Virginia's Spring Turkey Hunting Prospects

Virginia's Spring Turkey Hunting Prospects

Turkey harvest numbers showed a marked decline in 2004. Are better times ahead in 2005?

Photo by Mark & Sue Werner

Many if not most Virginia spring gobbler hunters relish going afield on new grounds, so when a few days before the season was to begin last April 10, I received an invitation to hunt an unpressured Botetourt County farm on opening day, I eagerly accepted. A quick scouting trip to the property revealed that the farm was overrun with gobbling birds. Indeed, one mature tom was so hot that he actually approached my position, even though the only noises that had come from me were some crow calls and the sounds of footsteps on dry leaves. Obviously, I selected that longbeard to concentrate on for the opener.

Well before sunrise on April 10, I was on the same hardwood ridge where I had located the gobbler a few days before. And as I had expected, he quickly came to my position after I had emitted a few yelps. I heard the old boy drumming before I saw him, his fan appearing above the crest of the ridge. A minute or so later, the tom, at a distance of 12 yards, poked the top of his head above the lip and peered about. For long seconds or minutes (who really knows how much time elapses in a situation such as this), the tom scanned the forest. Finally, I decided to squeeze the trigger on my 12 gauge -- after all, even though I prefer a head and neck shot, a head shot was available and the bird was so close. How could I miss? Of course, I did. Later, from the landowner, I learned that the bird was casting his gobbles down the mountainside the next morning.

After I missed that gobbler, I decided to seek out one of the other longbeards. At 9:35 a.m., I called in another one; this bird pulled the same "head over the crest, I will go no farther gambit." This time I waited for a better shot . . . which never came. Thirty-five minutes later, I called in yet another gobbler, but that longbeard hung up at 45 yards. Finally, at 11:50, another tom sounded off, but I had to leave that raucous bird because turkey hunting must cease at noon. Four gobblers called in, and no trip to a check station for me.

The next week I hunted Monday through Wednesday, sitting in driving rain every morning and hearing mostly the sounds of silence. The following week, I hunted every morning except one before school on a succession of Western Virginia farms and never heard a gobble. Obviously, I needed a change of venue for the third week of the season.

I called a Botetourt County beef cattle grower, an individual who maintains very tight control over who hunts her property, and asked if I could try her place on Wednesday. She gave me permission to do so, and on that morning I went straight to a ridge where I had heard a tom during the pre-season. So straight did I go that I bumped the bird off the roost. Later that same morning, I called the landowner and pleaded for permission to go to her land on Thursday. She kindly assented.

The next morning, the gobbler sounded off from the same ridge, but this time I was well down the point instead of crowding the roosting area. Then the duel began. The longbeard marched down the mountain -- and well away from my position -- and began strutting in a linear field. I resisted the urge to move on him, instead issuing a few soft yelps about every fifth time he gobbled. At 6:40 a.m., the gobbler moved onto my ridge, but the only shot I had was of his fan and once again, the top of a tom's head. Seeing no hen, the bird left, and I was left to ponder my incompetence.

I have never had much luck "recalling" in mature gobblers, but I decided to cut loudly when the tom wandered off. Amazingly, he turned around and paraded right up the ridge toward me. At 6:58, the bird was 25 yards away and facing me. The shot was easy and my Virginia turkey season was over, I having killed two birds the previous autumn.

In many ways, the preceding anecdotes were typical of what many Old Dominion hunters experienced during the spring of 2004. First, there were pockets (like the Botetourt County farm I hunted opening day) where turkey numbers were excellent. That explains why state hunters did tag 14,388 toms last year.

Second, however, many public and private lands (like the places I went afield on the first and second weeks of the season) that normally held birds did not in 2004. That helps explain why the statewide harvest declined 20 percent from the 17,988 tally of 2003.

Sportsmen east of the Blue Ridge especially endured hard times where the harvest plummeted a disheartening 25 percent from 11,810 to 8,194. West of the Blue Ridge, hunters also experienced less success as the kill there declined from 6,178 to 5,474, an 11 percent downtick.

Third, 2-year-old toms were at a premium this past season. I believe that many of the turkeys that I did hear and were exceedingly difficult to call all the way in were 3- and 4-year-old longbeards that are not as likely to come charging in as the 2-year-old birds. Older birds often "demand' that hens come in to them, a behavior that overly eager 2 year olds are not as likely to exhibit, and a major reason in most years why Virginians kill by far more 2 year olds males than from any other age group.

This theory is at least partially born out by the fact that the 2002 hatch was very poor, leading to a real scarcity of birds from that year-class in 2004. The 2002 juvenile-to-hen ratio was 1.4. This figure was the worst since the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) began recording this data in 1979.

What this means for the coming season is that Commonwealth sportsmen can expect to encounter very few 3-year-old toms.

The fourth lesson to be taken from the preceding anecdotes is that those Virginians who ultimately punched tags last year were, in many cases, those individuals who, like me, hunted as often as possible until they limited out or the season ended. I will hunt every Saturday and every morning before school until I tag out. That persistence counts more than the deficiencies I have as a spring gobbler hunter.

Finally, the rain that blanketed much of the Old Dominion the first full week of the season likely had a negative impact on the kill. Many hunters failed to go afield then; others hunted only an hour or two before giving up, and a few hardy souls (or fools, as my wife describes people like me) sat soaked in the woods and went home cold and miserable without a tom slung over their shoulders.

The effect of all these factors can be seen when we examine the harvest figures beyond just what took place in the state's two regions and individual counties.

In 2004, the top 10 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were Bedford (532), Franklin (516), Pittsylvania (468), Scott (366), Halifax (309

), Patrick (306), Grayson (286), Botetourt (276), Rockbridge (273) and Southampton (265). Let's contrast those tallies with the top 10 counties from 2003: Bedford (648), Pittsylvania (604), Franklin (586), Botetourt (419), Scott (368), Halifax (368), Patrick (336), Rockbridge (321), Campbell (313) and Amherst (303).

Several things immediately stand out. Eight of the counties made the top 10 list in both years; the only changes were that Campbell and Amherst dropped out in 2004 with Southampton and Lee replacing the duo. All eight of those "returning" counties, however, experienced a lower harvest in 2004.

The decline in these harvests was largest in the case of the top three counties: Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania (a decline of 116, 88 and 136, respectively). Scott County's decline, on the other hand, was just two birds. The major point is, though, that all these counties endured drops, and most had significant declines.

Another relevant fact, and this, too, points out the across-the-board harvest drop, is that the ninth-ranked county in 2003 -- Campbell with a harvest of 313 -- would have finished in fifth place with that total in 2004. Elsewhere around the state, the following are the counties that recorded tallies of over 200. In alphabetical order, they are Amherst (236), Campbell (229), Carroll (255), Floyd (255), Giles (236), Lee (256), Northumberland (203) and Wythe (225).

Amid all these disappointing harvest figures, Virginia turkey enthusiasts can at least take some consolation in the fact that the Old Dominion was not the only state that has suffered a decline in the gobbler kill and overall turkey numbers.

West Virginia, for instance, experienced a harvest decline from 12,535 in 2003 to 10,461 in 2004. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources biologist Jim Pack, the turkey project leader, attributed the Mountain State's drop to the cold, wet weather that has occurred during the previous two nesting and brood-rearing seasons -- the twin bugaboos that have so impacted the Commonwealth's turkey population. Other states in the Southeast and Northeast endured similar harvest drops for the same reasons.

Gary Norman, turkey project leader for the VDGIF, stated that the poor recruitment in 2001, 2002 and 2003 has resulted in a decline in the state's turkey population. As was true in West Virginia and other nearby and bordering states, Virginia's turkey flock experienced largely negative weather conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing periods of spring and summer during those three years.

THE COMING SEASON

But what about our prospects for the coming season? Two major factors will be the 2003 hatch (again the 2-year-old tom dynamic) and whether there will be many jakes present from the 2004 hatch. Unfortunately, Dave Steffen, forest wildlife program manager for the VDGIF, does not have good news.

"The 2003 juvenile-to-adult-hen ratio was 2.0, which is among the worst hatches on record," Steffen said. "Only the 1997, 1998 and 2002 hatches were worse. So there will be a scarcity of 2-year-old gobblers in the woods this spring, as well as there not being many 3-year-old gobblers. Hunters could find things very tough this spring."

It would seem, then, that a possible salvation for this spring will be whether or not the 2004 hatch was a good one. VDGIF biologists never know for sure how productive one year's hatch is until they have had a chance to examine the harvest figures for the fall season and determine how many juvenile birds were a part of the kill. At press time, the fall 2004-05 turkey harvest figures were not available; the season did not end until the first Saturday in January. However, Steffen reveals that the game department has some preliminary information available.

"During the summer, we received mixed reports concerning the number of brood sightings," he said. "In some places, observers reported a lot of poults; in other places, the reports were not so favorable. I emphasize that these brood observations are not formal and that, again, the main indicator is the juvenile-to-adult-hen ratio. However, the reports do seem to indicate that we had a better hatch than the ones we have had the past few years. On the other hand, the hatches have been so bad the previous three years that just about any kind of hatch would have to be better. I guess you could stay that we are cautiously optimistic about the 2004 hatch."

If jakes do make up a high percentage of the male gobblers trumpeting in the Old Dominion woods this spring, Steffen speculates that hunters could be in for interesting times. Of course, an old Chinese proverb, which also doubles as a curse, goes "May you live in interesting times."

"Before I came to Virginia, I was a biologist in Mississippi, and the jakes that we had down there often did a lot of gobbling even when there were adult birds around. But my experience in Virginia is that the jakes don't gobble very much in the spring. Perhaps this is because the jakes in Mississippi hatch out earlier than the Virginia ones do and have an extra few weeks of growth before the season begins. Of course, this is just speculation on my part.

"But with the possibility that a higher percentage than normal of the males available this spring will be jakes, I think it will be very interesting to see how the jakes will react to this situation. Will they be more aggressive in their gobbling? Will they be much more willing to come in to a hunter's calls? Will they come in strutting? We do know that jakes are just as capable of mating as 2-year and older birds."

Two major changes in the Old Dominion's spring gobbler season were initiated last year: a youth day the Saturday before the traditional opener (this year, the youth day will be April 2) and all-day hunting the fourth and fifth weeks of the season. Youngsters tagged 191 birds last year on the initial youth opener April 3.

"The department was very proud of the public's participation in the youth hunting day," Steffen said. "We don't know for sure how many people participated, but the harvest figure was very impressive. The youth hunting day is a great way for people interested in youngsters to encourage them to go hunting."

Regarding the afternoon hunting segment of last year's turkey season, Steffen relates that the VDGIF does not know how many sportsmen took advantage of the extra time afield. This year, in the state's spring gobbler survey, there will be a question concerning hunter participation.

One thing that the department does know about afternoon hunting success rates is that the percentage of birds killed during the fourth and fifth weeks changed very little. For example, in 2004, 12 percent of the total harvest took place in the fourth week. Each year from 2001 through 2003, 10 percent of the harvest occurred that week. Last year, 9 percent of the total harvest took place in the fifth and final week. From 2001 through 2003, that percentage was 7, 7 and 9, respectively. Steffen maintains that these statistical differences are insignificant.

For instance, he says that two reasons a higher percentage of birds were killed the fourth week in 2004 could be that the poo

r weather earlier in the season kept people from hunting and toms from gobbling.

This year, Virginia's spring gobbler season is slated to begin April 9 and run through May 14. The limit is one per day (bearded turkeys only), three per license year, no more than two of which may be taken in the fall. For the April 2 youth day, youngsters must be 15 years of age and younger and accompanied by an adult. From May 2 through 14, the hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. For more information on turkey hunting, consult the state's Web site: www.dgif.state.va.us.

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