Larry Turkeys 2

What happened to the turkeys?

Another turkey season has come and gone, leaving in its wake concerns about the drastic decline of birds in many areas.

My cousin Jerry Hedgecoth, a retired Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer and expert turkey hunter who once guided celebrity Irlene Mandrell on a successful hunt, failed to bag a turkey this season for the first time in over 40 years.

He hunted hard and didn’t even get a shot. Turkeys that once were plentiful on his land near the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area have virtually vanished.

When Jerry can’t kill a turkey, turkeys are scarce.

Lebanon’s Clarence Dies, one of a select few turkey hunters in the country to collect a World Slam, hunted all season and bagged one bird. He, like Jerry, seldom saw or heard a gobbler.

I failed to kill a turkey for the third consecutive season, after getting at least one a year for 30 years. I finally got tired of 3 a.m. wakeups and futile 100-mile drives, and gave up. I know other frustrated hunters who did likewise.

Turkey hunting without ever seeing a turkey gets tiring.

Hunters in a few areas were successful – hunting buddy Barry Stricklin bagged a three-gobbler limit – and the TWRA insists the statewide turkey population is stable.

A lot of hunters, me included, aren’t so sure. We worry that our turkeys are going the way of our quail, which continue a decades-long decline, and biologists have no idea why.

After years of research, they likewise don’t know what’s causing the turkey trouble.

I hunt on a farm in Giles County where turkeys once were thick as sparrows. For years I bagged a limit every spring, plus several bonus birds each fall.

About 10 years ago they began to vanish. I told a TWRA biologist, and he said it was my imagination. He said the turkeys were still there; I simply wasn’t seeing them. I knew that wasn’t the case, but didn’t argue.

A couple of years later the Agency admitted it was wrong. The turkeys in Giles were indeed vanishing. The fall season was discontinued, and the opening of spring season delayed to try to restore the population. It hasn’t worked.

The TWRA is trying hard to solve the turkey mystery. But it can’t find a cure until it finds the cause, and so far there’s no clue.

There are lots of nonsensical theories, such as the introduction of disease through farm-spread chicken manure. The glitch: turkeys vanished in areas where chicken manure has never been used.

Tennessee’s turkey tribulations come amid the steady spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, fatal to deer.

Although the neurological disease is not believed transmissible to humans, most hunters are hesitant to harvest a potentially-diseased deer. CWD will kill not only deer, but deer hunting.

Dealing with disappearing turkeys and diseased deer are the biggest challenges in the TWRA’s long history of game management. So far, solutions remain evasive.