S.C. spring wild turkey season set to open earlier than usual

New season dates and bag limits will usher in the spring turkey hunting season, which starts Sunday on private land in South Carolina.
New season dates and bag limits will usher in the spring turkey hunting season, which starts Sunday on private land in South Carolina. Courtesy of S.C. DNR

South Carolina’s spring wild turkey hunting season opens Sunday on private land, earlier than hunters have been accustomed to over the years in the Palmetto State.

The early start is part of legislation passed by the South Carolina Legislature in 2015 that in essence has lengthened the season and reduced the bag limit for the season.

The changes are:

▪ The season dates are now March 20 through May 5 for all private lands in the state. In previous years the dates were April 1 through May 1, except for 12 counties in the Lowcountry, where the season started on March 15. The change adds 16 days for hunters to take gobblers on private land.

However, on the Wildlife Management Areas where turkey hunting is allowed, the season will still open on April 1, but will close four days later on May 5.

▪ The statewide bag limit previously was five gobblers per hunter per season but has been reduced to three gobblers per hunter with no more than two taken in one day.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Chip Campson, III, R-Charleston and Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, is restricted by a three-year “Sunset Clause,” meaning in three years the previous season dates and limits will again be put in place, unless the state legislature decides to change them.

“We’ll see how this goes,” said Charles Ruth, Deer and Wild Turkey Program coordinator for S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “There was some concern from DNR staff on this change. It’s safe to say there was concern with some legislators with that Sunset Clause (being included in the legislation).”

S.C. DNR’s concern is with the longer season but is in favor of the decreased bag limit, considering the state’s turkey population is currently about 35 percent below record levels from around the turn of the century.

“We’ve heard from a lot of (hunters), and they understand the reduction of the bag limit,” Ruth said. “But if you’re going to try to save some birds why give people more days (to hunt)? We’ve been interested in reducing the bag limit for a decade now.”

Still, Ruth is unsure how much effect reducing the bag limit to three gobblers will have on the total number harvested, noting that only about three percent of turkey hunters in the state kill more than three birds each season.

“Only about three percent of hunters annually killed more than three birds, but as a group that three percent combined to kill about 25 percent of all turkeys (harvested),” Ruth said. “The other 97 percent of hunters are killing the other 75 percent. By reducing the bag limit, you’re not going to affect many hunters.”

Ruth says the agency will use the three-year period to do an extensive study on wild turkeys in the state.

“(The legislature has) instructed us to come back to them after studying the situation,” Ruth said. “It’s going to be one of the best studies in the Southeast ever on the timing of gobbling and the timing of nesting. That’s what setting the opening date of spring turkey season is all about.

“You’ve got to let them reproduce but at the same time you’ve got to give hunters the opportunity to hunt when the frequency of gobbling is high.”

As for the 2016 hunting season, Ruth considers the outlook to be fair in most areas of the state.

“I don’t have much doubt it’s going to be a better season than last year,” Ruth said. “The die was cast in 2013, which was the worst reproduction year we’d ever seen.

“Most of the hunters make their living on two-year old gobblers. The 2-year old birds this year were hatched in 2014 and 2014 was a better reproductive year than 2013.”

Ruth also pointed out the state’s gobbler-to-hen ratio is .50, which means there are two hens for every gobbler.

“The No. 1 stumbling block to spring turkey hunters is hens,” Ruth said. “They thwart hunters’ attempts to mimic a hen. The chances are a gobbler isn’t going to leave a hen to investigate something that sounds like a hen, which is the hunter.”

Gregg Holshouser: g.holshouser@aol.com