Ohio wild turkey hunters and other enthusiasts of this great gamebird are pulling for the poults this summer in hopes of turning around three disappointing years of turkey reproduction, during which the statewide population has fallen by 23 per cent.
"It's looking a lot better than the last three years," said Dave Swanson, wild turkey biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. A preliminary estimate of this year's crop of young birds, or poults, will not be available until after summer surveys are compiled, probably in mid August.
But Swanson said that early reports of broods are promising, based on samples of broods among130 radio-tagged hens and observation cards turned in by volunteers.
Broods of four to six poults of quail-size and larger are being reported, compared to broods averaging just two poults the last two to three years, the biologist said. Poults that reach at least quail size are considered fairly safe from predators and stand a good chance of growing to full size.
During the last three years wildlife-division estimates of the statewide turkey population, prior to hunting seasons, has fallen from around 260,000 to 200,000.
In turn, hunting has gotten tougher. Fewer younger male birds, or jakes, have been in the mix and that has made fooling a legal bird into shooting range more problematic. Older males - gobblers or longbeards or toms - simply are more wary and tougher to coax in with calling and decoys.
Older birds also often will become call-shy and simply refuse to respond when the woods are filled with too much calling by hunters. An oft-heard complaint this spring was that the birds just weren't gobbling and thus were very difficult for hunters to locate. Too, some wary old gobblers would "come in silent," that is, slink up without gobbling to silently seek the source of hunter-generated hen-calls and to inspect decoys, then slip away. Inclement weather during much of the hunt didn't help, either.
All of which was reflected in this spring's statewide gobbler bag, which was just 16,118 birds, according to preliminary totals.That was 20 to 35 per cent below the projected season's bag of 20,000 to 25,000 birds, not counting a very successful, special statewide youth season, which accounted for 1,519 gobblers the weekend before the statewide opener. The 2003 spring bag was 20,031.
"After three years of poor reproduction we have fewer turkeys in many parts of the state, though western populations continue to grow," noted Steve Gray, chief of the wildlife division. "Hopefully with good reproduction this year the population will rebound." The story of the prior three springs has been the same - the weather was too wet and too cool at the wrong time, and brood survival was poor.
State wildlife managers, with the approval of the Ohio Wildlife Council, have decided to go ahead with the same lengths and bags for turkey hunting seasons this fall - one bird of either sex in the October season in just 36 counties, and two bearded birds in the month-long statewide spring, 2005 season. Those specific seasons and their openings dates - Oct. 9 and April 18, respectively, are not going to change.
"We are reviewing the long-term data and right now we're not contemplating any changes in the spring seasons," said Gray.
But turkey managers are looking closely at the fall season, currently for a bird of either sex in 36 counties. "We probably would modify this season before we do anything with spring," the chief said. As it is, he added, "we're well below the threshhold of reducing the population based on the number of gobblers we shoot in the spring."
A single gobbler, for instance, may breed with multiple hens, much like a white-tailed buck deer breeds with multiple does.
The chief acknowledged that turkey hunters could be concerned because of the tough hunting season and lower overall numbers. But he assures that turkeys are in no peril. "With all game species, sportsmen are always the first to be conservative."
"It's like with Lake Erie walleyes," Gray said, "You need a good year-class every three or four years." The last good turkey hatch was in 1999, he added.
The 2004 spring turkey season was the fifth straight in which hunting was open in every Ohio county. Only 57 of 88 counties were open in 1999. Wild turkey were nearly gone from Ohio, principally because of habitat losses, by the mid 1950s. But the wildlife division began a reintroduction program and a limited spring season was held in 1966. Turkeys now can be found in every county.
Michigan wild turkey hunters have until Aug. 1 to apply for a 2004 fall turkey hunting permit, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said. A total of 40,800 permits are available through a lottery. Last fall hunters took about 5,000 birds.
Applications can be made for $4 at any of 1,700 license outlets, MDNR customer service kiosks and operation service centers, or on-line at www.michigan.gov/dnr, where drawing results will be posted on Aug. 23. For assistance, call the MDNR at 517-373-3904.
In another Michigan license note, the application period for elk hunting permits for a planned Dec. 7-14 season runs only through July 15. Only Michigan residents may apply for a $4 fee at the same places as for turkey permits, or on-line. Drawing results will be posted on the Web site Aug. 16.