Turkey Hunters Must Hone Their Skills
Natural forces are causing turkey numbers to level off
After decades of growth, turkey populations in Indiana appear to have leveled off, which means one thing for hunters.
“We’re going to have to become more of a hunter and not just a shooter,” said DNR turkey biologist Steve Backs.
The stabilization of turkey populations is the natural conclusion of a successful reintroduction program that started in Indiana more than 50 years ago. Now, with turkeys in almost all Indiana counties, there’s no more room for populations to grow.
Most of the state’s potential turkey habitat areas have been colonized. Furthermore, some existing turkey habitat is vulnerable to development and other habitat degrading factors, Backs said.
On private lands, wild turkey populations will be adversely affected by urbanization and increased agriculture. On public lands, turkeys will be affected by restrictions on timber and wildlife management practices, along with competing land uses.
Natural disease and predators also are starting to catch up with restored turkey populations. Turkey eggs and poults are vulnerable to predators that range from blue jays to coyotes.
“We’re past the restoration era,” Backs said. “Natural forces have come into play that are controlling population levels, primarily by reduced production.”
There’s not much wildlife management biologists can do about the natural forces of population control except ensure there is suitable habitat where possible. Habitat factors will play the biggest role in what becomes the “new normal” for turkey population levels.
Long-term population trends (over 10 to 20 years) are mostly affected by habitat suitability, whereas short-term population trends (over 1 to 3 years) are mostly influenced by weather.
Because many states reintroduced turkeys around the same time, much of the Midwest and East are experiencing similar population trends.
Wild turkeys were eliminated from Indiana by the early 1900s by loss of habitat and unregulated subsistence hunting. A reintroduction program from 1956 to 2004 released almost 3,000 wild-trapped birds throughout the state.
The spring season harvest peaked in 2010 at 13,742 birds. In the 2014 spring season (the year for which the most recent figures were available), hunters harvested 10,872 birds.
The recent decline in harvests is unlikely to result in stricter regulations. Existing regulations are already conservative and have helped buffer the effects of reduced turkey production. Spring season hunters are allowed one bearded or male turkey. Fall hunters are allowed one bird of either sex, but fall hunting is less popular; only about 600-700 birds are harvested annually in the fall.
Indiana’s spring turkey season is scheduled to coincide with the time frame when most hens will be incubating eggs. The reason is three-fold. First, waiting until after most turkeys have bred, and laid eggs, ensures the continuity of the turkey population. Second, most hens are on the nest, meaning they are less likely to be inadvertently shot. Third, gobblers at this time are still interested in breeding, making them susceptible to being called in by hunters.
Backs said he has seen online discussions with hunters expressing opinions that the state’s spring turkey season opens too late and that gobblers have lost interest in hens by then. But the argument doesn’t make sense, Backs said.
“Especially since our No. 1 complaint from hunters is that gobblers are still with hens,” Backs said.
While the long-term trend will be a leveling off, Backs said hunters can expect year-to-year harvests to vary considerably based on weather during the previous year’s breeding season. Generally, a hen lays about 12 eggs a season, and about half survive as poults past six weeks. Survival is higher during warm, dry springs and lower during cold, wet springs.
“Even if the population is stabilized, we are going to have annual fluctuations in production,” Backs said. “It doesn’t mean that every year we are going to kill 10,000 to 12,000 birds.”
To hunt wild turkey, a valid turkey hunting license and a valid game bird habitat stamp privilege are required.
Those that have a lifetime comprehensive hunting, lifetime comprehensive hunting and fishing, or resident youth hunt/trap license can hunt turkey and do not need to purchase the game bird habitat stamp because it is included with those license types.
A separate turkey hunting license is required when hunting during each turkey hunting season — one for the spring season and one for the fall season.
Game bird habitat stamp privileges are good for both spring and fall seasons in the same calendar year.
You can assist another hunter by calling only if you are licensed to hunt turkeys, regardless of whether or not you have harvested a turkey yourself.
Spring 2016 - The spring season is April 27 through May 15, 2016. The bag limit is one bearded or male turkey for the spring season. Spring turkey hunting is allowed statewide.
Fall 2015 - The bag and possession limit for the fall seasons is one bird of either sex, regardless of hunting equipment used or what portion of the season. Fall archery season is statewide. Fall firearm season has specific dates for specific counties (see below and map below).
Special reserved turkey hunts are scheduled at select DNR fish and wildlife areas.
Special reserved turkey hunts also take place at Big Oaks and Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuges. Applications and drawings are managed through the DNR reserved hunt system. For details and how to apply online, go to wildlife.in.gov
Information about the youth season is on Youth Hunting.
Turkeys can be hunted only with:
Wild turkeys may be hunted only from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. All DNR properties managed by the Division of Fish & Wildlife have spring season hunting hours one-half hour before sunrise until noon for properties on CDT and until 1 p.m. for properties on EDT. Call the property for additional information.
Immediately upon killing a turkey, the hunter must complete a temporary transportation tag on paper stating the hunter’s full name, address, sex of the turkey, license number (if applicable), and the date the turkey was taken before transporting the turkey from the field.
Hunters are required to register their harvested turkey within 48 hours of the kill. This can be done one of three ways:
Once the turkey is registered with the CheckIN Game system, a confirmation number will be generated. The number must be recorded on a temporary transportation tag and kept with the turkey until processing begins.
For an online printable version of a temporary transportation tag, see www.wildlife.in.gov/files/turkeytag.pdf
Turkey hunters must meet fluorescent (hunter) orange requirements while hunting turkeys Dec. 5-20, 2015 and from Dec. 26, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016 (in locations where the deer special antlerless season is open). See hunter orange requirements on Hunter Orange Requirements.
While hunting wild turkey, it is illegal to use or possess: a dog; another domesticated animal; a live decoy; a recorded call; an electronically powered or controlled decoy; or bait. An area is considered baited for 10 days after the removal of the bait, but an area is not considered to be baited that is attractive to wild turkeys resulting from normal agricultural practices.
Regulations in red are new this year.
Purple text indicates an important note.