Our Top Spring Turkey Hunts

Here's a sampling of 10 of New York's best spring turkey hotspots for 2003.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Rich Barrett


Many New York turkey hunters are understandably gloomy about their prospects going into the 2003 season.

Last May's statewide kill of 7,501 turkeys was the lowest recorded in 10 seasons. Even more discouraging, the cold, wet spring weather was just short of disastrous for turkey reproduction.


After looking into the situation, Dr. William A. Porter, a nationally acclaimed turkey expert at the State University College of Environmental Science in Forestry in Syracuse, predicted a sharp decline in the statewide flock.

Even so, hunters should keep their chins up while they're working those diaphragm calls.


Although last year's rugged nesting climate means fewer jakes will likely be out and about, the bumper crop of poults hatched in 2001 suggests that a healthy number of 2-year-olds will strut into shotgun range this May.

Remember, too, that last spring's weather hindered hunters as much as turkeys. Downpours and high winds frequently made calling fruitless, and undoubtedly contributed to the low tally of toms. Looking on the bright side, the gobblers that got away in 2002 should be sporting even longer beards this year.

Despite annual fluctuations in the flock, New Yorkers can take heart that turkeys remain abundant in all but a handful of upstate counties, on public land as well as private.

Here is a look at some of the better places in the state to bag a bird or two next month:

BEAR MOUNTAIN WMA
Only five counties - Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Steuben and Otsego - logged bigger spring harvests than Delaware County in 2002, even though Delaware's reported kill of 258 birds was its lowest total since the 1980s.

Delaware's prime public hunting ground is the Bear Mountain Wildlife Management Area off Route 206 about five miles north of Walton. Mature forests cover most of Bear Mountain's 7,141 acres, but the steep property also has some old orchards and mowed fields. Hunters may order a map that shows access roads, horse-riding trails and hiking paths from the DEC's Region 4 office in Stamford at (607) 652-7367.

With map in hand, take special note of East Trout Brook Road, which runs from north to south through the center of the property. There are two primitive campsites along the road that are available by permit and would make an ideal headquarters for a weekend hunt.

Bear Spring Mountain campers might want to explore other Delaware County lands as well. Likely spots for turkeys include 17,500-acre Masonville State Forest off state Route 8 in the towns of Masonville, Tompkins and Deposit; and the smaller Platt Kill State Forest off Mountain Brook Road in Masonville.

For assistance in finding overnight accommodations, try the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 642-4443.

TIOUGHNIOGA WMA
The reported harvest of 207 bearded turkeys in Madison County during the 2002 season represented a 15 percent decline compared to the previous spring, and was a far cry from the record 352 birds logged there in 1996. Still, last year's county total was the 11th largest in the state, and Madison should wind up among the leaders again this season.

The 3,600-acre Tioughnioga Wildlife Management Area stands out among public hunting grounds in Madison County. The WMA is off Damon Road about six miles southeast of Cazenovia and is characterized by moderately steep terrain covered with a mix of hardwoods and conifers. It has numerous secluded hollows and small clearings where turkeys can display, nest and tend their broods with a sense of security. Recent habitat work carried out on the property with National Wild Turkey Federation funds should yield increased numbers of adult birds in the long term.

The DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland, at (607) 753-3095, offers a free brochure on Tioughnioga WMA. Madison County's tourism office, at (315) 684-7320, can direct hunters to area lodging establishments.

HAPPY VALLEY WMA
Oswego County's expanding turkey flock has been one of New York's best-kept hunting secrets, but the cat is out of the bag. In the last five spring seasons, Oswego hunters have killed an average of 211 turkeys, including a record 250 taken in 2000.

The best public turkey-hunting spot in the county is the 8,645-acre Happy Valley Wildlife Management Area, off Route 104 in the towns of Albion and Parish.

Turkeys at Happy Valley have benefited from recent habitat projects financed by central New York chapters of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the National Wild Turkey Federation. The NWTF work involved the creation of openings and edge cover in previously unbroken tracts of forest. Those edges are a good place to look for randy toms in the spring.

The greater part of Happy Valley consists of gently rolling, wooded terrain. The WMA is bisected by several local roads and old logging trails, and also has numerous small streams flowing through it.

To get to Happy Valley, drive north from Syracuse on Interstate Route 81 to Exit 33 (Parish). Turn right at the exit and continue on Route 104 until you start to see management area signs (about five miles down the road). A map-brochure on the WMA is available from the DEC Region 7 office in Cortland (listed above).

The Oswego County Tourism office, at (315) 349-8322, is a good source of advice on area accommodations.

ONONDAGA COUNTY PUBLIC LANDS
Another up-and-coming destination for turkey hunters is Onondaga County, where birds are so numerous that morning commuters en route to Syracuse often see gobblers feeding along major highways.

During the spring 2002 season, hunters harvested 198 gobblers, jakes and bearded hens in the county. That's Onondaga's fourth-largest kill in modern times.

Although Onondaga County's best turkey hunting is on private land, residents and visiting hunters do have some viable public-land options.

Take, for example, the under-used Highland Forest County Park south of Route 80 in the town of Fabius. It consists of 3,000 mostly wooded acres and has turkeys in abundance, yet only 22 hunters attempted to call birds at the park during t

he 2002 season. Three of them bagged toms.

Highland Forest is closed to hunting on weekends. Hunters must stop at the park office to obtain a seasonal permit that costs $2. For details, call park officials at (315) 683-5550.

The 2,200-acre Morgan Hill State Forest is another productive public hunting area four miles west of Highland Forest off Shackham Road in Fabius.

North of Syracuse, 3,800-acre Cicero Swamp Wildlife Management Area is another likely spot to find a longbeard. Be forewarned, however, that the swamp's uplands have a flat, monotonous character that can cause inexperienced visitors to get "turned around." Don't hunt here unless you know how to use a compass.

The Region 7 DEC office has a brochure on Cicero Swamp and can also address newcomers' questions about Morgan Hill State Forest. For lodging information, call the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at (315) 470-1800.

CONNECTICUT HILL WMA
Forever famous as the site of Cornell University's pioneering study on ruffed grouse, Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area in Tompkins and Schuyler counties also has a solid reputation among turkey hunters.

At slightly more than 11,600 acres, Connecticut Hill is one of the biggest contiguous tracts of public hunting land in the state outside of the Adirondack Preserve. It can be found by driving south out of Ithaca on Route 13, which runs along its most southerly corner. From Route 13, turkey hunters may probe the interior of the WMA by turning right onto Carter Creek or Connecticut Hill roads. There are also several access roads on the west side of the management area off state Route 6 (Cayutaville Road). Because some of those roads are slippery and deeply rutted, a 4-wd vehicle is recommended.

The hill and its steep terrain impress most hunters. Large tracts of hardwoods are interspersed with stands of pine broken up by clearcuts or overgrown fields. This diversity is beneficial to grouse and deer as well as turkeys.

The odds of success on the hill are good. Tompkins County hunters tagged 130 turkeys last spring, while Schuyler County produced a total of 111.

There's too much good habitat at Connecticut Hill to hunt thoroughly in a season, let alone a single day. Realizing this, many hunters get to know the place by pitching a tent. A free camping permit can be had by calling the DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland, which also offers a map of Connecticut Hill.

For information on area accommodations, try the Schuyler County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 607-4552.

FINGER LAKES NATIONAL FOREST
The Finger Lakes National Forest comprises a bit more than 16,000 acres, making it nearly half again as large as Connecticut Hill WMA. However, unlike the management area, the federal forest isn't a single block of land, but is scattered in checkerboard fashion across southern Seneca and northeast Schuyler counties. Along some of the roads that transect the forest, hunters will find residential yards and privately owned farm fields among parcels of public property that are open to hunting.

To negotiate this maze without stirring up trouble with the neighbors, hunters will need a map. One is available from the ranger's office on Route 414 in Hector on the east side of Seneca Lake about five miles north of Watkins Glen.

In May 2002, turkey hunters in Seneca County had a sub-par year, bagging just 63 birds, their lowest spring total since 1994. Schuyler County hunters fared better. Their tally of 111 bearded turkeys was the county's biggest total in five years.

The Finger Lakes National Forest is a good place to see what both counties have to offer. Newcomers will be surprised to find that only about a third of the forest is wooded. The rest of the land consists of pastures, abandoned orchards, farm fields and brushy cover. Be assured that turkeys are plentiful. The best places to hunt will be where wood lots border corn fields, alfalfa or other crops that supplement berries, insects and other turkey foods.

The ranger's office phone number is (607) 546-4470. Another good source of information on turkey hunting in Seneca and Schuyler counties is the DEC's Region 8 office in Avon at (585) 226-2466.

For advice on lodging, call Seneca County Tourism at (800) 732-1848.

SUGAR HILL STATE FOREST
Known to deer hunters throughout western New York as the site of the annual September Bowhunters Funanza, Sugar Hill State Forest west of Seneca Lake in rural Schuyler County is also a fine spot to bag a gobbler.

Sugar Hill contains 9,085 acres of rolling, mostly wooded terrain. The property is almost entirely forested, with a mix of northern hardwoods and conifer plantations. A network of well-marked horse-riding trails makes access to its remote interior relatively easy.

To find Sugar Hill, go west on Route 23 from Watkins Glen. The main parking area, used for the Funanza, is on Tower Hill Road about six miles out of the village. Directly across the road are several horse trails. They're logical places to start scouting. You should also be able to owl-hoot some gobblers off Maple Lane Road, which breaks off Tower Hill to the south; or along Sugar Hill Road, which is connected to Maple Lane.

Camping is allowed at Sugar Hill on a walk-in basis for up to four days. Longer stays require a permit from the DEC's Region 8 sub-office in Bath at (607) 776-2165. For information on other accommodations, try the Schuyler County tourism unit, listed above.

ERWIN WMA
Steuben County hunters reported taking 289 turkeys last spring, the fourth-highest county harvest in the state.

Of several viable public hunting grounds in the county, Erwin Wildlife Management Area, five miles west of Corning, is the best bet. The WMA's 2,500 acres have an abundance of second-growth oak and hickory trees along with a sprinkling of softwood plantations. The property is bordered by fertile farmland in the Tioga, Canisteo and Cohocton river valleys, and the terrain is moderately steep in most places.

Access to Erwin WMA from the north is via Smith Hill Road off the Coopers Plains exit of Route 17. From the south, try Weaver Hollow Road off the Gang Mills exit from Route 15.

The management area is laced with hiking trails that provide turkey hunters with convenient entry to the more remote areas of the property.

The DEC Region 8 office in Avon has a free map of the WMA and a brochure that shows the location of other state properties in Steuben County. For tips on nearby accommodations, contact the county Conference and Visitor's Bureau at (800) 284-3352.

RATTLESNAKE HILL WMA
Hunters

who feel crowded at other wildlife management areas can leave the rest of the world behind at Rattlesnake Hill WMA, which covers 5,100 acres in northern Allegany and southern Livingston counties.

Art Kirsch, DEC Region 8 game bird biologist, describes Rattlesnake Hill as "quite remote," and says it is not heavily hunted after the first couple of days of the season. Kirsch's office in Avon offers a free map of the WMA.

The WMA is in some of New York's best turkey country - Allegany County's kill of 242 turkeys was the seventh highest in the state last spring. Livingston County hunters reported a harvest of 105 birds, its third-highest total in modern times.

To get to Rattlesnake Hill, take Route 436 west from the village of Dansville, and then turn left onto Walworth Road just past Westview. Walworth dead ends on Ebert Road, which runs through the WMA.

Visiting hunters will find rolling hills with a mix of hardwoods and conifers broken up by occasional brushy fields, open meadows and abandoned apple orchards. There's a very slim chance that hunters might bump into one of the place's namesake serpents, so watch where you sit down!

For lodging information, contact the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce at (716) 243-4160.

ALLEGANY STATE PARK
Talk about elbowroom! Allegany State Park sprawls over 65,000 acres, most of them open to turkey hunting. The park is the largest public hunting ground in western New York and it's conveniently located in the middle of Cattaraugus County, which rewarded hunters with a state-leading 419 birds last spring.

Hunters should try the hills overlooking Park Route 3 and Wolf Run Road, where hardwoods are bordered by meadows that serve as display areas for strutting toms. However, turkeys can be found just about anywhere in the park.

Surprisingly, the park is not hunted hard on weekdays, and a hunter who craves solitude often has a mile or more of prime habitat to himself

Be advised that the park does not allow hunting on Sundays. Also, you will need to obtain a special park permit before entering the property. Permits are available 'round the clock at the park police headquarters.

To reach the park, take Route 86 (the old Route 17) to Exit 19, and then follow the signs to the Red House entrance. A park map is issued with each permit.

For details on park regulations, call (716) 354-9111. While you're on the phone, be sure to ask about the availability of rental cabins or trailer camping sites.

Cattaraugus County Tourism, at (716) 938-9111, can point hunters to lodging alternatives outside of the park.



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