What are the true long-term effects of a poor hatch? Here's a look at reality vs. perception.
by Brian Lovett
Matt Egge and I stared through the window of our portable blind, somehow hoping the huge thunderstorm to our west would slip past before fly-down time.
No such luck.
Within minutes, our early-morning hunt had turned into an unwanted adventure. Egge and I held the blind so it wouldn't blow across the corn-stubble field, watched rivers of water rush under our feet and wondered which nearby oak would be struck first by lightning.
It didn't stop there. During the next few days, several inches of rain swamped much of southwestern Wisconsin, turning yards into marshes and drainages to roaring streams. The wet weather continued through the last week of May and into early June, causing many of Wisconsin's turkey hunting faithful to fear for that spring's hatch.
Two years later, during Spring 2006, those fears seemed to be realized. From Egge's stomping grounds in Wisconsin's coulee country to the woods and swamps of central Wisconsin, turkey hunters complained of tough going.
Conventional wisdom held that the Spring 2004 rains had crippled the hatch, so there were relatively few 2-year-old gobblers in 2006, leaving most hunters to chase henned-up older turkeys or, in many cases, shoot jakes.
And although that seems logical, it begged the question of whether hunters experienced a true "missing year-class" or merely made excuses for difficult hunting.
Although the generation-gap phenomenon might seem unprecedented through much of turkey range, hunters in some regions -- especially Texas -- have documented it for years.
"Central and western Texas turkeys have a special problem of almost no reproduction in dry years and much reproduction -- of turkeys, quail, etc. -- in wet years," said Lovett E. Williams Jr., a noted turkey biologist and contributing editor to Turkey & Turkey Hunting.
Typically, two years after a dry spring, Texas hunters notice a decrease in hunting success. Two-year-old birds are scarce, and older gobblers seem to be henned up constantly. Further, if there was a good hatch the previous spring, jakes seem to do much of the gobbling, especially after flydown.
Although other regions don't experience such distinct boom-or-bust year-classes, hatch success certainly fluctuates throughout the country.
"Major causes [of a poor hatch] are usually a combination of wet and cool weather," said Andrea Mezera, assistant upland wildlife ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "In 2004, we had a significant amount of rainfall and flooding in Wisconsin. This happened during both the nesting season and the brood-rearing season. Wet weather during the hatching and early poult-production time can have detrimental effects on brood success because young poults are not able to thermoregulate their body temperature well.
"Our brood count showed in 2004 that we had [fewer] broods, and the average brood size also decreased. 2004 was still above our long-term mean, but the cool, wet weather we experienced that year did have an impact on overall brood success."
After especially poor hatches, it seems reasonable that subsequent hunting success might suffer for a year or two.
"In 2005, I heard that hunting was more difficult from hunters [because] we had many adults in the population and fewer jakes," Mezera said. "The assumption that many of the older birds are henned up and generally 'wiser' makes for a more difficult hunt."
Still, perception doesn't always equate to fact, and Williams isn't convinced.
"I guess that can happen, at least hypothetically," Williams said. "But I can't say I've observed it in Florida or know about it anywhere else. This issue ... is hypothetically OK, but it would take a good study to get to the truth.
"The real bottom line would be in the statistics, based on a good survey of how many man-hours it took in Year A vs. Year B to kill a gobbler. ... Anything else is mostly speculation."
As Williams suggested, harvest numbers provide some insight into the year-class-gap idea.
Although reports of tough hunting were common during Wisconsin's Spring 2006 season, DNR data suggests "tough" was a relative term.
In Spring 2006, Wisconsin hunters received 200,725 tags and shot 46,662 turkeys, for a success rate of about 23.25 percent. In Spring 2004, the state issued 186,625 tags, and hunters shot a record 47,477 birds; a success rate of about 25.44 percent. In Spring 2005, hunters had 193,826 tags and killed 46,183 turkeys; a success rate of about 23.83 percent. The harvest decrease from 2004 to 2006 was 815 turkeys -- a mere 1.72 percent. The hunter success rate from 2004 to 2006 decreased just 2.2 percent, so it seems the bottom line -- harvest -- wasn't hurt much by the poor 2004 year-class.
However, further data suggest that the poor Spring 2004 year-class affected hunting somewhat -- or at least it affected hunter selection.
The percentage of adult gobblers in the Spring 2005 harvest was a record 87 percent, and jakes represented only 12 percent. In 2006, the gobbler-to-jake harvest ratio was 72 percent to 27 percent, which is also the long-term average.
"I would say this decrease of jakes in the  harvest was definitely a result of the poor brood success in 2004," Mezera said. "The increased 2006 jake harvest and lower adult gobbler harvest was a combination of more jakes being available and fewer 2-year-olds in the population."
Minnesota also had a wet Spring 2004, and its harvest numbers showed a similar trend, according to Sharon Goetz, wild turkey biologist for the Minnesota DNR.
Juveniles comprised only 10 percent of turkeys harvested in Spring 2005, down significantly from 23 percent in 2003, 20 percent in 2004 and 29 percent in 2006. Overall hunter success in Spring 2005 was 28 percent, which was down slightly from 34 percent in 2003, 33 percent in 2004 and 30 percent in 2006.
Of course, outside of harvest figures, the question of how much a poor hatch hurts hunting remains open to interpretation. Most state game agencies don't record data that quantifies difficult hunting -- such as the amount of gobbling, hunter hours afield or, of course, the amount of time gobblers spend with hens. Therefore, a large gray area remains between fact and myth.
Williams believes hunters often rely more on perception than science.
"I find here in Florida that there are often conflicting opinions among hunters about how good the hunting was in any particular year and also, in some years, a certain level of agreement about the gobbling level," he said. "If you kill your limit and hear that a few other [hunters] have, too, it's easy to project that on the entire season everywhere. If you don't, and you hear from a few others to that effect, it makes a good excuse to blame the turkeys in some way or some act of God."
However, Williams acknowledged that having more gobbling turkeys in an area -- in this case, 2-year-olds -- provides more opportunity for average hunters.
"I think the 'toughness' of hunting has a lot to do with personal hunting skills of the hunter," he said. "A really good hunter -- on the highly experienced guide level -- could kill the last turkey in the woods in a few days of hunting. You really don't need to contact but one or two gobblers if you know what you are doing. Of course, the more chances a less-experienced hunter gets to screw up and stil l hunt another gobbler, the better his chances. That's probably where having a lot of gobbling comes into the picture with the individual. So for the less-skilled hunter, I would say hunting will be decidedly more successful if there are a lot of gobblers. The chances of getting lucky are greater."
One element of the year-class-gap phenomenon is certain: Poor hatches are just blips on the radar and don't spell trouble for turkey numbers.
"If there were multiple years of poor hatches, there could start to be a long-term impact on the population," Goetz said. "However, I would say annual fluctuations in turkey productivity are normal depending on spring weather."
"Proper management ensures that these poor hatches will not have a long-term effect on the overall population," Mezera said. "Wisconsin has been lucky. We have had several consecutive years of great production that led up to 2004. Therefore, our population was able to recover quickly."
Williams said even several poor hatches wouldn't be cause for alarm.
"The turkeys in any population would require at least four years of complete reproductive failure to really hit the bottom," he said. "Turkeys don't live long. Populations effectively turn over every four years. Anything wrong with the age-class structure would quickly correct itself unless complete failure occurred."
In fact, after the relatively tough Spring 2006 season, prospects are already looking up in Wisconsin.
"So far, it looks like we should have good brood success this year," Mezera said.
"Weather has been favorable. It's quite possible that hunters may notice a difference in gobbling and/or success rates in 2007. Our population keeps expanding and growing ... which means more opportunity for hunters."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Brian Lovett's latest book, Hunting Pressured Turkeys, offers 195 pages of advice for going after the most challenging gobblers. You can order a signed copy for $19.95 plus $4 shipping at firstname.lastname@example.org.