North Carolina hunters harvested 17,932 turkeys in the spring of 2016. It was the second-highest harvest on record, bumping the 2015 harvest of 16,912 down to third place and the 2014 harvest of 16,912 down to fourth place. These past three years have shown a steady increase in harvest since the number of birds killed by hunters took a nosedive after the record harvest of 18,409 was set in 2013. If this trend continues, it is very possible that hunters could set a new harvest record during the 2017 spring season.
“What we look for with wildlife populations and harvests are trends,” said Chris Kreh, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Upland Game Bird Biologist. “It is easier to look back on several years of data than it is to look at any single year or to predict the future. We have some areas of the state where the turkey population is recovering, some areas where it is still declining and some spots where the population is expanding. Overall, though, we have experienced some good production in recent years.”
The phenomenon known as southeastern turkey decline is on every gobbler hunter’s watch list these days. While biologists debate its possible causes, which may include increased predation, newly discovered diseases, adverse weather patterns and habitat degradation, southeastern turkey decline is usually occurs on a statewide basis. However, North Carolina’s population declines are regional or local.
“While we have not seen the state, as a whole, experience a decline in productivity, we have seen areas that once had really high turkey populations that have declined and stabilized at a lower level. It is a patchwork decline and it is probably not due to any one thing, but a combination. For example, the harvest in Caswell County has been declining steadily. It was once a top or the top county. This year it barely made it into the top 10 at number 10, with a harvest of 353.”
The top 10 counties for turkey harvest in 2016 were Pender, 487; Rockingham, 484; Halifax, 426; Bladen, 424; Duplin, 419; Northampton, 404; Craven, 381; Onslow, 370; Stokes, 368 and Caswell, 353. Notable is the continued absence of counties in the northwestern part of the state, including Ashe, Watauga and Wilkes, which were once some of the best turkey hunting counties. However, also worth noting is that many counties in the coastal plain have overtaken the former dominance of piedmont and mountain counties. Who would have thought that Pender would take over the top spot, or that it and Bladen, Duplin, Craven and Onslow would ever combine to take over five of the top 10 places?
Vic French is the Commission’s former Coastal Management Biologist and lives in Pender County. He is also an avid turkey hunter. He said one factor — weather — is the reason for high number of gobblers in the southeastern counties.
“It’s no real secret,” French said. “Turkey reproduction depends upon weather. Good spring weather increases turkey poult survival. In the southeastern part of the state, we have had good spring weather in recent years and the weather has not been as good in other places around the state.”
While the southeastern part of the state is experience a gobbler boom, some of traditional counties along the Virginia border, including Stokes and Rockingham, are still holding their own.
“Over the past two years, the statewide average of two poults per hen has been good,” Kreh said. “While we used to see numbers higher than that, it is certainly higher than of some of our neighboring states. I think it is due to consistent habitat and consistent weather. However, looking at the long-term picture 5, 10, 20 years out, a looming concern is losing rural landscape. We have seen increasing turkey population trends for a couple of decades and we may get to a point where it will level out. We may be close to that point, if we are not already there.”
Kreh said the northwestern counties do not show a decline in hunter effort. Therefore, the problem is clearly a decline in turkey numbers. He also predicted some potential growth in population and harvest in the northeastern counties, where the populations are still expanding because they were the last areas that were stocked with turkeys.
One factor stands out as the potential prognosticator of a banner season in 2017. The jake harvest of 3,316 in 2016 was huge.
“The jake harvest was 18.5 percent, whereas in most years jakes comprise 10 percent of the harvest,” Kreh said. “Most of the harvest is 2-year-old gobblers. Therefore, the high number of jakes in the 2016 population could very well translate into banner year in spring of 2017 when those carryover jakes turn 2.”
Hunters harvested 14,616 gobblers and 3,316 jakes. Hunters took 1,005 turkeys on game lands, for 5.6 percent of the total harvest, and 16,927 from other lands. The youth hunting week accounted for 1,234 turkeys for 6.9 percent of the total harvest. Bowhunters took 299 turkeys, crossbow hunters, 70, and shotgun hunters, 17,563.
The 2015 summer observation brood survey showed unusually consistent recruitment statewide — and the 2015 survey is important to 2017 hunters because the poults in 2015 will be the 2-year-old gobblers this season that spring hunters will be after.
In the coastal region, 53 percent of hens had poults, with an average of 3.7 poults per hen. Including hens without poults, the average was 2.0. In the piedmont, 50 percent of hens had poults, with an average of 3.8 poults per hen. Including hens without poults, the average was 2.0. In the mountains, 51 percent of hens had poults with an average of 3.4 per hen. Including hens without poults, the average was 2.0. The population estimate stands unchanged at 265,000.
The gobbler-per-hen ratio in the 2015 summer survey was 0.51 in the coastal region, 0.53 in the piedmont and 0.47 in the mountains for a statewide average of 0.51. This is an indication of gobbler carryover, or the number of adult toms that have survived hunting season, with a ratio of 0.50 considered the lowest to ensure good future hunting.
In the mountains, 505,217-acre Pisgah and 528,782-acre Nantahala national forests have the best turkey hunting, due 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 159 gobblers and Nantahala hunters took 285. 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 been occurring in the lower areas of Pisgah. 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 planted with grasses and clover. These food plots attract gobblers in the 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 42 turkeys. It has a good trail and road network. The terrain is not as rugged as Nantahala, but it is still some serious mountain country.
Piedmont hunters took 26 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 27 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, where hunters took 12 turkeys last season.
Alcoa Game Land’s 8,372 acres consist of scattered tracts along High Rock, Tuckertown and Badin lakes that are accessible by water and land. It produced 21 turkeys, which is out of proportion to its size because the tracts are surrounded by so much excellent habitat. The terrain is more hilly than it is rugged, which is characteristic of the Uwharrie Mountain area.
Along the coast, one of the best game lands was 35,772-acre Roanoke River Wetlands, where hunters took 37 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 43 turkeys last spring. The habitat spans every typical coastal type, 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 tracks in the sandy roads.
The 33,047-acre Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land is another excellent coastal area; here hunters took 13 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 consists of varying ages of mixed hardwood and pine forests.
Near Bladen Lakes State Forest, Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest hosts a three-day, youth-adult turkey hunt through the Commission’s permit hunt opportunities. A guided tour of historic naval stores manufacturing makes it fun for kids and the site has a picnic shelter, educational center and other amenities. The timber stands in many management stages provide outstanding turkey habitat.
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.
A new management tool is available that could help turkey populations increase through establishing better hunting seasons. Kreh said the Commission has employed acoustic devices. The statewide study began in spring of 2015 and results should become available following this spring season.
“It is basically a piece of trail-camera-type equipment, but records a sound instead of a photo,” he said. “It will tell us the peak gobbling times, which are good indications of the breeding patterns of the populations so we will be able to see if our seasons are timed properly. If you are a hunter, you want to hunt them when you hear them gobbling. However, as a biologist, you are more concerned with reproduction so you want the season to occur toward the back of the gobbling cycle to maximize breeding effort. You are disrupting the breeding effort by taking males out of the population before they actually do the breeding. The other potential problem is that if you have hunters in the woods early in the breeding cycle, inadvertent or intentional killing of hens may occur. Unlike many other game birds, the only part the male plays is breeding the hen, but it is an important role.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For game lands maps and information about Commission permit hunts, visit www.ncwildlife.org. For information about Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge permit hunts, visit http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/PDhunt.pdf.
Editor’s Note: To contact Mike Marsh or order his books (“Fishing North Carolina,” autographed, inscribed, $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 www.mikemarshoutdoors.com for credit card orders.