One of the benefits of being a spring turkey hunter in New York is that even if there’s only one tom gobbling on a distant ridge we can still have a hunt. Nesting success, poult production and winter survival statistics will rise and fall from year to year, and even though New York’s turkey population is currently in a state of decline there are still plenty of birds available for hunters who hope to set up at dawn and call one into shotgun range.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the numbers suggest that our turkey population reached its peak 15 years ago and is slowly but steadily declining due to a variety of conditions ranging from habitat loss, winter severity, nesting failures and disease.
After reaching their peak around 2001, wild turkey populations declined gradually over the next decade, followed by a more severe decline since 2009. There are several reasons for this; including a natural population contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions, and other factors such as density dependence, poor production, and changing habitats and predator communities.
The decline in turkey numbers may be more pronounced in some areas. Reasons for this include cold wet spring weather, tough winters, and changes in habitat quantity and quality. In areas where open habitats such as agricultural fields, hayfields, old fields, thickets, and young forests have been lost due to development and vegetative succession, there are fewer turkeys. In areas with a larger proportion of “big woods” turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitats, and agriculture.
Predation can play a role in limiting turkey populations, but it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests, and broods more vulnerable to predation. Turkeys have evolved behaviors and reproductive strategies to cope with predation, but in highly fragmented landscapes predators may now be more efficient in finding turkeys and their nests. This is particularly true for nest predators such as raccoons, skunks and opossums. In areas with poor brood habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, turkeys and poults may be more vulnerable to predation.
Hunters can contribute their observations to the DEC during the Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, which is held during the month of August. The Summer Survey helps biologists estimate productivity (number of poults per hen). To participate in the survey or for more information call (518) 402-8883.
The most recent estimated spring harvest was 18,422 birds in 2016. This was a decrease of 7 percent from 2015 and below the five-year and 10-year average spring harvests (20,500 and 26,000 birds, respectively).
However, much of the decline can be attributed to a decline in participation from 2015 to 2016, as the first two weeks of the season were cold and wet in many regions. About 69 percent of the birds harvested in spring 2016 were mature toms, a decrease from the previous two seasons but an indication of good production in 2015 and improved over-winter survival.
The top five counties for estimated harvest were Delaware (737), Otsego (650), Washington (647), St. Lawrence (629), and Steuben (616). The DEC observed an increase in harvest in almost 30 percent of the counties open to spring hunting from 2015 to 2016 and no change or a decrease in harvest in 70 percent of the counties.
WHERE TO HUNT TURKEYS IN 2018
It’s safe to say that hunters cover more ground chasing spring turkeys, on average, than they do for any other species including deer, pheasants and rabbits. Those who have access to private land have the advantage of reduced competition but the basic requirements are the same: Walk, walk and walk some more!
Because of this, public land hunters often have an edge because some of New York’s largest public hunting areas, many in the Top Five turkey harvest counties, boast acreages exceeding 25,000 or 30,000 acres. In fact, there are more than 110 WMAs scattered across the state. These areas contain nearly 197,000 acres, including 124,000 acres of forests and grasslands and 53,000 acres of wetland habitat. All contain good numbers of wild turkeys. Not many private landowners in the state own that much property and even fewer allow unlimited public access to their land. For most hunters, state forests, wildlife management areas, state parks and other public holdings provide the most unfettered opportunities to take a spring limit of two bearded birds.
With an eye on New York’s top-producing turkey counties, here’s where to find some great spring hunting on public land in 2018.
For starters, try Bear Spring Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which consists of over 7,000 acres of upland habitat in Delaware County. Bear Spring Mountain contains various levels of topography from steep mountainsides to gentle valleys and everything in between. Multiple species of hardwoods dominate the forested areas including red oak, red and sugar maple, beech, birch, ash, and black cherry. There are some hemlock-covered ridges as well as remnants of spruce plantations. Many small fields are dispersed throughout the property and are often associated with old apple orchards that are still maintained by the state to provide food for wildlife. There are two streams that run southward and several small ponds that are remnants of early settlements.
Also in Region 4, the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area consists of about 4,500 acres of upland and wetland habitat in Albany County. Numerous parking areas are located throughout the WMA.
Partridge Run is on the Helderberg Escarpment and varies in elevation from about 1600 feet to over 1,900 feet. Soils are thin and winters are typically long. Most of Partridge Run WMA is forested with natural stands of northern hardwoods comprised of maple, ash, yellow birch and hemlock. Several hundred acres of spruce and pine plantations were planted during the 1930s and 1940s. There are also several hundred acres of fields maintained throughout the WMA. In addition, there are numerous ponds, wetlands and beaver impoundments located on the WMA.
Also in Region 4, Otsego County offers a good mix of hilly terrain and farmland where wild turkeys continue to thrive. In addition to the two WMAs listed above, nearby Vinegar Hill Wildlife Management Area consists of 394 acres of upland habitat. The terrain of Vinegar Hill WMA is dominated by upland forested communities and old fields. Tree species include red and sugar maple, beech, birch, ash, hemlock, and black cherry. Two large fields exist on the property as well as a stream and a small pond. The terrain is mostly gently sloping hillsides and flat fields but gets a little steeper on the eastern side. The fields are mowed periodically to prevent woody growth from taking over.
ST. LAWRENCE COUNTY
One option for St. Lawrence County spring turkey hunters is Fish Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a 4,438-acre tract of land located in southwestern St. Lawrence County, 8 miles west of the city of Ogdensburg and one mile south of Black Lake. Fish Creek WMA consists of a 2,046-acre natural wetland, an emergent marsh where water levels are dependent on the many beaver dams on the Fish Creek drainage.
The WMA also contains 2,392 acres of upland habitat, most of which is forested. There is a hardwood swamp along the fringe of the emergent marsh. The upland portion contains approximately 1,000 acres of softwoods and 861 acres of young northern hardwoods. There are 93 acres of open grassland maintained for ground nesting birds. There are no developed hiking trails on the area. No special permits are required to use the area.
Also near St. Lawrence County is Tug Hill State Forest, which covers 12,242 acres. The state forest is so named because it is located entirely on the Tug Hill Plateau, an area that is renowned for its harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. Many miles of maintained hiking trails provide plentiful access for spring turkey hunters.
Turkey hunters in Washington County will have to do their homework when selecting wildlife management areas to hunt in spring. There are over a dozen WMAs open to hunting in Region 5 but most are small (less than 100 acres) and feature primarily wetland habitat as opposed to hardwood forests.
This does not mean turkey do not use these areas for spring breeding and nesting purposes. Hunters will want to be on hand early and late in the day to locate and roost interested gobblers by shock calling or observing birds feeding in open areas or crossing roads and trails.
Meanwhile, one of the largest WMAs near Washington County is Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area (WMA). This WMA is a 660-acre parcel adjacent to Lake Champlain along U.S. Highway Route 9 in the Town of Peru in Clinton County. The area was used primarily for agriculture and timber harvesting prior to its acquisition by the DEC.
It may come as no surprise to hunters that Steuben County is not only a leader in turkey harvests year after year, but it is nearly always No. 1 when it comes to the annual deer kill. In fact, nearly all of Region 8 is a Mecca for sportsman seeking some of the best deer and turkey hunting in New York as well as world-class fishing.
For spring turkey hunters having room to roam is the most important aspect, and several WMAs in Region 8 provide many thousands of acres for spring turkey hunting.
High on the list is High Tor Wildlife Management Area, which consists of approximately 6,800 acres. It has numerous ecological habitats with many steep wooded hills, gullies, eroded cliffs and wetlands. The largest part of High Tor WMA is approximately 3,700 acres just east of the village of Naples and is primarily steep wooded terrain. It is intersected by administrative truck trails usable as foot access to the more remote sections of the area. Immediately north of this area are about 2,200 acres of lowland marsh, forested wetland, and grassland which lies between state routes 21 and 245, bordering Canandaigua Lake and extending up West River valley. East of the southern end of Canandaigua Lake is a third part of the area known as South Hill. This portion is composed primarily of 900 acres of overgrown fields with steep wooded hillsides.
There are over a dozen additional WMAs in Region 8 where turkey hunters may gain access during the spring season. Many of these are wetland-based parcels that contain small woodlots where turkeys will feed and roost during the spring season. Hunters targeting these areas will want to begin their pre-season scouting in April to determine the abundance of birds available and the best ways to approach them in May.
To find out more about the spring turkey-hunting opportunities in Region 8, interested hunters should call (585) 226-2466.
New York’s spring turkey hunters may also be interested in hunting on state forestlands, which are scattered throughout the state, as well as on certain state parks that are open to hunting and some public reserve lands where hunting is allowed. A complete listing of all of these options, plus maps and contact information for additional details, are available on the DEC’s Web site at dec.ny.gov.
Hunters should be aware that spring turkey hunting is legal from the Bronx-Westchester County line from May 1 to May 31 each year. Legal hunting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise till noon statewide. The season bag limit is two bearded turkeys, but only one bird may be taken per day. Crossbows, shotguns, muzzleloaders and bows are legal for taking spring turkeys. Hunters who have already taken their two birds may continue to hunt and call for other hunters but may not carry a firearm or bow. For more information on New York’s turkey-hunting seasons, regulations and restrictions, log onto dec.ny.gov.