For North Carolina’s turkey hunters, hunting just keeps getting better, with hunters harvesting gobblers in all of the counties except for one last spring season. The ugly duckling was Dare County, said Chris Kreh, the Upland Game Bird Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
“Dare County had been producing one or two birds ever since it opened for hunting,” Kreh said. “But last year, the harvest was zero. It doesn’t have very good turkey habitat.”
The two leading spring harvest counties fared far-and-away better. The top county was Rockingham, where hunters harvested 536 turkeys. Right next door, Stokes County had the second highest harvest with 500.
“Those two counties really stand out, with their total harvest exceeding 1,000 turkeys,” Kreh said. “Both of the counties showed a tremendous increase in harvest over the previous two years, probably due to an increase in production. In Stokes County, the harvest was up from 332 in 2014 and in Rockingham County, the harvest was up from 406 in 2014.”
In between those extremes, obviously, are all of the other counties. When the 2015 harvest was added up, it stood at 17,828, an increase of 5 percent over the 2014 harvest of 16,912 and only 581 turkeys, or 3 percent, lower than the record harvest of 18,409 set in 2013.
“I think the high harvest was due to two things,” Kreh said. “Over the last few years, we have seen turkeys expand into habitats they had not previously occupied. We have also seen consistently good reproduction on a statewide scale. Although our recent summer turkey-observation surveys show the number of poults per hen is relatively low when compared to summer surveys of 20 years ago, the turkey flock has increased considerably.
Over the last 10 years, we have experienced a harvest increase of 81 percent and 10 years is a good time frame for seeing what the turkey population is doing. In 2005, we had a harvest of 9,824 birds, nearing the 10,000 mark. Now we are approaching the 20,000 mark.”
Biologists look at two indicators of hunter success. The first is gobbler carryover, which is the number of gobblers compared to the number of hens seen by summer observers. The other is the number of poults per hen.
“We seem to be holding steady, with one gobbler per two hens in our summer surveys,” Kreh said. “That is indicative that we do not want to put any additional harvest pressure on turkeys. Below that ratio, hunters would see the quality of hunting decline. For the last 10 years, the average numbers of poults per hen have fluctuated between 1.7 and 2.7. In 2014, it was 2.0 at the coast and mountains and 1.7 in the piedmont.
“That is below the very high numbers back in the early years of restoration when turkeys were utilizing the best available habitat,” he added. “But I am very happy with that because there are so many more hens out there producing poults, which means there is higher overall production.”
Another factor that indicates hunters are seeing more gobblers is a lower percentage of jakes in the harvest. In 2014, jakes comprised 16 percent of the harvest, whereas in 2015, jakes comprised 15 percent.
“Hunters are less likely to take jakes and work harder for long-bearded birds than they were during those initial seasons,” Kreh said. “That is about as low as you would ever expect to see a jake harvest as a percentage of a spring harvest.”
Two disappointing counties are Watauga and Ashe. Once, they were counties where hunters wanted to hunt turkeys because of the high tom numbers they supported.
“In those northwestern counties, our populations have declined,” Kreh said. “They are still strong, but not what they were. Caswell is another county that has a lower turkey population. The decline could be habitat driven, weather driven or predator driven.
If conditions turn around, though, a tremendous number of turkeys can build in a short time, as shown by Stokes and Rockingham counties, which are obviously benefitting from one or more of those factors now and have potential for their turkey population to grow even larger.”
While there is not much humans can do about predation or weather, habitat manipulation can help. Kreh pointed out that, although turkeys are managed as big game from a regulatory standpoint, they are actually upland game birds.
“In most of North Carolina, the hole in the bucket that needs plugging the most is brood habitat,” he said. “Turkeys have plenty of roosting trees and an abundant food supply from many sources. The year-round habitat in shortest supply is grassy, weedy fields where poults can catch bugs and hens can keep an eye out for predators. They need places like thinned pine stands with a grassy understory, clear-cuts and fallow fields.”
With counties along the Virginia border like Rockingham and Stokes taking the lead in turkey harvest, some hunters have been asking about re-opening a winter either-sex turkey season. Kreh said it is worthy of consideration. The season was open in 11 counties for four years, but closed when the gobbler harvest per square mile fell below a pre-established threshold in half of the counties.
“It is a different kind of hunting, with different traditions and techniques that a lot of our hunters do not have experience with,” he said. “The biggest complicating factor was conflicts with baiting for deer and bear, which is why the season was held after those other hunting seasons had ended.”
Some hunters would like to see different opening dates, season lengths and closing dates for the spring gobbler season. A study is underway to help biologists determine the peak gobbling periods, when turkeys easiest to located and become susceptible to calling.
“We are undertaking an acoustic study to try to determine the breeding chronology using devices like trail cameras that record sounds instead of images,” he said. “That will let us define with data when peaks in gobbling activity occur, which will give us better information about when we should have our season open and close.”
A major contributor to the harvest in recent seasons has been the youth turkey hunting period, which began as a single Saturday before the regular spring season opened and was expanded three years ago to include the entire week prior to the regular season opener. Youths aged 16 and under may harvest only one gobbler during the youth-hunt week. During the initial youth hunting days, the harvest was about 5 percent of the total harvest. During the 2015 spring youth hunting week, it grew to 7.8 percent of the total harvest.
The top ten counties for total harvest were Rockingham, 536; Stokes, 500; Halifax, 463; Pender, 445; Duplin, 429; Bladen, 420; Northampton,407; Caswell, 378; Franklin, 345; and Onslow, 345. Hunters took 2,705 jakes (includes beardless gobblers and bearded hens) and 15,123 adult gobblers. Bowhunters took 334 turkeys, crossbow hunters, 107, and gun hunters, 17,387.
In the mountains, the 505,217-acre Pisgah and 528,782-acre Nantahala national forests have the best turkey hunting, due mostly to their enormous areas. It is a common theme throughout the state that game lands with the most acreage produced the most gobblers. Pisgah hunters harvested 196 gobblers and Nantahala hunters took 352. Hunting these game lands requires that hunters be in good physical condition because the terrain is rugged and steep and hikes to approach a roosted gobbler can be long.
Timber harvest operations are in decline across most of the higher elevations of the mountains. However, some timber harvest has occurred in the lower areas of Pisgah recently. These clear-cuts offer excellent turkey habitat and hunting conditions, with logging roads opening up good foot access for hunters. Hunters will also find some turkey openings that are planted with grasses and clover. These food plots attract gobblers in spring. Planted log decks and roads are also good places to hunt.
South Mountains Game Land has 19,775 acres of regenerating forest habitat that produced 39 turkeys. It has a good trail and road network. The terrain is not as rugged as Nantahala, but it is still serious mountain country.
Piedmont hunters took 39 turkeys at the 50,189-acre Uwharrie National Forest last season. Uwharrie is a patchwork of tracts of different sizes and they are in various stages of timber production. The newer clear-cuts and old-growth forests have the best hunting and hunters will find good access throughout the game land. Uwarrie’s Birkhead Mountain Wilderness Area has a primitive campground where visiting hunters can set up tents. The area has several thousand acres accessible only by trails and has had some timber operations that opened up prime habitat.
Another great piedmont game land is the 17,198-acre R. Wayne Bailey – Caswell, a permit area that produced 28 turkeys last season. It is one of the best piedmont game lands because it is a CURE area and has good access throughout. Another piedmont permit-only game land under CURE management is 61,225-acre Sandhills; hunters took 25 turkeys there last season.
Alcoa Game Land’s 8,372 acres consist of scattered tracts along the shorelines of High Rock, Tuckertown and Badin lakes that are accessible by water and land. It produced 23 turkeys, which is out of proportion to its size because the various tracts are surrounded so much excellent habitat. The terrain is more hilly than it is rugged, which is characteristic of the Uwharrie Mountain area.
Along the coast, the best game land was 35,772-acre Roanoke River Wetlands, where hunters took 50 turkeys. The permit game land consists of hardwood river swamps with some upland areas. Hunters must apply for permits by tract name and number, with several tracts accessible only by boat. Spring flooding can create difficult hunting conditions at some tracts.
A great coastal game land open six days per week with no special permit requirements is Croatan National Forest, which gave up 45 turkeys last spring. The habitat spans every type of coastal habitat, from dense bays to marshes to pine savannahs and river floodplain. Hunters have the best success by targeting areas of timber harvest and replanting, food plots, pine savannahs that have been prescribe-burned and hardwood swamps. Turkeys can turn up in surprising places, so hunters should check for their tracks in the sandy roads.
The 33,047-acre Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land is another excellent coastal area where hunters took 17 turkeys. Bladen Lakes’ Singletary Tract is a permit-only area along the Cape Fear River. It is one of the best places to hunt in the coastal plain and the habitat consists of hardwood swamps, food plots, clear-cuts and pine savannahs.
The rest of Bladen Lakes outside the Singletary Tract consists of varying aged mixed hardwood and pine. It is more densely vegetated habitat, but has reasonably good vehicle and foot access and a solid turkey population.
Near Bladen Lakes State Forest, the Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest hosts a three-day youth-adult turkey hunt through the Commission’s permit hunt opportunities. A tour of the forest makes it fun for kids and the site has a picnic shelter, office and educational center and other amenities. It also has timber stands in many management stages and an airstrip that provide outstanding turkey habitat and exhibits of historic naval store production that include what may be the world’s only surviving turpentine distillery kettle and a tar kiln.
Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge near Wadesboro also has youth-adult and all-age permit hunts. The area has some of the best habitat in the lower piedmont and success rates are very high.
For game lands maps and information about Commission permit hunts, visit www.ncwildlife.org. For information about Pee Dee NWR permit hunts, visit http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/PDhunt.pdf.
Editor’s Note: To order Mike Marsh’s books Fishing North Carolina, $26.60 ppd; Inshore Angler — Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide, $26.20; Offshore Angler — Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide, $22.20; and Carolina Hunting Adventures — Quest for the Limit, $15) send check or MO to 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409 or visit mikemarshoutdoors.com for credit card orders.