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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Gobbler tally down, but not out

by Bryan Hendricks | May 13, 2021 at 2:12 a.m.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's online turkey harvest report, hunters killed 7,001 turkeys during the spring turkey season, which ended Sunday.

That's a decrease of nearly 18.5% from the official tally of 8,583 turkeys killed in the 2020 spring season.

Depending on your perspective, you can interpret that a lot of different ways. Some turkey hunters are discouraged at their lack of success, which some blame on the season occurring so late in the spring.

Jeremy Wood, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's turkey program coordinator, said he heard a lot of gobbling in the Ouachita Mountains and Gulf Coastal Plain. Gobbling was intense, he said, May 1-3 in Calhoun County. That seems to riddle the theory that gobbling activity peaks at different times from south to north, and that gobbling activity in south Arkansas is finished by May.

Gobbling activity persisted in the Ozarks until Saturday, shutting down Sunday only because of rainy weather.

Because the Game and Fish Commission has no way to identify the actual number of turkey hunters, we don't know whether a significantly smaller turkey harvest is attributable to fewer turkey hunters, but it is possible.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot more people hunted turkeys in 2020 than usual. That was definitely the case where I hunt, where the number of hunters more than doubled. Even so, a greater number of hunters checked only 366 more gobblers in 2020 than in 2019.

In 2021, my network of observers reported a lot fewer hunters than in 2020. Turkey hunting is hard. It is possible that people who tried turkey hunting for the first time in 2020 decided not to continue in 2021.

Some avid turkey hunters who have grown discouraged from years of futility have curtailed their efforts in Arkansas or have stopped hunting in Arkansas all together. Instead, they hunt in neighboring states that actually make money on turkey hunting because their wildlife management agencies sell dedicated turkey hunting licenses.

The steps the commission has taken still need time to bear fruit. Wood said we had very good turkey reproduction and recruitment in 2020. Cold, rainy weather kills a lot more baby turkeys than predators, and we are getting waves of it at a most inopportune time. If the weather will turn warm and dry for a couple of weeks across the state, that will facilitate another very good hatch this year. Two consecutive good years of reproduction will go a long way to getting our turkey flocks back to sustainable abundance.

A friend in the Ozarks said he saw more immature gobblers -- jakes -- this year than he's seen in decades. Gobbling activity in our traditional turkey strongholds of Fulton and Sharp counties was excellent all season.

Another friend who hunts in Grant County said he saw more hens this spring than ever.

All of my sources who hunted in the Ouachita Mountains reported excellent gobbling activity from beginning to end, despite mixed hunting success. Those who didn't kill a gobbler chalked it up to the inherent difficulties of hunting in such steep, rugged terrain.

A friend who hunts in extreme eastern Arkansas, on land between the levees on the Mississippi River, said that jakes were very numerous on his property, which was largely inaccessible because of high water. He, too, was philosophical about that development, saying that inaccessibility essentially closed the season in that area, and that turkeys will benefit from the lack of hunting pressure.

The Game and Fish Commission has only two methods for influencing turkey populations. One is setting season lengths and dates. The other is setting bag limits. That's it. Actually producing turkeys depends on landowners providing habitat and weather. The formula is that simple.

A small turkey harvest looks bad on paper, but it translates to potentially higher gobbler carryover for the 2022 spring season. That will lead to conservation success, and conservation success will beget hunting success. Turkey hunting requires patience, as does turkey conservation, so let's be patient a while longer.

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