Virginia's Spring Turkey Outlook

Will a record low hatch in 2002 impact this spring's harvest? How will the wet year last year influence your long-term hunting prosepcts?

By Bruce Ingram

On the initial morning of the 2002 spring gobbler season, I experienced my most sensational opening day ever while afield on a Franklin County farm.

Only 15 minutes after flydown, I had called in four longbeards at the same time and had a fifth nearby and on the way. At a distance of 25 yards, I shot the closest of the toms. The landowner told me that I was the only person to hunt his property that year.

Naturally, I made plans to return there for the 2003 opener. Surely, the surviving gobblers would be making their presence known.

I was so confident that the gobblers would still be on the farm that I committed one of the "original sins" of turkey hunting - I failed to conduct pre-season scouting. Although I was at the Franklin County farm well before dawn and stayed well after, I never heard a single gobble, yelp, or cluck.

I then left the place and drove as fast as the speed limit allowed to a section of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Botetourt County. I had scouted out that section of the public land and had heard four different birds there. Although I spent the rest of opening day afield in the national forest, I failed to hear or see a bird there. I had managed to strike out both East and West of the Blue Ridge, on both private and public land, on the same day.

The author kneels beside a Botetourt County bird that he called in and shot during the second morning of the 2003 season. Photo by Bruce Ingram

Monday morning the second day of the season, I only had 90 minutes to be afield before I had to depart for the Botetourt County high school where I teach. Arriving at a farm where I had permission to hunt, I decided to climb to the top of a mountain and owl hoot at dawn. A few caws from crows were the only response I received.

Just when I felt that either there were no gobblers in the Old Dominion or that I had totally lost the ability to make a bird sound off, a tom gobbled, followed by another and another until seven different longbeards had chimed in. Then I had the most delicious of problems - which bird to go toward when the entire mountain is overrun with vocal toms?

Four birds seemed to be a little more vociferous than the others, so I made a move on them. In Western Virginia's mountains, you can use the terrain to set up extremely close to birds. So I cut across three finger ridges until I was on the same ridge that the foursome was on, albeit on opposite sides. It was only then that I began to call, but just one male heeded my offerings.

While I was pondering the silence of the other three members of the quartet, in they came to my yelps; meanwhile, the fourth male remained on the other side of the ridge and gobbled non-stop. Was the unseen tom, the dominant one, a true monarch with a paintbrush beard and long, sharp spurs? I will never know because I am not one to pass on a nice gobbler with the hope that something better will appear. At a distance of just 20 yards, I shot the first member of the trio to arrive at my position. Then the only tasks remaining were to run down the mountain while toting a tom, drive to the nearest check station, head for home and deposit the gobbler in the refrigerator for later cleaning, and change from camo into civilian clothes. I managed to arrive at school 10 minutes before first period class - all in all, a much better morning than opening day.

In 2003, Virginia sportsmen killed 17,988 birds, a total that was just 2 percent down from the 2002 record harvest of 18,345. The 2001 season had also seen a record set, as 18,240 turkeys were brought to check stations. (The 2000 harvest was the last "disappointing" one we have had as the total was 14,800.) Last season, 6,178 toms were checked in West of the Blue Ridge while 11,810 were driven to stations East of the Blue Ridge.

Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) offers this analysis of the 2003 spring season.

"Although our kill was down slightly, I was pleased that hunters did as well as they did, given that other states' harvests declined even more. For example, West Virginia was down 6 percent, Ohio was down 10 percent," says Norman. "From my experience and contacts with a lot of other hunters and biologists, the spring 2003 season was a difficult one because birds didn't seem to gobble well. We'll never know why, but some people credit the weather and late spring."

That was true for Norman's own hunting.

"I hunted in about two inches of snow on opening morning in Highland County," he said. "It felt like I was going deer hunting rather than spring gobbler hunting when I headed out that morning. Spring green-up seemed to be later, and we have correlated later nest initiation with colder spring temperatures. I had reports of birds gobbling well into June and July and mating later in the summer. These circumstances weren't unique to Virginia, either . . . Some of my friends are National Wild Turkey Federation staffers who hunt across the country, and they said what happened in Virginia was like what happened just about everywhere else."

I agree with Norman about the late gobbling. For instance, at my home in Botetourt County, I went outside the first weekend in June in order to listen to songbirds one morning. Instead of the lilting songs of red-eyed vireos and pine warblers, I heard a gobbler repeatedly sound off in the creek bottom below my house. A few days later, my next door neighbor Jane, a non-hunter, called to tell me that a gobbler "was acting all puffed out" in her back yard "in front of a bunch of girl turkeys."

This was the same woodlot where I had rarely heard gobbling in April and May.

Besides the birds not gobbling well, the weather was very much a negative factor. Many Saturdays saw the heavens open up as heavy precipitation fell. And often before the rains came, heavy fog blanketed the mountains, hillsides, and swamps of the state. Of course, the inclement weather may have been a reason why gobbling was less frequent. Again, the high 2003 kill was really a tribute to the skills of Virginia's hunters.

One of the major factors of whether a spring season will be a good one or not - and this is true in any state - is whether or not the population of two-year-old toms is high. Males of this age group gobble the most lustily and are often the easiest to call in. Conversely, three and four-year-old toms practically demand that the "hen" come to them while the one-year-old jakes often come in silently or not at all because of their fear of older males.

Unfortunately, Norman does not have good news regarding this season's supply of two-year-old longbeards.

"The juvenile-to-adult female ratio in the 2002 fall harvest was 1.4," he says. "This is a new historical low and doesn't bode well for the upcoming spring season. The bright spot on the horizon for 2004 is the possibility of a good carryover of three-year-old birds, given the lower than expected harvest in spring 2003 due to weather. I will be surprised if we show much of an increase in the spring kill this year."

To gain further insight into just how awful the 2002 hatch of 1.4 was - and it was the lowest figure since the survey began in 1979 - some comparison with past years is in order. The sad facts are that the five-year ratio is just 2.2 with figures of 1.8 (1998), 2.8 (1999), 3.0 (2000), and 2.2 (2001). In 2002, the ratio was as follows by region: North Mountain (2.0), South Mountain (1.7), North Piedmont (0.8), South Piedmont (1.2), and Tidewater (1.6). I would not want to be afield in a North Piedmont county this spring, for example, and be dependent upon hearing a two-year-old tom sound off at dawn. Some really tough hunting could be possible in that region.

So what about the 2003 hatch? It is a given that there won't be as many two-year-old birds as usual in the woods this spring. Will there be fewer jakes as well? One-year-old toms often account for about 15 percent of the total harvest. And remember, those jakes will be predominantly the birds state hunters will be pursuing in 2005. The damp, cool weather may have done more than just make the turkeys less vocal this past spring.

"The 2003 recruitment seems like it will be another poor year," says Norman. "The only salvation will be late nesting birds or re-nesting efforts as it appears that above average April and May rainfall likely impacted recruitment. Surprisingly, our analysis of long-term weather effects on recruitment indicates that June rainfall is not that significant.

"I had hypothesized that it would be, given that's when broods are hatching. Instead, April and May rainfalls were better predictors of poor hatches, and we believe that relationship is one of wet conditions resulting in hens being more vulnerable to predation on the nest. I have received some good brood reports in some localities, but overall the numbers are down. Jakes in the 2004 harvest may be below the long-term average."

The 2003-'04 fall harvest was not available at press time. In any given year, Norman is never precisely sure of the success or failure of turkey reproduction until he has had a chance to analyze the fall harvest and the percentage of juvenile birds in the kill.

One of the more interesting aspects of spring gobbler hunting in the Old Dominion is that for the past few years, sportsmen have been able to save their three turkey tags for the spring season. I have never done that because I love going fall turkey hunting so much. Are many hunters saving their tags?

"It's difficult for me to say whether turkey hunters are not hunting in the fall and saving their tags for spring," says Norman. "We can't tell from the check station data how many turkeys the hunter has checked. The only way to know this would be with a survey of turkey hunters, which we do periodically, but we don't have that data/question available now."

Norman does conduct an annual spring gobbler survey, and he requested that I list his address, phone number, and e-mail so that hopefully more sportsmen will want to be contributors to that survey: Gary Norman, P.O. Box 996, Verona, VA 24482; phone: (540) 248-9389; gnorman@dgif.state.va.us.

The spring season has two new wrinkles this year. For the first time, there will be a special Youth Spring Gobbler Hunt statewide on April 3 from one half hour before sunrise until noon. The regular season will begin on April 10 and continue through May 1 with the same time restrictions. Also for the first time, Virginians will be able to be afield from one half hour before sunrise to sunset on May 3 through May 15.

"We had some concerns about afternoon hunting and therefore proposed it for the later stages of the season to minimize these issues," said Norman. "Effects of additional pressure on illegal hen kill, gobbling, gobbler survival rates, flushing hens off nests, and other considerations were potential issues of concern. However, by timing the afternoon hunting later in the season, we hope to minimize these issues and provide some afternoon hunting to those that are interested. This may provide some additional youth opportunities as well."

WHERE TO GO
As is usual, the Mountain and Piedmont counties dominated the Top 10 harvest list in the 2003 spring gobbler season, and these areas should be superb destinations this year. Usually about 90 percent of the kill occurs on private land.

The Top 10 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were: Bedford (648), Pittsylvania (604), Franklin (586), Botetourt (419), Halifax (368), Scott (368), Patrick (336), Rockbridge (321), Campbell (313), and Amherst (303). The Tidewater region captured the number 11 and 12 slots with Westmoreland (290) and Southampton (288). Rounding out the top 15 were Mecklenburg (285), Charlotte (285), and Floyd (281).

Some 8 to 9 percent of the harvest typically takes place on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and its 1.6 million acres. In my opinion, the biggest advantage this public land offers is its ability to offer unpressured birds. The biggest disadvantage is its tendency to have heavily pressured toms.

These two statements are not in conflict with each other. If a hunter is willing to walk a mile or so back into the national forest, the chances are very slim that he will encounter other hunters and very good that he will come across hard gobbling toms. If that same individual walks two miles into the backcountry, the odds are astronomical that he will see other humans.

Conversely, if a person merely parks his vehicle along a national forest access road and ambles a short distance away, then that individual should expect at dawn to hear several other hunters tooting their owl hooters or even walking right past his position. And if all the gobblers around the fringes of the national forest seem call shy, well that shouldn't be a surprise either. As is true with just about everything in life, the ambitious individual who is willing to outwork - or in this case out walk - his peers will enjoy greater success. For more information, contact the national forest's home office in Roanoke at (540) 265-5100; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us.gwj. The Website has a complete listing of all the ranger districts that make up the national forest and contact numbers for each.

On average, 1 to 2 percent of the turkeys harvested come from the Commonwealth's wildlife management areas. In the western reaches, good choices include Gathright (13,428 acres), Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres), Goshen-Little North Mountain (33,697 acres), Havens (7,190 acres), Hidden Valley (6,400 acres), Highland (14,283 acres), and Rapidan (10,326 acres).

In the Piedm

ont, WMAs worth considering are Powhatan (4,462 acres), Briery Creek (3,164 acres), Amelia (2,217 acres), White Oak Mountain (2,712 acres), and Fairystone Farms (5,321 acres).

Public hunting opportunities are very limited in the Tidewater region; perhaps the best bet there is the Chickahominy WMA (5,217 acres). For more information, consult the Website of the VDGIF: www.dgif.state.va.us.

Uncertainty hangs over the 2004 spring gobbler season much like the rain clouds that enveloped the Old Dominion throughout much of the 2003 season. The turkey chasers in the state will know very soon whether the record low hatch of 2002 and the feared poor reproduction in 2003 will have a negative impact on the coming season or will be something that we will be able to overcome.



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