2012 Virginia Turkey Forecast

The four toms started gobbling on the Botetourt County parcel in late January and continued their outbursts in February, March, and early April — every month, it seemed, increasing the intensity of their gobbling. So it was only logical that I spent four of the first seven days of the season afield on that particular property.

And as the fates would have it, I never saw a longbeard on those four outings and only heard sporadic gobbling. Why do turkeys behave in that manner? Frustrated, on the second Monday of the season I ventured to another Botetourt County woodlot where I had heard just one gobbler sounding off only a few times during a pre-season scouting visit and on a single hunt.

But the landowner had informed me before my coming that April day that no one else had visited his cattle farm, and it is better to have one quiet tom in hand than a quartet with "issues" regarding my calling. The cattle farm features three major finger ridges on its western side, and on the prior two visits, the gobbler had roosted on the first and third ridges. So well before sunrise, I positioned myself on the middle ridge, thinking that when the bird gobbled, he would be on one side or the other of me, and it would be relatively easy to call him in.

Imagine my surprise, then, that when the tom commenced gobbling well before sunrise, he was close to me — extremely close. Indeed, when I slowly lifted my head, I saw the tom silhouetted in a tree just 30 yards from my position.

Over the course of the next five minutes, I slowly raised my 12 gauge Remington 1100 until it rested on my right knee. Then it was a matter of waiting to fly down time — and hoping the gobbler would land within 20 or so yards of my position.

But as the sun slowly rose, complications began to arise, as they always do when the topic is turkeys. The gobbler was not the only turkey roosting on the finger ridge — three other dark forms soon materialized on the mountainside. Were they hens? Which way would they fly down? Would the gobbler follow them? The sure thing was no longer so sure, and I began to experience that awful feeling I have when a turkey hunt is about to take an ominous turn.

At last sunrise occurred and the birds began pitching out of the trees. But to my wonder and relief, the quartet landed within 30 yards of me, I clucked once, the tom went into strut, and, well, I shot him — thus ending my Virginia season, as I had killed two birds earlier in the fall.

My Botetourt gobbler was one of 15,689 checked in during the 2011 season. The tally was 3 percent higher than the 2010 harvest of 15,190. West of the Blue Ridge, the take was 5,265, which was 4 percent higher than the previous year; East of the Blue Ridge, the kill was 10,441, a spike of 4 percent. Statistically, 85 percent of the toms were adults and 46 bearded hens were checked in. Youth hunters recorded 340 birds during their annual spring Saturday before the start of the regular season, a drop of 7 birds.

To learn what these figures mean, I asked Gary Norman, the wild turkey project leader for the VDGIF.

"Over the past 10 years the rate of growth in the state has been  minus 1.3 percent," he told me. "But the regression model I used to get that number was not statistically significant, meaning there is no trend, no significant change."

An aspect that may skew the numbers is that according to the VDGIF's spring gobbler survey, hunting effort declined due to the recession, which has been ongoing the past few years. The fact, says Norman, that the harvest increased even during an economic downturn is encouraging.

Another heartening aspect from last season — and for the coming one — is that birds should be in good physical condition. In 2011, the biologist notes, toms exceeding 25 pounds were reported, largely because of an excellent mast crop and a relatively mild winter.

"Acorn production appeared to have been moderate in most areas the fall of 2011 so birds should be in good condition this spring which may translate into good gobbling," speculated Norman.

The next question, of course, is how poult production was in 2011. At this writing, it is impossible to determine the success or failure of the 2011 hatch. A prediction is made even more difficult by the fact that the fall season continued well into January of 2012, and part of knowing how good the production was during any given year is analyzing the fall turkey kill, when the majority of birds taken are jakes and jennies. Norman was able to offer this partial assessment.

"The reports I have are a mixed bag, as usual, but some areas apparently have had great reproduction," he told me.

In Botetourt where I live, I saw a half dozen or more different flocks of hens with poults within a mile of my house. That said, a farmer living just three miles away might not have seen any hens with poults. Production is a very local affair when the topic is turkeys, especially when much of last April and May statewide featured extended cool, rainy days — terrible conditions for nesting hens and just-born poults.

Unfortunately, poult production was below the 30 year average of 3.0 in 2009 and 2010; both years recorded a poult-to-adult hen ratio of 2.0. Those former poults will be the 2- and 3-year-old longbeards that we will pursue this spring. Two areas, however, broke beyond this low figure in 2010: the North Mountain and Tidewater regions each recorded a 2.8 ratio, which means that these two domains should have more two-year-olds about than the other parts of the Commonwealth. The South Mountain, North Piedmont, and South Piedmont recorded ratios of 1.6, 2.1., and 2.0, respectively.

TOP PUBLIC LANDS

I asked Norman to provide some public lands that might be enticing to sportsmen this spring, and he offered the Clinch Mountain WMA in the Mountain region, Fairystone Farms WMA in the Piedmont, and the Chickahominy WMA in Tidewater.

At 25,477 acres, Clinch Mountain is one of the largest WMAs in the state and sprawls across Smyth, Washington, Russell, and Tazewell counties. The public land features a rather unique layout, as the elevations range from 1,600 to 4,700 feet on Beartown Mountain. The two major streams flowing through Clinch Mountain are Laurel Bed and Little Tumbling creeks. Both are noted for their rhododendron-enveloped banks and plunge pools.

Given the vast differences in elevation, mast production can be very uneven from one part of the public land to another. The lack of or presence of mast can still influence turkey travel areas in April. Pre-season scouting is a must here. Please note that you should be in good physical condition if you want to tromp the mountainsides of this far southwestern domain.

Fairystone Farms WMA and its 5,321 acres has long had the reputation for being one of the premier turkey public lands in the Old Dominion. Located in Patrick and Henry counties, Fairystone features some steep slopes, much rolling hillside, and a little bottomland. Habitat improvement work, such as creating wildlife openings, has been conducted. Fairystone State Park and Philpott Reservoir adjoin the public land.

The Chickahominy WMA (5,217 acres in Charles City County) has a deserved claim to fame as being one of the top public destinations in Tidewater. As such on Saturdays, the WMA can receive considerable hunting pressure. Morris Creek and the Chickahominy River form two of the borders and turkeys can sometimes be glimpsed feeding along these waterways.

Sportsmen should keep in mind that the word flat truly describes the Chickahominy. Elevations top out at 50 feet and tidal creeks, guts, and marshes abound. Be sure to wear hightopped rubber boots if you visit.

For more information on public land hunting on these or other public lands: www.dgif.virginia.gov/wmas/.

Of course at 1.7 million acres, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF) is the predominant public land in Western Virginia — and for that matter, the entire state. I killed my first gobbler within the GWJNF, and it remains in my annual rotation of destinations. The one piece of advice that I would give for hunting the national forest is that hunting deep in the interior is not as good a strategy as it was in the 1980s when I first started venturing there.

Today, most of the turkeys seem to be concentrated along the perimeter of the GWJNF where it adjoins private land, specifically cattle and agricultural farms. Three ways exist to take advantage of this situation.

First, gain permission to hunt farms that border the national forest and go back and forth between the two.

Second, attain permission to cross private land to reach public land. Surprisingly, landowners have been very receptive to granting my requests to do this. And, last, park your vehicle alongside the public land and hike to where a farm borders the national forest. Then either call birds off the private land or intercept them on their way there. I have tagged toms using each of these three scenarios. For more information: http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal.

TOP COUNTIES

The general public often does not understand how harvest numbers really work. For instance, a county that is extremely large might have impressive harvests every year only because of its size. A better way to crunch turkey numbers is to consider the kill per square mile of forest range. Based on that indices, Gary Norman states that a number of counties offer outstanding hunting.

These domains, he says, include Northampton, Richmond, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Lancaster. All of these counties lie in the eastern portion of the state, and Northampton rests on the Eastern Shore, along with another high yield county Accomack.

The Piedmont is also well represented. Franklin, my favorite Piedmont county to hunt and where I plan to be afield on opening day, is among the top performers — as are Bedford and Loudon, although the latter is highly developed and has little open land.

In the Mountain region, major turkey hot spots include Wythe, Carroll, Grayson, and Scott. Wythe, Carroll, and Scott feature a great deal of mountainous terrain and demand that sportsmen be willing to trek up and down steep hollows. Grayson has its share of steep terrain, but it also offers bottomland in the form of the New River and numerous tributaries.

ODDS AND ENDS

Norman says that no new regulations are on tap for this spring. The biologist requests that state turkey hunters contact him (gary.norman@dgif.virginia.gov) if they would like to participate in the annual spring gobbler survey.

"There is a wealth of information [in the report] that may be helpful to readers," he says.

I have participated in the survey for over 20 years and relish learning what other turkey hunters are reporting and commenting on. Participants can weigh in on regulations that they would like to see implemented, ones that they would like to eliminate, note interesting observations from their times in the turkey woods, and provide Norman and the VDGIF staff a wealth of information.

Finally, Norman recommends that veteran hunters take a youngster hunting on Youth Day on April 7, a week ahead of opening day on April 14. The season concludes on May 19. Last spring after I tagged out, I took Christiansburg's David Brugh and his daughter Elaina on an outing to Franklin County. Elaina did not kill a tom, but we had a grand time trying. And trying to tag a tom is what we will all have in mind very short soon.

Editor's Note: The author writes a weekly blog, often on turkeys, at his website; to read it or to order his four books on river fishing www.bruceingramoutdoors.com.

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