Gobble, Gobble: Changes are coming to turkey hunting season in South Carolina

Changes are in store for the dates of the spring turkey hunting season in South Carolina.
Changes are in store for the dates of the spring turkey hunting season in South Carolina. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Turkeys will be the focus of both hunters and legislators in the Palmetto State this spring during the 2019 turkey season.

The South Carolina spring turkey season opens on March 20 and closes on May 5, but changes to the season dates are in store for future seasons.

Following a four-year study, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has made recommendations for changes to the dates of the spring turkey season, and the possibilities are in committee being considered by the South Carolina Legislature.

“(The study) was the most in-depth of its type to date in the Southeast on the timing of nesting by hens and gobbling by gobblers. and those are the two important parts of when you set your season,” said Charles Ruth, Big Game Program Coordinator for SCDNR.

The study came on the heels of a change in turkey season dates and limits that occurred in 2016. Those changes made by the S.C. Legislature were made with a caveat.

“(The season changes in 2016) had a Sunset Clause that will kick in after the 2019 season,” said Ruth. “Also as part of that legislation there was a requirement for S.C. DNR to study turkey season timing issues and report back to the legislature with recommendations in November 2018, which we have done.”

The changes in 2016 set an earlier March 20 start date after years of the season opening on either March 15 in Lowcountry counties or April 1 in the remainder of the state. The 2019 season marks the fourth, and likely final, season with the March 20 start date, with the season currently ending on May 5.

Following the study, S.C. DNR’s recommendations are to shorten the season overall, while moving the start and the end of the season later. The proposed season dates being considered in committee are April 10 to May 15.

Ruth points to the study’s findings for the recommendation of moving the season’s dates to later in the spring. Shortening the number of days in the season should slightly decrease the harvest, which was recommended in light of the decrease in the state’s turkey population in recent years. The state’s estimated turkey population 15 years ago was 150,000, but the current estimate is 120,000 turkeys.

“We still have a strong turkey population, we just don’t have as many as we did 15 years ago,” said Ruth. “We want to be going in a positive direction. More is better.”

A common train of thought among hunters is that the later starting date would cause hunters to miss out on peak gobbling by male turkeys.

Ruth doesn’t agree with that theory.

The study involved 50 sophisticated recording devices put in place for three months to assess the timing of gobbling, and was done in the very southern portion of the state by design.

“The research was done in Hampton and Jasper counties, where there is the earliest gobbling and nesting in the state,” said Ruth. “The tendency is the farther north you go, the later the gobbling and nesting is.”

In wake of the study, SCDNR staff had a handle on exactly when gobbling and thus nesting is at a peak, beginning in the state’s southernmost counties.

The conclusion was, in the estimation of SCDNR staff, that the March 20 starting date is too early and occurs well before the peak of gobbling.

“Based on our research we now know the current turkey season begins about three weeks before the average hen begins nesting activity,” said Ruth. “That was kind of the unknown, and that’s what you need to know to set that season. Some hunters will tell you if the season starts later that turkeys are no longer gobbling. We’ve proved that is incorrect with our research – it’s not debatable. We monitored over 400,000 gobblers and what changes gobbling is hunting and the disturbance of the remaining birds.

“We’re still going to have good gobbling like you do now (with the later start date). We’ve never experienced the true peak in gobbling because we started so early. The true peak of gobbling is in April and because we started hunting in March, it never reached a peak.

“You want hunters to have good gobbling activity but at the same time we have to allow hens to breed and to begin nesting to ensure turkeys into the future.”

Ruth expects a change in the season dates to be made during the 2019 legislative session. If the bill in some form isn’t approved, the season dates would revert back to the dates prior to 2016 (March 15 or April 1 to May 1).

So now, the fate of the season dates is in the hands of the S.C. Legislature.

“We’ve provided the recommendation, they’re deliberating and they will decide what will happen,” said Ruth. “It’s up to the legislature.”

CCU Fishing Seminar: Coastal Carolina University’s Saltwater Angler Club is hosting a varied saltwater fishing seminar Saturday on campus.

Tickets are $10 with students admitted free for the seminar which will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Brittain Hall on the CCU campus.

Topics will include inshore fishing, offshore fishing, bottom fishing and king mackerel fishing, with the seminars conducted by knowledgeable local captains.

Various fishing tackle including rod and reels will be awarded as door prizes and a Yeti cooler will be given away by raffle.

For more information, call 803-605-4745 or e-mail pbspradle@coastal.edu

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