Our States'™ Finest Turkey Hunting

Our States'™ Finest Turkey Hunting

Are you looking to bag a tom turkey this season in Delaware, Maryland or New Jersey? These are the hotspots to hunt.(March 2008).

Photo by Ralph Hensley

Most folks -- especially those who don"t hunt turkeys or know even less about our Founding Fathers -- often think it"s a joke when someone tells the story about old Ben Franklin"s favoring the gobbler over the bald eagle as an emblem to represent the new nation on our coinage and flags.

But it"s no a joke -- it"s true!

Franklin was adamant about the turkey"s image being emblazoned upon our currency. His reasoning was forthright, inasmuch as the eagle is sometimes a scavenger and an opportunist.

While we now know that"s not necessarily true in most instances, Ben considered the eagle a crass party-crasher at banquet tables set by the labors of others.

Conversely, Franklin contended that the turkey is a self-sufficient bird of high intelligence, resourcefulness and has much of the inherent common sense needed for survival.

But as most of us are aware, image is everything -- especially in America. The bald eagle won out, primarily because of its noble looks.

Wild turkeys in the Mid-Atlantic region were yanked back from the brink of extinction, primarily by sportsmen, their affiliated game and fish agency officials, and especially through the efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Ben Franklin would have been proud.

Undeniably, the dramatic loss of habitat and virtually unrestricted seasons for wild turkeys at the turn of the century and the early 1900s brought this big-game bird to near-extinction.

These days, however, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland gobbler-gunners have a viable, healthy and huntable population of wild turkeys, with more birds per woodland acre than ever before.

Consequently, our Mid-Atlantic States also have a rather successful spring turkey season.

During the spring season, hunters cherish the challenge of trying to coax a bearded bird to their setup.

But that"s no easy task! Franklin was right on the money when he noted the resourcefulness and intelligence of this magnificent bird.

What"s in store for the brothers of the longbeard this spring?

How did they fare last spring?

Let"s look at Delaware first.

DELAWARE"S BIRDS

To some casual viewers, Delaware may seem a trifle short on land and therefore, perhaps a bit short on wild turkeys. But those are people who"ve never hunted gobblers during the spring season in Delaware.

In fact, despite its rather demure size, Delaware is faring quite well.

Turkey hunters plying their trade within the confines of the First State this spring stand just as good a shot at a bearded gobbler as in any other state.

For openers, officials of Delaware"s Division of Fish and Wildlife have some rather unique and professional approaches to turkey management, as well as regulations that offer hunters the most bang for their bucks.

But if you want to up the ante a bit in favor of taking that longbeard, Ken Reynolds, Delaware"s Wildlife Programs manager, says your best bet is in Sussex County.

"Hunters stand a good chance at bagging a bird in nearly

any of our three counties," Reynolds said.

"But the highest harvest rates almost always come from Sussex County. This county has more forested land available than either New Castle or Kent.

"Those two counties are comprised primarily of agricultural land."

Last year, Delaware gobbler gunners harvested a record 178 birds.

Of particular note is that 150 of these birds were taken on private land, whereas only 28 were taken on public lands.

Delaware wildlife officials manage their turkey hunting regions zone by zone, as opposed to county by county.

Since Delaware"s season begins April 12 and runs through May 2, hunters utilizing public lands are restricted to a six-day hunt, with a limit of one bearded bird per season.

Hunters on private lands may hunt throughout the April 12

through May 2 time frame.

Also, the public-lands portion of the hunting periods are broken down by seasons A, B and C.

Should a hunter draw segment A of the public-lands season, that hunter would begin hunting on April 12 and continue for a period of six days.

Those who draw segment B will hunt for the next six days -- followed, of course, by hunters who draw segment C.

Keep in mind that hunters using public lands may hunt only on the property for which the permit was issued. There is no cost for permits, but first-year hunters must attend a turkey-hunting safety seminar.

Reynolds also said that Delaware has no early season day set aside for youth hunters, as do many states.

"We will probably have a Youth Day turkey hunt in place for the 2009 season, but we do not have one for the coming season."

So where are some turkey hotspots in Delaware?

Zones 4 through 8, located in Kent County, accounted for 68 birds taken by hunters utilizing private lands.

The breakdown of that harvest is Zone 4 (12 birds), Zone 5 (five), Zone 6 (28), Zone 7 (eight) and finally, Zone 8 (ten).

Zones 9 through 17 -- all or most of which are located in Sussex County -- had an explosion of birds last season.

"We set another record last year when gobbler hunters bagged 178 birds," Reynolds said.

"By far the bulk of that number came from Sussex County. I"d call that our hotspot."

For all turkey zones in Sussex County, the total harvest came to a whopping 110 birds, in addition to one more bearded gobbler that snuck in under the category of "unknown" as to which zone it came from.

The breakdown is as follows: Zone 9 (ten birds), Zone 10 (six), Zone 11 (28), Zone 12 (20), Zone 13 (11), Zone 14 (nine), Zone 15 (seven), Zone 16 (13) and Zone 17 (six birds).

In addition, hunters using public lands also turned in some promising figures. Hunters utilizing Sussex County"s Redden State Forest took nine birds, while hunters in the Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Management Area (Kent County) took four. Another three gobblers were bagged in Blackbird State Forest (New Castle).

The heaviest bird taken in Delaware last spring tipped the scales at 27 pounds, 2 ounces. Of the total harvest, 106 turkeys were adult gobblers, while 72 were jakes.

Reynolds was also quick to point out that barring any unforeseen disasters like a wet spring season, he anticipates this season to be one of the best.

"Wildlife managers understand that weather conditions are one of the deciding factors as to how successful -- or unsuccessful -- any season will be," he said.

"Wet weather often keeps hunters home, and it has a decided affect on the birds, too. But we had a good spring last year, and the broods were healthy. Thus we expect a good harvest this spring.

"We work closely with sportsmen"s groups and especially members of the National Wild Turkey Federation. If it

wasn"t for those folks, our turkey management program in Delaware would not be where it is today."

For Delaware"s gobbler hunters, there is one final caveat: This spring, for the first time, electronic calls will be unlawful. "We have finally outlawed the use of electronic calls," said Reynolds. "And some hunters may not have gotten the word yet."

MARYLAND

TURKEYS

On to Maryland, where despite a slight decline in turkey harvest numbers, the tallies are still in the "good" category.

Maryland"s spring gobbler season kicks off with a youth-day hunt on April 12 for duly licensed youngsters age 16 or younger.

The regular season follows from April 18 through May 23, in all counties. In addition, zones do not restrict Maryland hunters.

"The season is statewide in all counties," said Bob Long, upland game manager for Maryland"s Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).

"The only restrictions are a limit of two gobblers, unless a hunter has already taken a gobbler during the fall season -- in which case that hunter may take only one gobbler (during the spring)."

Quite naturally, there are other restrictions concerning methods of hunting. For instance, Long said that the state has outlawed the use of mechanical moving decoys, and the use of electronic calls is also unlawful.

Nevertheless, the top harvest data comes from three counties. Keep in mind, though the tallies are impressive indeed, Long said he feels Maryland has reached a "leveling-out" period where harvest totals probably will not rise much above what they are at present.

"We"ve had a slight decline in harvests statewide during the last three years," he said, "but that isn"t necessarily a negative element. Turkeys, like other wildlife, sooner or later will plateau, and harvests will generally be in and around the top tallies for quite a few years."

Garrett County hunters bagged 303 gobblers last year, compared to 342 birds during the 2006 season and 365 in 2005. That"s an average decline of 11.4 percent, but still far from being a shabby harvest.

Next in line is Washington County with a total of 269 birds, compared to 322 and 340 during the previous two seasons. Still a decline of 16.5-percent, but the 2007 figure remains in the "good-to-excellent" range.

In the meantime, Allegany County hunters bagged 259 birds, compared to 331 and 328 for the last two seasons. That"s a decline of 21.8 percent.

Regardless of the declines, keep in mind what Long said about harvest rates leveling off. He doesn"t anticipate a record-setting season this spring, but does expect a "good" spring season.

"As most turkey hunters know, Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties are located in what we call the Appalachian Plateau and the Ridge Valley Regions," said Long.

"They are almost always our lead counties for turkey harvests. Still, we had only slightly below poult production last spring, and for that reason -- combined with what I"ve labeled the leveling-off of turkey harvest numbers -- we should have an excellent spring season.

"I don"t expect it to be a record-setter, although we"d like to see an increase in harvests, even if that increase is slight."

Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties are the three westernmost counties in Maryland. These three counties offer a wealth of differing habitat, but there isn"t any shortage of forestlands in any of the three.

Between the three counties, it"s a bit of a turkey hunter"s dream come true, despite current declines in harvest rates.

Finally, Maryland also works closely with members of local clubs and conservation groups, including the National Wild Turkey Federation.

GARDEN STATE

GOBBLERS

Now on to New Jersey, where the top numbers seem to come from the southern reaches of the state.

It may not stay that way for long, according to Anthony McBride, chief of New Jersey"s Division of Fish and Wildlife"s Turkey Project Program.

"Last season, turkey gunners in New Jersey harvested 3,067 bearded gobblers. But that"s about 10 percent below the 2006 season, which was 3,422 birds (or about 11 percent below the last five-year average).

"The good news is that the top Turkey Hunting Area (THA) during the 2007-spring season was THA 20 in Salem County, where hunters took 598 birds. THA 21 in Cumberland County came in a close second, with 472 birds bagged.

"The third-best THA was far to the north in Sussex County"s THA 5, where hunters bagged 171 birds."

So how about turkey hunting in the rest of the state? McBride said that last spring"s fairly good hatch should account for increased harvest numbers this spring in THA 8, which is primarily in Hunterdon County; THA 9, primarily in parts of Hunterdon and Morris counties; THA 10, primarily in Morris County; and THA 11, located in primarily -- but not exclusively -- in the western portion of Somerset County.

"It"s difficult trying to assess just what any THA will produce, especially at this time of year," McBride said. "But if all goes well with this year"s hatch, and the weather treats us kindly and there

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