Spring turkey season opens in two weeks (copy)

South Carolina’s spring turkey harvest for 2018 was down about 6 percent compared with 2017. File/Ray G. Foster/National Wild Turkey Federation

While remaining the state’s second most popular game animal (behind only white-tailed deer), South Carolina’s spring turkey harvest for 2018 was down about 6 percent  compared with 2017, according to the most recent S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey.

The survey was sent to 30,000 individuals who received a set of 2018 Turkey Transportation Tags, which are required in order to hunt turkeys in South Carolina. Based on the survey results, an estimated 16,145 adult gobblers and 1,794 jakes accounted for a total harvest of 17,939 birds in 2018, compared with 19,171 birds estimated taken in 2017. Approximately 50,772 hunters participated in the 2018 spring turkey season in South Carolina, versus 52,429 in 2017. While down, those numbers are still higher than they were in seasons prior to 2016.

“Keep in mind that legislative changes that went into effect in 2016 provided an earlier starting date and increased number of days in the turkey season in 34 of 46 South Carolina counties,” said SCDNR Assistant Big Game Program Coordinator Jay Cantrell. “The effect of this season change was a 50-percent increase in opportunity (days) for the majority (74 percent) of the state, so although the harvest was down slightly in 2018, the harvest under the three years of the new season framework has consistently been higher (18 percent) than in years prior to those changes.”

Unfortunately, it’s likely that this increase in harvest since 2016 is best explained by an increase in hunter effort (numbers of days hunted), rather than an increase in the overall turkey population, according to Cantrell. More hunter effort (which increased when the season was lengthened in 2016) can increase harvest numbers, to a point, regardless of the number of turkeys on the landscape.

Statewide, turkey production, however, as measured by the SCDNR’s annual Summer Turkey Survey, has been decreasing since before the new season was implemented. In fact, recruitment of new poults during the last five years has been the lowest of any five-year period since the harvest survey began in 1982. Typically, low recruitment is followed by decreasing harvest, and good recruitment is followed by increasing harvest. With recent turkey production being low, it seems clear that increased hunter effort, rather than increased turkey numbers, is the driving factor behind the increase in harvest that has accompanied the longer season

“Again, the new (in 2016) season dates increased opportunity for hunters in 34 of 46 counties by 50 percent,” added Cantrell, “and the data clearly indicates that hunters have taken advantage of that additional opportunity.”

According to the survey, the top counties for total turkey harvest in 2018 were Williamsburg, Berkeley, Orangeburg, Fairfield and Colleton. However, because counties vary in size, a better method of comparing harvests between counties is the harvest per unit area, turkeys harvested per square mile for example. Using this method, the most productive counties were Union, Spartanburg, Cherokee, Anderson, and Fairfield.

The average turkey hunter spent about six days in the field, with a success rate of about 23 percent in harvesting at least one gobbler. Hunter opinion on the turkey population in the mailed survey indicated that it was viewed as decreasing, and this opinion has been consistent the last few years.

The SCDNR has also begun a new voluntary online survey targeting “avid” turkey hunters in the state to help biologists better understand the dynamics behind these harvest numbers. As a group, these hunters spend more time afield during the turkey season and have a significantly higher success rate than the average participant in the mailed survey.

Through this augmented survey approach, SCDNR biologists hope to better understand the demographics, experiences, techniques and opinions of dedicated turkey hunter in South Carolina.

The information collected in both of these surveys, as well as biological and harvest data, will help biologists evaluate trends and make more informed management recommendations with the ultimate goal of maintaining sustainable, quality turkey hunting into the future.