Wildlife - Wild Turkeys

2021 Turkey Harvest Report Wild Turkey

The 2021 Turkey Harvest Report is provided in (PDF) format.


Ranking only behind white-tailed deer in popularity among hunters, the Eastern wild turkey is an important natural resource in South Carolina. The 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey represents the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), Wildlife Section's ongoing commitment to conduct pertinent research related to the state's wild turkey population. The primary objectives of this survey research were to obtain valid estimates of; (1) the statewide spring gobbler harvest in 2021, (2) the harvest of gobblers in the constituent counties of the state, and (3) hunting effort related to turkeys. Information on hunter's opinions of the turkey resource and other aspects of turkey hunting are also presented.

Due to the importance of turkeys as a state resource, SCDNR believes that accurately assessing the harvest of turkeys, as well as hunter participation in turkey hunting, is key to the management of this species. Proposed changes in turkey-related laws and regulations should have foundations in biology, therefore, the population dynamics associated with annual hunting mortality cannot be ignored. Similarly, when issues arise that do not involve biological parameters, it is important to have information related to turkey hunter activities afield because they too form an important basis for managing wild turkeys.

Since the inception of the Statewide Turkey Restoration and Research Project (Turkey Project) the methods used to document the turkey harvest have changed. Historically, turkey harvest figures were developed using a system of mandatory turkey check stations across the state. This system yielded an actual count of harvested turkeys and was, therefore, an absolute minimum harvest figure. Shortcomings in this system included deterioration in compliance, complaints from hunters regarding the inconvenience of check stations, etc. The requirement to physically check harvested turkeys in South Carolina was eliminated following the 2005 season at which time post season hunter surveys were implemented. The 2021 spring season marked the inaugural year of SC Game Check and electronic harvest reporting for turkeys. With this, SCDNR has two sources of harvest data for comparison. It should be noted that although reporting is mandatory, noncompliance by some hunters should be expected. Rates of noncompliance will be estimated using the post season survey and due to noncompliance, figures obtained from the survey will likely be higher than those from electronic harvest reporting.

Survey Methodology

The 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey represented a random mail survey that involved a single mail-out. The questionnaire for the 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey was developed by Wildlife Section personnel (Figure 1). The mailing list database was constructed by randomly selecting 30,000 individuals who received a set of 2021 Turkey Transportation Tags which are required to hunt turkeys in South Carolina. Data entry was completed by Data Dash, Inc., Farmington, Missouri.

Results from the mail survey were corrected for nonresponse bias using data collected by Southwick Associates, Fernandina Beach, Florida using a Computer Assisted Telephone Interview program (CATI).

Statistical analysis was conducted using Statistix 10 (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL).

Results and Discussion

Turkey Harvest

During the 2021 spring season it is estimated that a total of 13,032 adult gobblers and 1,033 jakes were harvested for a statewide total of 14,065 turkeys (Table 1). This figure represents little change from the estimated harvest in 2020 (14,044). Although harvest estimates for 2020 and 2021 are virtually identical there are significant differences in how this occurred. Turkey hunter numbers and effort are discussed later in this report, however, certain details bear mentioning that may help explain how similar figures are quite different. For example, far fewer hunters participated in the 2020 season compared to 2021, however, man-days of effort per hunter was greater in 2020 than in 2021. It is believed that the effects of COVID-19 decreased hunter numbers in 2020 but increased hunter effort for those hunters who participated. Hunter numbers where much greater (19%) in 2021 as was total effort (15%). Thus, although the harvest estimates are similar it required more hunters and total effort to arrive at the same number of harvested turkeys in 2021.

The 2021 spring season was the inaugural year of SC Game Check and electronic harvest reporting for wild turkeys. Therefore, SCDNR now has two sources of harvest data for comparison. There were 9,797 turkeys reported through SC Game Check with an additional 82 birds that were attempted but unsuccessfully reported via the telephone method bringing the total to 9,879. Although reporting is mandatory there will always be lack of compliance by some proportion of hunters. To estimate noncompliance a question was included on the hunter survey asking hunters who indicated they killed a turkey(s) "Did you report your harvest to SC Game Check?". Results indicate that 34 percent of hunters did not report their harvest. Using this as a correction factor increases the figure that should have been reported through SC Game Check to approximately 13,300 turkeys, only about 5 percent below the harvest estimate of 14,065 birds from the post season survey.

Finally, with respect to the preseason youth turkey hunting weekends, by law youth hunters are not required to possess turkey tags. Reporting through SC Game Check is dependent on reporting the use of a tag; therefore, reporting was impossible for youth hunters who did not have tags. Reporting data indicates that about 50 youth hunters who had tags reported their harvest, however, it is expected that 300 to 500 turkeys were harvested during the preseason youth turkey hunting weekends. If this is the case, then what should be the "reported harvest" compared to the harvest estimated by the survey is less than a 5 percent difference. This analysis provides strong support for the accuracy of the traditional post season survey in estimating the number of turkeys taken annually in South Carolina.

In any event, recent turkey harvest figures remain well below levels from the past reflecting decreased numbers of turkeys likely due to ongoing poor recruitment of poults into the population. This trend appears to be a regional situation and has been called the "southeast turkey decline" by biologists and managers. The percentage of jakes in the 2021 harvest was 7 percent based on reports through SC Game Check and the post season survey as well. This is an extremely low percentage of jakes in the harvest and was the second lowest on record only behind that from 2020 (5%). Low jake harvests are usually indicative of poor recruitment the previous year. This lends credence to the notion that the ongoing negative trends in harvest are related to poor annual recruitment. /p>

Harvest Per Unit Area County Rankings

Comparisons can be made between turkey harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of turkeys taken per square mile (640ac. = 1 mile2). When considering the estimated turkey habitat that is available in South Carolina, the turkey harvest rate in 2021 was 0.6 gobblers per square mile statewide (Table 2). Although this harvest rate is not as high as it once was, it should be considered good and is like other Southeastern states. The top 5 counties for harvest per unit area were Spartanburg (1.5 turkeys/mile2), Fairfield (1.3 turkeys/mile2), Pickens (1.3 turkeys/mile2), Cherokee (1.0 turkeys/mile2), and Abbeville (0.9 turkeys/mile2) (Table 2).

Turkey Harvest Rankings by County

Total turkey harvest is not comparable among counties because there is no standard unit of comparison, i.e., counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, some readers may be interested in this type of ranking. The top 5 counties during 2021 were, Fairfield, Williamsburg, Spartanburg, Florence, and Horry (Table 3).

Number of Turkey Hunters

Even though all individuals receiving a set of Turkey Transportation Tags were eligible to hunt turkeys, only 64 percent indicated that they actually hunted turkeys. Based on this figure, approximately 51,492 hunters participated in the 2021 spring turkey season, a 19 percent increase from 2020 (43,164). It is important to note that the 2021 hunter number figure is more in line with figures prior to 2020 which were down substantially, likely due to travel restrictions and other issues associated with COVID-19 last year. Additionally, 2020 was year one of the new fee for turkey tags and there may have been some initial "pushback" from hunters. Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Fairfield, Newberry, Laurens, Spartanburg, and Union (Table 4) which were all in the top 5 counties in 2020.

Hunter Effort

For the purposes of this survey hunter effort was measured in days with one day being defined as any portion of the day spent afield. Turkey hunters averaged approximately 7.3 days afield during the 2021 season (Table 4). Successful hunters averaged significantly more days afield (10.5 days) than unsuccessful hunters (6.1 days). Extrapolating to the entire population of turkey hunters yields a figure of 308,551 total days of spring gobbler hunting, a 15 percent increase from 2020 (269,154 days).

As previously mentioned, in 2020 hunter numbers were down likely attributable to issues surrounding COVID-19, however, 2020 saw an increase in total hunter effort because there was increased effort by those who did hunt. Again, this may be attributable to COVID-19 and the notion that individuals who chose to hunt had more flexibility and time to hunt due to the "shutdown." During 2021 average days hunted were down slightly but hunter numbers were up substantially leading to the overall increase in effort. The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of turkey hunting during 2021 were Fairfield, Spartanburg, Newberry, Laurens, and Union counties (Table 4).

Turkey Harvest by Period of Season

Gobbling by male wild turkeys occurs primarily in the spring and is for the purpose of attracting hens for mating. Therefore, spring turkey hunting is characterized by hunters attempting to locate and call gobbling male turkeys using simulated hen calls. With respect to both biology and quality hunting, the timing of the spring gobbler season should consider three primary factors: peak breeding, peak gobbling, and peak nest initiation. Considering these factors, seasons can be set to afford hunters the best opportunity to hunt during the best time (i.e., peak gobbling) without inhibiting reproductive success of hens.

A recent multi-year nesting study conducted in the lower coastal plain indicates that on average, hens do not initiate nesting until April 9. Gobbling studies conducted simultaneously to the nesting studies indicate peak gobbling occurs the first 10 days of April. The peak in gobbling is believed to coincide with nest initiation by hens because gobbling increases in response to decreased hen availability due to commencement of nesting activities.

The 2021 season marked the second year of a return to two spring turkey season frameworks in South Carolina. In Game Zones 1 and 2 which encompass the piedmont and mountains the season is now April 1 to May 10, whereas, in Game Zones 3 and 4 located in the coastal plain the season is March 22 to April 30. Based on the research, the April 1 season start date coincides more closely with the onset of nesting and peak gobbling. This should provide for improved reproductive success by hens because gobblers are not harvested too early, and it should also lead to improved hunting success because gobblers are not accompanied by as many hens due to onset of nesting. On the other hand, the March 22 season start date is nearly 3 weeks prior to peak nest initiation and prior to peak gobbling as well. That being the case, considerations should be given to potential effects on reproduction due to excessive early removal of males and decreased hunter success due to decreased gobbling and hunters competing with hens.

If seasons are set appropriately, the greatest proportion of turkeys should be harvested during the first week or 10 days of the season because increasing numbers of hens should be egg-laying or incubating resulting in gobblers that are naive and more responsive to hunters' calls. Harvest by period of season demonstrates that the timing of the April 1 opening date affords higher turkey harvests as most turkeys are harvested during the 10 days following the April 1 opening date (Figure 4).

When broken-out by specific season frameworks the results are similar. In areas where the season begins March 22, only 34 percent of the total harvest was accounted for during the first 10 days of the season (Figure 5). This is likely because late March is the time of peak breeding and males respond to hunters' calls less because hens are available. Hunters refer to this as gobblers being "henned-up." On the other hand, 46 percent of the harvest occurred during the first 10 days of the season in areas where the season begins April 1 (Figure 6). This is because by April 10 a significant number of hens are involved in nesting activities leaving gobblers "lonely" and more receptive to hunters' calls. These same trends were apparent prior to 2016 when there were split season in South Carolina with one framework beginning March 15 and the other April 1.

Hunting Success

For determination of hunting success only those individuals who hunted turkeys were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one turkey. Overall hunting success in 2021 was 28 percent (Figure 7). Unlike deer hunting which typically has high success, turkey hunting can be an inherently unsuccessful endeavor, relatively speaking

The statewide bag limit in South Carolina is 3 gobblers. Obviously, most successful hunters harvest only one or two birds. However, it is interesting to note the relative contribution to the total harvest of turkeys by the few hunters who harvest 3 birds. Ironically, the percentage of hunters taking 3 birds was only 2 percent, however, this small percentage of hunters harvested an estimated 23 percent of the total birds taken in the state (Figure 8). Finally, based on reports to SC Game Check, hunters from 36 states reported a turkey harvest. However, nonresidents comprised only 9 percent of the overall harvest in 2021.

Hunter Opinion Regarding Turkey Numbers

As has become customary, the 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey asked participants to compare the number of turkeys in the area they hunt most often with the number of turkeys in past years. Participants were given 3 choices: increasing, about the same, or decreasing. Approximately 45 percent of hunters indicated that the number of turkeys in the area they hunted most often was about the same as in past years. A higher percentage of hunters (43 percent) believed that the turkey population was decreasing than increasing (12 percent). On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being the same, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.3 suggests that hunters viewed the turkey population as decreasing. The opinion among hunters that the turkey population is decreasing has been consistent the last few years and this opinion reached an all-time high in 2021.

Turkeys Shot but not Recovered

Harvesting game signals the end of a successful hunt and although most hunters do a good job of preparing their equipment and mental state, it goes without saying that a certain percentage of game is shot or shot at and not killed or recovered. This point is no different when turkey hunting.

To estimate the prevalence of errant shots at turkeys, the 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to indicate the number of turkeys that they "shot but did not kill or recover during the 2021 season in South Carolina." Approximately 5 percent of hunters indicated that they shot but did not kill or recover at least one turkey in 2021 (9.7 percent in 2020). There were approximately 51,492 turkey hunters in 2021 meaning that approximately 2,563 turkeys were shot or shot at and not killed or recovered. Therefore, approximately 15 percent of the total turkeys shot at were not killed or recovered. These results have been consistent since this type of data have been available although this year's data was somewhat lower in terms of percent of birds "shot at but not killed or recovered" compared to previous years which have averaged about 22 percent for the last decade.

This data is certainly not indicative of "dead and unrecovered turkeys," however, some percentage of the 2,500 turkeys that were shot at did eventually die. Although shot shells for turkeys have become increasingly sophisticated, accurate, and lethal it is a fact that the pattern of a shotgun is relatively broad and contains hundreds of pellets. Therefore, a "clean miss" is not as clear-cut for turkeys compared to other big game like deer where there is typically a single projectile. Additional research is needed on this topic.

Turkey Harvest in the Morning vs. Afternoon

The typical spring turkey hunt is characterized by attempting to locate a gobbling bird prior to or just after sunrise. Once a gobbler is located most hunters position themselves as close as they can to the gobbler without scaring it away. Various types of callers that mimic the sounds of wild turkeys are then used to attempt to call the gobbler into gun range. This technique of locating a gobbling bird, setting up, and calling is repeated as necessary.

Traditionally, spring turkey hunting was primarily carried out during the first few hours of the day. As the popularity of turkey hunting has increased, many hunters now hunt in the afternoon as well. Gobblers are generally not as vocal in the afternoon, but can be stimulated to gobble using the various turkey calls, particularly late in the afternoon near areas where turkeys frequently roost. Additionally, it is now common for hunters to set up on food plots, often in blinds, using decoys in areas that turkeys frequent for feeding and loafing in the afternoon.

To gain a better understanding of the distribution of harvest with respect to time of day, the 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters to identify the number of birds harvested in the morning compared to the afternoon. Results indicate that approximately 79 percent of gobblers were harvested in the morning compared to 21 percent in the afternoon. This coincides with data reported through SC Game Check. These data may be useful if discussions arise concerning the relative importance of morning compared to afternoon harvest of gobblers in the spring. These results have been consistent since this type of data have been available although this year's data was somewhat lower in terms of afternoon harvest which has averaged about 24 percent for the last decade.

Turkey Harvest on Private vs. Public (WMA) Land

To gain an understanding of the relative importance of the turkey harvest on private versus public (WMA) land, the 2021 Turkey Hunter Survey asked hunters how many birds they took on the respective types of land. Data from both the survey and reports through SC Game Check indicate that approximately 91 percent of birds are taken on private land and 9 percent on public (WMA) land. Interestingly, public land comprises only about 7 percent of the turkey habitat in the state. Therefore, although a relatively small proportion of the total harvest occurred on public land, it slightly outperformed what would be expected based on available habitat.

The tables and graphs referred to in this report are provided in (PDF) format.

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