Josh Rouse: Kansas hunters could see more turkeys during the spring season. Here's why.

Josh Rouse
Topeka Capital-Journal
Topekan Braden Reddick, 13, fans out a turkey he shot on April 3 east of Ozawkie during the Kansas youth spring turkey season with his father, Andy, and grandfather, Marty. The tom weighed 23 pounds and had a 10 1/2-inch beard with 1-inch spurs.
  • Reduced hunter participation, harvest limits in 2020 could mean better turkey numbers in 2021
  • Kansas' adaptive harvest system uses hunter success rate to determine tag limits
  • State's trout season coming to close, but trout harvest still allowed after season's end in most areas

The Kansas spring turkey season, which begins in earnest on April 14 with the start of the regular season, is one of the state's great hunting traditions, despite the fact that it hasn't been around all that long.

In fact, wild turkeys were reintroduced to the state in the 1960s after being nearly extirpated, and the first Kansas turkey season didn't take place until 1974.

These days, however, the state's wild turkey population is much more robust — though harvest limits for much of eastern Kansas were cut beginning last spring to help boost recently dwindling bird numbers.

MORE: Getting ready for spring turkey season? Here are some things to consider.

But the state's turkey population also got a bit of an unexpected reprieve last April when Gov. Laura Kelly announced a temporary moratorium on the sale of new out-of-state turkey hunting permits in an effort to help curtail the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic — a move that carried negative financial effects for some Kansas hunting guides but likely led to many birds surviving the spring when they otherwise would not have.

Not to mention helping reduce the spread of COVID-19, which stayed relatively isolated through the early parts of the pandemic in Kansas before hitting critical mass in the fall.

Luckily for hunting guides, nonresidents will again be able to purchase turkey permits and tags in 2021. But that lack of hunting pressure in 2020, however harmful it may have been financially, could be exactly what the doctor ordered to help boost Kansas' bird numbers in 2021 and beyond.

For a recent example of how eased pressure can help a species flourish, think back to 2019, when heavy flooding kept boats off the water for most of the spring and summer. Later that fall and well into the following year, many anglers remarked that crappie numbers and sizes had considerably improved in Kansas' lakes. Limited predation from hunters in 2020 could help turkeys have a similar population boom this spring.

And here's what makes that even more exciting for hunters: with better turkey numbers inevitably comes better harvest success rates. That could potentially mean returning to a more liberal allowance for turkey harvest in the future, thanks to a mechanism of the adaptive harvest system that Kansas uses to set turkey regulations across the state.

But before we go counting our turkeys, we've got to let them hatch and see what the numbers tell us about this unprecedented spring.

Show me the harvest numbers

So exactly how much did the turkey harvest numbers decline in 2020?

Well, the KDWPT estimated total statewide harvest for the spring of 2020 — the first spring with reduced harvest limits in Units 3, 5 and 6 — to be 13,404 birds, down from 23,568 in 2019 and 22,639 in 2018. 

Harvest numbers in general have been on a downward trend in the past five years, with a five-year high of an estimated 37,264 birds taken in 2015.

However, the hunter success rate has risen each of the past two springs, with 48% success in 2020 compared to 47% in 2019 and just 43% in 2018.

The hunter success rate would need to be 55% in a turkey hunting unit in two consecutive seasons to trigger an increase in harvest limits. That number is estimated from a sampling of 10% of Kansas turkey hunters in a given season.

SPRING TURKEY HARVEST 

Reports for 2015-2020

Year ... Permits/Tags Sold ... Total Harvest (est.) ... Success (%)

2015 ... 74,609 ... 37,264 ... 55%

2016 ... 71,320 ... 30,298 ... 47%

2017 ... 65,818 ... 30,441 ... 51%

2018 ... 60,545 ... 22,639 ... 43%

2019 ... 56,388 ... 23,568 ... 47%

2020 ... 32,324 ... 13,404 ... 48%

Source: Kent Fricke, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism

Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the KDWPT, said it’s difficult knowing whether it was the pandemic-related executive order or the new harvest limitations that had a bigger role in the precipitous decline in 2020’s harvest numbers — though both likely played a substantial part, along with other, less conspicuous factors.

“It’s very difficult to determine what effect the reduced bag limits in Units 3, 5 and 6 may or may not have had on the harvest, given the severe reduction in nonresident permit sales,” Fricke said.

Nonresident turkey permit sales indeed took a large hit, dropping 76.6% from 2019 (14,611 sold) to 2020 (3,416 sold). At the same time, overall carcass tag sales also dropped substantially in 2020, down from 56,388 in 2019 to 32,324 for a 42.7% drop, which could be representative of the harvest limitation changes but also is affected by the lack of nonresident hunters in 2020.

The sales decline is part of a larger downward trend, as well, as the combined turkey permit and tag sales have fallen in each of the past five years, with 2015 again marking the high point at 74,609 total carcass tags sold.

However, the dropoff in the total number of people who purchased permits in 2020 wasn't nearly as sharp, down from 35,979 hunters in 2019 to 26,966 — just a 25.1% decline. That doesn't seem as far off the mark considering the major reduction in nonresident hunters seen in 2020. 

And that likely means the demand to hunt is still there. 

In fact, the number of residents purchasing permits in 2020 actually increased by 10.2% from 2019, to 23,550 residents.

Numbers provided in January by the KDWPT also showed a noticeable increase in the amount of apprentice licenses sold in 2020 to both residents and nonresidents alike, meaning more beginning hunters over the age of 16 got involved in hunting last year.

Young guns find quick hunting success

So far this spring, it's been the younger hunters who have gotten the first crack at seeing what the turkey woods have to offer this year, and some are finding quick success during the early youth/disability season that began April 1.

Thirteen-year-old Braden Reddick, of Topeka, was one such hunter, bagging a 23-pound tom on April 3 just east of Ozawkie while hunting with his father, Andy, and grandfather, Marty.

Braden's tom had a 10 1/2-inch beard with 1-inch spurs, a nice bird all around. But it's difficult to beat his first turkey, a 25-pound double-bearded gobbler he shot in April 2018. That same year, Braden shot his first duck and his first wild boar — a 245-pound hog taken in Stratford, Okla.

Braden's family also loves to fish, and I'd expect to see them pull in their fair share of big crappie and channel cats this spring.

Heidi Johnson, of Fort Collins, Colo., holds up three rainbow trout totaling 9 pounds, 10 ounces, that she caught at Topeka's Lake Shawnee while visiting with her parents, Duane and Elvera Johnson.

Trout season coming to close

And now, from the field to the stream.

Just a few days remain in the 2020-21 Kansas trout season, but there's still plenty of time to net a rainbow trout in the Sunflower State.

Heidi Johnson, of Fort Collins, Colo., recently got the chance to experience Lake Shawnee's trout fishing firsthand while visiting her parents, Duane and Elvera Johnson,in Topeka.

Heidi caught three trout weighing a total of 9 pounds, 10 ounces, on April 1 while fishing at the municipally owned lake. 

Her father, Duane, reported that two of the trout were caught on PowerBait, while the third was caught on a Little Cleo.

The season officially comes to a close on April 15, but Kansans will still be able to catch and keep trout even after the end of the season.

In Lake Shawnee, trout are treated just like any other fish following the end of the season, with trout permits no longer required, though a valid Kansas fishing license will still be required for anglers between the ages of 16 and 74.

This is because the trout are prone to die off during the heat of the summer in Kansas, as they are more suited for a cold-weather environment.

"Anglers are still allowed to catch trout after April 15," said Mike McLaughlin, communications and public information supervisor for Shawnee County Parks and Recreation. "There is just no (permit) required as the lake is no longer being stocked with trout at that point. Creel limits remain the same."

MORE: Clyde "the Guide" offers tips for catching stocked rainbow trout

Statewide, the rules are much the same, with one exception.

"There is one pit on the Mined Land WA where a permit is required year-round to fish for and harvest trout year-round," said Scott Waters, district fisheries biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. "The remainder of the areas ... do not require a permit after April 15, 2021, until the season opens up again next fall. The daily creel limit remains five per day, however, and anglers are encouraged to harvest any trout they legally catch during that time."