Like deer and elk, the restoration of wild turkeys in Kentucky is a remarkable success story.
The statewide flock now numbers around 220,000 turkeys and telecheck harvest records show spring turkey hunters have taken an average of 31,719 birds over the past five years. The statewide harvest was up slightly last year over the previous spring as hunters topped 30,000 birds for the fifth time in the past six years.
This year, the general spring turkey season opens statewide on April 16 and closes May 8, but hunters age 15 and younger are first up. The special youth-only season runs the weekend of April 2-3.
While gobblers harvested on private land make up the majority of the spring harvest each year, public hunting areas are not to be overlooked. Nathan Gregory has hunted public and private land almost equally over the past decade.
“A lot of turkey hunting is knowing where you’re going and where the birds are going,” said Gregory, coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Northeast Wildlife Region. “I took one of my biggest birds ever off of a wildlife management area. It was mid-morning in the middle of the season and it had 2-inch spurs. It was just an incredible bird.”
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife owns, leases or manages more than 80 public hunting areas across the state, and all but a few are open under statewide hunting regulations for the spring turkey season.
The Green River Region led the state’s five Wildlife regions with a total of 8,957 birds harvested last spring. Peabody Wildlife Management Area in Ohio, Hopkins and Muhlenberg counties yielded more birds than any other public hunting area in the region and it, along with Daniel Boone National Forest, holds a reputation as being among the state’s best public hunting opportunities during the spring turkey season.
Reputation, proximity to home and perceptions about hunting pressure are reasons a hunter might choose one public hunting area over another. In any case, consider bookmarking Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website (fw.ky.gov). There, you will find the spring hunting guide as well as past harvest results and information about public hunting areas.
The Wildlife Management Areas/Public Hunting Areas web page includes PDF files for every public hunting area in Kentucky. The Wildlife Management Area and Public Lands Search link on that same page takes users to a sortable database of public hunting areas. Clicking the “View More Information” within an area’s listing takes users to the webpage for that area. Area pages include printable maps, directions, regulations for the area and a link to an interactive map, which grants access to satellite photos and topographic maps.
It still falls to the hunter to visit the area before the season because not scouting ahead of time leaves much to chance. If planning to hunt public land during the general spring turkey season, now’s the perfect time to scout.
“Start looking for some of the things you would look for during the season,” Gregory said. “What’s the food source? Look for areas off of points, off of ridges that you may think birds will use for strutting. Look for things the birds are using now.”
John Morgan, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Small Game Program Coordinator, studied wild turkeys on public lands as a master’s student at the University of Georgia. Identifying strut zones is one of the best things a hunter can do early in the season, he said.
Clearings in the understory, open ridges, old logging roads and small field openings are all potential stages for strutting toms. Also, look for tracks and wing drags left in the loose or muddy soil along trails, fields and creek bottoms. Fresh droppings and feathers concentrated below a large tree can indicate a potential roosting site. Dust bowls formed when a turkey grooms itself are another important sign, as are scratches. A turkey will scratch at the ground while foraging for food and leave behind clearings in the leaf litter.
“You’ll see where turkeys have scratched. It’s pretty identifiable,” Gregory said. “If birds haven’t been spooked or knocked off a routine, they’re going to come back to that spot….If they’ve really been picking and scraping the foliage back, I’d sit there and wait a while during the season.”
Note on a map or GPS any locations where any of these sights or sounds are observed. If a spot shows promise, look around for potential places to set up when you return for the season.
On public land, not only is a hunter trying to outsmart wily toms but must also assume they are contending with other hunters trying to do exactly the same. A willingness to cover longer distances or tackle tougher terrain can increase the odds of success.
“The more remote the spot, the less likely somebody else is there, the better chance it is for you,” Morgan said. “On public land often it is the most inaccessible spot that you can find that more than likely will be the best choice.”
Nobody knows a public hunting area better than the area manager. A simple phone call can pay off with good information about the property and recent observations.
Turkeys are one of the most difficult game species to harvest consistently. Whether it’s early in the season, the middle of the season or late in the season, first thing in the morning or in the afternoon, a hunter doesn’t stand a chance if they’re not out there trying.
“If you want to harvest a turkey you need to hunt any time you can,” Morgan said.
The statewide bag limit is two bearded birds, but no more than one bird may be taken per day. For more information about license and permit requirements and other regulations for Kentucky’s spring wild turkey season, visit Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website or consult the Spring Hunting Guide, available online and wherever licenses are sold.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.