Virginia's Fall Turkey Hunting Forecast

Over the last year, the harvest has been down and the birds are scarce. Are better days ahead for Virginia's turkey hunters? (October 2007)

The author with the Botetourt County bird discussed in this story. Botetourt was second only to Bedford in the fall kill last year.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

A special joy of many turkey hunters is to introduce someone to the fall pastime. So, it was on Sunday evening last Nov. 5, I brought my new son-in-law, David Reynolds of Daleville, on a roosting expedition. Reynolds, who had married my daughter, Sarah, a few months earlier, had expressed an interest in something that I am passionate about -- hunting turkeys in the fall.

We arrived at a Botetourt County farm about an hour before fly-up time and headed directly for a mountain flat where the local birds had been roosting. However, as the minutes ticked down to sunset, no turkeys meandered onto the shelf. One of the marvelous aspects about being in the woods, though, is just because a targeted species does not appear, that doesn't mean the forest isn't a fascinating place.

We watched as squirrels gathered acorns, pileated woodpeckers hammered out turf, and even witnessed a black bear wandering down the mountain. Finally, darkness fell, and I told David that we would check one last potential roost site and then call it an evening.

My son-in-law was leading the way through the grove when he shouted that he had just heard wings flapping in the darkness. I bellowed back for him to start running and yelling, and together we tore through the woods, making as much noise as possible. Ebony forms exploded into flight off their roosts, and I whooped again, this time exclaiming, "Nice job!"

The next morning, David had to work, so he couldn't accompany me on the outing, but I was determined to squeeze in an hour afield before heading for my job as a schoolteacher. As is standard for fall turkey hunting, I returned to the site of the scatter well before sunrise. I cleared away the leaves around the base of a tree, popped in a diaphragm, placed a slate and peg next to my right thigh, and settled back on a seat cushion.

When after autumn flocks, I always like to be the first "bird" to make a call, so I emitted a few sleepy tree yelps. Surprisingly, the response was instantaneous as a roosted turkey answered just 50 yards away -- truly too close. I knew then that I could make no more movements and that the slate call would have to remain unused where it was.

Soon other members of the flock joined in with tree yelps but none more aggressively than the bird nearby. As soon as dawn broke, the turkey flew down and quickly marched around behind me. Why on earth did the creature do that when I was so close?

Once the turkey had ambled to my backside, it took root and began to emit yelp after yelp. For about 10 minutes, this outburst continued until finally I decided to resort to a rather risky gambit. Slowly turning my head around to the other side of the tree, I spotted the turkey's body, but its head was behind a tree that was some 35 yards distant.

I then quickly pivoted the rest of the way around, shouldered my 12 gauge, and clucked to the bird. The turkey's response was to take one step and peer directly toward me. The shotgun roared and a half-hour later at a Botetourt County check station, the hen weighed in at 11.5 pounds. I had enough time to take pictures and stash the bird in our refrigerator (please don't tell my wife) and arrive at school on time.

My good fortune aside, the 2006-07 season was not a satisfying one for the Old Dominion's fall turkey-hunting brigade, which the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) estimates to be about 63,000. Sportsmen checked in only 4,143 birds, a record low for the modern era and an obvious decline from the 2005-06 harvest of 4,428. Overall, the kill dropped 2 percent west of the Blue Ridge and 9 percent east of the Blue Ridge.

Gary Norman, the VDGIF biologist who is most responsible for managing the state's flock, relates that several causes exist for the downturn.

"Probably the cause was mostly the poor reproduction, in combination with good mast conditions," Norman told me. "Typically, we see a change in harvest rates when mast conditions change between years. Harvests go up when mast conditions decline. They go down when mast conditions improve. When mast conditions are the same between years, then the harvest rates are likely the same.

"This can translate into high harvest rates between years if the conditions are bad in both years. On the contrary, we can see low harvest rates when mast conditions are good between both years. The latter is likely what happened during the past two years."

Norman's remarks bear amplification. For instance, as he notes, the past two autumns, the hard mast crop, which for turkeys primarily refers to white and red oak acorns, has been substantial in many areas of the Commonwealth. Flocks have not had to travel far or enter openings, such as agricultural areas and pastures, in search of food. Thus, the turkeys have been less visible -- and vulnerable -- to hunters.

Conversely, in years when acorns are scarce, the birds often have to travel great distances to locate nourishment and are much more likely to come across the paths of hunters. Also, when the flocks do locate food, they tend to stay in one place longer, allowing persistent hunters to zero in on their locations. As the biologist noted, when this scenario plays out, the harvest rate rises.

In addition, as the biologist stated, weather conditions during the reproductive season have not been favorable to turkeys for much of this decade. A series of cold, wet springs have negatively affected nesting and brooding efforts. I asked Norman what kind of conditions would be most favorable for a good hatch, which we desperately need right now.

"An early spring helps, so warm weather in March will advance the spring green up," he explained. "Dry conditions during nesting will help, as predators aren't likely to be as successful detecting nesting hens if the scenting conditions are poor. Some rainfall is helpful to aid in the insect population production, so light rains in early May are helpful. Downpours and cold conditions in May are, however, detrimental to young poults."

If heavy rains occur during the period when poults first hatch, they can, and often do, experience hypothermia. The hen simply cannot protect all her offspring with her body as they "roost" on the ground. Once the feathers and wings of the young birds have developed and they can fly up to roost with the flock hen, their chances for survival increase a great deal.

Another relevant fact about brood success is the local conditions at the time of the hatch. The 29-acre tract that my family lives on in Botetourt County traditionally has annually had a hen nest on it or somewhere nearby. Early almost every summer, we watch as a flock hen parades her poults through our back yard where they search for various wild seeds and fruits with the raspberries and blackberries being special favorites.

During late May of 2005, a period when the poults often hatch, our little plot received a series of late cold fronts and chilly rains. For the first time in years, we did not witness a flock hen and her young ones the entire summer. During late May of 2006, our land experienced warm, seasonable nights with no precipitation. Over the course of the summer, we saw two different flock hens with a total of 23 poults.

The point is that just as the old political saying "all politics is local" is true, so is the aphorism that "all turkey hatch results are local." If you want to have a better idea of the relative number of gobblers around in two years, begin to keep a logbook on when the turkeys hatch in your area and record what the weather conditions were like during that time.

FALL TURKEY HUNTERS DECREASE IN NUMBER

In 1993, the Commonwealth sported about 103,000 fall turkey hunters, and some 40,000 of them have either stopped hunting or pursuing fall birds.

"I recently took a look at a number of factors that could be contributing to the declining fall harvest," Norman said. "I looked at the number of fall hunters, their daily and season success rates, the previous year's spring harvest and other things. The only factor that was significant in the regression equation was the number of hunters.

"Actually, there was another factor that was related, but the relationship was negative. It suggested that as the fall harvest has declined, the success rates of the remaining hunters have increased."

This statement also needs further comment. Bowhunting for deer is tremendously popular and the early muzzleloader season has become so in our state. In the past, when the fall turkey season commenced, many sportsmen would cease deer hunting for a while and pursue turkeys. Among my peer group of hunting friends, very few of us do the same today.

As much as I relish deer hunting, I always cease for a while and think of nothing but turkeys the first week of the early season. The early muzzleloader season exploded in popularity in the early to mid-1990s (when fall turkey hunter numbers were still high) and quite probably has contributed to fewer folks chasing after fall birds.

Another thing that may have negatively affected the fall kill is that many Virginia turkey enthusiasts now save all three of their tags for the spring season. Hunters can kill three turkeys per license year, no more than two of which may be taken in the fall. The fall birds, of course, can be of either sex, while the spring ones must be bearded.

As much as I relish hunting in the spring, I favor the fall season and annually try to kill two birds in the fall, as was the case this past autumn. I don't mind just having one Virginia tag left every spring. My type of thinking, however, is in the minority among hunters, as most state sportsmen today prefer the spring season. And these individuals hoard their three tags (or at least two) until April and that type of reasoning is, of course, understandable as well.

Whether individuals spend or save their tags come autumn, state hunters certainly have been faced with the fact of fewer turkeys being present. Norman shared with me a very important statistic: The annual and averaged annual poult/adult hen ratios are determined from feathers of harvested birds. Over the past 28 years, the state average is a respectable 3.1. However, the 10-year average is a poor 2.2, and the five-year average is an even worse 2.0.

When the ratio is broken down by region, the figures continue to be disturbing. The regions (with the poult to adult hen ratio in parentheses) for 2005 and 2006, respectively, are as follows: North Mountain (2.2 and 2.2), South Mountain (1.6 and 2.5), North Piedmont (1.6 and 2.0), South Piedmont (2.3 and 1.4) and Tidewater (0.9 and 0.8). The ratio from the Tidewater region stands out as being particularly abysmal, and the South Piedmont figure is discouraging, too.

In short, Norman proclaimed that production was below average this past year. He added that Virginia and West Virginia have been working cooperatively on a gobbler survival study.

"We're finishing our gobbler study this year and will have a lot to add next year on gobbler survival and movements," the biologist said.

The results of the study certainly will be a plus on helping state biologists better manage the turkey flock. After the study becomes published, sportsmen in the Old Dominion and Mountain State will also have a better idea on the science involving wild turkeys.

This fall, we will have the standard split season. The early season will run from Oct. 27 to Nov. 9. The season will reopen for one day on Thanksgiving and the late season will run from Dec. 10 through Jan. 5. Please note that these dates are tentative at press time. For more information, consult the game department's Web site at www.dgif.virginia.gov.

WHERE TO GO

Last year, the top 10 harvest counties were heavily located within the Mountain and Piedmont regions. The harvest tallies are as follows: Bedford (157), Botetourt (138), Scott (138), Amelia (132), Halifax (129), Pittsylvania (117), Franklin (105), Shenandoah (102), Dinwiddie (90) and Alleghany (86).

Any of these counties, providing a sportsman has or can obtain access to private lands, can be excellent places to seek out fall birds. Public land is also a very viable option. Norman lists the 1.7 million acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest as a major opportunity.

"As you know, the national forest offers a lot of opportunity for many hunters that otherwise don't have a place to go," he said. "Management on national forest areas is needed, however, to maximize turkey potential as we desperately need brood habitat on this land. It (the lack of brood habitat created through timber cutting and other types of forest clearing) is likely a limiting factor. National forest lands adjacent to private lands with good brood habitat are probably the best bet."

Yet again, Norman offered some sound advice for fall turkey fans. One of the best situations for an individual to strive to accomplish is permission to private land that borders either the national forest or a state wildlife management area. One of my favorite farms to hunt on is a Botetourt County one where a horse enthusiast owns several hundred acres that back up to the George Washington and Jefferson.

Last September, on a scouting expedition, I watched as a flock hen and 11 poults milled around the owner's garden -- and my vehicle -- for some 15 minutes.

Later in the autumn while I was bowhunting, I observed 36 turkeys feeding in the gentleman's field. The birds usually roosted in a national forest hardwood hollow about 200 yards from that field. It was in that hollow one November morning last year that I scattered the flock. Unfortunately, the bust resulted in too many of the assemblage flying off together, and I was unable to call in any of its members.

Nevertheless, Norman's point on the importance of good brood rearing land near public land bears repeating. For more information on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, consult the forest service's Web site at www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf. The phone number is (540) 265-5100.

National forest land is certainly a quality public option for sportsmen that live west of the Blue Ridge. Individuals that dwell in the Piedmont have some fairly close-to-home possibilities. Among the possibilities are the Cumberland and Appomattox-Buckingham state forests and the Powhatan, Amelia and Turkeycock WMAs. For a complete listing and description of the state WMAs, consult the VDGIF Web site listed earlier.

For some state sportsmen, no better autumn sound exists than the kee-kees of a jake or jenny that we have just separated from the flock hen. With any luck, nesting and brooding conditions have been such that we can hear plenty of such music this autumn.

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