The positive trend in many states could pose new challenges to managers as local turkey populations continue to decline
Increased turkey hunting participation and permit sales during this past season of the pandemic has, in some states, resulted in a bigger spring kill. While increasing our ranks is a good thing, state agencies and turkey biologists are ever aware of the management challenges this presents, too. Has increased interest – which of course positively boosted revenue flows for cash-strapped wildlife managers to do their jobs – compromised a declining turkey population? Well, it varies from state to state. So do official responses to the trend.
Not all states have compiled data just yet, but these have.
North Carolina kill numbers were way up.
“Our estimates of hunting pressure come from a mail-in survey,” said Chris Kreh, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s wild turkey biologist. “Many hunters were telling us that pressure was up considerably this year, especially on game lands.”
According to the Commission, the 5-week wild turkey season had its highest ever recorded harvest of 23,341 birds, the agency’s annual turkey harvest summary reported. The 2020 season far surpassed the previous record of 18,919 harvested birds set three years ago in 2017.
Agency biologists said most of the increase in harvest is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic statewide “stay at home” orders, since people had more time to hunt, including youth hunters. Harvest during the week-long youth season increased by 110% over previous years.
Biologists typically compare data to the average harvest of the previous three years. Additional statistics for this season are:
Mountains region harvest increased by 14%
Piedmont region harvest increased by 26%
Coast region harvest increased by 37%
Harvest on public game lands decreased by 0.4%
Number of adult gobblers harvested increased by 18%
Number of jakes harvested increased by 87%
Jakes comprised 20% of the harvest this year, as compared to 12-15% in previous three years
“The timing of our hunting season offers considerable opportunity for breeding before males are harvested, so hens are still able to nest and raise poults as they always do,” Kreh said. “Additionally, our two-bird limit and 36-day season, which includes youth season, are fairly conservative, and have safeguarded the population against overharvest for many decades.”
Kreh also pointed out the Commission’s goal for turkey hunting emphasizes quality, rather than simply maximizing harvest, which means that an increase, even a pretty substantial one, is still very likely to be sustainable.
The Illinois turkey kill was within management goals this year, but not a record.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, turkey hunters killed a preliminary statewide total of 15,800 wild turkeys during the 2020 Spring Turkey Season, short of the record 2006 season, when 16,569 turkeys were tallied. While spring turkey hunting was open in 100 of Illinois’s 102 counties, it was suspended at Illinois Department of Natural Resources sites during the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s preliminary numbers compare with the 2019 statewide turkey harvest of 15,190, including the 2020 Youth Turkey Season take of 1,744 birds, a record total, when measured against the 2019 youth harvest of 1,392 turkeys.
Numbers were up though with at least one geographical comparison. Turkey hunters took a total of 6,285 wild turkeys during all regular season segments in the South Zone, compared with 5,959 last year in this region. The preliminary harvest total for all regular season segments in the North Zone this year was lower, 7,771 wild turkeys, compared with 7,832 in northern counties in 2019.
Increased turkey hunting participation and permit sales during this past season of the pandemic has, in some states, resulted in a bigger spring kill. While increasing our ranks is a good thing, state agencies and turkey biologists are ever aware of the management challenges this presents, too.
Resident permit sales were up this Show-Me-State season, as was the turkey kill.
“Even though nonresident permit sales were down this year, there were about 9,600 more spring turkey hunters overall than in 2019 due to an increase in resident permit sales,” said Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) turkey biologist Reina Tyl. “When turkey hunting participation increases, we expect to see a subsequent increase in turkey harvest. It’s great to see that more Missourians were able to get out into the turkey woods this year.”
Preliminary MDC data shows youth hunters took 2,724 turkeys during the April 4 and 5, 2020 season, up from last year (2,546 birds). During Missouri’s 2020 regular spring turkey season, April 20 through May 10, turkey hunters checked an additional 38,730 birds, bringing the overall 2020 spring turkey harvest to 41,454, also up from last season (38,795 turkeys).
Kill numbers were down in Ohio.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife, hunters checked 17,891 wild turkeys during Ohio’s 2020 spring hunting season. Last year, hunters harvested 19,168 wild turkeys during the same time. Young hunters took 1,843 wild turkeys during Ohio’s youth season on April 18-19, and results are included in the final tally.
Ohio’s first modern-day wild turkey season opened in 1966 in nine counties, and hunters checked 12 birds. The total number of harvested turkeys topped 1,000 for the first time in 1984. Turkey hunting was opened statewide in 2000. The record Ohio wild turkey harvest was in 2001, when hunters checked 26,156 birds.
This past spring season, Virginia tallied its second highest turkey kill on record.
Some increase percentages follow … The 2020 Youth and Apprentice weekend harvest was up 40% from 2019 for a total of 890 birds. And opening weekend had the highest two-day period of turkeys killed throughout the season, totaling 3,993 birds or 19.5% of the total harvest. Finally, the 2020 harvest was 14.5% higher than the 2019 kill.
The results? The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) officially said 20,525 turkeys were taken during the 2020 spring gobbler season. A record total of 20,580 birds were harvested in 2015.
According to the VDGIF, weather, annual reproduction, mast crops, and hunter effort all have impacts on annual fluctuations in turkey kill numbers. Several of these likely led to the increased harvest for the 2020 season, including fair weather conditions throughout most of the season and increased hunter effort attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maryland hunters set a record this spring season.
A total of 4,303 wild turkeys were taken during the 2020 regular spring and junior hunt turkey seasons, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources announced. This year’s harvest surpassed the previous high of 4,175, set in 2017, and was 8% higher than the 2019 total of 4,002 turkeys.
“This year’s harvest suggests that many hunters took advantage of abundant turkey populations in much of the state,” Wildlife and Heritage Service director Paul Peditto said.
The percentage of jakes reported in the harvest sat at 24%, its highest level since the 2012 spring season. This supports other survey data showing the summer of 2019 was an excellent year for turkey production and boosted populations significantly.
Iowa turkey hunters set a record, too.
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 14,600 turkeys were reported during the spring season, the highest spring turkey harvest since mandatory reporting began in 2007. The previous high was 12,173 in 2016.
Wild turkeys were taken in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.
So, there you go, seven states, with varying results for turkey kill, hunter participation and overall management views on this season of COVID-19 – it’s the kind of stuff we’ll discuss with other turkey buds until the fall hunting seasons roll around.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree.com's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more birds than he can remember. Still he kills enough to eat well, and fool with beards, spurs and fans until the next season. Pennsylvania born and raised, Maine is his home base now. A full-time outdoor communicator with a couple university writing degrees, he chases spring gobblers and fall flocks around the country.