Expert Tips For Hunting New York Turkeys

Turkeys are thriving in the Empire State. Do your homework now, and you're likely to get your gobbler.

Author J. Michael Kelly packs a nice New York gobbler off a field. Photo courtesy of J. Michael Kelly.

It won't be easy for me to top the memories I collected during New York's 2010 spring turkey season. Hunting in northern Cortland and southern Onondaga counties, I took more than two weeks to bag my legal limit of two toms and eagerly accepted Wayne Masters' invitation to call a gobbler to him, for a change. Masters, a licensed guide and retired DEC fish and wildlife technician, taught me most of what I know about turkey hunting, and I was bursting with pride when I coaxed a long-beard to his gun.

"You did that perfectly," Masters said as he hefted the dead bird.

That's a compliment to treasure, but I'm still humble enough to respect my mentor's turkey-hunting advice, and to share it with New York Game & Fish readers as they get ready for the upcoming spring season.

Masters is excited. He anticipates good hunting even though the wet, cool weather last May and especially in June caused many others to worry about diminished reproduction and a temporary downturn in turkey populations.

"I know this goes against what most of the experts say, but I think the spring hunting in New York is always good," Masters said. "From a hunting standpoint, the population sustains itself quite well."

Although the poults-per-hen ratios noted by DEC volunteers in much of the state were down a bit over the summer, Masters saw enough healthy-looking broods in his backyard hunting spots in 2010 to warrant a sunny outlook. Turkey numbers may dip for a year or two in some locations due to poor nesting conditions, but local flocks quickly bounce back from off years. When conditions for nesting are positive -- warmer and drier than normal -- bumper crops of jakes and jennies can be expected to sprout during the following spring season.

Since the weather varied significantly across the state map in the spring of 2010, DEC gamebird unit leader Mike Schiavone foresees spotty prospects for spring hunters.

"Production during 2010, as measured by poults per hen (tallied during the DEC's summer flock surveys) was improved from 2009 but still below average," Schiavone said. "The spring weather was mixed, with below-average rain in many areas in May, followed by above-average rainfall in June. This led to mixed bag in many areas as far as nest and brood success is concerned."

The ratios of hens per poults counted during the August summer survey by DEC employees and volunteers were, as always, better in some regions than in others. Schiavone reported that brood success seemed to be average or above average in DEC regions 7 (the eastern Finger Lakes and Southern Tier), 4 (the Catskills and their western foothills), and 5 (the big woods country of the Adirondacks).

These days, turkeys of all ages are readily spotted in almost every county in the state, in places where "experts" once discounted their survivability.

"Biologists used to talk about 'typical' turkey habitat, but they don't use that term anymore because as it turns out, turkeys can and do live almost anywhere in New York," Masters said.

Indeed, even bustling, populous Long Island now boasts a well-established flock. Part of the island was opened to turkey hunting in autumn, 2009, although a spring hunt has yet to get off the DEC drawing board.

Until the May 1 opening day arrives, optimistic hunters can improve their odds for success by scouting new spots on public or private lands. For, while turkeys have become almost ubiquitous in our state, some places to hunt natiurally are more productive than others. The following five counties regularly ring up some of New York's largest turkey kills, and figure to shine again this spring.

CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY
Along with the Finger Lakes, Hudson River valley and Long Island, Chautauqua County is a component of New York's wine country, but the beautiful mix of lake plain and forest extending eastward from the Lake Erie is known for gobblers as well as grapes. Last spring it led the state with an estimated kill of 1,350 bearded turkeys.

Although National Wild Turkey Federation researchers have found turkeys pose minimal threats to vineyards (or other agriculture, for that matter) many Chautauqua vintners gladly give the go-head to hunters who seek permission to hunt flat-land wood lots near fruit-laden trellises.

Public hunting locations touted by DEC Region 9 wildlife biologists (reachable by phone at (716) 372-0645) include the Canadaway Creek Wildlife Management Area, located northeast of Cassadaga in the town of Arkwright. Essentially an upland plateau, the Canadaway WMA is split by a series of deep gullies and shaded by stands of tall hardwoods and conifers. Experienced hunters scout for roosting trees at the heads of those gullies, then set up along their rims before fly-down time. The 2,180-acre WMA is best accessed by taking Route 83 east from Cassadaga to Route 79 and then turning right. The county road runs right through the management area.

Other likely places to bag a bird in Chautauqua County include the 200-acre upland portion of Watts Flats WMA, which is about eight miles southwest of Jamestown off Route 305 (Valley Road); and the 2,500-acre North Harmony State Forest, off County Route 85 in the town of Cherry Creek. North Harmony has the classic turkey habitat mix, with extensive hardwoods as well as conifers stretching across hills that are moderately to very steep in pitch.

The Region 9 DEC office has a brochure-map, "State Forests of Southwestern New York," that pinpoints the location of Southern Tier public hunting grounds.

CATTARAUGUS COUNTY
I chatted back and forth with several toms during my two-day hunt at Allegany State Park a couple of years ago, but didn't manage to lure any of those talkative birds into shotgun range. Maybe they'll go for a rematch this season!

Hunting in the 65,000-acre park gives participants a taste of wilderness, yet those who prefer to sit and call within sight or sound of a well-traveled highway also have good odds of success. If you sleep in a park cabin or pitch a tent at one of the park campgrounds the day before you hunt, take a short drive or hike along an interior road at sunset. Owl hoot and listen for a shock-gobbling tom.

You'll need a free hunting permit from the park office in R

ed House, (716) 354-9121, in addition to your standard state hunting license and turkey stamp. Don't leave the ranger's office -- reached by following the signs for about two miles after getting off Route 86 (formerly the Southern Tier Expressway) at Salamanca -- without grabbing a park map. Inadvertently wandering across nearby borders into Pennsylvania or the Seneca Nation Indian reservation can get you into trouble.

Remember, too, that the park is closed to hunting on Sundays, in deference to its popularity with weekending campers and hikers.

Cattaraugus County has 33,000 acres of state lands within its parameters, in addition to the park. Check out the Region 9 pamphlet mentioned above. It clearly shows the location of 23 state parcels, the majority of which are just a short drive from the park. Between Salamanca and Ellicottville, for instance, you will find the 3,110-acre McCarty Hill and 2,905-acre Rock City state forests. Although dwarfed by Allegany State Park, they have plenty of get-away space.

ONONDAGA COUNTY
For selfish reasons I hesitate to tout my hometown hunting to thousands of hunters I've never met, but Onondaga County's turkey hunting is rapidly acquiring a following among mobile sportsmen. I might as well tell them the truth, rather than allow others to exaggerate.

Onondaga County, which wraps around the city of Syracuse, produced 752 bearded birds for hunters in the spring 2010 turkey season. The county's best hunting is on dairy farms and other private property south of the city, but turkeys are so widespread that it's not rare to see them feeding in back yards and undeveloped fields within a few yards of the Thruway and its speeding traffic. State land is limited, yet several public properties are well worth hunting for spring turkeys. In particular, I like the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area.

Three Rivers sprawls across 3,497 acres of flat, poorly drained land just north of the village of Baldwinsville. The management area's upland sections consist mainly of large fields, mowed in 10- to 30-foot wide strips to facilitate dog field trials that are conducted on the property between hunting seasons. After field trialing is over with, pheasant hunters chase stocked birds for several weeks. All this human traffic makes local turkeys exceptionally wary. Yet hunters who pinpoint roosting areas and understand the value of soft, realistic yelps and clucks stand an excellent chance of drawing a big gobbler in close.

Often, the cagiest local toms live on the fringes of the WMA's scattered woodlots, and the further you are willing to hike to get away from the public parking lots off Hencle, Smokey Hollow and Sixty Roads, the better your results will be.

Cicero Swamp WMA, with its boggy, snake-infested terrain, scares some hunters away, but cautious callers bag nice gobblers frequently at Cicero Swamp, which covers 3,750 acres. It's west of Route 298 and south of Route 31 in the town of Cicero.

Morgan Hill, off Route 80 in Fabius, is a 2,300-acre upwelling that's covered with a mix of conifers and hardwoods. Amazingly, although it is pressured hard on the season's opening day, you may have the Hill pretty much to yourself by mid-season arrives.

CHENANGO COUNTY
More than 70,000 acres of public land make Chenango County a favorite destination for hunters during the spring turkey season. The government-administered properties, including the 4,500-acre Pharsalia WMA and 37 state forest parcels, are spread throughout the county, although the majority of acreage is in the northeast quadrant.

Although New York doesn't keep a record of turkey kills on state property, public lands undeniably contributed their fair share of the 852 bearded birds credited to Chenango County last May. Prospects look good this spring, too. The DEC-coordinated summer population survey tallied between 3.3 and 5.0 poults per hen in the East Appalachian Plateau geographic region, which includes most of the county. Statewide, the survey turned up an average of 2.6 poults per hen.

Hunters new to Chenango County should get off to a good start at the Pharsalia WMA, located about 10 miles northwest of Norwich off Route 23. It takes in miles of gently rolling hills, most forested with a mix of beech, maple, birch and evergreens. Small clear-cuts and brushy fields break up the woods at frequent intervals, and turkeys use these places to feed and display, especially on rainy days.

A thick booklet, "Region 7 State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas," is available from the DEC office in Cortland, (607) 753-3095. It shows the locations of dozens of prime hunting spots in the region, including all those in Chenango County.

DELAWARE COUNTY
Get into decent physical condition before you try to Delaware County turkeys. This is Catskill hunting at its challenging best, meaning you often must climb some steep hills -- or modest mountains, if you prefer -- to get to desirable calling locations.

Delaware County hunters tagged 1,018 turkeys during the spring 2010 season, according to the DEC. Only Chautauqua County topped that total.

The 7,141-acre Bear Spring Mountain WMA, which is about five miles southeast of Walton via Route 206, is probably the most popular public hunting area in the county because it has consistently good hunting and relatively easy access. Hunters from the north and west can reach the spot, which features lots of wooded slopes, steep gullies and a few fields in various states of succession, from Route 206, while downstate residents might prefer to take Route 86 to the East Branch exit. From there, it's a short drive north on Route 30 to Shinhopple. A left on Trout Brook Road in that tiny hamlet takes you into the heart of the management area.

Other likely places to bag a bird or two include a pair of state forests in the town of Masonville. The 17,000-acre Masonville forest is off Route 8 and the much smaller Platt Kill forest is along Mountain Brook Road. Both tracts are steep and heavily timbered.

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