Carolinas’ turkey hunting preview for 2021 season

Derek Bowen killed his first turkey in his first year hunting them last spring in North Carolina’s Wake County. This beautiful tom sported an 11 1/2-inch beard.

It’s turkey time!

Turkey season is upon us in the Carolinas, with South Carolina’s season opening in the Lowcountry on March 22 — about the time the April issue of Carolina Sportsman Magazine arrives in the mailbox or on the newsstand — followed by the remainder of the state opening on April 1, including WMAs. North Carolina’s week-long youth season opens April 3, with the statewide season opening April 10.

Hunters in the two Carolinas had widely different seasons in 2020. And that’s left the biologists in charge of the their wild-turkey programs looking for a concrete reason to believe this spring will be different.

South Carolina’s harvest, which has been creeping downward since a high-water mark in 2002, took a 19% drop last year over 2019 numbers. But Charles Ruth, who heads up the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ wild-turkey program, has found a silver lining in what looks an awful lot like a dark cloud. He believes regulation changes, including season dates and fees for turkey tags, played a huge role in the decrease. Last year, South Carolina hunters could take only one gobbler in the first 10 days of the season — in whichever area they were hunting.

Several factors led to decline in SC harvest

“Our harvest was way off. But there was so much going on,” Ruth said. “We had Year 1 of a new season structure and bag limit change, fees for turkey tags. And we had COVID on top of that.

“I don’t know if the decline was a continuation of what we’ve been seeing, or because of all the new stuff. A 19% drop in one year is too much to be the dribble-down we’ve had over time. There were fewer hunters last year. The number of hunters was down 12%. But total man hours of hunting was up. So the ones that could go, really went. But our non-residents were down 50%

“This season may be a better season. There were more birds left in the woods. And our jake harvest last year was as low as it’s ever been. It wouldn’t surprise me if our harvest ticks up a few points from last year.

“Trying to explain that last year’s drop was because of a certain thing is not smart,” Ruth said. “We need to let it cycle through for another couple of years before we say we’re up or down or stable.”

North Carolina set records for harvest numbers in 2020

On the other side of the coin is Chris Kreh, wild-turkey project leader for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. He saw his state’s harvest destroy all previous records last spring — almost in the first week of the season. North Carolina hunters killed a record 22,426 birds, an increase of almost 17% over 2019.

Kreh said that, obviously, hunters spent a lot more time in the woods last spring because of COVID.

“I think the harvest increase was less a function of a big change in the number of birds we have, more of a big change in the number of hunters. That’s what drove our harvest numbers,” he said. “If you really look into it, the harvest was up all over the state, but it wasn’t equal. The largest increase was in the east and southeast — almost 50% in the southeast.

Kreh expects another good year for NC hunters

“That indicates we’ve got a lot of birds that, prior to last year, really didn’t see a lot of hunting pressure. Then, we got more hunters. I don’t think there are many places in North Carolina that have good turkey habitat that don’t have turkeys anymore, and numbers are still climbing in a few areas.”

The jake harvest was way up last spring; Kreh expected some kind of increase because the 2019 hatch was good. Percentage-wise, he said, there wasn’t a big change.

“I expect a good season,” Kreh said. “Two years ago, we had a good reproductive year, and those birds will be 2-year-olds this year. Last year, we had one of the worst hatches on record, so there shouldn’t be as many jakes out there this year.”

Carolinas’ 2021 Spring turkey seasons

South Carolina: Game Zones 3 & 4 (Lowcountry, PeeDee): March 22-April 1; Game Zones 1 & 2 (Upstate, Midlands): April 1-May 10; WMAs: April 1-30. Bag limits: 3 gobblers per season, no more than one per day, no more than one from April 1-10 on private land and WMAs in Game Zones 1 & 2. No more than one from March 22-31 on private land in Game Zone 3 & 4.

North Carolina: April 3-9, Youth season: April 10-May 8, statewide. Bag limit: two bearded birds per season, no more than one per day.

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Dan Kibler
About Dan Kibler 846 Articles
Dan Kibler is managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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