North Carolina's Best Turkey Hunting

Turkey hunters set another record in 2009 as the flock continued to expand. Here's the outlook for this year. (March 2010)

Author Mike Marsh took this gobbler on the edge of a prescribed burn for wildlife enhancement.
â–ª Photo by Mike Marsh.

North Carolina's turkey hunters never had it so good. From a fledgling flock in the 1970s, the statewide wild turkey population stands at more than 150,000, with a new population study underway that will likely show an overall increase.

The 2009 spring gobbler harvest of 12,579 set a record, topping the former record of 11,706 that was set in 2006. The harvest dropped to 10,082 in 2007, and then increased in 2008 to 11,313. The new harvest record was a milestone, considering the increase was more than 11 percent from the year before.

However, the record harvest was tempered with bad news from the northern Piedmont and mountain counties, where a six-year winter season has been terminated because of a reduced spring gobbler harvest. Although the harvest was never significant, between 98 and 181 turkeys, it allowed the harvest of hens, which made up around 40 percent of the total harvest. The winter harvest is not included in spring harvest numbers and was 98 birds in 2009. The counties where the winter season was held included Alleghany, Ashe, Caswell, Granville, Person, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, Watauga and Wilkes.

At the winter season's inception, a threshold for spring gobbler harvest of 0.75 per square mile was established. That threshold was breeched in five of the 10 counties. Having the season open in some of them was not effective management.

The most likely cause for the decline is poor reproduction and poult survival. With any wildlife population, it is always better science to err on the side of caution. The winter season was never very popular, so it's doubtful that any but a very few diehards will miss the season. But the season closure may send into obscurity traditional fall and winter hunting methods, such as using dogs to track and flush turkeys, or flushing them off the roost and using assembly calls to lure the birds into returning. While the 2009 total spring bearded turkey harvest was up for the state as a whole, not all counties produced an increase in gobblers. The harvest increased in 68 counties, stayed the same in three counties and declined in 29 counties.

Biologists such as the N.C. Wildlife Resources Southern Coastal Management biologist Vic French also fret that, although the birds now inhabit and provide a hunting season in every county of the state, the population at some point will reach saturation, then begin to decline as urban development confiscates former wildlife habitat.

"We're a long way from that, now that development has been halted by the current economic conditions," French said. "But it's something we have to consider for the future."

French is among the most avid wild turkey hunters in the state and worked on the state's Wild Turkey Project to restore and enhance the population throughout his long career. He said the biggest increases in turkey populations and harvests will likely continue to occur in the Coastal Plain, while turkey harvest increases are leveling off in the Piedmont and mountain regions.

Summer brood surveys, which offer an estimate of brood survival and gobbler carryover, are one of the mainstays of turkey management. These surveys go out to professionals and private citizens who have an interest in turkeys. The surveys cite adult gobbler sightings, hen sightings and the number of poults with hens.

"Our brood survey sample numbers are competent to give an indication about what's going on with turkeys across the state," French said. "But our sample size is staying the same while our turkey population is increasing. Our reproduction and survival rates may be better than were anticipated based on our summer surveys and that could have resulted in the surprising 2009 harvest record."

French also said that some of the Piedmont counties, such as Montgomery, Stanly and Richmond, have historically led Piedmont harvests and have stable or stabilizing populations. Other counties such as Randolph are coming on strong.

Northern Piedmont counties, such as Northampton and Halifax, continue to impress everyone. These counties have traditionally held good populations of turkeys and have excellent habitat, without much chance for real estate development to destroy habitat.

At the same time, some of the counties with building populations of turkeys are also having an impact on new hunter success. With more practice and growing knowledge of turkey-hunting techniques, hunters in coastal counties like Tyrrell, Carteret, Pender and others are getting better at killing turkeys, and, once they have taken their two gobblers, are helping other hunters take their gobblers.

French said a weather front in late May and early June 2009 may have negatively affected the coastal turkey population -- an impact which would show up as a reduced harvest in some coastal counties in two years from now (since 2-year-old gobblers make up most of the spring harvest).

Weather also influences spring harvests. In fact, it's probably the most important factor in determining how many gobblers hunters kill. Good weather over the first Saturday and through the following week of spring season directly results in high hunter success. If it's cold, windy and rainy, hunters don't have the best of luck because many stay home and gobblers are not as responsive to calling because windy or rainy weather puts a damper on breeding activity. Statewide, the 2009 season had good weather opening week, which likely was a key contributing factor in high hunter success rates.

For public land hunters in this part of the state, some of the best coastal game lands include Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land in Bladen County, Columbus County Game Land in Columbus and Brunswick counties, Angola Bay Game Land in Pender and Duplin counties, Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County and Croatan Game Land in Carteret, Jones and Craven counties.

NORTHERN PIEDMONT
Jason Allen is the commission's acting Northern Piedmont Management biologist and the crew leader at Caswell Game Land. He said based on the summer brood survey, 2009 was another good reproductive year.

"Our hunting was excellent and our continuing sightings of hens with poults for the last two seasons should mean our good hunting will continue into 2010," Allen said. "Our best game lands are Caswell, Butner-Falls and Tillery. Hyco also has a few birds."

Jordan, Butner-Falls and Tillery have permit hunts, so hunters

should be aware of this and put in their applications ahead of next year's hunts. Caswell does not require a permit for turkey hunting. It is the top draw in the upper Piedmont for turkey hunting.

"Our management program for Caswell has changed over the last seven or eight years," Allen said. "It's a CURE area, with habitat improvements for upland game. Hunters should expect to see fewer food plots and more early successional habitat work, but the CURE work is also benefiting turkeys."

Other excellent choices for hunting in the central region include the Uwharrie Game Land in Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties. Sandhills Game Land is another good bet in the lower Piedmont counties of Richmond, Hoke, Moore and Scotland. Alcoa Game Land in David, Davidson, Montgomery, Rowan and Stanly counties is another good bet for spring gobbler hunting.

Joffrey Brooks is the Commission's Management Biologist for the mountain region. He said poor reproduction over the last several years has affected the turkey population in some areas.

"But it looks better this year," he said. "Our brood count was much better and I saw two hens with 12 poults last summer. There have been lots of years when we didn't have a good hatch."

Brooks also said a good acorn crop should help turkey survival.

"Our acorn crop above 3,500 feet elevation was excellent in 2009, with some white oak at the lower elevations and a good beech crop. A good mast year helps turkey survival over the winter and also tends to keep the birds on public land."

Overall, the amount of early successional habitat is still declining in the mountains and that habitat type is necessary for reproduction and poult survival. Most of the habitat in the 530,000-acre Nantahala National Forest is mature timber. The U.S. Forest Service is not meeting a goal of 3 percent of early successional habitat, and much more than 3 percent is needed to enhance wildlife populations. A lack of logging and logging roads, which provide forest openings, keeps the turkey population level in decline. Controlled burns are the most productive habitat enhancement activity for turkeys on the national forest property. A shift in attitudes by the public that do not favor timber harvests is depressing forest openings.

But on commission game lands, turkey management is different in two ways. They are much smaller than the large national forest areas, but the land management practices are more intensive.

Needmore Game Land has 4,000 acres of excellent habitat. Cold Mountain has 3,200 acres, Toxaway, 10,000 acres, and Sandy Mush, 2,600 acres. Cold Mountain is surrounded by Pisgah National Forest, so the game land has some excellent hunting.

Something that has to be considered when hunting the mountain region is that most of the landmass is in national forest property, and that's why the public lands produce so many turkeys. But the Commission Game Lands program produces better habitat, so turkeys are more concentrated.

Game lands habitat improvements include maintaining and planting logging roads, controlled burning, planting food plots and maintaining openings by mowing. Some of the game lands have excellent bottomland habitats, including Needmore and Sandy Mush. Sandy Mush also has about 800 acres of openings planted for doves and other small game. The mixed habitat, which consists of former farms, is a top draw, but is only open for hunting three days per week. That's an effort to limit hunting pressure on the turkeys, as the game land is close to relatively large populations of people.

Kip Hollifield is the commission's Eastern Mountains Management biologist. He said poult production has been fair. Weather fluctuations with cool, rainy weather during the peak of the hatch in May and June of 2009 could have affected survival. But there were some reports turned in of late broods.

Hollifield said the eastern mountain counties are becoming saturated with turkeys. Ashe, Wilkes, Avery, Mitchell, Caldwell and Rutherford counties probably have all the turkeys they can hold. But growing populations are still occurring in Lincoln and Catawba counties, which have more private land than public land.

"With the flattening out of the population, we will continue to see annual fluctuations in harvest based on weather and reproduction," Hollifield said. "I don't think there will be any huge changes unless we get some more brood habitat."

Hunters who have access to private lands should take advantage of their good fortune and promote forest openings by mowing or planting food sources such as clover and chufa.

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