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Outdoors: Time for turkey hunting

By John N. Felsher

In the early 19th century, millions of wild turkeys populated the vast, unbroken forests of eastern North America, but fewer than 100,000 remained by 1900.

From after the Civil War until the early 20th century, timber companies rapidly slashed through virgin swamps and old-growth forests. The prevalent “cut out and get out” philosophy of the time turned once-verdant turkey habitat into little more than scarred clear cuts. Seeing fewer turkeys in remaining habitat, sportsmen demanded stringent hunting regulations to protect the bird that Benjamin Franklin wanted to make our national symbol. In addition, state and federal governments began enforcing more environmental laws to preserve remaining forests. By the 1940s, turkey populations slowly rebounded.

“In 1940, we only had about 11,000 turkeys in Alabama,” says Jeff Macemson of the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division in Tuscaloosa. “Now, we have about 500,000. In 1963, we had 44,942 turkey hunters in the state. Now, we have about 55,000 hunters who harvest more than twice as many birds as they did in 1963. During the 2013 season, hunters harvested about 45,300 turkeys.”

About 40 years ago, just seeing a turkey track practically made the evening news. Growing up hunting ducks and small game, we didn’t know much about wild turkeys. For his first car, my brother bought a beat-up 1964 Ford Falcon. Built like a Sherman tank, it could go anywhere, making it an excellent hunting vehicle. Being the ONLY vehicle available to us also made it an excellent hunting vehicle!

With that car, we frequently cruised rough logging roads, crisscrossing forests to look for game in the early 1970s. That old Falcon squeaked and rattled terribly. However, it apparently emitted a certain squeak that turkeys liked, or at least found interesting. Whenever we drove the Falcon through the timber company lands, turkeys appeared. When the squeaky car rattled up a bird, we stopped, grabbed our shotguns and began running through the woods after the very surprised fowl.

Of course, that never worked. However, I did almost get a shot at one gobbler that flew up into a tree. Focusing on the bird and racing to get into range, I didn’t notice the briar patch looming rapidly in my direction until I made a rather abrupt stop in its thorny vines. I never got a shot at that bird – or any other — but I think it fell out of the tree laughing!

A conservation success story

Today, Alabama sportsmen don’t need to try as hard to find birds. The state, in conjunction with private organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Alabama Wildlife Federation and landowners with suitable turkey habitat, restocked turkeys. Decades ago, biologists captured wild birds by shooting nets from cannons over the flocks and released the birds into unoccupied habitat.

“The restoration of the wild turkey in Alabama and across the nation is one of the greatest conservation success stories,” Macemson says. “Many local NWTF chapters and other very supportive conservation groups helped us tremendously. Now, we have turkeys in all 67 counties. It’s a great time to be a turkey hunter in Alabama.”

While most Alabama sportsmen hunt private lands, many public areas offer excellent opportunities. Established in 1937, Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Area stretches across 44,500 acres of Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties. Choccolocco WMA in Cleburne County covers 56,858 acres and dates to 1940. In northwest Alabama, Freedom Hills WMA covers 31,828 acres of Colbert County. All of these areas hold good turkey populations.

“At the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Oakmulgee is one of the most scenic areas in the state,” Macemson says. “It’s primarily longleaf pines on the ridges, hardwoods in the bottoms and a mix of pine and hardwoods in transitional areas. In the Appalachians of east-central Alabama, Choccolocco is mostly hilly pine stands with some mature hardwoods in the bottoms. Freedom Hills WMA has diverse habitat with a lot of mature hardwoods and some pine thickets.”

The Black Belt Region, a well-watered fertile swath, extends across 23 central Alabama counties. Several Black Belt areas provide good turkey hunting. Barbour WMA includes 28,199 acres in Barbour and Bullock counties.

“Black belt soil is rich, dark soil that creates good habitat to support an abundance of wildlife,” says Pam Swanner, project director for Black Belt Adventures in Montgomery. “The Black Belt consistently produces some of the best hunting in Alabama. Deer is the most popular game animal, but the best turkey hunting in the state also occurs in the Black Belt region. Alabama has more eastern wild turkeys per square mile than any other state.”

In southern Alabama, Blue Springs WMA includes 24,783 acres in Covington County. Near Mobile, the Upper Delta WMA spreads across 42,341 acres of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. It holds turkeys, but high water in the spring can make hunting the swamp difficult at times.

Sportsmen may bag one gobbler per day and five per season. Turkey season opens March 15 and runs through April 30 across most of Alabama, but differs in some counties. In addition, seasons and regulations may vary on some public properties, so check the regulations before hunting.

For more information on turkey hunting in Alabama, see www.outdooralabama.com.