Mid-Atlantic Turkey Preview

Mid-Atlantic Turkey Preview

Here's how things are shaping up for Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware gobbler hunters this spring season. (April 2008)

Photo by Rod Cochran.

In contrast to the past couple of springtimes, wild-turkey numbers in our region are on the upswing. Average to above-average reproduction last year should equate into good numbers of juvenile birds in the woods. These jakes, coupled with the presence of mature 2-year-old birds and older, should mean a gratifying and challenging spring turkey season.

Here's what to expect this year in the tri-state area.

According to Bob Long, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist, wild turkey reproduction rates last spring were about average. Wild turkey sightings during the summer period, however, were above average. This indicates a high survival rate of birds from last year's hatch, meaning good numbers of jakes for the spring hunt.

This is good news, especially when compared to the downward cycle experienced the prior two springs.

Last spring's turkey take was 18 percent lower than the 2006 spring harvest. State hunters reported taking 2,455 turkeys during 2007, down from the 3,008 birds harvested the year before.

According to the DNR, annual surveys indicate that across Maryland, reproductive success was below average during the summers of 2005 and 2006. The lack of 1- and 2-year-old gobblers was also evident in the age-structure of the harvest. During the last two springs, an unusually high percentage of gobblers taken were adults.

So hunters can expect to find good numbers of jakes in the woods this spring. The numbers of 2-year-old birds -- the most vocal of the bunch -- will be down somewhat, which might make the woods a bit quieter.

As is typical, last season's Maryland spring hunt was most productive during the season's first week, when 37 percent of the harvest occurred.

Private land accounted for most of the take, but public lands provided a significant contribution at 18 percent.

The western counties again provided the highest bag totals. Garrett County led the state with a harvest of 303 gobblers and jakes. Washington followed with 269. Another 259 birds were bagged in Allegany County.

Eastern Maryland counties were also well represented in the top six, as 209 birds were bagged in Charles County, which was fourth in the state.

Charles County was followed by Dorchester with 205, and Worchester with 196. This continues a trend in which eastern counties have produced noteworthy harvest totals, representing the excellent sport found there.

Central Maryland hunters need not leave this populated part of the state for spring turkey-hunting opportunities. Frederick County, for example, produced a kill of 115. In Montgomery County, 50 birds were taken last spring. Anne Arundel's tally was 47. Even Baltimore County experienced a take of 27 birds.

Western Maryland contains the state's largest public land holdings, as well as excellent numbers of wild turkeys. The area held wild turkeys prior to the DNR's successful trap- and-transfer program, and many state sportsmen still consider it the traditional wild turkey range.

In Garrett County, public-land hunting can be found within the Garrett, Savage River and Potomac state forests. Allegany County public lands include Dans Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located near Frostburg.

Green Ridge State Forest furnishes another extensive parcel of public land in Allegany County. Washington County public areas include the Indian Springs and Sideling Hill WMAs and the Woodmont Tract.

Each year, the DNR conducts a Hunter Mail Survey to determine preferences and opinions of spring turkey hunters in regard to management, populations and regulations. While done in Maryland only, the survey is likely indicative of such matters in neighboring states.

The survey revealed that bagging a gobbler was only a moderately important aspect of the turkey-hunting experience. Of greater appeal was getting away from work, and seeing/hearing turkeys.

Safety and access to land were also important issues. The majority of respondents hunted only one county. Similar numbers also hunted public land on at least one day of the season.

The Eastern Coastal Plain Region received the most attention from hunters. Other regions of the state receiving significant interest were the Ridge and Province Region, Western Coastal Plain Region and the Appalachian Plateau Region.

The survey respondents spent an average of $455 on turkey-hunting related expenses in 2007. Travel and hunt-club lease fees accounted for much of that expenditure. Some 85 percent of respondents felt that turkeys were moderate or abundant in the counties they hunt.

The exception was the Piedmont Region -- central Maryland -- where 47 percent felt turkeys were scarce.

Minimal interference from other hunters was reported in the survey. A total of 22 percent indicated they had encounters that negatively affected their hunt. Six percent felt unsafe at some time during the season.

Most respondents were satisfied with season structure and bag limits, though there was some dissatisfaction with always having the season opener on a Saturday.

Maryland spring gobbler hunters are restricted to the use of shotguns loaded with No. 4, 5 or 6 shot shells. Vertical bows are also permitted.

Harvested turkeys must be checked in. In 2005, the DNR eliminated the requirement to check in birds physically, replacing it with an electronic system. Within 24 hours of their kill, successful hunters must register the harvest, either by logging on to www.gamecheck.dnr.state.md.us, or by calling toll-free 1-888-800-0121.

During the process a confirmation number will be provided, which must then be recorded on the harvest tag. The tag is affixed to the bird immediately following the kill.

The state's 2008 season will run from April 18 to May 23. Hunting hours are one half-hour before sunrise until noon. Only bearded birds are legal game. The daily bag limit is one, with a season limit of two.

If a hun

ter took a bearded bird during the previous fall season (a fall season occurs in the three western Maryland counties), then the season limit for the spring hunt is one bird.

A junior hunt for those 16 and younger will be held on April 12. See your current Guide to Hunting and Trapping Regulations for details. During last year's junior hunt, 102 birds were harvested, down from the 168 taken the previous year.

The outlook for Garden State hunters is a similar to Maryland's. Gobbler seekers can expect to find good numbers of jakes, along with enough mature toms to keep things interesting. This year's better-than-average number of jakes will translate into fine hunting for the vocal 2-year-olds next spring.

Last year, New Jersey's spring turkey hunt ran from April 14 (the Youth Hunt day) to Friday, May 25. A total of 3,061 jakes and gobblers were taken, which is the sixth-highest harvest in state history. The Youth Day hunt accounted for 154 birds.

The overall record harvest occurred in 2002, when 3,779 turkeys were bagged. The state has conducted a spring hunt since 1981.

According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the 2007 harvest reflected an 11 percent decrease from the 2006 hunt.

This correlates with poor turkey productivity during the prior two years. Heavy rains and poor weather made hunting difficult during the opening week of the hunting season.

But hunters made up for it during the later part of the season. At the beginning of the season, hunters experienced a 28 percent reduction in numbers taken from the prior year. But these birds were still available later on, and hunters made up lost opportunities. Jakes made up a relatively low percentage of the harvest -- as expected, due to the poor reproduction of late.

New Jersey's turkey population is managed by way of 22 separate turkey-hunting areas (THAs). In general, the state's best turkey-hunting opportunities lie in the southern part of the state. Recent harvest numbers illustrate this. The highest harvest occurred in THA 20, which encompasses portions of Cumberland and Salem counties. A total of 16 percent of this area is public land.

During the 2007 season, a total of 598 male birds were taken in THA 20, as compared with 624 the year before. Another southern area, THA 21, was second-highest in the state, with a harvest of 472 turkeys.

THA 15, found in portions of Burlington and Camden counties, represented the third-highest harvest last year, with 243.

Other zones producing high harvest numbers include areas 5 and 22. THA 22 is found in the southern portion of the state, while THA 5 is in extreme northern New Jersey in Sussex County. Over 50 percent of the land holdings in this hunting zone are in public ownership, which equates into excellent opportunity for hunters from a part of the state that lacks good access to private lands.

New Jersey's spring season is managed by way of six separate time segments. The first five correlate with the five weeks of the season (Monday through Friday), minus Saturdays. The final segment covers the four Saturdays.

Hunters apply for permits by way of a lottery system. They can file applications through late February. (Last year's final date was Feb. 23.)

The pickup period begins in mid- March. Over-the-counter sale of leftover permits begins in early April. As you would expect, the top areas and dates fill up quickly.

Despite being depicted as highly industrialized, New Jersey still 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," notes biologist Tony McBride. "That land is in combination with several state wildlife management areas. It is also contiguous with several other public-land areas as well. Basically, it makes up the Kittatinny Ridge in northwestern New Jersey. It's in an area that had high poult productivity this 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 opportunity.

"In the southern part of the state, Cumberland County (THA 21) has a lot of public land that's open to spring hunting," McBride continued.

"At present, Cumberland County boasts some of the highest harvests in the state, as well as the highest success rates."

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

As McBride noted, Cumberland County boasts most of the public acreage in this area. Ones significant in terms of size -- as in 2,000 acres and up -- 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 lie in Cumberland County.

Recently, the DFW offered an option to apply electronically for turkey hunting permits. The program was so successful that paper applications were eliminated, starting last year.

Hunters can apply directly via their home computer, or can visit a participating license agent to do so. Logging on to www.njfishandwildlife.com, the DFW's Web site, and clicking on that link will bring up the application.

Also starting last year, the DFW established separate application periods for the spring and fall hunts, thus eliminating the need for hunters to apply for the fall hunt several months in advance.

Despite its modest size and areas of suburban expansion, Delaware hosts a significant wild turkey population. Wherever habitat is available, the state's wild turkeys do 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.

Wildlife biologists feel that this year's spring hunt should provide good opportunities for hunters, similar to what they have experienced during recent years.

Ken Reynolds, Delaware's wild turkey biologist, said that wild turkey populations remain relatively stable. Harvest numbers run from 120 to 150 birds each year. Population trends, in regard to age-class, run pretty consistent with those found in New Jersey and Maryland. In 2007, Delaware experienced a good hatch that will provide plenty of juvenile birds for the upcoming season.

Reynolds said that breeding conditions were favorable in 2006, which should mean fair n

umbers of 2-year-old birds. His agency received some "pretty good reports from hunters," he said. At present, Delaware's wild turkey population is estimated at 3,500 birds, well distributed throughout the suitable habitat found in the state.

In regards to 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, 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 like Delaware, which has limited public hunting lands boasting suitable wild turkey habitat -- the odds would have to favor the private land hunter. During last season's hunt, 89 percent of the birds harvested were taken from private land. Still, the hunter lacking access to private land should not be deterred. There remains a respectable amount of public land, though it does require a permit.

Permits can only be used on the property for which they were issued.

"Redden State Forest has a good wild turkey population," Reynolds said. "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 in 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 also found on this state forest. Large tracts have been timbered. Though a large portion of Redden is contained in one contiguous block, the tract is also made up of several satellite parcels.

According to the Delaware Division of Wildlife, the state's 2007 spring season will run from April 12 through May 2. 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.

The season segments for public-land permits are:

'¢ For Area A, April 12-18,

'¢ For Area B, April 19-25, and

'¢ For Area C, April 26 through May 2.

No Sunday hunting is permitted.

For Delaware's spring turkey season, shooting hours are a half-hour before 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 made of vegetation or camouflage material. Artificial decoys are also permitted. For safety reasons, Delaware hunters are not permitted to wear clothing that has the colors red, white or blue.

All first-time Delaware turkey hunters must successfully complete a turkey-hunting safety class. Beginning with the 2009 spring season, hunters will have to have taken one of these classes before they may apply for a public-land permit.

Find more about Mid-Atlantic fishing and hunting at www.midatlanticgameandfish.com

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