Be glad turkeys can't read. If they were capable of discerning the printed word, they would probably be so depressed about their species' immediate future that they'd just say the heck with it and give up breeding for good!
Now, I don't mean to imply that pre-season forecasts like the one you have just begun to read and think about are a waste of time. Far from it; rather, a properly thought-out "expert" analysis is a logical starting point for any hunter who wishes to take charge of the new season instead of leaving his hits and misses to mere circumstance. The problem with relying on the experts is they can't be everywhere at once, and New York is a big state.
In other words, we hunters should keep predictions and statistics in perspective.
Right now, the statewide outlook for spring turkey hunting is not encouraging, but that's based on a wide-angle glimpse, not a close-up view. Just because state biologists and volunteers found a below-average ratio of poults per hen during the DEC's most recent summer survey does not mean nest production was low in your back forty. More meaningful, by far, is the surprising number of newly bearded jakes and chatterbox jennies you bumped into during that trail hike you took a couple of weeks ago. For summer population tallies and reproduction estimates are just snapshots in time. They are interesting, for purposes of noting year-to-year comparisons and trends, but they can't foreshadow the impact of mild or harsh weather patterns through the ensuing autumn and winter months or other variables that can be game-changers for spring-season turkey hunters.
Having said all that, poult-hen ratios were below-average on a statewide basis in 2011, for the third consecutive August. The estimate came in at 2.6 poults per hen, according to DEC chief gamebird biologist Mike Schiavone. Over the previous 10 ears, the average was 3.0 poults per hen.
If nothing else, those numbers suggest there will be slightly fewer yearlings — both jakes and jennies — to confound hunters this May. But it does not necessarily indicate diminished numbers of the mature toms, or gobblers, that most spring-season hunters prefer to lure to gun or bow.
"Four of the past six years have seen below-average productivity," Schiavone noted.
Okay, but an optimist would say it could have been worse, since two of the last six years were marked by above average poult-to-hen ratios. If you're not an optimist, if your glass isn't half full, then what made you roll out of bed at oh-dark-thirty last May, when the woods in some parts of the state were being inundated twice their normal volume of rain? What convinced you that New York turkeys would have any nesting success at all after that soggy debacle?
Maybe it was the data, if you studied it dispassionately..
In the Syracuse area, birds, hunters, golf courses and everything else beneath the sky were drenched with 8.3 inches of rain in May. We all know heavy rainfalls are bad for nesting and tending broods and most of us assumed subsequent surveys would show abysmal poults-to-hen ratios in Central New York.
Yet when the August survey results came out, the DEC reported a tally of 3.7 poults per hen in the Oneida Lake Plains, which includes Syracuse and surrounding townships. That was the third-highest poult-hen ratio recorded, among 23 management units surveyed, in 2011. How do we explain that?
One possibility is a statistical anomaly, meaning in this case there were a misleading number of broods out and about when DEC Region 7 turkey-checkers did their thing. It's more likely, however; that hen turkeys pounded by May rains re-nested successfully and hatched a fair number of second-chance poults in the drier weeks afterward.
In his report, Schiavone commented on that possibility.
"Rainfall amounts declined in June," he noted. "(And) drier conditions then may have resulted in improved nesting success or may have allowed adult hens whose nests failed in May to re-nest in June."
Regardless, I can assure Game & Fish readers plenty of young turkeys were stuffing themselves with waste corn and alfalfa during the fall season and on into the winter in Syracuse-area fields. How many of those birds will be susceptible to hunters' calling skills in the next few weeks? As always, we won't know until the shooting stops.
Meanwhile, here are some of the highlights of the DEC's 2011 summer turkey survey report:
*Some 429 hen-flock sightings were recorded. That's 16 fewer than reported the previous August.
*Statewide, the 2.6 poults-per-hen ratio was unchanged from 2010. It was the third year in a row with ratios below the long-term average of 3.0 poults per hen.
*Approximately 23 percent of observed hen flocks did not have any visible poults in tow. That compared with the 21 percent of poult-less flocks in 2010 and the 24 percent of hen flocks seen without poults during August, 2009. The recent 10-year average percentage of poult-less flocks is 19 percent.
*Data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service indicated said rainfall totals varied across the state but were well above normal just about everywhere between April 1 and May 31. Rainfalls declined in June, to the benefit of second-nesting or brood-rearing hens in most regions.
Other information in the Schiavone report suggests my home hunting ground — Syracuse and its Onondaga County suburbs — lately has been part of the state's leading turkey factory. DEC Region 7, which takes in Onondaga and eight other center-state counties, had an average score of 3.1 poults per hen over the last five summer surveys. Region 8 and Region 9 tied 7 with the same average ratios; but Region 4 (the Catskill mountains and their foothills) topped the entire state with a reported 3.6 poults per hen since 2011. Aside from this turkey redoubt, it seems clear that Central-Western New York, including DEC regions 7, 8 and 9, will have a leading role in our still-developing turkey-hunting culture.
Wild turkeys, nearly extirpated from New York's woods and fields in the late 1950s, have spread their wings in every county except for those in or adjacent to the Big Apple, thanks to cooperative trap-and-transfer programs championed by the DEC and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Turkeys have acclimated themselves to habitats as rugged and rocky as the central Adirondacks and as posh, from a bird's vantage point, as the grain-laden fields of the Great Lakes Plain. They thrive virtually everywhere, to the surprise and delight of "experts" who once said turkeys would not survive for long in rugged winter climates such as the Tug Hill Plateau. The birds have fooled prognosticators as easily as they deceive green-horn hunters on a May morning, but they don't always get away. According to state biologists, turkey kills by hunters have ranged between 15,000 and 45,000 birds annually in the last 10 spring seasons. The annual average take in spring is approximately 32,800 toms, jakes and bearded hens.
Last year, about two-thirds of toms slain in May were gobblers, or mature toms. One-third of the hunters' harvest consisted of jakes. The total kill amounted to roughly 18,700 birds.
One significant factor in 2011's sub-par bottom line was that gloomy spring weather. To put it simply, many hunters would rather go birdless than hunt wet. DEC researchers found hunting effort declined 9 percent, compared to the spring of 2010. Besides the seemingly endless rain, hunters may also have been deterred by discouraging forecasts and mid-season reports.
You won't kill many turkeys by staying home, and the fact that a higher-than-average number of hunters did stay home last spring may mean that some gobblers that would have been killed last year will be around to hunt this year.
If this report has made you more determined to score on a big tom or two in the weeks ahead, it's time we offered a few general locations where that good attitude will pay off. The following counties are either old reliables or up-and-comers in the world of turkey hunting.
Definitely in the "old reliable" category, Chautauqua County topped all others in the state in 2011 with a springtime harvest of 965 turkeys. Remarkably, that was considered an "off" year, for the county turkey kill exceeded the 1,000 mark in eight of the last 10 seasons and soared above 2,000 in three of those Mays.
About 25,000 acres of public hunting grounds are within Chautauqua County. Most of these lands, like the 3,000-acre Boutwell Hill State Forest (actually two adjacent properties) northeast of Sinclairville in the town of Charlotte, are steep and heavily timbered.
My home county will never challenge the big gobbler producers for first place in the state standings, but it is always in the top 20 and in recent years has cracked the top 10 a couple of times. Hunters began to fully appreciate Onondaga's potential in 2009, when its hunters bagged 1,024 spring turkeys. Only seven counties had a bigger number that season.
Over the last 10 years, the county had an average spring harvest of 748 birds.
These numbers would likely be higher if there were more public hunting opportunities in the county. Two large state Wildlife Management Areas in the county, the 3,400-acre Cicero Swamp, off Route 298 west of Bridgeport; and the 3,600-acre Three Rivers WMA just north of Baldwinsville off Route 48, have thriving turkey populations but are half-covered by ponds and wetlands. My advice is, if you live in Syracuse and want to hunt turkeys, get to know your friends and neighbors in the suburbs.
Once considered a long shot for turkey trap-and-transfer success because of its rugged, lake-effect snow-dominated winters and flat terrain, Jefferson County has blossomed into one of the state's better spring hunting destinations. It is an understatement, for sure, to say Jefferson's turkey flocks have thrived. The birds do well throughout the county, in habitats as various as the open plains and marshes west of Interstate 81 and the scrubby woodlots and grassy fields east of the same highway. Public lands are diverse, too, but turkeys find most, including the 2,500-acre Ashland Flats WMA, to their liking.
A complete packet showing maps for WMAs in the county can be obtained by calling the DEC Region 6 office in Watertown, (315) 785-2261.
Just how productive is Jefferson County for turkey hunters? Last spring only six counties matched or exceeded the 601-bird harvest in the county. Over the last decade, the county basked in an even greater glow, with an average spring kill of 902 turkeys. In four of those years, county hunters bagged at least 1,000 spring birds.
In the just-finished decade, Delaware County was a turkey hunter's paradise, giving up an average of 993 birds each May. In five of those spring seasons, the 1,000 barrier was easily exceeded.
Delaware County has many rural dairy farms, near Margaretville and other small towns, where traveling hunters can often obtain permission to hunt on private lands, but sportsmen also make wise use of state lands, such as the 7,000-acre Bear Spring Mt. WMA and many large, steep and sweat-inducing public forests. Some of the latter are part of the Catskill Preserve and others are not. Ask the DEC Region 4 office in Stamford, (607) 652-7367 for a copy of their booklet which shows the map locations of other public hunting tracts.
Another "love thy neighbor" county with sparse public land holdings, Erie County is thick with turkey feathers despite its limited access. In 2011 its hunters racked up 513 bearded birds, and during the just-finished decade the county output added up to an impressive 1,038 turkeys a year. In other words, the 2011 kill was almost exactly half the yearly average. Now there's a test of your optimism!
The public acreage in Erie County includes the Zoar Valley WMA, located along the Cattaraugus Creek gorge; and the Darien Lakes WMA, better known for its rides and other kiddy attractions than its turkey hunting. If there's not enough room in these two spots, your best bet is to start knocking on doors.