My 2023 spring turkey campaign lasted seven weeks, during which I hunted 27 days in four states including Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, and Nebraska. I called up birds for family and friends, filled a few tags myself, and lost the chess match more often than not. I was encouraged by the number of gobblers I saw and heard in some places this year, concerned by the lack of it in others, and as always, it all went by way too fast. Here are my top three takeaways from this turkey season, in no particular order.
1. There’s Good News in the Southeast
By now, most states in the Southeast have responded to declining turkey populations by imposing at least some stricter hunting regulations ranging from reduced bag limits and shorter, later seasons, to putting jakes off limits, to prohibitions on using decoys and fans. It seems like some of that may be working—especially in concert with the past few warm, dry springs that have been favorable for poult production.
This year, I heard more gobbling and saw more turkeys at home in Kentucky and in Tennessee than I have in years, and friends in places like south Alabama and South Carolina reported the same. Early harvest results in some states bear it out, too. Arkansas reported their best spring gobbler harvest since 2017—a tally that was up by 21 percent from 2022 (it’s worth noting that Arkansas has a later season than in years past, and jakes are now off limits). Kentucky hunters shot more gobblers than they have since 2010. Kentucky has always had a conservative framework compared to other southern states (a two-bird bag limit and mid-April opener), but they did impose some new regulations this year, too, including a one-bird limit per WMA.
Though the season just ended in Tennessee, a quick look at the Region 1 (where I hunt) harvest results so far shows the highest number of turkeys taken since 2020 (a harvest that was driven by heavy hunting pressure during the COVID lockdowns). The 2023 Tennessee season opened two weeks later than it traditionally had, and the bag limit is now two birds, compared to four in 2020.
To be clear, I’m not saying “problem solved” in the Southeast—but it’s nice to have some good news from the heart of turkey country.
2. Northern, Western Hunters are Concerned
Six years ago, when I’d mention the South’s declining turkey populations to friends in the North and in the Midwest, the response was often, “What are you talking about? There are turkeys everywhere here.”
But this spring, some of my buddies in New York—who had tales of toms in every pasture a few springs ago—are struggling to hear a bird or see a strutter at all. Turkeys also seem to have disappeared from some areas of Nebraska and Kansas, both of which were former hotspots for traveling hunters. Now, those states (and others, like Oklahoma) have reduced bag limits and put caps on the number of turkey permits sold to nonresident hunters.
This was my 13th season of traveling to hunt in Nebraska. Anecdotally, the farms I’ve hunted for the past several years still had plenty of turkeys, and a good crop of 2-year-olds. But this year, in three full days of hunting, I saw just three jakes, far and away the fewest I’ve ever seen out there. Local farmers I spoke with are concerned, too, not just over the lack of birds in the spring, but by the diminished size of the winter flocks, which are highly visible in prairie country. “Used to be nothing to see 200 turkeys in the creek bottoms in January,” one landowner told me. “This year there were 30 or 40.”
3. The Turkey Hunting Culture is Changing, Mostly for the Better
I wrote my first story on declining turkey populations in 2017, and the topic has dominated the turkey hunting discussion every year since. I’ve interviewed countless biologists, read tomes of research, listened to podcasts, and taken close note of what I’ve seen with my own two eyes. The declines have been blamed on predators, habitat loss, rain, drought, herbicide, chicken manure, diseases, and the natural ebb and flow of turkey populations that have reached carrying capacity. I think all of those things have an impact, but we’ve been shooting too damn many turkeys, too. The allure of turkey hunting has risen alongside a proliferation of new gear and tactics that make it easier to kill them including hyper-realistic decoys, ground blinds, reaping, and tungsten super shot.
In the past couple years, though, particularly in the Southeast, there’s been a pumping of the brakes, so to speak, driven not so much by state agencies and changing laws, but by concerned turkey hunters. Most are about my age (40) or a little older, and remember the heyday of the early 2000s, when turkey populations were at their zenith. We also remember the classic tactic of setting up 30 yards from a hill in the timber, calling a gobbler to the edge of it, and shooting him when he came within sight, no decoys or blind required. It seems many veterans are once again embracing that classic style of hunting, and a mindset of, “It’s fine to let the bird win.”
In addition to that, there’s a renewed interest in land and habitat management for turkeys. I’ve never seen more people into trapping in my lifetime, and most of my hunting buddies are very careful not to overhunt the birds they have on their private farms and leases. In 27 days of hunting, I carried decoys maybe four times. And for the third year in a row, I purposely left tags unfilled in Kentucky and Tennessee. I still had a great season.
That shift in turkey hunting culture is a good thing in general that’s bound to help turkey flocks in the same way that a quality deer management mindset improved the age structure of whitetail herds across much of the country. A shift in perspective from hunters can be way more effective than hunting regulations. But I want to add a word of caution here. Some hunters, southern hunters in particular, are treating the “new culture of old-school ethics” as an excuse to brow beat other hunters who dare to sit ground blinds, use decoys, or crawl behind fans. They act as though anyone who hasn’t run a trap line in the winter hasn’t earned the right to hunt gobblers in the spring. A similar perversion of QDM lead to the big-antler obsession that brought out the worst in deer hunters a decade ago.
I consider myself a conservative turkey hunter who rarely hunts with decoys, who stays on southern public land 80 percent of the time, and who plants food plots, conducts prescribed burns, and traps more predators than most in the off-season. But let me be clear: I shot a bird out of a food plot from a ground blind this spring. I crawled up on one in Nebraska with a fan, too. I go turkey hunting with plans of killing turkeys, and despite having 27 days to hunt this season, I needed to lean on those “low-brow” tactics a couple times to get my birds. Maybe that means I’m just not as good as you. Whatever. Who am I, or anyone else, to criticize the guy or gal who only gets to hunt on weekends and doesn’t have the time to run a trapline? Let’s knock that sh*t off by next spring before it becomes a problem.
Gear I Used and Loved This Turkey Season
Kuiu Attack Pants
If you need high-end hunting pants that’ll last for years, Kuiu’s classic Attack pant is one of the best. They’re water and abrasion resistant, and heavy enough to provide comfortable warmth on chilly spring mornings, but have zippered vents to keep you cool on warm afternoons. I wore a pair all season long. $149
Realtree Crater Valley Sweater Fleece
This mid-weight top is called a ¼ zip jacket, but it’s a sweater that I wore almost every morning of this year’s turkey season. It’s lightweight but warm, quiet, and surprisingly waterproof, with a chest pocket that’s in the perfect place for your phone. If you can get a better hunting sweater for $55, I haven’t seen it.
Apex 2 ¼-oz. 12-Gauge 3-inch TSS Turkey Load
Many serious turkey hunters shoot Apex Ammunition because it performs well and is more affordable than many TSS factory loads. My 12-gauge shoots the 2 ¼-ounce load of No. 8 TSS, their best-selling 3-inch shell, exceptionally well. At 1,190 fps., it kicks on both ends, but gobblers hit with it inside 50 yards (as far as anyone should be shooting) don’t get up. $62.99
Federal Premium Heavyweight TSS .410
Good TSS shells allow my 9-year-old son to use his CVA Scout .410 to great effect on gobblers without getting pummeled by recoil. Anse shot three birds this spring with Federal’s Heavyweight .410 TSS turkey load, which has 13/16 ounces of No. 9 shot. Though the gun and shell are capable of killing them from farther, we keep his shots inside 30 yards, and he’s never had to shoot a bird twice. $43
Lacrosse Ursa MS Boots
I much prefer lightweight, lace-up hunting boots to knee boots when I’m turkey hunting. I spent all season in LaCrosse’s new 7-inch Ursa MS boots, which are designed for the back country, but certainly not overbuilt for southern hills and hollers. I have them good and broken in for elk season this fall now, too. They’re waterproof, breathable, comfortable, and abrasion resistant.