The four toms started gobbling on the Botetourt County parcel in late January and continued their outbursts in February, March, and early April — every month, it seemed, increasing the intensity of their gobbling. So it was only logical that I spent four of the first seven days of the season afield on that particular property.
And as the fates would have it, I never saw a longbeard on those four outings and only heard sporadic gobbling. Why do turkeys behave in that manner? Frustrated, on the second Monday of the season I ventured to another Botetourt County woodlot where I had heard just one gobbler sounding off only a few times during a pre-season scouting visit and on a single hunt.
But the landowner had informed me before my coming that April day that no one else had visited his cattle farm, and it is better to have one quiet tom in hand than a quartet with “issues” regarding my calling. The cattle farm features three major finger ridges on its western side, and on the prior two visits, the gobbler had roosted on the first and third ridges. So well before sunrise, I positioned myself on the middle ridge, thinking that when the bird gobbled, he would be on one side or the other of me, and it would be relatively easy to call him in.
Imagine my surprise, then, that when the tom commenced gobbling well before sunrise, he was close to me — extremely close. Indeed, when I slowly lifted my head, I saw the tom silhouetted in a tree just 30 yards from my position.
Over the course of the next five minutes, I slowly raised my 12 gauge Remington 1100 until it rested on my right knee. Then it was a matter of waiting to fly down time — and hoping the gobbler would land within 20 or so yards of my position.
But as the sun slowly rose, complications began to arise, as they always do when the topic is turkeys. The gobbler was not the only turkey roosting on the finger ridge — three other dark forms soon materialized on the mountainside. Were they hens? Which way would they fly down? Would the gobbler follow them? The sure thing was no longer so sure, and I began to experience that awful feeling I have when a turkey hunt is about to take an ominous turn.
At last sunrise occurred and the birds began pitching out of the trees. But to my wonder and relief, the quartet landed within 30 yards of me, I clucked once, the tom went into strut, and, well, I shot him — thus ending my Virginia season, as I had killed two birds earlier in the fall.
My Botetourt gobbler was one of 15,689 checked in during the 2011 season. The tally was 3 percent higher than the 2010 harvest of 15,190. West of the Blue Ridge, the take was 5,265, which was 4 percent higher than the previous year; East of the Blue Ridge, the kill was 10,441, a spike of 4 percent. Statistically, 85 percent of the toms were adults and 46 bearded hens were checked in. Youth hunters recorded 340 birds during their annual spring Saturday before the start of the regular season, a drop of 7 birds.
To learn what these figures mean, I asked Gary Norman, the wild turkey project leader for the VDGIF.
“Over the past 10 years the rate of growth in the state has been minus 1.3 percent,” he told me. “But the regression model I used to get that number was not statistically significant, meaning there is no trend, no significant change.”
An aspect that may skew the numbers is that according to the VDGIF’s spring gobbler survey, hunting effort declined due to the recession, which has been ongoing the past few years. The fact, says Norman, that the harvest increased even during an economic downturn is encouraging.
Another heartening aspect from last season — and for the coming one — is that birds should be in good physical condition. In 2011, the biologist notes, toms exceeding 25 pounds were reported, largely because of an excellent mast crop and a relatively mild winter.
“Acorn production appeared to have been moderate in most areas the fall of 2011 so birds should be in good condition this spring which may translate into good gobbling,” speculated Norman.