Of all the shooting sports in New York only turkey hunting offers a simple guarantee: If there are turkeys in the woods this spring it should be easy to find them. Lusty toms will begin gobbling well before sunrise and won’t quit till after sunset.
This is where all guarantees end, however. What the birds do and where they go during the day is strictly up to the whims of breeding hens, and as any experienced hunter knows, things don’t always go as planned.
Despite continuing declines in turkey numbers in New York and across the East, there will be plenty of birds available for spring hunting. About 90,000 hunters participate in the spring hunting season and 45,000 hunters take to the field each fall in pursuit of this great game bird.
New York’s spring season usually begins in late April with a two-day youth turkey hunt and continues through May 31 for all hunters. There is a two-bird bag limit (each hunter may only take one bird on any given day) and shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon. The spring season is open in all of New York State north of the Bronx-Westchester county border and in Suffolk County for the two-day youth hunt only.
The DEC designs its seasons with respect to the timing of the seasons, season lengths and bag limits to ensure a sustainable harvest and a quality hunting experience. These decisions are based on long-term biological data such as historic harvest numbers from the spring and fall seasons, surveys of poults and hens during the summer, surveys of flocks during the winter, estimates of habitat quantity and quality in various geographic areas and research findings about survival and harvest rates.
The DEC says that its primary goal is to “protect the long-term security of the wild turkey population while still providing opportunities for hunters and others to enjoy the wild turkey resource now and in the future.”
SPRING SEASON TIMING
New York’s spring turkey-hunting season coincides with the breeding season for wild turkeys. There is quite a bit of variation in the timing of breeding from southern latitudes (earlier breeding, nesting, and hatching in the southern U.S.) to northern latitudes (later breeding, nesting, and hatching in New York and the Northeast). The goal for managing the spring hunting season is to give hunters the greatest amount of opportunity to go afield and harvest a bird while minimizing the risk to nesting hens, and and causing minimum disruption to breeding behavior. Essentially, the seasons are set so that hunters have the chance to kill the most turkeys possible without damaging the turkey population.
To accomplish all this, the DEC opens the spring season near the median date for the onset of incubation (when hens are on nests). A recent study by Virginia Tech looking at timing of turkey hunting seasons in the northeastern U.S. found that the timing of New York’s spring season was ideal based on data for breeding and nesting turkeys in our region.
When managing the wild turkey, it is important that the spring harvest be limited to males, or “gobblers.” Research has shown that, in many cases, hunters can remove a large portion (up to 30 percent) of the gobblers from a population and still maintain a healthy turkey population.
In New York, spring turkey hunters are allowed to take only bearded birds. The vast majority of bearded birds are males, although a small number of females have beards (about 5 percent) and may be legally taken. DEC studies have shown that about 1 percent of the spring harvest consists of bearded hens; however, this represents less than 1 percent of the overall hen population, and does not have a significant impact on turkey abundance.
THE HEN FACTOR
The removal of hens by hunting, predation, disease or other means plays a much larger role in limiting turkey abundance, so the DEC tries to minimize the loss of hens during the critical spring breeding, nesting and brood-rearing season.
One method biologists use to protect hens in spring is to restrict shooting hours. The current shooting hours (1/2-hour before sunrise until noon) are intended to protect hens sitting on eggs in a nest, as they tend to leave the nest to feed in the afternoon. DEC biologists contend that if hunters are afield in the afternoon the likelihood that a hen is killed, either accidentally (mistaken for a gobbler) or illegally may increase; however, some states do allow spring turkey hunting all day where conditions and turkey populations numbers allow.
The killing of hens, either illegally or accidentally, can have serious impacts on turkey populations, and at high levels (for example, if 10 percent or more of adult hens are killed annually), will reduce rates of population growth.
It is uncertain if “all-day” spring hunting (sunrise to sundown) would result in many more hens being killed either accidentally or illegally, and the DEC admits that these issues are difficult to measure and control. However, New York biologists prefer to err on the side of caution by limiting shooting hours in an effort to minimize any potential negative impacts.
Other concerns related to all-day hunting include disturbing birds when they are going to the roost in the evening, and the potential for people to shoot birds while they are roosted in trees at dusk, both of which could cause a disruption of traditional spring hunting techniques such as “roosting” birds at dusk (locating birds at a distance by enticing them to gobble as they roost for the night).
The DEC does not produce annual estimates of turkey population size but instead uses harvest data and other surveys as indices of population size and trends. Based on these data, state biologists estimate an average statewide population of 160,000 to 180,000 birds. The DEC admits that there are some problems with using harvest numbers as an index of abundance, but in general, harvest data do a fair job of showing trends in populations over time as indicated by graphs of trends in fall harvest and spring harvests.
After reaching their peak around 2001, New York’s wild turkey populations declined gradually over the next decade, followed by a more severe decline since 2009.
There are several reasons for this decline, including a natural population contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions. Other factors such as harsh winters, poor spring nesting production, changing habitat and predator population fluctuations are also factors that affect turkey population numbers.
The decline in turkey numbers may also 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, vegetative succession or mowing, there are likely to be fewer turkeys. In areas with a larger proportion of “big woods” turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than in areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitats and agricultural fields.
Predation can play a role in limiting turkey populations, but in many caes the underlying problem is poor habitat quality, which makes turkeys, 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 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.
Turkey populations were down significantly from the early to mid-2000s due in part to poor production and severe winter weather three of the last five years.
RECENT HARVEST NUMBERS
The estimated harvest for spring 2015 (the most recent numbers available from the DEC) was 19,840 birds. This is a decrease of 15 percent from 2014 and below the five-year and 10-year average spring harvests of 21,700 and 26,400 birds, respectively. There was an 8-percent decline in hunting participation from 2014 to 2015, but even when hunting effort is considered, the DEC observed an 11-percent decline from 3.6 birds per 100 days effort in spring 2014 to 3.2 birds per 100 days effort in spring 2015. The spring 2015 figure was below the five- and 10-year averages for this measure (3.8 and 4.3 birds per 100 days effort, respectively). About 75 percent of the birds harvested in spring 2015 were adult toms (as opposed to jakes), a figure that is similar to spring 2014.
The top five counties for estimated harvest in 2015 were Delaware, Chautauqua, Otsego, Steuben, and Cattaraugus. There was an increase in harvest in 18 percent of New York’s counties open to spring hunting from 2014 to 2015 and no change or a decrease in harvest in 82 percent of counties.
According to the DEC, the decline in harvest from 2014 to 2015 was likely due to poor production in 2013 and severe winters in 2014 and 2015.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
With all this in mind, it only makes sense for New York’s public land spring turkey hunters to focus their efforts on the top-end counties where spring turkey harvests are traditionally the highest.
In Delaware County, the odds-on choice is 7,000-acre Bear Spring Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which contains steep mountainsides, gentle valleys and multiple species of hardwoods (including red oak, red and sugar maple, beech, birch, ash and black cherry).
There are some hemlock-covered ridges and remnant spruce plantations as well. 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 through the property and several small ponds that are remnants of early settlements.
In Chautauqua County, Canada way Creek WMA covers 2,180 acres consisting of a broad and deeply dissected upland plateau. The area’s steep slopes are covered primarily with deciduous forest mixed with conifer plantations. Canadaway Creek runs through the property, which is located in Wildlife Management Unit 9K.
Hunters in Otsego County would do well to target nearby Partridge Run WMA, which features about 4,500 acres of upland and wetland habitat in Albany County. Numerous parking areas are located throughout the WMA, a huge benefit to hit-and-run turkey hunting strategies. Partridge Run varies in elevation from about 1,600 feet to over 1,900 feet.
Most of Partridge Run WMA is forested with natural stands of northern hardwoods comprised of maple, ash and yellow birch as well as 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.
Steuben County turkey hunters won’t go wrong by focusing their spring turkey-hunting efforts on nearby Erwin WMA, which is a 2,490-acre upland tract approximately five miles west of the city of Corning. From the north the area can be accessed from Smith Hill Road off the Coopers Plains exit of Route 17. From the south the area can be accessed from Weaver Hollow Road off the Gang Mills exit of Route 15.
Turkey hunters targeting Cattaraugus County may want to try the 1,106-acre Allegheny Reservoir WMA in Wildlife Management Unit 9R. This area is 15 miles southeast of Jamestown. Interstate Route 86, take Exit 17 and head south on West Perimeter Road (state Route 950A) for approximately 6 miles to the Anderson Parking area.
For more information, including specifics about New York’s 2017 spring turkey-hunting regulations, season dates, maps and WMA descriptions, log onto www.dec.ny.gov.
WMA HUNTING STRATEGIES
Public hunting areas often tend to be hard-hit by hunters, especially during the spring turkey season. Because successful turkey hunting depends on having room to roam, it is imperative that hunters spend time scouting the areas they wish to hunt, keeping alternate options in mind (if Plan A fails go to Plan B, Plan C or even Plan D).
When hunting popular WMAs, hunters should avoid the most convenient, heaviest-hunted areas, and instead focus on turkey habitat that is farthest away from access roads and trails. Keep in mind that turkeys generally roost on high ground overnight and then spend the majority of their daytime hours gleaning acorns and other mast from the highest ridges as well as searching for sprouts and insects in low-lying fields and forest openings.
If a sunrise hunt goes awry, consider staying put until noon, setting up a few decoys and calling occasionally in hopes that a curious gobbler may come in after he has finished breeding the most receptive hens. Sit tight and expect wary toms to sneak in without gobbling.
If another hunter shows up at your “secret” spot at dawn, come back at 10 a.m. or later, set up and try calling every 15 minutes or so. A gobbler that has been spooked by an early-morning hunter may well return to its roosting site to look for amorous hens later in the day.
Many big longbeards have been taken during the last few minutes of legal shooting time, so don’t give up even if the woods seem empty and silent.