For those who love the Southern outdoors, the dead of summer can be tough. The heat is unbearable, hunting seasons are a distant memory or a long wait, depending on which direction you’re looking, and the best fishing spots falter as the thermometer continues to climb. An assessment of your surroundings, albeit with the windows up and the air conditioner on, becomes one of the best ways to pass the time.
For those who love turkey hunting, one of the most critical assessments can be that of the “the hatch.” Turkey populations are fickle and nothing contributes more to their volatility than the outcome of their annual reproductive effort. Concerns surrounding the hatch are therefore especially warranted, and can be a good gauge of spring mornings to come. For those who hunt along the Mississippi River, the hatch often tends to be boom or bust – when the River cooperates populations explode to levels rarely reached in the hills, however, just as Old Man River giveth, he can also taketh away. Springtime flooding, particularly in back to back years, can send Batture turkey numbers plummeting.
As June slips into July, official brood survey tallies from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) are still a few months from conclusion, however, prospects aren’t promising for areas inside the Mississippi River levee. The River began exceeding its banks during the first two weeks of May and remained so until late in the month. This means high water was prevalent throughout most of the heart of the nesting season, and while renesting attempts through June and even into July are possible, the initial attempts in May are usually what makes or breaks the hatch.
Given the slim hopes of a spectacular 2017 hatch, a look backward can help guide harvest expectations and management going forward. One of the best datasets available to the MDWFP to track turkey populations is the annual Spring Gobbler Hunting Survey (SGHS), which comprises observation and harvest data voluntarily collected by turkey hunters throughout the state. At time of writing, the 2017 data entry has not been completed, but the trends emerging for the Delta Region are not promising. Harvest by Delta turkey hunters in 2017 looks to be slightly above the averages of the prior couple of years, but was still far short of the happy hunting days of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. More concerning is the apparent drop in gobbling activity and turkey observations. The number of gobblers heard per 10 hours hunted looks to have taken a 30% fall from the average of the previous 3 years, while the total number of turkeys observed per 100 hours hunted seems to have been cut in half. From 2013 to 2016, SGHS hunters in the Delta saw about 130 total turkeys per 100 hours hunted. Based on currently available data, the 2017 figure looks to only be around 55 turkeys per 100 hours hunted. More disheartening, the number of jakes seen fell 40% from the previous year to its lowest level in 5 years. This isn’t too surprising given the below average hatches of 2015 and 2016.
As stated earlier, the good thing about land along the Mississippi is that when the stars align turkey numbers can surge like nowhere else. Unfortunately, unless late nesting attempts are wildly successful, 2017 probably won’t see much of a surge. This, combined with the lackluster numbers observed during the past season, doesn’t yield much room for optimism about next spring. Wise managers should look to be conservative with their harvests, and keep their powder dry for a better day.
Adam B. Butler Wild Turkey Program Coordinator
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks