Virginia's Spring Turkey Forecast

Virginia's Spring Turkey Forecast

What are the prospects for the upcoming spring gobbler season in Virginia? Here's what the research and stats have to say. (March 2009)

One of my most important axioms for hunting spring gobblers is not to make a duel with a longbeard personal, as in the case of an individual who proclaims that he is going to chase after one certain tom to the exclusion of all others and either he will kill that bird or the season will end before our hero relents. That type of attitude leads to ruination.

Author Bruce Ingram with a tom he called in and killed last May 6. The Botetourt County gobbler's best spur was 1 inch long and it had a 9-inch beard. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

So last Tuesday, May 6, before going to Lord Botetourt High School where I teach, I returned to the Botetourt County farm where 11 days earlier, I had shot at -- and missed -- the only gobbler I had called in the entire first three weeks of the season. Since I had killed two birds during the fall season, I only had one tag left. That tag had remained stubbornly attached to my hunting license like a tick to a hound dog, however, as I had endured the worst April of my turkey-hunting career. Indeed, one of my ninth grade English students had asked the following question:

"Mr. Ingram, why haven't you killed a turkey? All my dad's friends have."

The questioning was made worse by the fact that I tell my students that every time I kill a turkey they receive five extra credit points on the next vocabulary quiz, so numerous students were daily inquiring about my hunting success. Or as one of my 10th graders had proclaimed: "Mr. Ingram, I need those points bad," he said. I was too frustrated to even correct his grammar and tell him that he should have said "badly."

So, on that May morning, I had decided to go after the same bird that had already beaten me two other times that season, not including the time I shot and missed. Predictably, the old boy gobbled hard on the roost, and I ran toward him in the morning murk, setting up about 75 yards distant. After settling in, though, I heard two gobblers behind me, 150 yards up the opposite ridge.

It was then that I remembered my own maxim about making a contest personal, so I left the closer bird and quickly ran up the mountain toward the duo. Not wanting for them to see me in the rapidly approaching dawn, I set up in a funnel 100 yards down the mountainside and positioned a decoy 15 yards in front of my position.

Scratching out some sleepy tree yelps on a slate, I was thrilled when all three of the area's gobblers went berserk at the sounds. Fighting off one more time the inclination to go after my long-time adversary below, I pivoted toward where I thought the duo above would appear.

As I had expected, the gobbling peaked right before fly-down time, then stopped as all three of the toms likely flew down and strutted. All this time I had remained silent, but the moment had now come to let out some more urgent and louder yelps, as time had become a factor. For I still had to hopefully call in and kill one of the toms, run down the mountain, check him in, stuff him in the refrigerator in a black trash bag (please don't tell my wife, Elaine, that I do that), drop off my 12 gauge at the house, and change clothes and drive to school.

Then I glimpsed two ebony forms marching down the mountainside. For a brief time, the twosome seemed to hesitate on which way to go, toward the "hen," or toward the longbeard down the mountain in order to settle some ancient scores. It was then that I recalled a hen decoy was in place, so I emitted two light yelps.

Those sounds made the longbeards break toward me, and it was only a matter of which tom would first come close enough to be greeted with a volley of No. 4 Remington Premier Magnum shot. The one who did so had 1-inch spurs and a 9-inch beard and left only a few feathers behind in the refrigerator. So few that I was able to give a convincing shrug when Elaine asked me how the feathers came to have arrived there (I think she's on to me).

As far as my students and their extra credit points go, first period was euphoric to receive theirs on the weekly Tuesday quiz and apparently had text-messaged the news to my second period class, for they entered the room with the knowledge that they had five additional points coming to them as well.

Fortunately, many Virginia sportsmen did not have to endure the frustration that I did last spring, as 15,037 toms were checked in, making the harvest 7 percent higher than the 2007 total of 14,090. Counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains boasted a 7 percent increase, with a harvest of 9,840 birds compared with 9,180 birds the season before. The kill of 5,193 in counties west of the Blue Ridge was an uptick of 6 percent over the 2007 total of 4,910. The top 10 counties (with harvests in parentheses) were Bedford (525), Pittsylvania (501), Franklin (446), Southampton (373), Halifax (354), Botetourt (311), Sussex (306), Wythe (262), Campbell (258) and Patrick (256).

Additionally, youth hunters reported taking 238 birds during the early youth hunt on Saturday, April 5; the year before, young hunters tagged 235 birds on the corresponding Saturday.

The overall kill increase may mean turkey numbers are up statewide.

Gary Norman, supervisory research biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), believes that the increase occurred at least partially because of favorable weather conditions. There may also have been more 3-year-olds available, as the weather was poorer in 2007, especially during the opening week. Cold or wet weather, like what hunters experienced too often in 2007, may have caused many hunters to stay home or endure less success and resulted in the 2007 2-year-old toms surviving to age 3. Perhaps, the 3-year-old tom I killed (or like the longbeards that maybe some of you tagged) was one of the lucky ones that survived because of those factors.

Nevertheless, Norman emphasizes that the increased 2008 kill is encouraging in light of the poor reproduction that has occurred in recent years. Two-year-old males dominate any state's spring harvest. This age-class is typically greater in number and more likely to gobble. In 2008, the 2006 year-class obviously made up the bulk of the harvest.

The biologist noted that the index of reproduction for 2006 was below average. The index is based on the proportion of young birds reported in the fall harvest. Age and sex ratios are determined from feathers of the birds that hunters check in. These successful hunters submit certain specified feathers in envelopes, and VDGIF staff members are able to age and sex the birds based on feather analysis.

Of course, the 2007 hatch will drive the upcoming 2009 season. So, what was the 2007 hatch like and what is Norman's forecast for the 2009 season?

"It's been several years since we had a good hatch," Norman said. "Reproduction was below average in 2007, so the 2-year-old age-class will be light. I expect little change in the 2009 spring gobbler kill, plus or minus 5 percent, depending on the weather on weekends during the season."

Reproduction has indeed been substandard much of this decade. To understand how poor reproduction has been, let's examine the annual and averaged annual poult/adult hen ratios determined from feathers of harvested fall birds. The 28-year average for the regions is as follows: North Mountain (3.8), South Mountain (3.4), North Piedmont (2.7), South Piedmont (3.0) and Tidewater (2.4). The state average is 3.1. Keep in mind that the averages have been falling because of the substandard results this decade.

Now, let's examine the ratio for 2006 and 2007 by region, as those will be the 3- and 2-year-old gobblers we will pursue this year: North Mountain (2.2 and 1.4), South Mountain (2.5 and 1.9), North Piedmont (2.0 and 2.7), South Piedmont (1.4 and 1.5), Tidewater (0.8 and 1.2) and state (1.8 and 1.7). There are some abysmal results here, especially in the Tidewater Region, as reproduction has been particularly low there both years.

Relatively speaking, the North Piedmont has enjoyed the best reproduction, but even there, the two-year average of 2.35 has been below the 28-year average of 2.7.

GROUSE AND TURKEY SURVEY ROUTES

Since 1994, the VDGIF has compiled its "Grouse and Turkey Survey Routes" data. This is yet one more indicator of bird populations.

"The number of gobblers heard per route in 2008 showed a modest increase," Norman said. "Little change or a slight increase in gobblers heard was expected based on poor recruitment in 2006."

Grouse and turkey route cooperators make two runs, recording the number of grouse heard drumming and turkeys gobbling. In 2007, the first-run average for turkeys was 1.8 and the second was 1.9 and the overall average was 1.8. The year 2008 showed a slight increase with a first run of 1.9 and a second of 1.8 and an overall of 1.9. This is a statistically insignificant figure, but at least it was a small increase -- better than a decline every time.

THE HARVEST 'SQUARED' RESULTS

Yet, another way to gain insight into turkey populations is by studying the kill per square mile of forest habitat (KSMFH) figures. Many hunters and state turkey biologists believe that the KSMFH is a better indicator of a county's bird population. So, I decided to see how many counties in the top 10 harvest had a KSMFH figure of .90 or better, reasoning that any county that recorded just less or better than one gobbler per square mile must have a solid turkey contingent.

Alphabetically, here are those counties with a figure of .90 and above: Bedford (1.17), Floyd (0.98), Franklin (1.0), Grayson (0.99), Isle of Wight (1.14), Lancaster (1.27), Loudon (0.91), Matthews (1.09), Middlesex (0.93), Northampton (1.82), Northumberland (1.50), Richmond (1.17), Southampton (0.99), Surry (1.02), Westmoreland (1.37), Wythe (1.15) and York (0.91).

Thus, 17 of the state's 98 counties had a figure of .90 and above, and 11 had 1.0 or above with two of them, Grayson and Southampton, barely missing at 0.99. Of the 13 with .99 or more, only four of these (Bedford, Franklin, Southampton and Wythe) made the top 10 overall harvest list.

Conclusions from this part of the data would strongly indicate that the four counties listed above are absolutely marvelous places to try to gain private land access this spring. This quartet is not only accounting for numerous toms, but the habitat is quite good as well and there's plenty of it.

How about the six counties (Pittsylvania, Halifax, Botetourt, Sussex, Campbell and Patrick) that made the top 10 harvest but had KSMFH figures of less than .90? Does quality hunting exist in that sextet? Here are the KSPFH for these counties: Pittsylvania (0.80), Halifax (0.65), Botetourt (0.81), Sussex (0.78), Campbell (0.79) and Patrick (0.73).

So, in regard to quality hunting existing, I would say that the counties of Pittsylvania, Botetourt, Sussex, Campbell and Patrick do indeed host good turkey populations, but that the presence of Halifax in the top 10 harvest list is more a function of the county's size than abundance of turkeys. Please note that I am not saying that Patrick is a poor place to turkey hunt, but the KSMFH seems to indicate that its lofty position in the top 10 is definitely overrated.

Here's another relevant question: Does the KSMFH figure ever cause a county to be overrated? The answer is possibly. For example, Matthews is a small Tidewater county that had a KSMFH of 1.09, a very impressive number. But the county's harvest was only 60 in 2008 and 31 in 2007. If the county is so small in size that not many farms or rural areas exist, then it may be difficult for hunters to gain access in that domain.

The meaning of all this is perhaps the overall harvest figures and KSMFH never should be the sole indicators of a county's potential. Other factors to consider could include the presence of lack of public land, how much of the county's land is leased, and the long-term harvest trends of the domain.

PUBLIC LAND OPPORTUNITIES

The 1.8-million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF) remains the most important public land for turkeys in the Commonwealth and is an important part of my game plan every year. In 2008, for example, on a pre-season scouting foray to the national forest in Botetourt, I heard five longbeards sound off and obviously placed that particular parcel on my "to-go-to" list for April.

Early in the season, I visited the Botetourt portion of the public land and to my surprise, heard not five gobblers but seven on one small parcel. Unfortunately, a pack of dogs came running through the forest, ruining my hunt. On a subsequent visit to the parcel, I didn't hear a single bird.

My point is, though, that quality hunting exists on the GWJNF. One of the reasons I often visit the parcel mentioned earlier is that it borders a private-land farm that contains an excellent mix of woods, fields and cultivated areas. The turkeys typically roost on the national forest before heading for that private land, and my plan is always to attempt to intercept them before they reach the boundary. Generally, some of the best hunting on the national forest exists on land that borders private land. Just make sure that you do not trespass and know where boundary lines are.

A number of quality WMAs exist as well. Some of the traditionally productive ones include Powhatan, Briery Creek, Turkeycock Mountain, Big Survey, Hidden Valley, Clinch Mountain, Fairystone, Havens, Gathright, Goshen, Little North Mountain, Highland, Rapidan, Thompson and Phelps. More information on public land can be found on the Game Department's Web site at www.dgif. virginia.gov. Information can also be found at www.HuntFishVA.com.

LAST WORDS

I asked Gary Norman if he had any last words.

"Readers can cooperate with a department survey of spring hunters by contacting me (through e-mail) at gary.norman@dgif.virginia.gov or calling (540) 248-9389," he said.

The annual spring gobbler survey is easy to fill out and gives the VDGIF valuable information about our outings, duels with gobblers, and weather conditions, among other things. I have participated for years and enjoy doing so.

The youth spring gobbler hunt day is Saturday, April 4. The regular season begins the following Saturday, April 11. From April 11 through May 2, the hunting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise until noon. From May 4 through May 16, the hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. The limit is one per day, bearded turkeys only. Hunters may take one, two or three bearded turkeys in the spring depending on how many turkeys that particular hunter took in the fall season. No more than two turkeys can be taken in the fall.

Find more about Virginia fishing and hunting at: VirginiaGameandFish.com

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