Fall Turkey Hunting Preview 2021
The combined harvest between the 2020-21 Illinois Fall Gun and Fall Archery turkey seasons was 1,053. This harvest is a far cry from these two seasons 15 years ago when 1,945 birds were taken. Figure 1 illustrates the decline in harvest during the fall.
With wild turkey populations declining in many eastern states, and even in some counties in Illinois, it would be easy to conclude that a smaller population is the sole cause for declines in fall harvest. Also, because hunters can take birds of either-sex during the fall season, some may conclude that the fall seasons may be causing some population declines because hunters are taking too many hens. A deeper dive into our data reveals that these fears are largely unfounded.
Historically the Fall Gun Turkey Season was the most popular time to hunt wild turkeys for American hunters. A look at the trend in permit sales (Figure 2) for that season reveals that the interest in that season is waning considerably as fall hunters focus more on other fall seasons for deer, waterfowl and upland wildlife. For example, in 2020 there were 1,107 fall gun permits sold compared to 5,027 in 2007. Figure 2 details the decline in permit sales over time.
It is clear to see that as interest in this season has waned, harvest totals have followed suit. Harvest numbers in the Fall Gun season aren’t a reflection of smaller turkey populations because hunter effort is the main driver of the reduction in total harvest. Conversely, the allowance of fall gun hunters to take hens during this season is not resulting in reduced turkey populations. While it is true that hens often make up close to 50 percent of harvest in the fall, even at that percentage the counties with the highest hen harvest see very few taken each year. Most counties only harvest a handful or fewer. At the current levels, hen harvest is not high enough to effectively drive down reproductive success in any meaningful way.
While harvest in the Fall Gun season has been on a precipitous decline, take another look at the Fall Archery totals in Figure 1. Those totals have been relatively flat for the past 16 years and have even been increasing over the last five. Figure 3 illustrates the proportion of each season (Fall Gun vs Fall Archery) on the total harvest in the fall. As you can see, Fall Archery harvest has comprised about 50 percent or more of the fall total harvest every year since 2009. It is interesting that even as harvest in the Fall Archery season has remained static, and even increased during the last few years, permit sales have steadily declined. So, while there are fewer archery turkey hunters, more of them are successful.
Whether you choose to pursue fall turkeys with a shotgun or a bow, both seasons offer a lot of opportunity. Archery permits are available over-the-counter and are valid in every county. Gun permits are subject to quotas, but county quotas are never met. Many public hunting sites offer both archery and shotgun hunting in the fall. Check out www.huntillinois.org for more information on where to hunt for turkeys in the fall in your area.
Luke Garver is the Wild Turkey Project Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Resources.