April 21, 2023
By Will Brantley
My first morning bowhunting Nebraska turkeys was the stuff of viral video. A decade before TikTok was a thing, champion taxidermist Cally Morris filmed me shoot a pair of gobblers at 12 yards with no blind for an episode of his web show, The 15-Yard Files. A few million people watched that video on YouTube, and more than one commentator said it had to be fake.
I might’ve said the same thing myself had I not been there in person. There were, after all, more strutting gobblers in one field at one time than I’d see in three springs back home in Kentucky. Morris had told me Nebraska was the land of turkey-hunting excess, and as far as I was concerned, he was exactly right.
I’ve made a return trip to the Cornhusker State every spring in the decade since. I have spent time with a bow and a shotgun in all four corners of Nebraska, from the rolling hardwoods along the Iowa border, to down south along the Platte River, and up into the Sandhills and Pine Ridge. I’ve turkey hunted a lot of other good places during those years, too, from Florida Osceolas to Rio Grandes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. I’ve chased Merriam’s near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and in the Plains units, on tribal lands, and in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. All of that travel has bookended the 20-plus days I spend each spring hunting Easterns around home in Kentucky and Tennessee, too. Limits in most of those places ranged from two to four turkeys, and I filled most of my tags most of the time.
Man, was it ever fun!
I’ve seen the good old days of turkey hunting — and I say that because in many places, there just aren’t as many birds as there were even a few years ago. All over the Southeast, and in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, the alarm bell over decreasing turkey numbers has been ringing for years. But the bubble has now burst on the Great Plains, too. According to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), the state’s turkey population has fallen 45 percent from its peak 15 years ago, based on sightings from rural mail carriers. This spring, Nebraska will join states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas in making substantial changes to its hunting regulations in an effort to stop the decline. Among the changes are a reduction in the annual bag limit, from three birds per person to two, and a 47 percent reduction in non-resident turkey permits by way of a 10,000-permit cap. NGPC is also funding a $1.8 million study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Georgia to study the decline.
With that backdrop, it makes a spring turkey hunter wonder: Why are the turkeys disappearing? Do these changes to hunting regulations do any good? Can you still hunt multiple states with a clear conscience?
What’s Going On?
Probably every game-bird biologist in the country is closely watching the state of the wild turkey population right now, partly from genuine concern and partly to see how state fish and wildlife agencies react to public pressure for change. Many hunters are raising hell, blaming the turkey decline on a litany of things from bad weather to too many predators to disease spread by chicken manure to tungsten super shot, reaping decoys and guys like me who hunt multiple states each spring.
It could be that all of the above play a role. After all, turkeys are delicate critters compared to whitetails, and there’s not a single, smoking gun reason for the decline. Rather, a variety of things are suspect, and biologists seem to agree on several in particular.
Population Plateau: I’m 40 years old and cut my teeth during the golden years of the wild turkey recovery effort. Back in the '90s, young hunters like me soaked up videos from Primos and Knight and Hale, and we were spoiled by turkey flocks that just continued to grow and expand. Turkey populations peaked at more than seven million birds in the early 2000s, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), but they stabilized after that in many places to fall more in line with habitat carrying capacity.
For perspective, it’s important to remember that wild turkey restoration is relatively new, starting in the '70s in most places and continuing into the 2000s. It’s also important to remember that wild turkeys were extirpated from many of the same areas for decades before that. That boom in productivity is not unlike the crazy good fishing that sometimes follows the stocking of a brand-new lake. Those fast-growing fisheries inevitably plateau and stabilize, and the fishing hits a new norm of being a little tougher. Biologists have been saying for years the same thing would happen with turkeys. Still, some of the population declines seem deeper than that.
Habitat Loss: The turkey life cycle requires a mosaic of habitat. They at once need mature trees for roosting and thick cover for nesting. Hens and poults must have insects in the spring, but seeds and mast in the fall and winter. There needs to be open areas for bugging and strutting, but the edges of those areas make them susceptible to predation. Poults can’t fly until they’re 14 days old, and until then, they require the perfect early successional growth that’s thick enough to conceal them from predators but open enough to run through. The fescue that dominates many hayfields is terrible brood habitat.
Giant crop fields nuked with herbicide every spring don’t do turkeys much good, either — but that’s exactly what many fields in turkey country look like these days. Some of the best nesting habitat in the country is found in the grasslands of the Great Plains — places such as Nebraska and Texas — and it’s probably not a coincidence that those states lead the nation in enrollment in programs such as the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays farmers to set aside grassland acres from agriculture.
Hunters have long been familiar with CRP — those big, brushy fields are always full of critters — but enrollment in the program has been on a steady decline. Increased payment rates led to some increased enrollment in 2021, but then the USDA offered voluntary termination of CRP contracts in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the world crop supply, according to a report in InvestigateMidwest.org.
Some state agencies have their own habitat programs and landowner incentives, and of course private conservation groups such as the NWTF have initiatives such as Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt that have done a great job at conserving and enhancing existing habitat through sound forestry practices, prescribed fires and plantings. Still, such efforts are a drop in the bucket on a national scale.
Poult Recruitment: Nesting success is tied intrinsically to habitat quality, but many states have noticed alarming declines in the Poult Per Hen (PPH) index during their spring brood surveys. Zak Danks, the turkey program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said that a PPH of 2 is needed for a flock to just break even. Though there have been some bright spots the past couple springs, many states have had multiple, consecutive years with a PPH below 2.
So, what’s happening to the poults? Well, predation (particularly nest predation) is a big concern. Raccoons are perhaps the worst nest-raiding offenders, though opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes and bobcats are all predators of wild turkeys, too. Some biologists, such as Grant Woods with GrowingDeer.TV, have pointed to a correlation between the decline of the fur market and trapping and a huge increase in predator numbers.
The need for more and better predator control has become a rallying cry for many turkey hunters across the country, and states including Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee have recently relaxed furbearer hunting and trapping regulations as a direct response.
Gobbler Mortality: This topic has been a gut-check to some turkey hunters, me included. Studies by biologists such as Dr. Michael Chamberlain (University of Georgia) and Dr. Bret Collier (Louisiana State), both of whom are avid turkey hunters, have suggested that killing too many adult toms too early in the spring could be having a deeper impact on turkey populations and nesting success than we once thought, because the dynamics of the wild turkey mating ritual are perhaps more complex than we realize.
The longstanding, conventional wisdom in most states held that a population wouldn’t be affected so long as no more than 25-30 percent of male birds were taken from the flock each spring. Ideally, seasons should open late enough in the spring that a majority of hens are already incubating eggs on the nest.
But that’s not exactly what’s been happening. States have long been under hunter pressure to open turkey seasons sooner. Nebraska’s archery season opens in late March, when for all practical purposes it is still winter on the Plains. Archery hunters don’t kill enough turkeys to make much difference, but shotgun seasons that open too soon certainly can. Along with those early openers has come a fundamental shift in hunting tactics, with many hunters relying on strutting gobbler and jake decoys to challenge a dominant bird’s place on the totem pole, rather than seductive hen talk to pull him into range. Those “fight for it” tactics work extremely well in the early season — perhaps a little too well.
These studies suggest that the most vocal, aggressive birds tend to do most of the breeding — and if they’re killed before they breed, a hen may not just select the next subordinate gobbler in line. That delay in the nesting cycle could be having a deep impact on nesting success. To counter it, states across the South have delayed their openers by weeks within the past year or two. Alabama even has a prohibition on decoys during the first portion of the season.
Nobody wants to lose hunting opportunities, but in the case of turkeys, it’s been the most ardent hunters calling for change in the name of protecting the resource. It’s too early to know whether changes to season structures, bag limits, hunting tactics and even increased predator control will make a difference, but it’s good to see states and hunters alike being proactive — even to the detriment of license sales and success at times.
Can you still travel to turkey hunt with a clear conscience? Of course. But you might need to be content with shooting one gobbler instead of three. Nebraska heavily marketed its turkey hunting to out-of-staters like me for years, and the result was intense non-resident hunting pressure. A cap on the permits will help address that. In the future, I’d bank on other states, west and east, following suit, offering fewer permits and perhaps making them a little tougher to get. Personally, if that’s what it takes to maintain the quality of turkey hunting I’ve come to expect, I’m all for it.
Same goes for restrictions on early-season hunting. I see that as an area where archery hunters in particular could come out on top. Just as many states restrict the best parts of the elk and whitetail rut to bowhunting, making the early part of turkey season — when gobblers are most apt to jump on a jake decoy — archery only makes all kinds of sense.
Applying for licenses and trading some opportunities for better quality could be the future for turkey hunters, just as it is for most big-game species. Gobbler addicts like me might look back fondly on the good old days while appreciating some change is necessary for the good of the resource. One can sure hope.
There has been some recent good news to offset some of the doom and gloom in the turkey world. Many states conduct summer brood surveys to get a grasp on the year’s turkey hatch. These surveys are based on observations from the public and typically run from June to the end of August. Although final results for most 2022 surveys weren’t available as of this writing, some were. Besides that, anecdotal evidence — and results from 2021 — suggest an uptick in poult production across the Southeast.
Arkansas Turkey Program Coordinator Jeremy Wood told Arkansas Online the 2022 hatch was “on par and possibly better than the past couple of years.” And in Kentucky, where hunters tallied the lowest spring harvest in more than a decade last season, officials are optimistic about a couple decent hatches in 2021 and 2022, with a statewide average of 3.2 poults per hen in 2021 (a shocking 146 percent increase over the PPH in 2017) and 2.3 PPH in 2022. The 2022 number is based on nearly 2,700 sightings from brood survey participants statewide. “Our turkey hatch, based on poults per hen, decreased slightly in 2022 compared to 2021’s much better production, but 2022 was still better than four to five summers ago,” Kentucky turkey biologist Zak Danks said.
Trappers To The Rescue?
The turkey crisis has spawned a resurgence in trapping in many areas. As mentioned, predation is a serious issue facing the birds and is an area where habitat managers can help — though substantial effort is required. Growing up, I didn’t know many trappers, but today virtually all my serious turkey-hunting buddies do at least a little trapping in the winter. I’ve come to enjoy it almost as much as turkey hunting.
Like many, I started with a handful of dog-proof raccoon traps baited with sardines and marshmallows. Such traps are easy to set, and I caught two big coons my very first night. I soon wanted to try and catch a coyote, and so I invested in more equipment. These days, from about Christmas to the end of February, I’m running a line of some three dozen traps every morning, a mix of dog-proofs, No. 2 footholds and 220 body grips. I focus my efforts on our family farms and neighboring properties (I haven’t met a landowner yet who declined a request to trap), and most of the time my 8-year-old son joins me to run the line before school. We catch coyotes, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, opossums and skunks; and though it’s a lot of work, it’s also a ton of fun. We’ve had good turkey hatches on our farms every season since I started trapping!
I learned most of what I know about trapping from watching YouTube and good, old-fashioned trial-and-error. You may as well give it a try yourself. You’ve been looking for a new hobby in January and February anyhow, right?