Mid-Atlantic Fall Turkeys

Photo by D. Toby Thompson.

If numbers reveal anything, fall turkey hunters are a hard-nosed group who take their sport seriously. And as each year passes, they are getting better at busting a bird.

In 1997, for instance, when New Jersey's 11-member Fish and Game Council initiated the Garden State's first fall turkey season, that year's harvest accounted for a total of 167 birds -- from both public and private lands. (Keep in mind that during the fall season, a hunter is limited to one bird of either sex.) Furthermore, the following year that harvest figure declined to a mere 152 birds.

But never underestimate the cunning of turkey hunters, as can be shown by harvest rates for the 2000 season, when hunters registered 239 birds. The following year, they upped the ante to 258. Now we're starting to show some progress -- and progress it is, considering that fall is the most difficult time to hunt turkeys.

While harvest figures didn't necessarily decline

dramatically, they did level out. For example, during the fall season of 2002, the number dropped from the previous high of 258, mentioned above, down to 208.

Not shabby at all, despite the slight decline!

But the numbers continued to decline, however slightly: In fall 2003, turkey gunners harvested 179 birds, followed by a take of 177 in 2004, and 120 birds in 2005. Finally, during the 2006 fall season, harvest numbers kind of "hung in there," with 124 birds being taken.

Despite that drop to 124, you must also take into consideration the ratio of poults hatched during the springs of those years. If the previous spring was wet and miserable, the hatch rate would be poor -- and the following fall season would be correspondingly bad.

Regardless of numbers, New Jersey's fall turkey season continues to be popular, especially with that die-hard group of gobbler gunners who would rather give up breathing than miss a turkey season.

Garden State turkey gunners have the run of 13 Turkey Hunting Areas (THAs). New Jersey's hunters must also obtain a permit for the fall season, which is site-, or THA-specific.

Translated, that means a turkey hunter who applied for a permit in THA 4, for example, is required to hunt within the confines of that THA only. No exceptions!

In addition, Maryland and Garden State hunters are restricted to a bag limit of one bird of either sex during fall, as opposed to the spring season when hunters can obtain additional permits to hunt additional birds.

There are, however, some not-so-subtle differences in the manner in which you may hunt birds during the fall season compared to the spring. In fall, for instance, New Jersey hunters are allowed to use a dog to "bust up" a flock of birds, after which the hunter will attempt to call the turkeys back. Of course, that dog must also be trained to remain statue-still during the recall process.

Despite my own ignorance concerning "turkey dogs," the National Wild Turkey Federation mentions using a dog for the fall season.

Another regulation in New Jersey allows hunters to break up a flock of turkeys by "rushing" them (or using a dog), but also clearly prohibits "driving" turkeys. Quite succinctly, the rules governing the fall season vary greatly from those turkey gunners usually follow during spring, but read New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife's 2011Wild Turkey Season Information booklet closely, if for no other reason than to be sure you are hunting within the law.

One final note concerning the law -- or regulations, if you will. In the Garden State, turkey hunters are not required to wear blaze orange. But it's a good idea to wear some orange when entering and leaving the woods. It's just common sense.

All well and good. But where are the Garden State's the top-rated turkey hunting zones, or areas? Before delving into the so-called hotspots, hunters new to fall turkey season should understand that unlike the spring gobbler season when all THAs are in play, the fall season restricts turkey hunting to only THAs 1 through 11 and 20 through 21.

THAs 1 through 11 lie in the northern quadrant of the state, while 20 and 21 are in the southern portion.

Jim Sciascia is the DFW's chief of Information and Education. Concerning the state's fall turkey season, he has his fingers on the pulse of what is happening and where.

"I think the prospects look good this fall for several areas, including the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located in Morris County's THA 7, and Maskells Mill Pond in Salem County (THA 20). In addition, one excellent prospect for the fall includes Sparta Mountain WMA in Sussex County (THA 7).

"I mention Sparta Mountain not only for its sizable turkey population, but also because nearly 1,000 acres were added to this WMA within the last year or so, thus giving turkey hunters much more elbow room and subsequently a much better opportunity for a quality hunt," he said.

Sciascia also wouldn't hesitate to recommend Weldon Brook WMA, also in Sussex County (THA 7). But he said hunters also tend to overlook some great hunting opportunities to the south.

"Though we mentioned Maskells Mill Pond WMA in Salem County, areas like Thundergut Pond WMA in Salem County (THA 20) rarely get the publicity they deserve. That particular WMA has an excellent population of turkeys and is another of the WMAs that have had recent acreage additions. These additions are often in the hundreds of acres," he said.

Additionally, for the last few years, the poult count in and around the region of Indian Springs WMA has been good to excellent. This is one WMA that offers plenty of elbowroom in addition to an excellent population of birds.

How did fall turkey hunters fare last season? Sciascia said a strict accounting is difficult, but overall harvest rates are slightly down.

"The fall harvest for the last two seasons has been down, but a lot of variables can affect the total harvest. For instance, we know fall population estimates have been stable during the last five years. The number of permits issued has also been relatively stable, though they (the permits) did decline last year by about 10 percent.

"Consequently," he said, "we have no way of knowing how many hunters obtained permits as opposed to actually going out and hunting. It's possible that weather for the one-week season could affect harvest totals by keeping hunters out of the woods due to wet or excessively hot conditions. We just don't know how those adverse weather conditions would affect turkey activity patterns."

Finally, Sciascia said New Jersey's only efforts at promoting the fall turkey season are directly connected to turkey hunting in general, including the spring season.

"We (the division) really do not have a program aimed directly at promoting the fall turkey season. The only thing we do is to conduct our annual Youth Turkey Hunting Day where youngsters participate, usually for the first time, in turkey hunting. Thus, one can logically figure that if youngsters decide they like turkey hunting, they will usually take advantage of the fall season as well as spring season," Sciascia said.

Undeniably, if Garden State turkey hunters had their druthers, they'd open the entire state to fall turkey hunting rather than only some of the northern THAs and two in the south.

MARYLAND'S FALL SEASON

Hunters in Maryland were asked whether they wanted to "expand" the fall season from its current one-bird for one-hunter bag limit, and all of them said essentially, "Nah, leave it the way it is."

Unusual? Not according to Bob Beyer, associate director of Maryland's Game Management Program for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"Unlike New Jersey, when a hunter takes a bird during the fall season, even though there is a one-bird limit, in Maryland, that single bird is subtracted from the total hunters may harvest during the spring season when they can take more than one bird," Beyer said. He added that hunters were also concerned about the potential for over-harvest should the fall season be expanded.

Just as New Jersey's fall seasons are restricted to only certain areas of the state, the fall season in the Old Line State is conducted in only the state's three westernmost counties: Allegany, Garrett and Washington.

Despite that restriction, however, Maryland hunters fared reasonably well last fall, according to Beyer.

"We've been staying in the approximate range of 200 birds, plus or minus, for our fall seasons," he said.

"During the 2004 season, among the three counties, Maryland hunters felled 205 birds. And during the 2005 season, the total was 137, ending up with last year when 207 birds were taken."

This fall, however, the population should be good for fall hunting, Beyer said.

"We've had reports of hens with five to six poults. But that's still average, perhaps a bit better than average. One must be mindful, though, that the information (for the fall season) is anecdotal, since much of it is based on telephone calls from hunters reporting what they've seen," he said.

"Nevertheless, the count is encouraging. I'd estimate last spring's hatch somewhere between fair and good. It wasn't great, but it was still pretty good," Beyer said.

Maryland hunters are not required to purchase a fall turkey permit. "All one needs is a valid hunting license," Beyer said. "But hunters new to the game must also understand that if they take a bird, reporting that bird is mandatory."

Additionally, as of 2005, electronic game reporting procedures were implemented in Maryland. According to the Maryland Game Program's Annual Report, it's unknown whether that made a difference in the reported numbers.

If you're seeking a new place to try for a fall turkey, or if you're new to the fall season, four excellent Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in Maryland offer exceptional opportunities. Each area is certainly worth a try.

For starters, Billmeyer-Belle Grove WMA is located in eastern Allegany County and has some of the top-rated turkey hunting in the state. Belle Grove is comprised of 1,066 acres. That's small compared to some WMAs with thousands of acres, but this area has the necessary food supplies like mast crops to entice turkeys to remain in the area.

Also important, however, is what biologist say are the two factors that determine hunter success. One is hunter participation, which can account for sometimes a nearly 60 percent difference in harvest rates.

The other equally important factor, however, is poult production. And according to reports, the Belle Grove region has a "high" success rate of hatches and poults per hen.

Consider Dan's Mountain WMA, located in western Allegany County. This WMA would seem custom-made for turkey as well as turkey hunters, but it is no small parcel. Comprised of 9,510 acres, Dan's Mountain is primarily hardwoods, with good mast crop production and equally good poult production. The NWTF mentions this WMA in one of its previous reports focused on Maryland and rated it as tops for fall turkey gunners.

Another good pick is Mt. Nebo WMA, located in southwestern Garrett County. This WMA contains 1,860 acres of excellent turkey habitat. Hunters will find an abundance of hardwoods that, in turn, offer good mast crop production.

Admittedly, I've never had the opportunity to hunt this region, but fellow hunters with whom I rub elbows tell me this WMA is custom-made for the avid turkey hunter and supports an excellent population of birds.

Finally, Indian Springs WMA, along the southern border of Washington County is comprised of some 6,400 acres of prime turkey hardwoods, fields and wetlands.

Mast crops in this area have been reported as being between good to excellent. There are plenty of areas for turkeys to scavenge through for morsels like worms and grasshoppers, considered tasty hors d'oeuvres by discriminating turkeys worldwide.

Jim Sciascia wouldn't hesitate to recommend Weldon Brook WMA, also in Sussex County (THA 7). But he said hunters also have a tendency to overlook some great hunting opportunities to the south.

Additionally, for the last few years, the poult count in and around the region of Indian Springs WMA has been good to excellent. This is one WMA that offers plenty of elbowroom in addition to an excellent population of birds.

By the way, hunters unfamiliar with the Maryland WMAs suggested here need only visit the state's Web site at www.dnr.state.md.us, and type in "Wildlife Management Areas" in the search engine. Once there, you'll find these WMAs, plus specific directions to get to each one.

If you're heading to the autumn turkey woods for the first time, be certain to familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations of the state within which you'll be hunting.

Remember, there are a few significant changes to the fall regulations compared to the spring season. For instance, in the Garden State, spring turkey hunters are required to be out of the woods by noon.

Conversely, during the fall season, hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. That's the entire day, folks.

Also, in New Jersey, just as during the spring season, any bird harvested must be reported. But once you take that bird, you're done. One bird per hunter, per season is the limit. The same applies in Maryland.

Beyer stressed the recent implementation of the state's electronic reporting system, and fall turkey gunners should keep this in mind: "We no longer have those check stations where hunters can bring and register their birds. Now reporting the taking of a bird is done entirely by computer (electronically), but hunters are required to do this."

Again, like New Jersey, Maryland has no strict requirements pertaining to the wearing of blaze orange. But wearing at least a blaze orange hat or vest when entering or leaving the turkey woods is not only a good idea, but one that just might save your life.

As a closing thought, especially for those who may be taking to the fall woods for the first time this year: Expect to put a lot more miles on those old hunting boots than you would during the spring season.

Fall turkey hunting is tough and challenging, but turkey hunters are an innovative and creative lot. If there's a lawful and ethical way to call-in or take a last-minute bird, a turkey hunter will find it. Good luck, and above all, hunt safely.

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