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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Good weather forecast predicted for Kentucky’s late fall turkey season

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A warming trend will create good hunting conditions for the opening weekend of Kentucky’s late fall wild turkey season.

The second of two fall seasons open to hunting with shotguns, the seven-day season opens tomorrow, Saturday, December 2 and continues through Friday, December 8.

The forecast is calling for above normal temperatures in Central Kentucky Saturday and Sunday, then a chance of rain on Monday and Tuesday, and a return to cooler, more seasonable temperatures for the rest of the week.

During the two highest fall turkey harvests in the past five years — 4,306 birds in 2015 and 4,365 in 2012 — the archery harvest averaged just 25.1 percent of the total kill. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

“If the weather is favorable, hunter participation and turkey harvest is higher,” said Zak Danks, wild turkey program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The fall turkey season harvest is influenced by a number of factors, particularly the weather, which affects hunter participation.

“We lack statistics on hunter effort,” said Danks. “We don’t have a survey that tracks turkey harvest per unit of effort (hours in the field hunting).”

In Kentucky, turkey hunting in the spring is much more popular than turkey hunting in the fall.

Fall turkey hunting is not a strong a tradition in Kentucky so participation in the fall seasons often varies considerably from year-to-year.

In the period between 2001 and 2016, the sale of fall turkey permits declined by six percent, but during that time, other license options (senior and disabled, sportsmen’s license) were available to hunters that included fall permits. So the sale of fall turkey permits per se is not an accurate indicator of hunter participation.

Some hunters choose not to participate in one or both of the shotgun fall seasons, for various reasons.

For example, the early fall shotgun season opens every year in late October and runs for seven days, October 28-November 3, this year. The season opens at a time when white-tailed deer activity picks up during the so-called late pre-rut, as bucks begin to move during daylight hours in search of does. The two-week period before the opening of modern gun season is arguably the best time to arrow a trophy buck.

Most avid archery deer hunters wouldn’t even consider stomping around in the woods or shooting a shotgun in the same area where they are going to be bow hunting during this prime time.

During the late shotgun fall turkey season, inclement weather often keeps hunters out of the woods. If it’s cold and windy, or rainy, they just don’t hunt. They stay home and watch college basketball on TV, or go Christmas shopping.

Fall turkey harvest fluctuates

It’s not unusual for the fall turkey harvest to fluctuate dramatically, from year to year, and it’s difficult to understand exactly why that happens.

Lower turkey harvests in the fall are usually attributed to lower poult production and survival the previous spring, lower hunter participation, or an above-average crop of red and white oak acorns, which makes it tougher to hunt turkeys in forested habitats.

In the fall, turkeys flock up as the cold weather progresses. By mid-October, turkeys are segregated by age and sex, but by December, they begin to gather in big winter flocks.(Photo provided)

Reproduction in wild turkeys can vary significantly from year to year, in an almost cyclic manner. Biologists use the poults-per-hen ratio to interpret nesting success and young turkey survival.

In 2016 the poults-per-hen ratio (PPH) was 1.62, down 28.7% from 2015 and below the 10-year average. This spring the PPH dipped to 1.4 statewide.

The last time the PPH was 1.4 was in 2011, but it steadily built back up in the years going forward.

“Turkey survival is heavily dependent on weather,” said Danks. “A lot of young birds don’t make it if there’s heavy rainfall in May and early June.”

During the past five fall seasons in Kentucky, the turkey harvest has ranged from a high of 4,365 in 2012, to a low of 2,606 in 2016, with an average harvest of 3,317 during the period.

Danks said last season one-fourth of the fall harvest was jakes (juvenile gobblers), 88 percent of hunters killed one bird and 44 percent killed a gobbler.

The total fall turkey harvest includes birds taken by archers and crossbow hunters, but their percentage of the harvest is much lower than shotgun hunters. For example, during the two highest fall turkey harvests in the past five years — 4,306 birds in 2015 and 4,365 in 2012 — the archery harvest averaged just 25.1 percent of the total kill.

Archers may take wild turkeys during the entire archery season for deer (September 2 through January 15, 2018, this season), and crossbow hunters may take wild turkeys during a fall season that spans parts of three months — October, November and December, for 73 days.

Since deer and wild turkey archery and crossbow seasons run concurrently, it’s difficult to determine how many hunters in these two groups are specifically targeting turkeys. Often times the taking of a turkey by an archer or crossbow hunter is an incidental harvest.

Turkeys of either sex may be taken

In the fall, hunters may take birds of either sex. Typically, more hens are killed than gobblers. During the past five fall seasons in Kentucky, the percentage of hens in the total harvest averaged 61.9 percent.

The gobbler-to-hen ratio in Kentucky’s turkey flock is estimated to be 0.57 (about two hens for every gobbler) for a statewide average, but this number varies regionally.

Danks said Kentucky’s turkey flock numbers about 300,000 birds, based on the estimate that the spring turkey harvest is equal to about 10 percent of the statewide population.

In the fall, hunters may take birds of either sex. Typically, more hens are killed than gobblers. During the past five fall seasons in Kentucky, the percentage of hens in the total harvest averaged 61.9 percent. (Photo provided)

Fall turkey hunting is relatively new to the state. Kentucky’s first fall turkey season dates backs to the 1990s.

Hunting turkeys during the spring dates back to before the restoration era, a 20-year period that began in 1975.

The harvest record for the fall turkey season is 6,589 birds, taken during the 2004-05 season.

The bag limit for hunting wild turkeys with shotguns in the fall is two birds of either sex, but no more than one bird may have a beard of three inches or longer, and no more than one bird may be taken per day.

Fall Hunting Strategies

Bagging a wild turkey in the fall boils down to finding concentrations of birds or figuring out their daily patterns.

Hunters should be looking for turkeys at destination food sources such as fields of winter wheat, picked corn fields, clover and alfalfa fields, and groves of oak trees.

If acorns are available, turkeys spend a lot of time in the woods in early December. But, anytime there’s an average to poor mast crop like this fall, turkeys tend to move around more in search of food. That means they are more likely to encounter hunters.

The approach to calling turkeys needs to be modified in the fall.

In the spring, the key to success is seducing a gobbler into gun range with subtle hen calls such as clucks, purrs and yelps.

But in the fall the winning call strategy is to mimic turkey vocalizations, based on the age and sex of the flock encountered.

In family groups, young-of-the-year birds respond to kee-kees and kee-kee-runs. Brood hens use assembly calls, a long series of yelps, to gather separated flock members. Adult gobblers communicate with raspy yelps and clucking.

It’s critical to interpret what you’re hearing from live birds to successfully imitate them.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on NKyTribune.

In the fall, turkeys flock up as the cold weather progresses. By mid-October, turkeys are segregated by age and sex, but by December, they begin to gather in big winter flocks.

Like all wildlife, they know winter is coming so they “feed up,” for the lean times ahead. If you know where turkeys are feeding, stay put. One of the most effective hunting strategies during the fall is setting up a ground blind where turkeys are feeding and waiting for them to show up in the morning.

Hunters who don’t know the whereabouts of a flock or the daily route they take between roosting and feeding areas must first locate some birds. Typically, that takes quite a bit of walking around, scouting for signs and calling in hopes of locating a flock.

Hunting in the rain is no fun, but it’s a good time to bag a fall turkey.

When it’s raining, turkeys head to fields. Wet woods are dangerous for turkeys as the wet leaves muffle the sounds of approaching predators, and water dripping off limbs and leaves add to the movement around them, making it harder to discern an approaching threat.

Hunt hard and hunt smart, to tip the odds in your favor when matching wits with wary fall turkeys.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors column.

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