-year-olds from the 2006 hatch, but these older gobblers are some of the toughest to hunt.

The AGFC has received many comments from hunters wishing for a more conservative bag limit on turkeys and even an outright closure of spring seasons for a year or two. Widner explains that such severe restrictions would do little to assist population recovery beyond the already conservative season.

"Turkey numbers will not recover until we see some good hatches, and spring turkey hunting will not improve until those birds become adults - two years after they've hatched. Under good circumstances, it will take several years to see a rebound in turkey harvests.

"I expect turkey numbers to get better again in the future - I just can't tell you when."