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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s 23-day spring wild turkey season getting a late start in 2020

Due to calendar shift Kentucky’s 2020 spring wild turkey season is starting five days later than last year and two weeks after the youth-only season, which was held last weekend, April 4-5.

By regulation, the 23-day general statewide season opens on the Saturday closest to April 15 each year. This year’s season dates are Saturday, April 18, through Sunday, May 10.

Fields are greening up fast because of our wet winter and early spring, providing turkeys with lots of food options — grasses, clovers, winter wheat in fields, and tender forbs in woodland edges.

In central Kentucky, trees aren’t beginning to leaf out yet, but they will be by the time turkey season opens. The greening woods make it easier for hunters to move on gobbling toms without being seen.

Wild turkey gobbler and hen (Photo form KDFWR)

Non-Resident Permit Sales Halted

On Friday, April 3 it was announced that effective immediately, non-resident spring turkey permits for the 2020 season will no longer be sold.

This decision was made to conform to Gov. Andy Beshear’s Executive Order No. 2020-266, and current CDC guidelines to minimize the spread of the COVID-19.

Non-residents who have already purchased a 2020 spring turkey permit can hunt but they are required to self-quarantine for 14 days immediately upon arrival in Kentucky before they can go afield to hunt.

Season Outlook for 2020, Rebounding Harvest

Appearing on Kentucky Afield TV, which airs on Kentucky Educational Television (KET), Zak Danks, wild turkey program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), gave an optimistic prediction for the 2020 spring season. “I’m expecting a good season because we’ve had two consecutive years with good hatches.”

The turkey harvest slumped in 2018 but rebounded last season, when hunters reported taking 29,502 bearded birds, up eight percent from 2018 season. The turkey harvest increased in 80 counties, decreased in 35 and was the same in five counties. Juvenile gobblers (jakes) made up just 13 percent of the 2019 spring harvest.

(KyForward file photo)

The five-year average of spring turkey harvests from 2015 to 2019 is 30, 355. Kentucky’s record harvest during the spring wild turkey season occurred in 2010, when 36,097 birds were reported taken.

Poor reproduction is believed to be the main reason why turkey harvests have been below 30,000 birds the last two spring seasons in Kentucky.

Turkey reproduction is monitored with an annual brood survey, conducted during July and August, each summer since 1984. Turkey observation reports from across the state are used to calculate a poult per hen ratio, which reflects the reproductive success of the flock.

In 2016 and 2017 the statewide poult per hen ratio was below the optimal level of 2.0. “The 1.3 poult per hen ratio in 2017 was the lowest on record, and 41 percent below the 10-year average (2009-2017),” said Danks.

Danks said the poult per hen ratio climbed substantially in 2018, up 54 percent.

In 2019, the poult per hen ratio was up again, ranging by region from 1.8 to 3.2 in western Kentucky, 1.8 to 2.4 in central Kentucky, and 2.2 in eastern Kentucky, for a statewide average of about 2.2.

This is despite a crazy weather pattern with heavy rains in June, just weeks after turkey eggs hatched, and a late summer drought that lasted into early October, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees.

Turkey Numbers Down Across the Country

Kentucky’s turkey flock rivals surrounding states and is one of the best in the region, with about 325,000 birds in our flock.

“Central Kentucky has a great mix of farms and fields and strong turkey populations,” said Danks. The spring turkey harvest in the 31 counties of KDFWR’s Bluegrass Region has averaged 6,382 the past five years, which is about 22 percent of the state’s total harvest, but the harvest is down seven percent on the 10-year average (2010-2019).

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. 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 newspaper column.

Turkey populations in some counties in the region are down significantly from past years. This is especially true in the counties that were stocked earliest in our state’s turkey restoration efforts. One example is Henry County, a county with a good habitat that borders the Kentucky River, where turkey harvest during the spring season is down 19 percent from the 10-year average (2010-2019).

But this trend is not just in Kentucky, or the Bluegrass Region, it’s throughout the southeastern U.S. and somewhat nationwide.

In the early 1970s, there were about 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), a non-profit conservation and hunting organization.

After about 30 years of restoration and management, that number reached a historic high of about 7 million turkeys in 2004, but since that time there has been a slow decline. A decade later the U.S. turkey flock estimate was 6.2 million.

Flocks in the eastern U.S. have been hard hit. For example, in New York, the turkey population is down 40 percent since 2010, in a few counties in central Tennessee, the harvest has fallen in half, and several states in the South have experienced similar of worse declines in some of their counties.

Biologists agree there are several causes for the declines, among them: lower poult production, nesting and brood-rearing habitat is not as good as it once was, carrying capacity has been reached in many areas, former pastures have been converted to grain production, and timber cutting has declined.

Turkeys prefer a mixed-age forest and must have green fields so poults can find insects and feed on tender clover and grasses.

Public Land Hunting Opportunities

This may be the year to check out local public lands.

With non-resident hunters basically locked out of our season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, it’s likely there will be fewer hunters on public lands. For many non-residents, public lands are their only option to hunt.

With many resident hunters off work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they will be able to hunt the most popular and productive public lands during the middle of the week.

“The public land harvest is down and it’s not related to lower turkey populations, there are fewer hunters,” said Danks.

2020 Spring Turkey Season Regulations

Shooting hours for both spring seasons are 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

The bag limit for turkey hunting in the spring is two (2) birds with visible beards. No more than one (1) bird may be taken per day.

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Details of all harvested turkeys must be logged — written on the back of paper hunting licenses, and all harvested turkeys must be checked in over the telephone or online.

Anyone may call turkeys, or assist in the hunt. Callers and assistants are not required to possess a hunting license or turkey permit and may carry equipment while in the field. Observe social distancing.

Visit the KDFWR website to get all the details on the 2020 spring wild turkey season, including updates related to the COVID-19 outbreak at fw.ky.gov

Wild turkey activity cranks up in the spring when dominant gobblers collect a harem of hens, and hens begin nesting. Biologically, photoperiod (length of daylight) is the trigger for breeding, but a fast warm-up certainly encourages breeding-related activities.

Turkey hunters feel a rush of excitement when they hear a lovesick tom gobbling his head off at the crack of dawn or see a strutting gobbler surrounded by a harem of hens in a greening field.

The wild turkey’s spring mating ritual is a passion play.

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