Top Spots To Get Your Turkey In Carolina

Top Spots To Get Your Turkey In Carolina

Here are some recommendations that will help North Carolina hunters find concentrations of gobblers close to home this season. (April 2008)

Author Mike Marsh took this gobbler at a coastal game land in southeast North Carolina. Wiregrass ridges covered with turkey oaks and longleaf pine are typical habitat for turkeys.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

Turkey hunters are the most secretive of all hunters. Once a turkey hunter locates a roosted gobbler, he usually becomes squinty-eyed and paranoid, never looking another turkey hunter directly in the eye. In fact, it's less rude to ask, "How much money do you make?" than ask, "Have you heard anything while you were listening for gobblers?"

The answer to either question will be a wince, a sideways glance and a fib. The standard lie to the question of whether a hunter has located any gobblers is, "Nope. I haven't heard a thing."

Ah, but vehicles parked along the roadways in turkey country tell a different story. Hunters park before dawn and as dusk descends, make owl hoots or crow calls, listen for a gobbler's response, then drive frantically to their next listening spot. Such was the case during a scouting foray I made into the vastness of Pisgah National Forest the evening before opening day.

I sat on a ridge overlooking a gravel road with hairpin turns. A steady succession of hunters parked, hooted and listened before the dust from their predecessors' wheels had settled. Any gobbler caring to respond would have worn out his vocal cords after the first half-dozen hooters, and more than a dozen tried to roost a gobbler from that and every subsequent turnout. All the gobblers had been forewarned and the score of the next day's hunt was abysmal for everyone except, of course, the turkeys, who easily avoided the overly ambitious swarm of hunters.

That's one problem with turkey hunting. The more gobblers reputed to be in an area, the greater the hunting pressure. That can make things counterproductive compared with an area with a more modest reputation for producing longbeards. Competition among hunters is a top reason for failure in the turkey woods, at least from my perspective.

Fortunately, with turkey range and numbers expanding, competition is becoming less severe on some public lands. Traditional game lands that once produced numerous turkeys, such as Pisgah National Forest, are seeing decreasing or static harvest statistics. This could be because of a decrease in the number of turkeys achieving adulthood the past couple of seasons, but the declining number of hunters who are picking places closer to home is certainly a suspect cause: Fewer hunters mean, generally, that fewer birds will be bagged.

Pisgah, along with its sister Nantahala NF, have always been tops for turkeys. Sites of the state's initial restoration turkey stockings, these two national forests comprise more than 1 million acres and have also benefited turkeys through excellent side effects of forest management practices, as well as intentional turkey habitat enhancement.

Turkeys thrive especially well at lower elevations and flatter slopes where more timber operations are conducted. Clearcuts make excellent strutting, bugging and loafing areas in their first three years of regeneration. They also attract nesting hens, and this is a key to holding gobblers, especially as the hunting season advances and the hens stick closer to nests.

Prescribed burns also attract and hold turkeys while providing an open forest understory where hunters can see. In the mountains in spring, finding a spot from which to call while being able to see a gobbler coming at 40 yards can be all but impossible, especially after the deciduous tree leaves begin growing. Finding a tree to rest against on ground level is the other problem. I have sat above a tree on a steep slope with my feet against the tree to keep from sliding many times while hunting Pisgah. Sometimes there is a small hollow uphill from the tree that provides extra concealment and good seating. Some mountain hunters never sit. They stand and move around the tree while calling, keeping it between themselves and an approaching gobbler until they can make the shot.

Moving to the Piedmont, Uwharrie National Forest also has excellent turkey hunting. Totaling 50,000 acres, this game land looks like ink splotches across the map of Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties. The patchwork ownership helps space out hunters. But it still gets heavy pressure from its proximity to Greensboro and Charlotte.

Uwharrie hunters have much better access than high mountain hunters. A good road and trail network and less severe terrain make getting close enough to call a roosted gobbler before fly-down time easier. More open forest and timbering operations create excellent turkey habitat and hunting conditions. Food plots are scattered throughout, which attract turkeys as a secondary purpose to providing brood habitat. Controlled burns are conducted routinely and turkey sign, such as dusting areas and tracks, are easy to spot in the firebreaks of the clay soils.

At the coast, the 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest was the site of one of the first stockings of turkeys in the East. It took some time for success, but efforts eventually paid off. While Croatan is located in Jones, Craven and Carteret counties, a check of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission statistics show that the harvest is about evenly distributed among these three counties.

Lowlands like Croatan are distinct from Piedmont and mountainous hunting areas, with flat terrain characterized by low wiregrass ridges, dense bays and hardwood swamps. Turkeys roost in the swamps and fly down to the more open ridges to spend the day, although if the weather is dry, the bottomland hardwoods can hold turkeys all day long. Turkeys spend time in the more open habitats. Clear-cut areas, controlled burns and planted openings attract them while providing nesting and brood habitat.

Croatan hunters should bring insect repellent and wear waterproof footwear. A small stool can also be helpful for keeping back pants pockets dry -- there is water everywhere. While snakes occur in the mountains and Piedmont, they can be more difficult to spot as well as more numerous in coastal habitats, so snake leggings or boots should be worn. I know of one hunter who was bitten on the thumb by a copperhead as he sat down to begin calling, so it also pays to look before you sit.

While national forests offer plenty of turkeys and are open six days per week for turkey hunting to anyone, the opposite end of the access spectrum can offer a higher rate of success. The commission has many game lands that are open for turkey hunting. Some of the best quality hunts occur on the game lands with limited access. National refuges also provide controlled access opportunities.

Pee Dee River National Wildlife Refuge offers permit turkey hunts in the Anson County portion of the refuge. There is a permit youth turkey hunt on the statewide youth turkey hunt day. There is also a one-week permit hunt the first week of the statewide general hunting season. Pee Dee River NWR has many fields planted with small grain crops to attract waterfowl and that incidentally benefit turkeys. The timber management plan includes prescribed burning, which helps open up the woods for turkeys and turkey hunters to exploit. Those fortunate enough to be drawn for this lottery hunt can look forward to a good chance of success in some of the best turkey habitat in the lower Piedmont. For information, hunters should contact the Pee Dee NWR at (704) 694-4424.

The commission's Special Hunt Opportunities booklet and the "Special Hunt Opportunities" section of its Web site list the special lottery permit turkey hunts for game lands. Being drawn for one of these lottery hunts is one of the best ways to maximize potential for harvesting a gobbler, while minimizing competition from other hunters. While the deadline for applying for permits ended March 1, hunters should make a reminder note to apply next year. They can also call the commission's License Sales at (919) 707-0391, or visit a license dealer to see if any permits are available that were not issued. The newest of these permit hunts occurs on the youth turkey hunt date, the Saturday before the regular season. Only youth hunters accompanied by a licensed adult may hunt during these special hunts. There are also regular season special permit hunts and youth-adult turkey hunts available by lottery.

In the Mountain Region, Dupont State Forest and Thurmond Chatham game lands have special permit hunts. In the Piedmont, special permit hunts are held at Butner-Falls, Caswell, Chatham, Harris, Hyco, Jordan, Mayo, Nicholson Creek, Rockfish Creek, Sandhills and Second Creek game lands. In the Coastal Plain, special permit hunts are held at Bladen Lakes, Brunswick County, J. Morgan Futch, Holly Shelter, Lantern Acres, North River, Roanoke River and Suggs Millpond game lands. Some of these game lands offer youth hunt permits only, with the remaining season dates open to all hunters with appropriate licenses, while others require permits for all turkey hunting. There are also youth-adult permit hunts at some of these game lands.

Receiving more hunting pressure, but nevertheless still providing excellent opportunities for wild turkey hunting, are the many commission game lands open on a general basis to anyone with a hunting license, big-game permit and game lands use permit or an appropriate combination license covering these hunting privileges. Here are some of the top choices.

Toxaway Game Land is located in Jackson and Transylvania counties. It contains 11,651 acres of high-relief mountain terrain. Turkeys may be found anywhere on the game land. The foot travel hunting trails primarily run the ridgetops and stream bottoms. There is a vehicle access agreement with Gorges State Park that allows hunters to access Toxaway Game Land through the park to get to the four-wheel-drive vehicle trailhead beginning at Turkey Pen Gap. This access road is called Auger Hole Road and is the only vehicle access inside the Toxaway Game Land. But there is some walk-in access from N.C. 281 along the northern boundary of the game land.

When driving through the park to access the Toxaway Game Land, guns must be unloaded and cased with ammo stored separately. Hunters must drive straight through the park without stopping and must follow all park rules while in the park. At the end of turkey hunting season, the lock is changed on the gate and hunters turn in their keys. Hunters must have a four-wheel-drive vehicle licensed for highway use. The road through the park is gravel surfaced. But hunters must ford the Toxaway River and Bear Wallow Creek within the park.

They must also camp within the game land if staying overnight. There are five primitive campgrounds inside Toxaway that can be used by hunters, including one at Bear Creek, another one at Horsepasture River, two at Bear Camp Creek and one near the South Carolina border. Hunters can call the Gorges Park ranger's office at (828) 966-9099 for access information on how to obtain a gate key.

Buffalo Cove Game Land is located in Caldwell and Wilkes counties. The 6,634-acre tract is a relatively new addition to the game lands program and has some good turkey hunting. It is mountainous terrain but has some good access along Buffalo Cove Road and Cove Branch Road.

Located in Haywood County, Cold Mountain Game Land has 3,295 acres of high-relief terrain. Cold Mountain has an excellent system of access trails and roads, with many of them gated for foot travel only during turkey season. The excellent access is a rarity among many of the mountain game lands with rugged terrain.

Also, in the Mountain Region, South Mountains Game Land is a great place for turkey hunting. The game land covers 19,781 acres in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties. This game land has some high-relief terrain and has some good vehicle and foot access. There is a CURE upland restoration area on the site, which benefits turkeys as well. Gated roads with parking lots at trailheads provide access. There are two primitive campsites for hunters who want to camp overnight for several days' hunting at the six-day-per-week game land.

In the Piedmont, the 17,198-acre Caswell Game Land is one of the state's traditional public areas for hunting turkeys. Located along the magical northern tier of counties along the Virginia border, the game land has produced plenty of turkeys since restoration began. The terrain is rolling and not difficult to get around in. It has a good mix of food plots and timberland with excellent vehicle and foot trails throughout. There is a CURE upland research area on the game land. This is aimed at quail primarily, but turkeys also benefit from the opening of the forest canopy and prescribed burning conducted on the CURE site.

The game lands of the southeastern part of the state are increasingly adding to harvest statistics. In Duplin and Pender counties, the Holly Shelter-Angola Bay game lands complex produces around a dozen turkeys each spring. Angola Bay is open six days per week with no permit required. Holly Shelter has nearly 65,000 acres and Angola Bay has approximately 25,000 acres of primarily swamp and pocosin habitat. Prescribed burning has helped turkeys along in these otherwise marginal habitats. Holly Shelter is open three days per week with permits only required for the youth hunt date.

Green Swamp Game Land contains 15,420 acres in Brunswick County and has some turkeys in the pocosin and wiregrass ridge habitat. Growing season burns have helped open up the forest to produce some turkeys.

Columbus County Game Land consists of several widely spaced tracts along streams and river bottoms. There are many turkeys in the swamps. But the trouble with hunting them is that swamps are inundated by water during wet springs. Under wet conditions, there isn't much high ground. But when conditions are dry, turkeys can be hunted effectively.

In the northern Coastal Plain, Chowan Swamp Game Land in Bertie, Gates and Hertford counties offers some good turkey hunting,

along with some good access. The large game land has a variety of riparian habitats with access by roads and by boat from the Chowan River. The game land covers 27,516 acres of river swamp and pocosin, but also has plenty of high ground with good vehicular access. Prescribed burning helps to keep the understory open for good turkey-hunting opportunities. Flood conditions can inundate the swamps and cut down the hunting area. But this can be good in floodplain habitat because the turkeys may roost over the water, but they must fly down to dry ground to go about their daily routine.

In the central Coastal Plain, the newer tracts of White Oak River Game Land offers good turkey hunting. Located in Onslow County, the game land has a total of 2,303 acres, including the waterfowl impoundment area. Hunters can access the Huggins Tract and the other major upland tract from the White Oak River or by vehicle travel from the Bellgrade-Swansboro Road. There is good access by foot and vehicle throughout. The bottomlands along the river provide excellent roosting habitat and typical swamp hunting situations.

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