Virginia's Outlook For Fall Turkey Hunting

Virginia's Outlook For Fall Turkey Hunting

The Old Dominion's turkey flock has taken some hits in recent years. Are better days ahead?

Flanked by Amherst's Tim Hoden and Goodview's Freddy McGuire, the author admires a bearded hen he shot last November during Virginia's fall turkey season.
Photo by Bruce Ingram

Mae West once said that too much of a good thing is wonderful. And though I'm sure she wasn't referring to the wonderful happenstance that Virginia's early muzzleloader and early turkey seasons coincide in late October and early November every year, she just as well could have been. That's why on the first Saturday of November last year, Goodview's Freddy McGuire, a pro staffer for Primos Game Calls, and Amherst's Tim Hoden, a school administrator for Amherst County Schools, and I laid out our game plan to deer hunt in the morning, turkey hunt at midday and deer hunt again late in the afternoon.

All of us saw a randy Franklin County 8-pointer chasing does in the morning, but the buck was not a shooter and the does were scrambling away from the buck too fast for us to risk a shot. And so it was that while we were on the way to Freddy's Bedford County house late in the morning, he dialed up his wife, Amy. She reported that turkeys had been spotted in a field near their home and that maybe we should try there first.

When we arrived at the farm, we each went in separate directions. Just minutes after our arrival, I heard shouts from Freddy and Tim and glimpsed birds running past. Soon the three of us reconnoitered, and Freddy instructed me to set up in front of him and Tim. Freddy had already tagged a bird and wanted to save his two remaining tags for the spring, while Tim desired to save all three of his tags for the spring. I, on the other hand, had not killed a bird that fall and had no qualms about punching a tag.

The three of us then began belting out kee-kees, clucks and yelps and not long afterward, I heard McGuire hiss: "They're on their way from your left."

I quickly mounted my 12 gauge, but the birds had come upon us so quickly that several of them spotted my suspicious movement. The two lead birds began the species' alarm notes -- those dreaded putts that indicate that the gig is up. But then Freddy and Tim initiated a brilliant strategy that helped us overcome my blunder. McGuire began to purr and cluck very contentedly, while Hoden scratched in the leaves. One turkey paused just long enough for me to shoot.

Later as I was affixing a tag to a Bedford County turkey, I realized that I had just killed my first bearded hen.

Unfortunately, the sight of Old Dominion sportsmen placing tags on fall turkeys last year was not a common one. Just 5,656 birds made their ways to check stations, a decline of 14 percent from the 2003-2004 season harvest of 6,556. The harvest dropped 22 percent west of the Blue Ridge (2,938 to 2,285) and 7 percent east of the Blue Ridge (3,618 to 3,371).

The top 10 counties (with the harvest in parentheses) were Scott (205), Bedford (181), Franklin (174), Pittsylvania (164), Shenandoah (160), Halifax (155), Amelia (149), Rockbridge (122) and Buckingham (118).

A number of these counties broke into the top 10: Scott, Shenandoah, Halifax, Rockbridge and Buckingham.

The degree to which the harvest has declined can be seen by comparing the harvest figures of the top 10 2003 counties. They were as follows: Franklin (282), Pittsylvania (249), Bedford (207), Giles (176), Botetourt (174), Montgomery (166), Floyd (159), Amelia (154), Craig (146) and Bland (145).

The 205 turkeys that Scott recorded in 2004 to lead the state would have been good for only a fourth place finish in 2003. More indications of the drop can be seen by noting that Pittsylvania's harvest plummeted from 249 to 164 and Franklin's from 282 to 174.

Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIG), explains the reasons for the fall off.

"The decrease in the fall turkey harvest was likely due to a combination of the effects of mast crops and reproduction," Norman said. "Mast, acorns, in particular, have a negative relationship on harvests. When acorns are abundant, the fall turkey harvest typically declines. Conversely, when there are no acorns to be found, the harvest tends to increase.

"The most significant impact of mast on fall turkey harvest is seen with significant changes between years in acorn crops. In other words, little change in fall turkey harvest can be expected when mast conditions are the same from year to year. However, significant changes in harvest can be expected when mast crop abundance changes from good to poor or poor to good."

Norman stated that last year, acorn crops were generally improved across the Commonwealth compared to recent years. This fact was a major reason the fall harvest dropped. During years of good mast crops, birds move less and have smaller home ranges. They also spend more time in the woods where hunters are less likely to spot them. During mast failures, turkey forage more in fields and agricultural areas and are more easily found.

The second major reason for the decline was the general overall drop in the state's turkey numbers.

"The turkey population has suffered from below-average reproduction over the past several years," Norman noted. "Population levels have declined in recent years with poor recruitment since 2001. These observations have been shared by adjoining states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions as well.

"Fortunately, it appears that reproductive success improved in 2004, so a slight rebound in the turkey population may be expected. Despite the good news for recruitment in 2004, several years of above-average recruitment will be needed to restore population levels to those seen in 2001."

Norman's comments on the uptick in poult production are backed up with figures. Comparing 2004 to 2003, the average poult/adult hen ratios were as follows: North Mountain (3.0 to 2.3), South Mountain (3.4 to 2.4) North Piedmont (3.0 to 1.0), South Piedmont (2.8 to 2.0), Tidewater (3.7 to 1.0) and state (3.1 to 2.0). This is a major improvement from one year to the next and gives turkey enthusiasts some hope for the coming fall season.

Further indication of this improvement -- and why it was needed -- is seen in the 26-year average for the regions: North Mountain (4.0), South Mountain (3.6), North Piedmont (2.8), South Piedmont (3.2), Tidewater (2.6) and state (3.2). So, in brief, the 3.1 ratio last year was almost identical to the 26-year average of 3.2. There should have been more hens availa

ble this past spring than in previous years to enter into the reproductive process.

Another major factor, emphasized Norman, is inclement weather during spring nesting and brood rearing.

"Colder March temperatures are believed to delay the onset of breeding and nesting, which can result in diminished reproductive effort," he said. "Additionally, higher rainfall amounts in April have been associated with poor nest success. Nest predation may be higher under those conditions, as predators are likely to be more successful scenting and finding nesting birds in cool, moist environments.

"Conditions appeared to be worse in the western part of the state for reproduction as declines in the wild turkey population and fall harvest have been more significant there than in eastern Virginia."

Predicting how good an upcoming fall turkey season will be is always a very iffy affair. The VDGIF staff never knows for sure how good reproduction has been in any given year until they have had a chance to analyze the feathers taken from the birds that were checked in. For example, the 2005-2006 season will end on Saturday, Jan. 7. Some two months or so after that, feather samples will have been analyzed and only then will we know how good reproduction was during the spring and summer of 2005.

But one thing from last spring is of concern and may or may not have a bearing on reproduction. This past March was colder than normal and snowfall occurred in much of the state even in the middle of the month. Did those colder temperatures delay the onset of breeding and thus hurt reproduction? Again, it is too early to know for sure.

GOBBLER STUDY

A fascinating study involving turkeys is now under way in Virginia and West Virginia. The project, "Hunting and environmental effects on gobbler survival and gobbling in Virginia and West Virginia," is a joint undertaking of the VDGIF and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with principal investigators being Gary Norman of the former and Jim Pack of the latter agency. The study began in the fall of 2004 and is slated to run until the summer of 2007. Some of the objectives are as follows:

  • Determine survival of wild turkey gobblers and impact of hunting seasons.

  • Annual and seasonal differences between gobbler survival rates by age.

  • Annual and seasonal gobbler survival rates under different fall mast conditions.

  • Annual and seasonal differences among gobbler survival rates by fall season format (West Virginia has a four-week season while Virginia has a split six-week season.).

  • Annual and spring season survival differences between states with different season formats (opening prior to peak egg-laying [Virginia] vs. after peak egg-laying [West Virginia]).

  • Determine gobbling patterns and differences in gobbling between different spring season formats (early start vs. late start; with vs. without Sunday hunting). Virginia is one of the few states that do not allow Sunday hunting while West Virginia allows Sunday hunting in some of its counties.

  • Determine effects of weather and mast conditions on gobbling rates.

  • Determine effects of hunting pressure on gobbling patterns, behavior and movements.

  • Determine effects of preseason calling on gobbling patterns during hunting seasons.

  • Determine age-specific gobbling rates.

    For the turkey enthusiast, all of the above are fascinating topics. For instance concerning the last objective, I would love to know how much 3-year-old toms gobble in comparison to 2-year-olds and jakes. And finding an answer to the next to last objective would resolve one of the most common points of contention among turkey hunters, that is, does preseason calling "educate" birds.

    The Virginia research team has selected two study areas for our state. One is in the western mountain region and the other will be in either the Piedmont or Tidewater. The Mountain State site will be in its eastern area. Seventy males will be trapped and outfitted with a backpack transmitter and a necklace data logger. The latter will be configured to record the number of gobbles in two-minute intervals.

    PUBLIC LAND POSSIBILITIES

    One aspect of turkey hunting that never changes from year to year is that the 1.8 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest remains an important destination. One of the best ways to locate birds in the national forest is to bowhunt for deer during the first three weeks of October. Spending time in a stand is a great way to tune in to turkey talk in the morning or to hark to the sounds of birds flying to roost in the evening. Remaining on stand throughout the day will also allow you the chance to observe what turkeys are foraging on. Then, when the season does begin in late October, you will have an idea of where to go, as well as on what the birds are feeding.

    Wildlife management areas are other potential destinations. In the western region, among the best bets are the Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres), Gathright (13,428 acres), Goshen-Little North Mountain (33,697 acres), Havens (7,190 acres), Hidden Valley (6,400 acres), Highland (14,283 acres), Rapidan (10,326 acres) and Thompson (4,000 acres) WMAs.

    In the Piedmont region, solid choices include the Amelia (2,217 acres), Briery Creek (3,164 acres), Horsepen Lake (3,164 acres), C.F. Phelps (4,539 acres) and Powhatan (4,462 acres) WMAs. Turkey hunters in the Tidewater region will have to basically depend on gaining access to private land or being members of a hunt club. For more information on the state-owned WMAs, consult the VDGIF's Web site at

    www.vdgif.state.va.us. For more information on hunting the national forest, consult the agency's Web site at

    www.fs.fed.us/gwj. Or you may call (540) 265-5100.

    THREE QUICK TIPS FOR SUCCESS THIS AUTUMN

    Here are three tactics that hopefully will increase your chances for success come the season-opener.

    First, master the kee-kee run. If I were restricted to just one type of caller for fall turkey hunting, it would be a double reed diaphragm. And if I were restricted to just one sound that I could make with it, that sound would be a kee-kee run. A double reed excels at simulating just the right pitch and "wee-wee-wee" sound needed to lure jakes and jennies.

    Many times, young turkeys will utter a wide variety of sounds. Jakes often half gobble on the roost and sometimes when they fight. Both sexes emit plenty of clucks, purrs and yelps. But no sound seems to make a young bird come running, especially if a flock has been scattered beforehand, than a kee-kee does. After you bust a flock, wait 15 to 20 minutes and then begin kee-keeing. Repeat this sound every five or so minutes, and if you don't receive a response, ratchet up the loudness and urgency of your calls.

    Second, master the art of sitting still for long periods. When I first began turkey hunting, I was an advocate of the run-and-gun school for both the spring and fall seasons. To be sure, I killed birds, but not as consistently as I would have liked. The last five years or so, I have been doing a great deal more sitting and a lot less running -- and have been tagging a lot more birds.

    The inspiration for my newfound ability to sit still came from a veteran turkey hunter. He told me quite simply: "If you call them, they will almost always come ... eventually." Sometimes the birds will charge in 15 minutes after I sit down and sometimes two or three hours later. But the amazing thing is that what the gentleman said is true. If turkeys are in the area, they will sooner or late answer your calls and investigate the source.

    Third, when in doubt, bust a flock. Sometimes when I am fall turkey hunting, I will call and then eventually see a flock feeding toward me. Chances are that I could have made no sounds whatsoever and the birds would have continued in my direction.

    But most of the time in most situations, I believe the prudent tactic to implement is a bust. Most of the time when I have seen a flock feeding some distance away, the gang passes quite some distance from me. The best way to handle this situation is to wait until the assemblage has gone behind some kind of obstruction, then run toward the gang and scatter its members.

    Virginia turkey fanatics can only hope that the 2005 reproductive year was a better than average one. That more than anything else will determine how many gangs are present in the woods this autumn.

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