Virginia Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014
March 11, 2014
If you're looking to do some Virginia turkey hunting this spring, this is your one-stop shop for population numbers, harvest info, and hunting opportunities.
Given all the turkeys I encountered this past spring in Southwest Virginia, I'm not surprised that the 2013 harvest was a record one of 19,265. The tally easily bested the previous high of 18,345 set in 2002 and was 26 percent higher than the 2012 total of 15,326. Regarding regions, East of the Blue Ridge sportsmen checked in 12,994 for an uptick of 23 percent. West of the Blue Ridge, hunters recorded 6,271, a boom of 31 percent.
The genesis of the 2013 record can be seen in the 2011 hatch; as veteran gobbler chasers know, the hatch two years before a season is the one that has most impact on the harvest because 2-year-old-toms are the ones most vulnerable to being called in and killed. Forest Game Bird Project Leader Gary Norman, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), reports that the poults/hen brood observation data was a very satisfactory 4.7 statewide in 2011 and was best in the North Mountain and North Piedmont regions.
This translated into a high percentage of two-year-old toms being a part of the 2013 harvest. The poults/hen brood observation data was also fairly good in 2010 with a 3.75 figure and was best in the eastern counties from the Northern Neck to the North Carolina line. This meant that a goodly number of 3-year-old toms — true trophies for sure — were a part of the 2013 tally.
The 2012 brood observation data, says Norman, was 2.8 statewide and was again best in the east. Now what does all this mean for 2014?
"I'm hesitant to give a recommendation for the region with the best gobbler hunting," said Norman. "Based on our harvest data I would choose the South Piedmont or Northern Neck. But good turkey hunting can be found throughout the state. Scouting is critical.
"[The turkey population is]stable at best, based on the relatively low recruitment we had in 2012 compared to the high levels we saw in 2010 and 2011," said Norman. "However, it's my hope we can sustain the recent increases even if things [poult production] level off — anything but a significant decline. But there are so many variables which make predictions like palm reading. We've got to keep in mind that 2011 recruitment was uncommon. The recent values are more on the normal scale of things."
The bottom line is that because of the 2012 brood data's decline to more "normal" levels, the Old Dominion's turkey hunters should not expect a record harvest in 2014. However, the 2011 brood data suggests we should expect to kill some nice older birds, particularly in the North Piedmont and North Mountain regions.
Norman believes that populations in the South Piedmont and Tidewater regions are the highest in the Commonwealth. But the season is still subject to the numerous variables that Norman mentioned. For example, if every Saturday of the season brings cold, rainy conditions, the kill could plunge; if the opposite occurs, the harvest could approach that in 2013.
MORE NUMBERS TO DECIPHER
Looking over the information that Norman gave me, several other aspects become clear. To best increase your odds of success, hunt hard early in the season on private land. The highest harvest occurred during the first week of the season, when 31 percent of the entire kill took place. On opening day, 15 percent of the kill for the entire season took place — an amazing statistic. Obviously, it can be argued that more hunters are afield that first week, so more gobblers will be harvested — and that's true. But I would also say that the longer we hunt an individual gobbler or locale, the more likely the turkeys will become "boogered up" to use an old Southern expression.
Second, hunters who gain permission to three or four prime farms, regardless of the region, have the best chances to score. That's why the fact that 92 percent of the gobblers were killed on private land is so meaningful. I frequently hunt in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, enjoy doing so, and have killed numerous toms there. But the turkeys are almost always more numerous on private lands. Six percent of the statewide kill occurred on federal land 2 percent on state lands.
Third, the annual Youth Day (which this spring takes place on Saturday, April 5) is an outstanding time for youngsters to tag a tom. The boys and girls 15 years of age and younger placed their tags on 522 males on that day, just under 3 percent of the entire harvest. Youth must have a valid apprentice license and be accompanied by a licensed adult or an adult exempt from a license purchase.
For all other sportsmen, the season begins April 12 and runs through May 17. From May 5 through 17, all-day hunting is legal. Hunters may take one, two, or three bearded turkeys, depending on how many were killed during the fall season. If, for example, one autumn turkey was harvested, two bearded spring birds may be killed.
HUNTING THE NATIONAL FOREST
At 1.7 million acres, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF) dominates the public land conversation in the Old Dominion. JoBeth Brown, public affairs officer for the GWJNF, suggests that the best way to go about finding a place to hunt on the public land is to access the agency's website, select the ranger district that you would like to hunt or is closest to your home, and then ask the following questions to a biologist or staff member.
"You'll want to ask where turkey hunting has traditionally been good in that district, and where recent clearcuts, water sources, prescribed burning, and various habitat improvement projects have taken place. Some ranger districts have Trails Illustrated maps for sale, and they can be very helpful in finding places to hunt."
If a ranger district does not have those maps, a staffer can direct the caller to where they can be purchased locally. A really impressive feature about the Trails Illustrated series is that they are constantly updated. Brown says that staffers can also direct sportsmen to where they can buy USGS maps for the national forest. I own a number of the USGS maps and have always found them very useful in helping me to target places with turkey hunting potential.
Of course, says Brown, although maps are wonderful tools, nothing is better than visiting a national forest area before the season begins and conducting on the ground research.
BEST PRIVATE LANDS
Turkey hunters can gain a fair amount of insight on where to go from the top 10 harvest counties from 2013 which were (with kill in parentheses) Bedford (631), Halifax (516), Pittsylvania (510), Franklin (425), Southampton (411), Scott (346), Caroline (327), Sussex (326), Campbell (318), and Westmoreland (304).
As interesting as this information can be, a much better indicator of which counties are currently producing lots of toms are the kill per square mile of forested habitat figures. The total harvest numbers above can reflect a quality turkey population or they may just mean that the county is so large that a goodly number of toms were checked in.
For example, the number one county in the square mile category was Richmond (2.06) and this domain did not come close to making the top ten harvest list. The same is true with the second and third place counties, Northumberland (1.65) and Lancaster (1.51), respectively. Gain permission to private land in any of these three East-of-the-Blue-Ridge domains this spring, and you will very likely experience an exciting outing.
Of course, some high harvest counties boasted high kills per square mile. A superlative example of this is Bedford (1.41). I recently gained permission to hunt a Bedford County rural property and can't wait to check it out. The rolling hills, agricultural concerns, and cattle farms of this Piedmont domain provide fantastic turkey hunting year after year.
Around the state, hunters can also find fine hunting on state WMAs and forests. Tidewater VDGIF biologist Todd Englemeyer states that the Dragon Run and Sandy Point state forests and Chickahominy WMA are worth checking out, as are lottery hunts exist at the Doe Creek and Mockhorn WMAs. Also in Tidewater, biologist Aaron Proctor offers us the Big Woods WMA in Sussex.
For the Southern Piedmont, Biologist Dan Lovelace states that Fairystone Farms WMA in Henry and Patrick Counties and White Oak Mountain WMA in Pittsylvania County "are very good spring gobbler hunting areas."
Biologist Katie Martin also keeps tab of the Southern Piedmont and rates Featherfin WMA in Prince Edward and Amelia WMA in the county of the same name as "excellent spring gobbler hunting spots." Both of these WMAs are quota-hunt only, though, during the spring gobbler season (except for youth day and from May 5-May 17). Horsepen WMA in Buckingham also is good, she says.
In the Northern Piedmont, district wildlife biologist Mike Dye lists the Mattaponi WMA in Caroline as well as the Phelps WMA in Fauquier County.
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