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Rheney with turkey

Dr. John Rheney with a big turkey in 2017. Rheney wrote then: “His fan was huge and his spurs were a tick over 1-1/4 inches. His main beard was 9 inches and the secondary one was just as long. His head was the size of a softball.”

The only positive thing I can see about the debate over the new turkey hunting bill is that it will soon come to an end. It has divided the turkey hunting community by where they live and by allegiances.

Recently the National Wild Turkey Federation sent out emails to editors of newspapers urging them to push readers to contact their local lawmakers in order to advocate a very restrictive turkey season on Lowcountry hunters. I have been contacted by people with the National Wild Turkey Federation and some of their administrators. They have chastised me for not supporting their stances on the new bill.

Turkey season: The old bait-and-switch

Let me back up for a minute. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has pushed for the legislature to pass a bill that would make the Upstate and Lowcountry season the same and push our season back to start in mid-April instead of the historical mid-March opening in the lower part of the state. They cite the decline of wild turkey numbers in our state and the research that indicates that it might be best if hunters didn’t hunt until hens are bred and nesting before the season is allowed to start.

Back on the Edisto: Keeping river clear means chance to get reacquainted

Now DNR apparently felt a little uncomfortable soliciting turkey hunters, newspapers, legislators and voters’ opinions, so they gave the NWTF the baton to carry. The NWTF has been rather zealous in this endeavor, having its employees and volunteers call out most every legislator, outdoor writer and online blogger disagreeing with this stance. The two writers for The Times and Democrat (Dan Geddings and myself), along with most every hunter I have talked to, are not in favor of moving the season so far back. Most every hunter I have spoken with from this area has said, and I paraphrase, “That’s stupid, it’s pretty much all over by the third week in April. Why even hunt?” I couldn’t agree more.

I am a longtime member of the NWTF and a patron sponsor. That means that I believe in their mission enough to have given them a lot of money. I have enjoyed my affiliation with them and have been given much back in return. I do not believe their being on the point for the DNR agenda is something they should have taken on.

Filing my report on Edisto cleanup

The Upstate flocks and those of the Lowcountry might as well be two separate subspecies. There is a general lack of birds in the Upstate and there is a general decline in birds statewide. But, much like the recent deer bill that consolidated the Upstate and Lowcounty deer seasons and bag limits unnecessarily, this recommendation by the DNR treats all areas of the state the same. AND they are not. Our birds are about two weeks ahead of the piedmont and mountain birds.

There is a compromise bill SC 575 that the NWTF disdains. That legislation takes this factor and the more favorable habitat and numbers in the Lowcountry into account. The legislators have reached an agreement that makes no one completely happy, so I guess that’s as good as it gets. In SC 575, our season continues to open a week later than the traditional season (March 20). The Upstate season goes back to an April 1 start and lasts a week longer into May.

So in essence, we end up with a week shorter season and the Upstate ends up with a week longer season than in the past. The bag limit would be permanently reduced from five birds to three birds per season, with only one being legal before April 1. Should Upstate hunters, DNR and the NWTF not be happy with this arrangement? Well apparently they are not. I won’t – and I doubt Mr. Geddings will either -- solicit legislators on the NWTF’s behalf.

There is one thing of which I am convinced. Hunters are not the problem and I am not sure there is even a widespread problem in the Lowcountry. Making the Lowcountry dance to the tune of the Upstate is not the answer. The bill presently before the House and Senate is a reasonable one.

There are several other options on the table that no one has mentioned. We could cut the bag limit down to two birds per season, then we will be less likely to see a guy on Facebook showing off two birds he shot opening day. We could allow only morning hunting. Taking a bird from a blind in a food plot that simply walks up to a decoy shows little skill or effort. Hunt them during the dawn of a new day and then leave them alone to reassemble and feed. They have a lot of other things they have to avoid without hunters harassing them from roost to roost.

I admit that pushing the season into the days of 90-degree-plus weather will cut back on the number of birds taken. By making turkey hunting less and less attractive, we WILL save more birds, but I’m not sure that translates well for the birds in the long run.

DNR takes the stance that we can only manage hunters as a factor as numbers decline. I respectfully disagree. We can’t manage weather, but we can manage habitat, predators, water and food sources. And if hunters stop hunting, no one will. If that happens, the precious money hunters provide to preserve wildlife will dry up.

Taking the spring out of spring turkey season is not the answer. Sometime it’s just time to stop beating that horse and let it get back up on its own.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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