Our States' Best Turkey Hunting

Our States' Best Turkey Hunting

Here are the the places to be if you're looking to intercept a gobbler in New Jersey, Maryland or Delaware this season. Is good hunting near you? Read on! (March 2007)

Photo By Phillip Jordan

Throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, last season's spring turkey hunters realized excellent success.

Two-year-old toms, considered by many sportsmen as the most vocal of wild turkeys, comprised a significant portion of the bag. Near-record harvests were taken in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.

Expectations are high for this year's spring hunt as well. Read on to see where the hotspots were last season, what's expected for this season, along with a bunch of other spring turkey-related facts and figures.

NEW JERSEY

The 2006 spring season was a very successful one for Garden State turkey hunters. New Jersey sportsmen tallied a harvest of 3,524 birds, an increase of nearly 8 percent over the prior year. Their '06 take was also the third-highest harvest since 1981.

According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), most turkey-hunting areas produced increases in harvest. New Jersey is divided into 22 zones or areas for management purposes. In southern New Jersey, Area 16 saw an increase from 123 birds taken in 2005 to 160 birds in 2006. Area 20 saw an increase from 600 to 714 gobblers harvested. Turkey hunting Area 2 was the notable area in northern New Jersey, with an increase from 110 birds in 2005 to 198 birds in 2006.

Of those turkey-hunting areas that saw a decline in harvest totals, none was significant.

Starting last season, hunters were given the option of applying for wild turkey permits via the DFW's Web site at NjWildlife.com. Application fees can be charged to a credit card. Only when applicants are successful are their credit cards charged with the permit fee. Hunters are reminded that they can still apply for wild turkey permits the traditional way, through the mail. However, you may apply via only one method, not both.

Two lotteries are held each year. Leftover licenses are made available on a first-come, first-served basis. The status of leftover licenses, as well as that of electronic lottery submissions, can be viewed on the agency's Web site.

"Last year was our third-highest spring harvest on record," noted Tony McBride, turkey biologist for the DFW. "Hunters did fairly well. It was heavy on 2-year-old birds. Those birds were hatched back in 2004 when we had a little bump in reproduction. They were jakes in 2005, and we saw an increase in the number of juvenile birds taken that year. Then this past spring, we saw a jump in the number of 2-year-olds reported at our mandatory checking stations."

McBride felt the outlook for the coming spring season is a good one, based on the information he had regarding reproductive success.

"It seems that last spring's plot production, according to the reports that have been filed at this point, is very good in the extreme northern part of the state," said the biologist. "Some of the reports I have gotten reveal an average of four plots per hen over the course of last summer, which is excellent. We've gotten reports from the central counties that indicate that production wasn't as good. It seems like the farther north you are in New Jersey, at the present, the higher the numbers of wild turkeys. Also, the extreme southern end of the state did very well, production-wise."

And for Garden State spring gobbler hunters, this translates into the promise of another very productive season.

"I would expect another fairly good harvest during the 2007 spring season," said McBride. "In many areas of the state, we should have good numbers of juvenile birds as well as a lot of 3-year-olds from the 2004 hatch."

Despite being depicted as a highly industrialized state, New Jersey boasts significant tracts of public land. Fortunately for the turkey hunter, some of the more expansive public holdings are found in prime wild turkey zones.

"In the northern part of the state, there is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area," McBride noted. "That land is in combination with several state wildlife management areas. It is also contiguous with several state pieces. Basically, it makes up the Kittatinny Ridge in northwestern New Jersey. It's in an area that had high poult productivity last year."

Hunters from the southern portion of the state also have a lot to look forward to. Good numbers of birds, coupled with impressive state wildlife management areas, add up to plenty of excellent hunting opportunity.

"In the southern part of the state, Cumberland County in Area 21 has a lot of public land open to spring hunting," said McBride. "Cumberland County presently boasts some of the highest harvests in the state, as well as the highest success rates."

State public hunting in Area 21 include Buckshutem, Cedarville Pond, Cohansey River, Six, Egg Island, Fortescue, Nantuxent, New Sweden, Millville and Union Lake wildlife management areas (WMAs).

As McBride noted, Cumberland County boasts most of the public acreage in this area. Ones of significant size include Buckshutem (3,651), Dix (2,630), Egg Island (nearly 9,000), New Sweden (2,351), Millville (14,000) and Union Lake (5,000). All or portions of these WMAs are in Cumberland County.

"There will be no regulatory changes for the spring season," said McBride. "The only recent administrative change is that of the Internet application option when applying for permits. Last season there was a huge participation, and we are expecting a lot this season."

The response to the electronic application process was so significant that McBride said the possibility exists that for this year's hunt, the mail-in option might be eliminated. The application period ends in late February, meaning that it might still be open as you read this. Consult your 2007 Book of Rules and Regulations for the specifics of this year's application process.

Hunting hours in New Jersey are from a half-hour prior to sunrise to 12 noon. Hunter orange is not required. Successful hunters must check their bird in at a check station by 3 p.m. on the same day it was harvested.

MARYLAND

Last season, Maryland hunters recorded the second-highest spring harvest. The '06 season produced 3,008 bearded birds checked in. The bag was only 4 percent lower than the record-high harvest recorded in 2005, when

3,136 birds were taken.

Evaluating last year's spring harvest, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist Bob Long noted, "While there are fewer young turkeys in the current population (following the '06 hunt), 2-year-old turkeys produced during the record-high reproduction of 2004 are plentiful. These likely comprised a large portion of the harvest. We had expected a stable harvest, similar to ones we've had in recent years."

According to the DNR, leading the state in harvest last spring were the western mountain counties of Garrett (342), Washington (340), and Allegany (331).

Dorchester (265), Worcester (253), Charles (227), and Somerset (204) counties also supported respectable harvests, demonstrating that high-quality turkey hunting can be found in most regions of the state. All-time-high harvests in counties such as Talbot, Harford, Baltimore, Caroline, and Kent suggest that wild turkey populations continue to grow and expand in some areas, providing additional recreational opportunities for Maryland's sportsmen and women.

As for expectations for the coming year, Long felt that things are shaping up for a season quite similar to what we've experienced over the past two or three years.

"It looks like most regions of the state saw average or slightly below-average reproduction last summer," he said. "This should translate into another typical harvest. We are not expecting any large increases, nor are we expecting any large declines."

Productivity was up from what it was the year before, so there may be more jakes in the mix, well seasoned with older birds hatched earlier.

"We had very good reproduction in 2004 -- not as high as some states, but very good," notes Long. "The 2005 harvest was below average and last season was about average, so things might be slightly in favor of older age-class gobblers for the coming season."

Maryland offers some outstanding public-land opportunities, particularly in the western portion of the state. Long said that productivity has been good there, and that hunters should have good success targeting several of the public lands.

In regard to top public-land options, "The ridge and valley province areas, basically Allegany and Washington counties, in recent years have become the place to be," said Long.

"Typically, this area has had excellent reproduction the past few years. Green Ridge State Forest, Indian Springs Wildlife Area -- pretty much any of the public lands in that area will give hunters a really good shot at a tom."

Maryland turkey hunters should be reminded that for safety concerns, the use of motorized or electronic decoys is now illegal. Human- or wind-powered decoys remain legal.

For the third year now, successful hunters are not required to physically check in a bagged turkey. They must check the bird in, however, either electronically via a Web site, or by calling a toll-free telephone number.

According to the DNR, part of the new call-in game-checking procedure for turkeys requires hunters to provide a measurement of the spurs and the beard. For spurs, measure from the leg to the tip of the spurs. For the beard, measure from the skin to the tip of the beard.

Though its terrain is a bit more rugged, Garrett County has also been a consistent producer of spring turkeys. Savage River State Forest is an excellent public area in Garrett. It also plays host to a 5,000-acre wild area for hunters looking for more of a wilderness-type hunt.

After their birds are field-tagged, hunters have 24 hours to check them in by logging on to the Web site, GameCheck.dnr.state.md.us, or by calling the Maryland Big Game Registration phone line at 1-888-800-0121 to complete the check-in process.

DELAWARE

Despite its modest size and areas of suburban expansion, Delaware plays host to a significant wild turkey population. Where habitat is available, the state's wild turkeys are doing very well, providing a valuable hunting opportunity.

Last season's spring hunt is a good measure of the success of Delaware's wild turkey program.

"We were up a little bit last year," reports Ken Reynolds, wildlife biologist for the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). "We took 153 birds, which is one bird shy of our all-time record. The year before that, we harvested 138 birds, so last year's harvest was up a little bit."

Of those 153 birds tagged last season, all but one were male. One bearded hen was checked in. Some 57 percent of last season's birds were harvested during the first week of the season, with 33 percent being bagged the second week and 10 percent the third. Hunter success was estimated to be 19 percent. The heaviest gobbler bagged last season weighed 25.25 pounds.

The wildlife biologist felt this year's spring hunt should provide good opportunities for hunters, similar to what they have experience during recent years.

"Our numbers seem to be pretty stable," notes Reynolds. "We don't have any particular surveys going on at the moment, but our harvest seems to fluctuate between 120 and 150 birds. It doesn't seem to change very much. So barring any unforeseen circumstances that may occur over the winter, I would think that we would have a reasonably good season."

Reynolds also related that breeding conditions were favorable last spring. He said his agency received some "pretty good reports from hunters." Delaware's wild turkey population is presently estimated at 3,500 birds, well distributed throughout the state's suitable habitat.

As for the best turkey habitat available, Reynolds noted that the turkey zone is fairly well defined.

"We only have three counties in Delaware," said Reynolds. "But Sussex, which is our largest and southernmost county, has the most forest habitat. It produces most of our birds. Usually the best areas are from the central to the southern portion of the county."

As with most states -- particularly ones such as Delaware, which has limited public hunting lands with suitable wild turkey habitat -- the odds would have to favor the private-land hunter. During last season's hunt, 89 percent of the harvested birds were taken from private land.

Still, if you lack access to private land, you shouldn't be deterred. There is still a respectable amount of public land. Hunting it does require a permit, however. Permits can be used only on the property for which they were issued.

"Redden State Forest has a good wild turkey population," said Reynolds. "It depends on the year, but sometimes the Nanticoke Wildlife Area, which is located down in the southwestern part of the state, does pretty well as a public area. Blackiston Wildlife

Area, which is western Kent County, can also be pretty good."

Redden State Forest is located north of Georgetown. It encompasses a total of 9,500 acres, primarily loblolly pine. A mixture of hardwoods including oak, maple and gum is found on Redden State Forest. Large tracts have been timbered. While a large portion of Redden is contained in one contiguous block, the tract is also made up of several satellite parcels.

Reynolds said that Delaware has made no regulatory changes the past year that would affect spring wild turkey hunters.

According to the Delaware Division of Wildlife, the state's 2007 spring season will run from April 14 through May 4. Private-land hunters may hunt during the entire 18-day season. Public-land permits can be used only on the property for which they are issued. Applications must have been received by Dec. 8 to be processed for the Dec. 15 lottery.

The season segments for A through C for Public Land Permits are April 14 through 20 for Area A; April 21 through April 27 for Area B; and finally, April 28 through May 4 for Area C.

No Sunday hunting is permitted.

Delaware shooting hours, for the spring turkey season, are a half-hour prior to sunrise until 1 p.m. All turkeys must be checked at an authorized turkey check station by 2:30 p.m. on the same day the bird is harvested.

Only bearded birds are legal, and the limit is one turkey per season. Non-electric calls are legal, as are temporary blinds of vegetation or camouflage material. Artificial decoys are also permitted.

For safety reasons, Delaware hunters are not permitted to wear clothing that bears the colors red, white or blue.

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