More than 50,000 hunters in South Carolina target wild turkeys in the spring. SCDNR photo/Jay Cantrell

South Carolina outdoorsmen have much to be thankful for around the Thanksgiving holiday season because of the many hunting opportunties and options available to them. But conspicuous by its absence from the list of wild game possibilities this time of year is the Eastern wild turkey, South Carolina's second most popular game animal behind the white-tailed deer. Turkey season is a springtime sport.

When asked why we don't hunt turkeys at Thanksgiving, Jay Cantrell, Assistant Big Game Program Coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said there isn't a short answer to the question.

"Historically, way back, it was a fall and winter thing. But somewhere in the '60s or '70s, it made that transition to a spring sport. That's something hunters prefer. That's when turkeys are breeding, the gobblers are gobbling and strutting and responsive to hens," Cantrell said.

"From a sporting standpoint, (a spring season) is more desirable for hunters. And it's better, too, in some respects from a biological standpoint. In the fall it's difficult to differentiate between male and female turkeys because young jakes don't look much different from a hen in the fall."

Cantrell said there was a period when South Carolina had both a fall and spring turkey hunting season, and some states still have fall seasons.

"It's also kind of a regulatory problem," Cantrell said of a fall season. "You can only tolerate so much fall hen harvest before it starts affecting the population. If you combine a pretty significant hen harvest in the fall with a bad hatch the following spring, you can really hit the population pretty hard. The way regulations are set, we would be setting regulations for the following spring before the fall season. If we had a big fall harvest, we couldn't make any adjustments for the spring season."

When South Carolina did allow fall turkey hunting, Cantrell said it would occur during a two-week break in the deer season that no longer exists. And hunting turkeys while also hunting deer would be problematic because baiting is allowed for deer hunting and turkeys are very susceptible to bait.

"It's not a simple answer," Cantrell said.

Wild turkeys can be found in all 46 South Carolina counties, the result of a turkey restoration project that dates back to the 1950s when wild turkeys were trapped in the Francis Marion National Forest and relocated to other parts of the state.

Cantrell said there were huge increases in population until about 2000, but since then the reproductive output and the harvest has been on a decline, a trend mirrored in most southeastern states.

"We still have a very huntable population," Cantrell said. "We still have places in the state that have plenty of turkeys and hunters, in general, are fairly successful. Turkey hunting is not a high success sport. A lot of it is about seeing birds, hearing birds.

"Turkey numbers are not terrible but not great. We don't need to stay on the same trajectory we're on. We need for things to level off or come up a little bit."

Cantrell said he thinks the trend can be reversed and the turkey population stabilized or increased. SCDNR recently completed a major four-year turkey research project in Hampton County and a report will soon be released to the public that will address the issue.

"This is a Southeast issue, not a South Carolina issue," Cantrell said of the turkey population decline. "Most states in the Southeast have experienced similar things, the last 10-15 years harvest numbers are coming down and reproductive output is coming down. At the same time hunter numbers are going up."

There are approximately 50,000 turkey hunters in South Carolina, a number that's been on a slight upward trend.

"It's a popular thing and it's gotten more popular over the last 10, 15, 20 years," Cantrell said. "There are more hunters and hunters that are doing it are more experienced and have gotten more efficient. Turkey hunting seems to be growing in popularity. We are not seeing a drop-off in hunter numbers."