Seven Ways to Save Wild Turkeys

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Seven Ways to Save Wild Turkeys

That wild turkey numbers are declining in much of the eastern U.S. is becoming old news. My home state of Kentucky’s 2022 spring season ju

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That wild turkey numbers are declining in much of the eastern U.S. is becoming old news. My home state of Kentucky’s 2022 spring season just closed with the lowest turkey harvest in 14 years, but with a post-season announcement promising to further study the problem. But hunters are getting restless and irritated with that sort of thing, demanding instead that state agencies do something now before it’s too late.

But what exactly should be done? At the end of last season (which was also tough), I wrote this recap, which, among other things, posed the question: Should fanning and reaping be banned? Last year, my answer was no. But debate over these tactics has only gotten louder since last year, and more hunters are now calling for reduced bag limits, year-around predator trapping, and even bans on ground blinds and TSS shotgun shells.

Would any of that make a difference, or is it just noise from disgruntled hunters after too many 3 a.m. wake-ups? Well, I’m not a turkey biologist, but I have hunted them for 27 years, including all the Grand Slam subspecies in multiple states and habitats. This season, I hunted 38 days in four states. I’ve kept a close ear to the rumblings from hunters online and in camps across the country. I’ve also been interviewing biologists, reading reports, and following the latest turkey studies.

Hunters look to biologists for answers, and that’s how it should be. But I’ve talked to enough of them to know that they’re pretty coy when asked pointed questions, particularly if they work in the public sector. That’s why you won’t hear many of them advocating one way or another for many of the issues that hunters seem to care about most, like whether reaping should be banned or predators managed more aggressively.

Me, I don’t have to be coy, so at the end of another tough turkey season, here’s are some pointed questions and my own answers about what I think should and shouldn’t be done.

Should Reaping and Fanning Be Banned?

photo of turkey hunter
More hunters worry that tactics of fanning and reaping are too effective on aggressive gobblers. Robin Ambrosino

This topic is like watching fish slither around in the last puddle of a pond that’s being drained, and then arguing that you should only fly fish for them because it’d be unsporting to use spinning gear.

I’ve reaped and fanned a lot of turkeys, written and edited articles about it, and filmed how-to videos about it, too. Its effectiveness has been overblown by people who don’t like it. Truth is, reaping only works well under a specific set of circumstances, and you’d better be in pretty damn good physical shape to pull it off with any consistency. Also, reaping is nowhere near as widely practiced as YouTube channels and social media feeds suggest. I’d bet good money that many more turkeys are killed from pop-up ground blinds than from behind a reaping decoy. It’s just not as obnoxious to watch the former on TV.   

I haven’t reaped a gobbler in several years, and, for that matter, I rarely carry decoys of any sort these days. But it’s not because of any new-found sanctimony. I spent a lot of years toting fake turkeys and fans around, and then I realized that year in and out, I kill more birds by leaving that superfluous stuff in the truck, traveling light, and maneuvering into a good setup with a mouth call. I enjoy hunting that way more, too.

My answer on this question is still no, though. I do believe male turkey decoys, including reaping decoys, can be disproportionately deadly on dominant, henned-up gobblers in the early spring. And I think we should curb some of that pressure, but there’s a better way to do it than by outlawing fanning and reaping—which leads us to the next question.

Should Turkey Seasons Open Later?

A gobbler will react differently to a jake or gobbler decoy on the first of April than he will on the first of May. You don’t have to turkey hunt long to see that. Early-season gobblers are amped up, establishing pecking orders, and doing a lot of fighting—partly because breeding isn’t happening just yet. As a result, early-season gobblers can be pretty easy to fool with a strutter decoy (whether staked in the ground or crawled across a field). But killing that tom early, before he breeds the area hens, could be disrupting too much of the breeding cycle. There are plenty of theories on this topic from biologists like Dr. Michael Chamberlain and other that make all the sense in the world if you want to read them.   

photo of wild turkey
Gobblers are especially vulnerable to strutter decoys during the early season. John Hafner Photography

Several southern states have responded to those theories this year by moving their openers later into the spring. Alabama took it a step further by outlawing decoys altogether for the first portion of this past turkey season. I say that if that could make a difference, why not try it? It seems to be a fairer, more science-based approach than a total ban on a specific hunting tactic or gear item—and easier to enforce, too.

Should Bag Limits Be Reduced?

In a word, yes, if numbers warrant it. If we’re truly worried about too many turkeys being killed, then there’s a simple solution: Let people hunt how they want, but open the season later and reduce the spring bag limit. Take jakes off the menu for everyone except first-year hunters, and make killing a bearded hen illegal while you’re at it. Kentuckians shoot around 200 bearded hens every spring. Let’s say 30 percent of those hens would’ve raised a brood with three poults each. That’s 180 turkeys, gone, in addition to the 200 hens. (And if the only way you can distinguish a hen from a gobbler is by the beard, then you shouldn’t be turkey hunting without supervision.)

Should Hunting Pressure Be Reduced?

Hunting-license sales—after years of decline and corresponding efforts by state agencies and the hunting industry recruit, retain, and reactive hunters—saw an unprecedented spike in 2020. Many of those new hunters rely heavily on public land. Meanwhile, there’s been a steady message from some in the hunting industry that public-land hunters are just a little cooler than private-land hunters. We’re told the resulting crowds at public trailheads across the country are a good thing.

Well, sooner or later, we’re going to have to talk about the fact that many long-time public-land hunters in more populated areas do not think it’s a good thing and have every right to be concerned about that added pressure. But for now, we ought to at least talk about its affect on the resource.

photo of public-access sign
At some public-access areas, turkeys are seeing by unprecedented hunting pressure. Will Brantley

There is a large, storied public hunting area just down the road from me, where I spend most of my turkey season. Once upon a time, it didn’t bother to mention the place by name in a story. I’ll never do it again. The hunting pressure there in the spring has simply gotten over the top the last three years, with hunters from across the country taking advantage of an over-the-counter license and use permit. This year, on one Wednesday morning while parked on the shoulder of a gravel spur road before daybreak, I counted 26 trucks drive past me in the dark. On another morning, a Friday, I hiked a few ridges from my truck toward a gobbling turkey. I set up on him, but things didn’t work out. Soon, I heard another hunter calling, so I decided to sneak out of there. I took a shortcut back to my truck, crossing a different side road, where there were five other trucks parked—all chasing, I assumed, the same gobbling turkey that I’d been after.

To be clear, hunting pressure has always made that place tough, and in some ways, the challenge has added to the allure. But there comes a point when too much pressure has a negative affect on the resource, not to mention the hunting experience. If you can’t see that too many hunters chasing too few turkeys on too little public land is unsustainable, then you’ve got your head in the sand.

In the future, I don’t think there’ll be any choice but for some eastern states to adopt a more western-style draw model, particularly for certain tracts of public land. I love to travel to hunt turkeys, but I think that overly pressured public lands should cater to their resident hunters first.

Should We Focus More on Predator Control?

photo of raccoons
Trapping egg-stealing raccoons can make a difference in turkey numbers. JamesDeMers from Pixabay

The turkey decline has created a rallying cry for predator control. In Georgia, House Bill 1147, which allows year-around hunting and trapping of raccoons and opossums on private land, was passed by the state legislature earlier this month at the urging of turkey hunters. There’s plenty of evidence that populations of raccoons, coyotes, and other predators have increased in many areas.  

I learned to trap a few years ago specifically for turkey management, and I absolutely believe it’s helped the local turkey populations on the family ground that I hunt. Making it easier to trap predators, then, especially closer to the nesting season, certainly won’t hurt. So, my answer here is yes, but we have to acknowledge that it won’t be a magic bullet against the wild turkey decline. Trapping is incredibly labor and time intensive—but it can certainly help.

Should We Take a Closer Look at Deer Baiting?

There’s been an increasing concern recently that deer baiting is having a negative effect on turkey numbers, and it has caused me to take a hard look in the mirror. I’ve poured a lot of corn onto the ground over the years to bait deer (a legal practice in some of the Kentucky counties where I hunt). Piles of corn on the ground create potential problems for turkeys, including aflatoxin poisoning, but they also artificially congregate the very predators that we’re blaming for eating up all the turkey eggs. Simply put, you can’t really claim there are too many raccoons on your place because trapping season isn’t long enough while also ringing the raccoon dinner bell by pouring corn out on the ground every week from June through December.

Should We Focus Mainly on Habitat?

Every year, I wrap up my season with a trip to Nebraska. We drive there via I-80, headed west, and right about Grand Island, the landscape changes from mostly sprayed and tilled crop ground to rolling grasslands with cedar hills and wooded drainages. The difference in the number of insects smashing on your windshield and truck grill is immediate. Get out there and walk in those grassy hills, and there are grasshoppers buzzing everywhere. Guess where we see the most turkeys?

Central Texas, where I start my season, is a mosaic of very similar rugged grassland, thickets, and pastures, too. If turkeys are declining there, I can’t tell.  

Within the hunting community, there’s long been a reluctance to speak out against herbicides for fear of being lumped in with the tree-huggers. But I’m OK with believing some herbicides can be useful for some weed control while also acknowledging that an entire landscape nuked with herbicide every single spring, fencerow to fencerow, can’t possibly be good for the environment we depend on to grow little turkeys.

The acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program have declined every year since 2007. It’s not coincidence that Texas leads the nation in acres enrolled with 2.8 million, followed by Nebraska with 1.8 million—and that these are two of the country’s top turkey states.

photo of hen wild turkey
Hen turkeys simply can’t raise enough baby turkeys without good nesting and bugging habitat. Dino Christani / Getty Images

In the quest to save wild turkeys, and all the arguing over whether to ban reaping or allow trapping year-around, there is an area where biologists are not coy at all in their answers—and where hunters could do a better job listening. We can only have as many turkeys as the habitat allows. And there’s only so much we can do to influence land-use practices on a broad scale.

But as more research on turkey ecology is being done, we’re getting a better idea of what ideal turkey habitat looks like. And over the past couple decades, the quality deer management movement has transformed land management priorities for many landowners to make properties a little friendlier to whitetails. Turkeys and deer have some shared habitat requirements, but some different ones, too. A similar grass-roots movement focused on improving things like turkey nesting and bugging habitat, one farm at a time, could go a really long way—which is something we should all think about as turkey seasons close and we turn to our summer food-plotting and land-management priorities.

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