By Stephen D. Bowling
The sight of a turkey in the wood or crossing the roadway in Breathitt County was an extreme rarity for many generations. Over-hunting and the destruction of habitat led to the decline. Beginning in the 1930s and especially in the 1960s, what is now the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife focused on the restoration of native species. Turkeys were one of their first targets.
The turkey population in Kentucky was once in the millions, but the destruction of open fields and woodland combined with over-harvesting reduced the number of turkeys in the state and nationwide. By the late 1950s, active turkey breeding was limited primarily to the Land Between the Lakes area, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In 1930, the national turkey population was estimated to be less than 200,000. The states implemented active management plans, and in 1952, the estimated number rose to 320,000. Kentucky reported a declining population of gobblers in 1954, with an estimated 850 isolated in the most remote and wild corners of the state.
Beginning in 1960, Harold Knight, the founder of Knight and Hale Game Calls, and many other outdoor enthusiasts across the state worked with state wildlife officials to trap and relocate turkeys from the Land Between the Lakes to new areas across the state. Focusing on repopulating wildlife preserves and state-managed land, the population soon increased. Kentucky held its first modern turkey season on April 27-29, 1960.
Efforts were successful in the mountain as well. In fact, one of the greatest success stories was the explosion in the number of turkeys in the Robinson Forest section of Breathitt County. By 1962, the population of wild turkeys in the Robinson Forest near the Breathitt-Perry County line had grown exponentially in the open valleys and wooded hillsides of Little Buckhorn Creek. By 1962, the numbers were high enough at Breathitt County announced its first legal turkey hunt.
First Turkey Hunt Slated in Breathitt
Conservation Officer Woodrow Bach had good news for Breathitt County hunters this week when he announced the first open season for turkeys in the present generation. He also gave the season for deer, grouse, and native pheasant.
The Turkey Season on Robinson Forest on either sex is Nov. 2 and 3 (both dates inclusive). Only a statewide hunting license is required, and turkeys may be taken with shotgun only. Shotgun must not be larger than 12 gauge. Only shot shells are permitted slugs are prohibited. No side arms are permitted.
Only one turkey per hunter for the season shall be taken. A successful hunter cannot assist another hunter in taking turkeys. The use of dogs in hunting turkey is prohibited.
The gun season for deer (either sex) is November 7 through 10 – both days inclusive on Robinson Forest and all of Breathitt County. Information for other counties may be secured from the County Court Clerk’s office or the local Conservation Officer.
License and deer tags are available at the County Court Clerk’s office. The use of dogs for deer hunting is prohibited.
Grouse or native pheasant may be taken on Robinson Forest located in Breathitt, Perry and Knot Counties from December 15 through January 15 (both dates inclusive on a statewide hunting license.
The bag limit is 1 per day, and the possession limit is 4.
Shooting hours for all species mentioned above is from daylight to dark.The Jackson Times, Thursday, October 18, 1962, page 1
Many hunters ventured to the Robinson Forest to try their luck, but only four “Nimrods” as The Jackson Times labeled them on November 8, 1962, had success (or luck). Kenneth Mullins, Lacy Deaton, Joe Sewell, and Bill “Buckeye” Bryant bagged gobblers during the brief and limited first season. There is some debate as to which hunter was first to claim their prize, but two of the birds were killed within minutes of sunrise on the first day.
Since that first legal turkey hunt in 1962, thousands of gobblers have been harvested in Breathitt County and across the state. Restoration efforts have increased with the cooperation and support of the Wild Turkey Federation and other organizations. The Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife estimated that there were more than 440,000 thousand birds in the state in 2018.
The turkey harvest continues each year with multiple seasons. In 2021, the last year with statewide statistics, there were 30,798 turkeys harvested in Kentucky. In 2022, hunters in Breathitt County (175 men and 3 women) harvested 193 birds with several varieties of weapons, including 182 turkeys with firearms, 3 with muzzleloaders, 5 by archery, and 3 by crossbow.
The American wild turkey was once seen only in textbooks and zoos until restoration efforts proved successful thanks to the combined work to expand and improve habitat and the management of harvesting practices. Much like the story of the whitetail deer, these species have returned from the brink of extinction and now flourish in the state and in Breathitt County. Turkey sightings are now common until the first day of the season.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling