In June, 2020, I participated in a reunion of old friends hosted by Robert and Hilda Pitman at White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee, Alabama. The idea was to relive the good old days shared by friends in the turkey woods, deer stand, duck blind and chasing bugles. Most of the attendees had been my friends for over 40 years and played a role in my career as an outdoor writer, book author and video/television producer. A couple of the attendees were relatively new friends who in some way carry influence in the outdoor world.
We boiled crawfish, fried catfish, swapped lies and indulged in an occasional adult beverage. We fished, shot custom long range rifles and watched custom turkey calls being made just for us. We laughed, slapped backs, retold old stories and told jokes. At 1:00 P.M. on the second day we convened a meeting to discuss the real reason we gathered at White Oak— the state of the wild turkey and turkey hunting.
There was no laughing, joking or kidding is this discussion. It was the serious business of 12 grizzled, veteran turkey hunters plus the participation of two veteran female turkey hunters and outdoor communicators. For two hours we pondered the current state of turkey hunting and the decline of the wild turkeys in some areas of the country and searched for ways to convey those concerns to our turkey hunting brothers and sisters.
I warn you, this is not a pretty read filled with the emotion and heart pounding excitement we all know as the sport of turkey hunting. There are no descriptive sentences portraying the grace and beauty of our grand bird. This is an honest attempt to share the experience and wisdom garnered from over 500 years of combined turkey hunting experience.
You may ask, “Who are these folks who have decades and decades of turkey hunting prosperity and bliss and what gives them the right to tell me what to do?” You would be right. We do not have that right and that is not what you are about to read. This is not an attempt to provide solutions to the decline in wild turkey populations. To get the right answer to any problem someone first has to ask the right question and to proceed from there with a dialogue among the turkey hunting community. This the attempt of each participant to do just that.
Jim Spencer has been hunting turkeys for 43 years and lives in north central Arkansas. He is the author of The Turkey Hunter’s Digest, Bad Birds and soon to be released Bad Birds 2 books. He pens the Bad Birds feature in Turkey and Turkey Hunting Magazine and has published more than 1,000 turkey hunting articles.
“The wild turkey population in the U. S. peaked in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s at an estimated 6-7 million birds. I’d venture to say there are at least two and probably ten times as many turkey hunters today and we all know turkey numbers are down in many states, especially the southeast. My question is: “How do we sustain turkey hunting as we know it with more and more hunters and stagnant turkey population growth?”
Jim Ronquest lives in east central Arkansas and has been hunting turkeys for 43 years. He appeared in several Primos Truth Series videos and is co-host and producer of the popular RNTV television show on Sportsman Channel. In 2006 he won the prestigious World Duck Calling Championship in Stuttgart, AR. He offers these insights: “I have many concerns about the state of the wild turkey today. Those concerns include habitat management, predator control, poor hatches and hunter ethics. We keep pushing the envelope with better guns, ammunition, decoys, blinds and calls. My question is: “How do we better educate hunters, new and old, on the time honored history, traditions and ethics of our sport?”
Jill Easton has 21 years experience hunting turkeys and resides in north central Arkansas. Easton is an accomplished, award winning outdoor writer. She is an avid trapper and regularly does seminars on the local, state and national level. She is an effective ambassador for trapping and regularly takes newcomers and interested non-trappers on her trap line. In 2008 Easton was named the Arkansas Trappers Association Trapper of the Year.
“The world fur market imploded in 2013. There were not a lot of trappers then but there are hardly any left today. There is no incentive because there is virtually no market for the fur. My concern is greater numbers of turkey and turkey nest predators. My question is: “What can we do to effectively control predators and reduce turkey and turkey nest predation?”
Tes Randle Jolly started turkey hunting 30 years ago.and lives in east-central Alabama. She is an award winning wildlife photographer, author and one of the premier wild turkey photographers in the United States with cover photo credits for many of the most prestigious magazines in the country. Jolly spends untold hours and days in close proximity to undisturbed wild turkeys.
”In my time spent in the photo blind for the last 20 years I have been fortunate to observe many of the behaviors that make the wild turkey so unique. I have also seen and photographed some problems that have reduced turkey numbers in our area. Nest predation, hens with no poults and turkeys with heads covered with ugly sores caused by Avian Pox. My question is: “Have we considered the effect legalized baiting and feeding deer has on turkeys by creating turkey predator food bars and turkey disease transmission hot spots?”
David Cardin has hunted turkeys for 45 years and resides in southwest Arkansas. He made regular appearances on Primos Truth Series videos for more than 20 years. Cardin’s unique hunting and calling style and woods savvy established him as one of most popular members of the Primos Pro Staff.
“I started hunting turkeys in Arkansas when there were very few turkeys, a limit of one per season and a very short season.I have seen turkey hunting opportunities soar as numbers increased from those early days and return to the low numbers we have today. One thing that concerns me is the wholesale planting and harvesting of monoculture timber stands such as loblolly pine. My question is: “Do we fully understand the effect monocultural timber practices on a very large scale has on turkey populations?”
Mike Lingo has hunted turkeys for 50 years and lives in northeast Louisiana. Lingo was first introduced to the hunting public with his appearance on the Truth II About Spring Turkey Hunting by Primos and appeared in almost every Primos video for the next seven years. Lingo is an old school turkey hunter who was taught the sport by his father.
“I am concerned about turkeys in our area for several reasons including predators, hunting pressure and poor hatches. I am also concerned about preserving the traditions of the sport and passing them on. My question is: How do you adjust harvest numbers and seasons to prevent over harvest of turkeys?”
Keven Matthews lives in south Alabama and has 29 years of turkey hunting experience. Matthews has appeared on numerous television shows and hunting DVDs produced by Mossy Oak and Primos. He works with Primos to develop mouth diaphragm calls and is credited with designing the Primos Signature Series, the Hook Hunter Series, and the Hacked Off Series of calls and most recently the Mossy Oak Mouth Call Series. He has hunted and worked with world champion callers Bob Walker, Preston Pittman and Larry Norton to name a few.
“My passion is hunting turkeys and building quality mouth calls. I am friends with the current Director of Alabama’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and hear and see the frustration of trying to change state laws in a timely manner. My question is: “How do we get advisory board members and elected officials to put politics aside, approve and implement the recommendations of state game and fish directors and biologists.and base seasons and harvest quotas on science?”
Mark Yarborough has been hunting turkeys 38 years and lives in northeast Mississippi. He has 30 years experience as a wildlife manager and ecosystem restoration expert. He currently works for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks as the Wildlife Manager for the state’s Charles Ray Nix WMA.
“As a wildlife manager, decisions I make are based on observations and data. Accurate reporting of harvest data is essential for setting limits and season dates. My question is: “How do we convince hunters that providing harvest data is essential and the first step in protecting the resource?”
Phillip Morton has hunted turkeys for 30 years. He resides in east-central Alabama and assisted with several video productions by Woods Wise Products. Morton has a background in public education and is currently teaching his 14 year old son to be a turkey hunter and outdoorsman.
“I think the distance between biologists and everyday outdoorsmen causes intimidation from a terminology standpoint. Educating the next generation is very difficult and we need to put that terminology in layman’s terms. My question is: “How do we turn the “me too” attitude and self gratification that dominates social media into a platform that educates young people on the traditions and history of the sport of turkey hunting?”
Coates Head lives in northeast Louisiana and has hunted turkeys 42 years.A farmer by trade, Head appeared on Truth Series videos and television over a 20 year period. He has managed several large tracts of land for deer, waterfowl and turkeys.
“I currently manage a hunting property adjacent to the Mississippi River. It is on the protected side of the levee so flooding is not a problem other than animals fleeing a flood. I have learned that where I live, good management practices for deer are not always good for turkeys. I have also learned you can’t legislate morality and you can’t ticket bad intentions. I was shocked to see reports from several states the harvest numbers were at record levels at the mid-point of the season with increased hunter participation due to the Covid 19 pandemic. My question is: “How can we adjust to abnormal circumstances such as floods or a pandemic in a timely manner to protect the resource from over harvest and pressure?”
Buddy Hanks started hunting turkeys 50 years ago and lives in central Mississippi. Hanks was featured on the first audio cassette produced by Primos and appeared on the first four turkey hunting videos Primos produced. He is an accomplished competition turkey caller with two state championships and several other wins on his resume.
“I have seen the rise and fall of turkeys and am always amazed at the marvel of a hen brooding and rearing poults. It seems everything is against them but given the right conditions and habitat they come through time and time again. In the south one of the huge problems we have is fire ants. If you shoot a dove or drop a scrap of food and leave it on the ground five minutes odds are it will be covered with fire ants when you pick it up. My question is: “Have we considered and do we understand the impact of invasive insects such as fire ants on hatching poults and turkey nests?”
Barry Estes lives in central Alabama and owns and operates Alabama Hog Control. The company serves farmers, ranchers and property owners with feral hog removal. He has turkey hunted over 30 years.
“I cover a lot of ground chasing hogs. I see their devastation on land and habitat every day. My personal lease in southwest Alabama has seen a decline in turkeys for several years. We trap and shoot every hog we can and trap fur bearers such as raccoons, coyotes and opossums. Despite these efforts we did not kill a single gobbler on 5,000 acres this past season. My question is: ”Do we fully understand the impact of feral hogs on wild turkeys?”
Jeff Sherwood lives in west-central Mississippi and has 43 years of turkey hunting experience. He appeared on several Truth Series videos and in 1996 became series producer and served four years. He now builds custom rifles and shotguns through his company Sherwood Tactical.
”The technology we have today is light years ahead of what we hunted with even 10 years ago. We have discovered chinks in the armor of the turkey gobbler that allow us to kill him when he is normally not killable. Strutter decoys, fanning, reaping and popup blinds can make the grand bird look like a total fool. We have guns and ammunitions that are sometimes deadly at 70 yards and some hunters willing to try that shot. My question is: “Where do we draw the line on how far we are willing to go to kill a turkey?”
At this point it is time for me to do some outdoor writer stuff and add a little fluff, warm and fuzzy to what has so far been a doom and gloom read. I have hunted turkeys for six decades. When I started, simply hearing a gobbler was a monumental feat. Killing one was front page of the local newspaper material except you didn’t even tell your best friend for fear of losing your secret hunting spot.
I was fortunate to have a Dad who taught me the basic old school yelp three times, wait 30 minutes then yelp three times style of turkey hunting. Nobody knew any other way. He didn’t have camouflage clothing, made his own calls and shot an old Winchester model 12 that he trusted to 35 yards. Nobody taught him how, he learned on his own and shared that with me.
Somewhere along our life journey everyone at that round table discussion decided he or she knew enough about turkey hunting to share it with any and everybody who would listen, read or watch. And share we did. People who never dreamed of chasing wild turkeys started and they shared it again. Manufacturers saw the opportunity and began building better camouflage, guns, calls and ammunition. We learned yelp three times, wait 30 minutes and yelp again was boring. Cut and run was more exciting and produced more stories, videos and kills. When our tags were filled we grabbed less experienced hunters and helped them learn how to make turkeys flop. Through it all there were more turkeys each year and life was good. More hunters produced more revenue for state agencies through license sales and matching federal funds. More hunters produced higher sales and profits for equipment manufacturers . More hunters meant growing membership sales for organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation and still there were more turkeys.
Then one day somebody noticed something had changed. In some areas there were not as many turkeys as the year before. There were fewer gobbles on cool, clear April mornings and more hens wandering around in June without a compliment of poults.
In many areas of our country turkey populations are still at all time highs. If that is you, God bless you and your turkeys, but what if these concerns are neglected and start affecting your turkeys?
Again, we are not here to tell you what to do or how to hunt. You are hunters and you are responsible for the miraculous comeback of these grand birds. You know what is right and what is wrong. You are hunters and you know the situation in the area you hunt. Our goal is to ask the right questions. If we have done that and only one of these questions is answered and addressed correctly we have made a difference. Imagine that all these are the right questions and they are answered and addressed correctly. Who’s to say the best days of turkey hunting are behind us? You are hunters and only you can force the scientific, moral, ethical, and political changes needed to accomplish the goal of reversing a perfect storm that is currently wreaking havoc on wild turkeys in some areas. If not you, if not hunters, then who???
PHOTO CREDIT: Cody Leonard