Mid-Atlantic 2007 Turkey Outlook
October 04, 2010
Another gobbler season is upon us! So what's in store for New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware hunters? Read on for some answers. (April 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr
You'll not find a bigger wildlife-management success story than that of the wild turkey population along the East Coast -- from the brink of extinction in the early 1900s to an exploding population that greeted the new century.
A major food source for early Americans, the wild birds were all but hunted to extinction in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. As civilization moved westward, the wild turkey population was reduced even more. Even with restricted hunting in most states during the mid-1900s, the birds' numbers continued to drop.
Things really looked gloomy for turkeys, especially after attempts to rebuild stocks with pen-raised birds saw only a limited success, with most tries ending in dismal failures.
I'm somewhat old-fashioned and not a big fan of modern science, but have to admit the men in the white coats sure found a way of rebuilding gobbler numbers. What's become the proven method for restoring wild turkey populations is to trap turkeys in the wild and transplant them into targeted areas that offer the habitat to support them.
Technology has made this process a lot more successful, with advances in trapping, as well as tracking the restocked birds once they are released. These databases help to explain why any given reintroduction succeeded or failed. There are now more than 4 million turkeys in the United States, with huntable populations in every state in the lower 48.
In short, the information age has benefited wild turkey populations in the Mid-Atlantic States. Now the big birds are not only the mainstay of our annual November feast, but also one of the most sought-after game birds for today's hunter.
In the last 10 years, turkey hunting has come on strong. With turkey calls, scent-blocking camouflage, portable ground blinds, advanced arrow and ammo designs, you name it--a whole modern technology has evolved around wild turkey hunting. Next to deer, wild turkeys are fast becoming the second most popular quarry for hunters. So if you live in the Mid-Atlantic States and are looking for a nice plump bird to train your sights on, here's what you can expect in the 2007 season.
When it comes to your pursuit of spring turkeys, the birds' mating instinct takes precedence. You should spend some pre-hunt time in the field, looking for prime mating areas. Going into the field at sunup and just before sundown and listening for the gobble of male turkeys as they call the female will give you a general idea of where to look for the birds.
Once you have located some birds, your next step is to locate a food source close to where you heard them. Quite often, turkeys will root around through leaves and debris looking for grubs, insects, acorns and pine nuts. Once you've located their food source, you can follow their tracks to their overnight roosts. During the spring season, most birds won't move too far away from their mating areas and will stay close to their source of food and water.
After locating the birds, look for their migration route from their roost to their food supply. Once you've observed the birds in the same areas for several days, it's time to pick a calling spot or a spot for a blind.
If you're hunting on private lands, erecting your blind and leaving it there for a week or more without visiting is a good way of doing things. When a blind's built right, the birds will get used to it, so that when it's time to hunt you can get into it, and the turkeys won't be the wiser.
One place where the wild turkey population has really taken off over the last 10 years is in the Garden State. Wild turkey restoration began here in 1977 when, after decades of not having any wild turkey population due to loss of habitat and over-hunting, the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) joined forces with the New Jersey Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation — and released 22 birds into the wild.
In 1979, biologists and technicians began to live-trap and relocate birds to establish populations throughout the state. By 1981, the wild turkey population was able to support a spring hunting season. Two years later in December 1983, a limited fall season was begun.
Since that small beginning, the wild turkey population has taken off like a rocket, and now there are lots of wild turkeys throughout the state. Because a lot of land in the Garden State is off-limits to hunting, the wild turkey population has exploded, just like the deer population. Turkeys are being seen in places they were never found before.
Though the turkey population in the lower portion of the state was slow to build, about some 10 years back the DFW's restoration efforts began to take hold. The lower portion of the state now plays host to some of New Jersey's best turkey hunting. The state's wild turkey population is currently estimated at 20,000 to 23,000 birds. More than 3,000 are taken each season. As the number of turkey hunters continues to increase, that number will only go up.
One of the best things that Garden State hunters have going for them is that during the spring season, young turkey hunters between the ages of 10 and 16 can hunt in any hunting period in the zone for which they draw a permit. Youth hunters aged 10 to under 14 must be under the supervision of a licensed adult who's at least 21 years old. That adult does not need to buy a turkey permit, but does have to hold a regular hunting license.
This regulation applies until the youth takes a turkey. After taking a turkey, the youth is subject to the same hunting period and zone restrictions as any adult. This policy has brought a lot of young hunters into the sport. While other types of hunting are seeing a decline in the number of youngsters taking up the sport, turkey hunting has become very popular with new hunters.
A majority of New Jersey's turkey hunters prefer the traditional way of stalking the birds and then calling them into shooting range. However, since the Garden State sees a lot of bowhunters, many turkey hunters have started using ground blinds, especially when hunting on private lands.
The use of modern portable ground blinds offers you a good way to keep out of sight, but still allows you to move around. If you're bowhunting, this allows you to stand, draw the bow and bring your arrow to bear on a turkey bird from within the blind, out of sight of the birds. The blinds also keep down your scent, and this works very well, especially on days when t
he wind is shifting directions.
New Jersey is divided into 22 wild turkey hunting zones. Hunting permits for both the spring and fall seasons are by lottery. Each zone is given a quota, based on surveys of the turkey populations and what each zone can give up and still maintain its bird numbers.
The best turkey hunting is generally found in Sussex and Kent counties. In addition to the hunting on private lands, turkey hunters in Delaware will find some good hunting on state wildlife areas. In Sussex County, the Nanticoke State Wildlife Area is traditionally one of the top public lands each season. In Kent County, the Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area is your top bet.
Maryland's wild turkey restoration program started in the early 1980s with the successful transplanting of wild birds to several counties. As the populations took hold, biologists took turkeys from the wild in one part of the state and transplanted them into other areas where birds were lacking.
The wild birds found plenty of good habitat, and over the last 25 years, the turkey population continued to grow until it leveled off at its current level, an estimated 20,000 to 32,000 birds. At the current rate of growth, the state's turkey population could contain as many as 40,000 birds in the next couple of years.
Maryland has about 16,000 turkey hunters, which number has remained constant for the last several years. The success rate for turkey hunters in the Free State is about one bird for every four hunters or a 25-percent success rate, which averages out to about 4,000 birds a season (based on a 10-year average). Most Maryland tom turkeys average from 18 to 20 pounds, while hens weigh in the 10- to 12-pound class.
Unlike New Jersey, which divides the state up into zones, Maryland regulates its turkey hunting by counties, and the statistics used for turkey hunting are based on a 10-year average. Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties account for almost 50 percent of the birds taken by hunters each year. These counties all have similar habitat and terrain with wooded areas, foothills and farmlands serving up good habitat as well as good hunting.
One reason the birds have taken so well to the above-mentioned counties is that all three are rich in nut and fruit-bearing trees. Acorns, pine nuts, beechnuts and crab apples are some of the wild turkeys' favorite forage. These counties also have lots of farms that raise corn, soybeans and other grains that are table treats for the gobblers.
The last five years have seen a big rise in the numbers of birds taken along the Eastern Shore in Dorchester and Worcester counties. Terrain in these counties is largely farmland interspersed with wooded areas. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Eastern Shore has the fastest-growing wild turkey population, and thus is becoming a prime spot for hunters.
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