Were the Turkey Hunting Changes in Tennessee Worth It?

By Brodie SwisherApril 17, 2024

Tennessee turkey hunters faced a number of changes to the rules and regulations when the season kicked off in 2023. Most notably, a 2 week delay in the season opener. As you might imagine, the decisions came with much controversy and debate from both sides. 

There were endless theories, speculation, comments and concerns that came in the wake of the rule changes across the state. So as the second spring turkey season following the overhaul of the Tennessee turkey hunting rules and regulations gets underway, we want to revisit the topic. 

We want a few answers from turkey hunters in the Volunteer State on whether or not they think the turkey hunting changes in Tennessee were worth it.

Were The Turkey Hunting Changes In Tennessee Worth It?

Turkey Hunting Changes in Tennessee

First, let’s take a closer look at what changes came about for Tennessee turkey hunters starting in 2023, as stated in a release from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).  

Tennessee’s turkey hunters will find several changes in store for the 2023 spring season. The changes were made by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission to benefit the state’s wild turkey population.

The spring turkey season will open Saturday, April 15, two weeks later than in previous years. The Young Sportsman Hunt is April 8-9, statewide. The bag limit has also been reduced from three birds to two birds, and only one bird can be a juvenile or jake. After hearing growing reports of decreasing turkey populations, the Commission voted to delay the statewide turkey season to improve reproduction and nesting success.

New turkey regulations will be in effect on select Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and hunters are reminded to check each WMA they hunt in the 2022-23 Tennessee Hunting and Trapping Guide. One change that affects all WMAs is that fanning or reaping turkeys are now prohibited.


Research Results on a Delayed Turkey Season

U.T. Knoxville grad student, Joseph Quehl, shared some very interesting research results gathered from his work, Assessing the Effects of the Spring Hunting Season Start Date on Wild Turkey Seasonal Productivity and Hunter Behavior

You can read the paper in its entirety at the link above, but the studies and surveys conducted over a 5 year period seem to show that a delayed start to the hunting season didn’t prove to be of any benefit. 

Our data do not support the hypothesis that delaying the start date of the spring hunting season by two weeks in south-middle Tennessee would benefit wild turkey productivity. 

We documented no effect of the two-week delay on wild turkey productivity, poult survival or hen survival. Our results demonstrate that beginning the wild turkey hunting season during the early stages of nest initiation did not result in decreased productivity when compared to beginning the season closer to the onset of incubation. 

Returning the spring hunting season back to the beginning of April may provide hunters with more opportunities to hunt birds when they are actively gobbling (Chamberlain et al. 2018, see Part III). 

Furthermore, hunter satisfaction may decrease as hunters become aware that there is no reproductive benefit from delaying the opening of the spring turkey season. 

We stress that we are not suggesting that timing of the spring hunting season cannot have an effect, but that the timing of the traditional spring turkey hunting season in Tennessee (prior to peak nest initiation) has not negatively affected turkey productivity in the state.

What Are Hunters Saying About the Changes?

I reached out to some avid turkey hunters across the state to gather their thoughts, comments and concerns over the turkey hunting changes made in Tennessee. The first topic of discussion always seems to be the season date change. Not everyone is on board with the move to the mid-April opener. 

Steve Turpin, long-time turkey hunter and callmaker, agrees with what the research seems to show. “The delayed start to turkey season to help the turkey population is a failed theory,” he says. 

“It doesn’t work, but the commission seemed to ignore the findings and input of biologist on the issue. Just look at Arkansas. They’ve tried the late start to their season the last 20 years. It hasn’t work for them. They are certainly not the model to follow.” 

Steve Turpin, of the legendary Turpin line of callmakers, has watched the rise and fall of turkey populations in Tennessee.

My friend and avid Tennessee turkey hunter, Taylor Johnson, says he appreciates the TWRA’s willingness to make changes in an effort to increase the turkey population. He believes it’s a legitimate issue and he’s glad to see the TWRA being proactive. But like Turpin, he is concerned with some of the decisions being made.

“My frustration is that the changes that were implemented, like to the delayed season, had already been attempted in other states (like Arkansas), with no significant results,” says Johnson. “I’m no biologist, but I do know that turkeys don’t delay their breeding based on the season dates, so that just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Johnson went on to say, “The TWRA essentially said that delaying the season doesn’t remove hunter opportunity because they aren’t taking days away. Hunters may have the same number of days to hunt, but by mid-late May, the gobblers aren’t in full swing anymore and aren’t gobbling nearly as much.”

Taylor Johnson with his son Graham - and Graham's 1st Tennessee turkey.

Tyler Mason is another avid Tennessee turkey hunter that spends his fair share of time in the woods each spring. He shared a few of his thoughts on the changes that took place in 2023. 

“As much as I don’t like waiting for the season to open, I am always on board with anything that might possibly help our populations,” he says. “If the science says we should open after peak breeding, I’m fine with it. I’ve always felt like early season hunting felt more like ‘preseason,’ and that I was killing time until green-out, waiting for them to break away from the big flocks.”

Tyler Mason with a gobbler taken in Tennessee.

Thoughts on a Reduced Bag Limit

Another big change in the turkey hunting regulations was a reduced annual bag limit from 3 birds to 2. And while that initially sounds like a great way to reduce some solid numbers, the facts show that this ruling ultimately has very little impact on benefiting the overall turkey numbers.

Just ask Joey Bell. Bell is a relentless turkey hunter that’s incredibly analytical in his approach to chasing turkeys each spring, as well as his thoughts on the rules and regulations for turkey hunting across the state. 

Like a lot of hunters, he’s not a big fan of the reduced bag limit put into place last season. 

Joey Bell is an avid turkey hunter from Tennessee. He's keeping a close eye on the numbers when it comes to changes for turkey hunting in Tennessee.

“I think the limit reduction was unnecessary,” says Bell. “The percentage of hunters that kill more than two birds is in the single digits, so I don’t support removing the opportunity from those who fill three tags.”

Bell went on to say that the amount of hunters shooting more than two turkeys was less than 10% during the three-bird limit and 15% during the four-bird limit. 

“Minimal turkeys were saved by reducing the bag limit,” he said.

So if it’s not a bag limit numbers game, what is the solution for helping the flock?

“I think what’s more important than bag limits is limiting tactics,” says Tyler Mason. “Maybe I’m just an old soul, but reaping turkeys is too effective. It also has a lack of intimacy. When a hunter is reaping they don’t have to be a good caller or be a good woodsman. I believe that reaping is killing turkeys that would have probably lived to see another season 20 years ago.”

The reaping method of decoying turkeys is a tactic that was banned on public lands in Tennessee amidst the other rule changes implemented in 2023. 

Like Mason, many other hunters across the state believe a reaping ban applied to private lands as well would be of greater benefit than reducing bag limits. 

Looking Ahead to Turkey Hunting in Tennessee

Rarely will you see a state take away a hunting opportunity, only to give it back at a later date. Usually, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

However, it looks like changes are once again on the horizon. Tennessee rule changes typically apply for 2 year increments. 

The 2024 spring turkey season is following the same regulations put into place for the 2023 season. However, proposed changes for the 2025 spring turkey season could include a return to the 3-bird bag limit and an earlier start date for the season kick-off, beginning the closest Saturday to April 7th.

“The proposed opening date would be a nice compromise between those who like an early opener versus the mid-April opener,” says Bell. 

Keeping hunters happy is only part of the process when it comes to calling the shots on hunting regulations. The goal is the health of the flock and maintaining a huntable population for years to come. 

“One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that people will complain no matter what TWRA does,” says Jonathan “Catman” Boehme. 

Catman went on to say, “Back when the season opened earlier, people always complained and said the hunting was best a couple weeks into season (mid-April). Now that they moved the season back two weeks, people are complaining that it’s too late and the birds are winding down.” 

“Me personally, I thought the hunting was excellent with the later opening date last year. I’ve seen proposals to bring the opener back a week and bring the limit back up to 3. We’ll see if that makes it to the 2025 regulations or not.”

Catman had a great turkey season in 2023 despite the tightened regulations and changing season.

Serious turkey hunters – the guys and gals that love the bird more than a punched tag – are glad to see action being taken to better the turkey population across Tennessee. Even better, when the agency sees that unnecessary actions or regulations were put into place, they make it right at the next opportunity.  

And that’s exactly what appears to be coming in the days ahead. So a tip of the camo cap to the TWRA and the Commission for their willingness to make changes to benefit our favorite game bird in the state of Tennessee. 

Brodie Swisher is a world champion game caller, outdoor writer, seminar speaker and Editor for Bowhunting.com. Brodie and his family live in the Kentucky Lake area of west Tennessee.
Exit mobile version