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Maybe you’re done thinking about turkeys for the year, but I’m one of those guys who can’t get them out of my head. I started my season two months ago in Tennessee and ended it just last week in Wyoming. In between, I hunted Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee some more, and Nebraska, as well. I filled tags in every state, and I had good hunts with family and friends. Altogether I hunted a total of 37 days.
Looking back on it, though, I have to say that the good times are tempered somewhat, if not overshadowed, by the fact that I am worried. And I’m far from the only turkey hunter feeling this way. In many states—especially in the Midwest and Southeast—there aren’t as many birds as there used to be. And those that do remain don’t seem to gobble much. Just a few years ago, serious hunters were talking among themselves that something seemed “off” with the turkeys.
Those quiet concerns have now become alarm bells, and multiple states are making regulation changes in an attempt to address the decline.
There’s a lot of speculation about the causes of disappearing turkeys—and a fair bit of armchair biology going on—but if you’re paying attention, there are studies underway right now pointing to a pretty specific laundry list of problems. And after all those days of hunting in multiple states and habitats and doing a lot of reading and listening, some of the problems strike me as pretty obvious.
For all of us who love turkey hunting, it’s time to ask some tough questions. Here’s what I think at least four of those questions should be, and the answers, too.
Question 1: Is Hunting Pressure Creating a Quieter Turkey?
Answer: Absolutely, yes. But it’s not just about overcalling and bumping birds.
In Kentucky and Tennessee, where I live and do most of my hunting, I’ve gotten used to silence. I hunted all but three days of the Kentucky season this year (20 days total), and on about half those hunts, I didn’t hear a peep at daybreak.
It’s easy to assume that a lack of gobbling is because the turkeys aren’t there, and sometimes that’s true—but not always. If you’re a turkey hunter and don’t live under a rock, you’ve heard of Dr. Michael Chamberlain, leader of the University of Georgia’s Turkey Lab and one of the top minds in wild turkey research at the moment. Among Chamberlain’s various research projects are studies into how hunting pressure affects gobbling activity. There’s no doubt things get quiet when hunters start bumping birds around in the woods. But there’s more to it than that.
Many turkey hunters assume that old, dominant toms with long spurs are doing most of the breeding but not much of the gobbling—and that it’s the vocal 2-year-olds that are sounding off most.
But Chamberlain’s presentation to Alabama’s Conservation Advisory Board last August suggested something very different. “The testosterone levels in the dominant tom are super high,” he said. “He’s aggressive. He comes to a decoy. He comes to a call. He’s looking for a fight…. It begs the question, are vocal males the dominant birds? And if you talk to the captive industry, the answer is absolutely, yes.”
He alluded to those groups of longbeards you often see early in the season. You might see them all strutting, but there’ll be a clearly dominant bird in the group. That’s usually the bird that gobbles the most, rushes the decoys, and gets shot. Most turkey hunters have assumed (as I have) that when the boss gobbler is taken out, another tom steps in, gobbles more, and breeds the hens. But Chamberlain says it’s not that simple. Often, the testosterone levels in those subordinate birds are suppressed. When the dominant bird dies, the pecking order shuffles, and that takes time to work out (turkeys fight for dominance year-around). Not only that, but turkeys also tend to gobble most when other turkeys are gobbling—and if the loudmouth is dead first thing in the season…well, you get the idea.
Knowing that has changed how I hunt. I’ve all but abandoned the aggressive run-and-gun tactics that I grew up using. Now, if I go to hunt a 100-acre property or favorite public ridge, I plan to spend extra time there. I still move around, but I make multiple, hour-long blind-calling setups. I sit still, watch, and listen. And I’ve found that a good many turkeys that were silent on the limb will belt out a mid-morning gobble or sneak in spitting and drumming. In fact, that’s become the new norm for Eastern gobblers in these parts.
Question 2: Should Turkey Seasons Open Later?
Answer: Yes, in many places.
Much of Dr. Chamberlain’s research indicates that we turkey hunters are disrupting the breeding season by killing toms too early, particularly in the Deep South. Conventional turkey management theory, long used to set season dates, says that if you kill fewer than 30 percent of the gobblers in an area, it should have no effect on the population—but only if those gobblers are reproducing, and only if it’s not disrupting the breeding cycle.
Thing is, toms get amped up and start gobbling 45 days before breeding begins, no different than bucks tearing up the woods with rubs and scrapes a month before does are receptive. Hunters go out scouting and see and hear that activity, and they put pressure on agencies to open the season sooner. And in many cases, that’s exactly what happens.
Now, I love early-season hunting because I like to watch a gobbler slap the hell out of a jake decoy. But it could be that’s part of the problem. The dominant, vocal birds mentioned above are especially susceptible to our modern tactics—jake decoys, fans, reaping, ground blinds—in the early season, before hens are bred.
Chamberlain says the total turkey breeding cycle should take about 60 days and ideally, hens in a region lay their eggs all at once. It’s nature’s way of overwhelming predators; a phenomenon called “predator swamping.” Coyotes and raccoons will get some of the nests, but not all of them.
But the research is showing that the process is taking four months in some places—maybe because it takes a while for those new pecking orders to get resorted. That’s why you’re seeing states like Arkansas adjust their season openers to come in later.
Kentucky opens around April 15—fairly late for the latitude—and I used to complain about it. Zak Danks, turkey biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, hears that complaining every spring. “Of all the comments that I get from hunters, the number one is that our season starts too late,” Danks says. “But now, a close second is, ‘What happened to all the turkeys?’ From where I sit, I’m thankful Kentucky has kept the season consistent. When I look at southern states with the steepest declines, most start earlier and have a more liberal bag limit. To the extent that we can control anything about turkey populations, we can control hunting regulations the most.”
And here’s a hunting hint: I’ve become a late-season convert because the competition settles down and the turkeys act better. This year I killed a Kentucky gobbler on April 27, a Tennessee bird on April 28, had my safety off on one on April 29 that I did not kill, and called up another Kentucky bird for my wife on May 1. Every single one of those birds gobbled his head off and played the game properly.
Question 3: Should Bag Limits Be Lowered?
Answer: It depends.
Spring bag limits were lowered from four birds to three this year in Tennessee, and they’re going from five down to four next year in Alabama. In some Arkansas counties, the limit has been dropped to one bird. Danks says the topic of bag limits comes up often, and the Kentucky Commission is in discussions this year about reducing our bag limit from two birds to one.
I would miss that second turkey tag, but given what we’re learning, the hunting experience might get better, and I’d be all for that. In addition to all the challenges turkeys face right now, we also have more hunters in the woods than ever, thanks to the pandemic-inspired surge in interest and license sales. We know more hunter recruitment has been a goal of fish and wildlife agencies—and the outdoor industry—for a long time. But it has to be balanced with the resource.
Question 4: Should fanning and reaping be banned?
Answer: Only if you’re going to ban jake and strutter decoys, too.
Here’s the one you came for. Give mankind a crisis, and we’ll argue about the peripheral stuff, sure as the sun sets. In the turkey world, nothing’s more hot-button than the subject of reaping and fanning.
The purists say that if you’re not calling a turkey to your fixed location, then it’s cheating and dangerous. Turkey reapers say it’s no guarantee and argue that hunters have been using turkey fans to lure in birds since long before YouTube made it popular. And despite reaping’s rise in popularity and all the dire safety warnings, there hasn’t been an epidemic of hunting accidents involving it.
I’ve written a lot about reaping and fanning turkeys, and have done a lot of it, too. Any purist who says it’s cheating is full of it. It is the most physically demanding form of turkey hunting there is, and it requires a skillset all its own. And you’ll never convince me that reaping a turkey in an open field is as dangerous as sitting over a decoy in the timber.
And speaking of decoys—you can’t say a damn thing about reaping if you’re staking out a fake jake or strutter. Challenging a turkey’s dominance became mainstream popular only about 10 years ago. I remember trying a Carry Lite Pretty Boy—one of the first plastic strutters that used a real fan—and seeing crazy responses from dominant toms. Those responses were the talk of the turkey woods at the time (when we had way more turkeys). Most times, a turkey that can be killed by reaping is a turkey that’d come to a stationary strutter or jake decoy, too, if you have a little patience. Arguing over how that decoy is deployed doesn’t make sense, given the bigger-picture problems we have.
For pure turkey-killing effectiveness with a shotgun, I’d take a little break in the terrain—where I can hide out of sight and be in gun range when the gobbler appears—over a decoy every time.
But I don’t begrudge anyone for setting a spread in a field and waiting a bird out, or crawling across a hay meadow behind a Scoot-and-Shoot. All are great ways to fill a tag. That said, it might makes sense—through season dates or other means—to postpone those tactics until the most aggressive birds have had a chance to do some breeding.
After Chamberlain’s presentation to the Alabama CAB, the state voted to move the start date of turkey season to March 25, and reduce the bag limit from five birds to four. They also voted to outlaw decoy and fan use for the first 10 days of turkey season, starting in 2022.
Some of the best turkey hunters in the country live in Alabama, and I’ll bet they’ll manage just fine. If I were them, I’d be pretty happy with those changes.
Bonus Question: Are Herbicides Impacting Turkey Numbers?
Answer: I think so.
This isn’t so much a hard question for turkey hunters specifically, but it’s a question anyone who cares about conservation and wildlife needs to contemplate. After a good week in Nebraska in May, my buddy and I were driving home through Missouri. As landscapes go, the two states have many differences—but there’s no question Nebraska’s turkey flock is in better shape right now than Missouri’s. In Nebraska’s hills and riparian corridors, there are seemingly endless acres of bugging and nesting habitat. In Missouri—and all through the Midwest and Southeast—there are huge crop fields nuked with herbicide.
To be clear, I’m not an anti-GMO or anti-Roundup guy. I like seedless grapes, and I use some herbicides for food plot work. But there can be too much of a good thing. In the past decade, there’s been a double-whammy of both a loss of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program—20.8 million in 2021 vs. 36.8 million in 2007—along with a proliferation of no-till farming. No-till takes breaking ground out of the equation and reduces erosion, but crops don’t grow well in fields full of weeds. So those fields are soaked every spring with ever-more-effective herbicides before seeds go into the ground.
Are the chemicals poisoning turkeys? I don’t think so, but I do think they’re destroying plant communities where insects and worms live, and turkeys depend on those insects in the spring—particularly nesting hens and growing poults. Zak Danks, Kentucky turkey biologist, agrees. “As you move east, people need to have a reason to keep grassland. CRP was huge for that, and a lot of those CRP acres are gone now,” he says. “Plus, crop fields are increasingly clean. You have game birds that depend on insects, and on a large scale, those insects aren’t there. Neither is the nesting cover.”
State agencies work hard to promote habitat conservation, but the reality is that most land is privately owned in the states where turkeys have been hit the hardest, and crop yields take priority over turkey broods.