Turkey hunters in numbers game
Carbondale, Ill. — All indications heading into the spring turkey season point to one number: 16,605.
That state record turkey harvest set in 2006 has been a bull’s-eye for hunters the past decade.
Not to sound like the Chicago Cubs before 2016, but “this could be the year.”
Several factors are at play, including the fact that the state’s turkey population appears steady and healthy. On a practical level, as long as rain and snow stay away, hunters will have plenty of opportunity for a rich harvest.
Helping pad the numbers are additional days added to the spring youth turkey season, which in 2017 has been expanded from one weekend to two weekends. Young hunters in both the north and south zones will be able to hunt March 25-26 and April 1-2.
If nothing else, most believe hunters can match the 15,490 turkeys taken during the 2016 spring season, which was considered a nice jump from the 14,999 taken in 2015 and the 13,514 taken in 2014.
“The overall outlook is very positive for Illinois,” said Luke Garver, DNR’s wild turkey project manager. “This year’s brood index was down slightly. However, we are coming off of two years in a row of high reproductive success. Last year’s spring harvest was the highest since 2010, and we would expect spring 2017 to be promising as well.”
Garver projects the top five harvest counties for spring 2017 to be Jo Daviess, Pike, Adams, Fulton and Jefferson.
“Essentially any wooded riparian corridor in the state is prime turkey habitat, where quality hunting can be had,” he said. “Some of the major river corridors to focus on include the Mississippi, Illinois, Sangamon and Kaskaskia.”
Brood surveys aside, early indications are that the state got some solid late reproduction. Garver said the proportion of jakes harvested is a solid indicator of the previous spring’s reproductive success.
Overall, it appears Illinois’ turkey population is holding steady, with only Mother Nature, man’s affect on habitat and natural predators to worry about. Coyotes and bobcats are the primary predators in Illinois, but habitat issues can also be a problem.
“In a lot of parts of Illinois it’s not that we are lacking habitat, but we are missing good places for brood rearing,” Garver said.
Turkey breeding season in the state begins in late March to early April, with the peak of the incubation period occurring in late April to early May. However, nests can be found throughout the summer, as hens that lose clutches to predation, human disturbance, or weather events often renest.
While there can be a difference in turkey behavior in the state’s north zone and south zone, hunters tend to have similar success rates at both ends of the state.
Last spring, hunters took 6,694 wild turkeys in the south zone, a slight increase over the harvest of 6,387 in 2015. The north zone harvest total of 8,790 was also higher than the 8,613 in 2015.
“The 2016 harvest was the second consecutive year of improved harvest numbers in Illinois,” said Paul Shelton, a DNR Wildlife program manager who managed turkeys for a number of years. “The 2014 spring season marked a low point in recent turkey harvest after a number of consecutive years of poor reproduction, particularly in the north zone.
“We’re encouraged to see that harvest numbers are rebounding – numbers in the north zone were almost 20 percent higher than in 2014,” said Shelton. “Harvest in west-central Illinois, which seems to have been most affected by poor reproduction in recent years, was about 30 percent higher than 2014 figures.”
The top counties in 2016 were Jo Daviess (568), Fulton (446), Jefferson (420), Pike (393), Adams (389), Marion (380), Randolph (372), Schuyler (360), Pope (356), and Union (354).