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Art Lander’s Outdoors: With Ky’s spring wild turkey season fast approaching, the time to prepare is now

With Kentucky’s 2021 spring wild turkey season opening in two weeks, hunters are likely to harvest about as many turkeys as last season, maybe more, since more nonresident hunters will be able to take part in the season

Year in and year out, favorable weather conditions are also a major factor in hunter success.

The 23-day statewide general season opens Saturday, April 17, and continues through Sunday, May 9. The 2-day youth weekend, by regulation held on the first weekend in April, opens tomorrow and closes Sunday, April 4, 30 minutes after sunset.

Kentucky’s spring wild turkey season opens April 17. (Photo from National Wild Turkey Federation)

In the last three years the statewide poult per hen ratio, the primary metric used to indicate overall flock productivity, has been above the optimal level of 2.0, meaning there will be more gobblers on the landscape. The poult per hen ratio for 2018 was 2.45, and in 2020, it was 2.39.

“I’m hopeful for the 2021 harvest based on the 2019 poult per hen of 2.68,” said Zak Danks, turkey program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). A majority of adult gobblers harvested each season are typically two-year-old birds.

Turkey reproduction dropped precipitously in 2017. The 1.3 poult per hen ratio in 2017 was the lowest on record, and 41 percent below the 10-year average between 2009 and 2017.

A look back at the numbers reveals that turkey reproduction, while much improved in the short term, is considerably lower than the brood survey data from the past 15 years in Kentucky. For example, in 2010, the poult per hen ratio was about 3.75, and in 2008 it was more than 5.0.

The drop in turkey reproduction is not unique to Kentucky.

Local flocks in many states in the eastern U.S. have shown marked declines. Biologists in the region 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.

Turkey reproduction in Kentucky 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 the poult per hen ratio.

Spring Turkey Season Harvest Perspective

Here’s some other pertinent news and observations from recent spring turkey seasons:

• Due to COVID-19 restrictions 93.6 percent fewer nonresidents purchased a licenses for the 2020 spring turkey season.

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

2020 spring turkey (Photo by Art Lander)

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 had already purchased a 2020 spring turkey permit were allowed to hunt but they were required to self-quarantine for 14 days immediately upon arrival in Kentucky, before they could go afield to hunt.

Accordingly, harvest by nonresident hunters was just 378 birds, down 88.9 percent from 2019. Typically, nonresident hunters account for about 10 percent of the turkey harvest.

• For the upcoming 2021 Kentucky spring turkey season there will be no travel or public health restrictions to impede nonresident hunters from participating.

• Danks wrote in the 2020 Kentucky Spring Turkey Season Summary that the “31,719 turkeys harvested was a 7.5 percent increase from last spring, and a 5.9 percent increase from the 3-year average.” As a point of comparison consider that Kentucky’s record harvest during the spring wild turkey season occurred in 2010, when 36,097 birds were reported taken.

• As further evidence of improved reproduction, the number of juvenile gobblers in the harvest climbed the past two seasons, from 3,821 in 2019 to 4,260 in 2020. Likewise the numbers of adult gobblers taken increased from 25,424 in 2019 to 27,138 in 2020.

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.

• The top five counties in turkey harvest for the 2020 spring season were: Logan County, 626; Hardin County, 603; Hart County, 575; Muhlenberg County, 561, and Pulaski County, 542.

• Based on a post-season survey of hunters, it is estimated that 36 percent of hunters harvested at least one bearded bird in 2020. The percentage of hunters that harvested the statewide bag limit of two turkeys was 25.7. The 5-year average is 25.6 percent.

• When asked whether they hunted more in 2020 compared to 2019, 23 percent said they hunted about the same number of days, 23 percent said they hunted more days, and 15 percent said fewer days.

• Turkey harvest by youth hunters has climbed the past three seasons, from 1,448 in 2018, to 1,526 in 2019, and 2,193 in 2020.

• Turkey harvest on opening weekend in 2020 was 9,978, a 14.9 percent increase over the 2019 season.

• Turkey harvest on private land was 30,188, up from 27,900 in 2019, while turkey harvest on public land decreased from 1,602 in 2019 to 1,531 in 2020.

Get Ready Now

Get ready for the spring season now.

Listen for gobbling early in the mornings in your hunting area and use binoculars to discreetly monitor fields for hens and gobblers.

With a wet, snowy winter, fields are greening up fast, providing turkeys with lots of food options — grasses, clovers, winter wheat in fields, and tender forbs in woodland edges.

Organize your gear, calls, vests, face masks, gloves and hats and put everything in a plastic storage tote.

Treat your camouflage clothing with insect repellent. Hang your clothing outside and spray with Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent, which repels and kills ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. It’s odorless, won’t stain clothing and lasts for six weeks.

Shoot your shotgun at a turkey head target to ensure that it’s sighted in and familiarize yourself with your shotgun’s effective range, based on the load you are going to hunt with.

2021 Spring Turkey Season

A resident annual hunting license is $27 and a spring turkey permit is $30. The senior sportsman’s license, for residents 65 years of age and older, is $12.

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

Art Lander with 2020 spring turkey (Photo by Art Lander)

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. A small percentage of bearded hens, about one percent, are taken by hunters each season.

Details of all harvested turkeys must be 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.

Visit the KDFWR website to get all the details on the 2021 spring wild turkey season at fw.ky.gov.

Wild turkey activity cranks up in the spring when dominant gobblers collect a harem of hens, and hens begin nesting. Photoperiod (length of daylight) is the trigger for breeding.

Turkey hunters feel a rush of excitement when they hear a lovesick tom gobbling his head off at the crack of dawn.

“I certainly hope everyone has a safe, fun spring turkey season,” said Danks.

Don’t miss out on witnessing the wild turkey’s passion play, a mating ritual that excites hunters each spring.

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