After a few years of what appeared to be lower turkey numbers (amidst reports of avian pox and lymphoproliferative virus, or LPDV), and following a couple of the mildest winters on record and good spring recruitment numbers, New England's wild turkey numbers are once again at historical highs. Based on recent population numbers, hunters should have relatively little trouble seeing birds this spring.
But the distribution of turkeys is changing in some areas. New England's wild turkeys historically are inhabitants of mature woodlands, particularly those with open areas and bordering fields. As these natural habitats change and bird numbers in traditional habitats reach carrying capacity, more and more birds are being observed in or closer to urban areas. While rural areas continue to be New England's stronghold, hunters might consider scouting and hunting public and private properties areas open to hunting where only a few years ago wild turkeys were rarely seen.
The Pine Tree State still has the largest wild turkey population in New England, currently estimated at 60,000 to 70,000 birds, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The preliminary 2016 spring gobbler harvest came in at 5,167, nowhere near a state record but a few hundred more than in 2014 and 2015, when fewer than 5,000 gobblers were taken. The 2016 take is well within the five-year average.
"We had a really good hatch in August of 2016," said Maine Fish and Wildlife biologist Kelsey Sullivan. "The fall 2016 numbers going into winter were very good and I expect this spring there will be a good number of jakes and likely a good number of toms." With that said, Sullivan expects 2018 to be even a better year for hunters exclusively interested in hunting gobblers.
Until then, however, this spring's season should provide plenty of opportunity as well. Season dates are changing very little this year. The legal limit will remain two bearded birds during the spring season in Wildlife Management Units 7 and 9 through 29. However, the bag limit is a single bird in WMDs 1 thru 6 and WMD 8, where turkey numbers are not quite as high.
While good numbers of birds will be found throughout much of Maine this spring, in 2016 the top producing areas were in WMDs 20, 21 and 22 in the extreme south and southern coastal regions. Winters are generally milder in these areas and each is home to some of the best turkey habitat in the state. Based on last year's spring harvest the towns of Windham and Gorham in WMD 21 produced 75 and 72 birds, respectively, and Wells, the Berwicks, York, Lebanon and Waterboro in WMD 20 all had respectable numbers. Hunters in Wells took 63 birds and Berwick and South Berwick produced a combined total of 101 turkeys.
In WMD 22, hunters should check out Monmouth, Richmond and Bowdoin and Woolwich and Lisbon, all of which produced over 30 bearded birds in 2016. In WMD 23 Vassalboro gave up 45 birds, and in WMD 24 along the immediate south coast Scarborough gave up 58 and Brunswick 34. In the mid-coast region, hunters in Warren in WMD 25 bagged 56 bearded birds. All totaled, 44 towns in in WMDs 15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 and 25, all in the southern, south and mid-coastal and south-central regions gave up 30 or more spring birds.
While much of the hunting in these regions takes place on private land, which is generally open to hunting unless otherwise posted or prohibited by local ordinance, there are several dozen wildlife management areas where birds are apt to be found. For more information on these areas, as well as hunting license fees and exact season dates, visit the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife web site at www.mefishwildlife.com.
One thing is a given when it comes to spring turkey hunting in northern New England: You've got to have good conditions to get hunters in the woods and harvest figures up. The 2016 spring season is a good example.
New Hampshire turkey biologist Ted Walski was anticipating a banner season last spring, possibly exceeding 4,000 birds, but according to preliminary registration forms it didn't work out that way. Although a few more registrations could have trickled in from the 60 tagging stations around the state, by closing day 3,821 bearded birds had been taken. That's 185 fewer than in 2015. Although not bad, if the figure holds it is the lowest spring harvest since 2011.
All turkey hunters know harvest figures are highly influenced by weather conditions, especially during the first week of the spring season. Opening morning last season dawned wet and foggy after more than an inch of rain the previous day and it also rained for the next two days keeping many hunters indoors.
Another factor involved in the lower hunter success, according to Walski, was the early spring green-up. In some central and southern regions turkeys were displaying and some toms were gobbling by the middle of February. April saw 18 thawing days reaching 50 degrees or higher. By May 17, right in the middle of the season, leaves were budding out over much of the state, reducing visibility and buffering sound, making it much more difficult to see and hear birds.
No one can precisely predict what early spring and the month of May will bring this year, but given good — or even fair — conditions, hunters should find good numbers of birds and have plenty of opportunity. Walski says the statewide population is a healthy 40,000 birds, a level it has maintained for a few years now.
Of course, due to better habitat conditions and milder winters, some regions of the state have more birds than others and therefore provide better hunting. It has always been that way and no doubt won't change.
In recent years, of the 18 wild management units in the state, Unit J2 north of Route 4 to Lake Winnipesaukee has been a top producer. Most of the land in this unit is private, but the Ellis R Hatch WMA in Brookfield, Middleton and New Durham offers some 1,492 acres of good hunting territory. Another good spot to consider is the Belknap State Forest, including the Valley Wildlife Conservation Easement in Gilford and Gilmanton areas. The easement area covers some 3,269 acres of hill and ridge terrain but has good numbers of birds. The Cardigan Mountain State Forest in Orange covers more than 5,650 acres of rugged terrain, too.
Another top-producing unit has been Unit K in western Hillsboro County, Units M and L in the Rockingham and Stafford County area and Unit H-2 in Cheshire County in the southwest corner. Each of these units offers some excellent public hunting areas but the farmlands and river bottom along the Connecticut River can be extremely productive.
Another thing that won't change this year is the limit of one bearded bird during the spring season and fall archery-only season in Wildlife Management Units A and B thru M and fall shotgun season in WMUs D1, D2, G, H1, H2, I1, I2, J1, J2 K, L and M. The limit this fall will remain one bird of either sex anywhere in the state.
For more information on season dates and public areas to hunt wild turkeys visit the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web site at www.huntnh.com.
Mild winters and springs of late have boosted turkey numbers to between 50,000 and 60,000 in the Green Mountain State by most accounts. Birds are found statewide and in recent years have been bagged in most towns throughout the state. During the spring 2016 season 5,537 bearded birds were taken in 241 of 253 jurisdictions. This year, as in recent years, the spring limit is two bearded birds statewide. Spring turkey hunting remains quite popular in Vermont, with 17, 249 licenses sold in 2016, according to Amy Alfieri, the state turkey project leader.
With so many birds available good hunting opportunities should be found throughout Vermont, but according to Alfieri, the central-Connecticut River Valley management units, units in the northwest and north-central region have been real hotspots of late.
"The highest number of spring birds taken in the state last year was Unit J2 with 628," Alfieri notes, "followed by Unit B at 555 and Unit D1 with 491."
While these units might not top the list this year, recent year harvest totals suggest they should be top contenders. Other high-producing units are along the border with New York and Unit O, along the lower Connecticut River Valley.
For a list of wildlife management areas, state forests and other public hunting properties in Vermont, as well as May season dates and other turkey hunting information visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department web site at www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
Between 1911 and 1967 nine different attempts in five different counties were made to restore wild turkeys in Massachusetts. All failed. In 1972 and 1973 37 turkeys were live-trapped in New York and released in Beartown State Forest in Berkshire County. Within three years the birds had established themselves and by 1978 the restoration was declared a success. Beginning in in 1978 MassWildlife started live-trapping birds and by 1996 over 560 birds had been released in various parts of the commonwealth. Today, thanks to those efforts and proper management, an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 birds call Massachusetts home and flocks are found east to Cape Cod. In recent years turkeys have been harvested in nearly all counties totaling 2,963 during the 2016 season, the highest since 2009. when over 3,000 were taken.
This year, as in recent years, the spring season will open the last Saturday in April and end the fourth Saturday thereafter, April 29 through May 27. As usual, Sunday hunting is prohibited. Hunters are allowed two bearded birds in the spring and none in the fall or one bearded bird in the spring and one bird of either sex in the fall.
Since 2007 Worcester County has been the top turkey-producing county in Massachusetts. During the 2016 spring season hunters took 769 bearded birds, the highest since 2009. Public properties like Birch Hill WMA in Royalston, Millers River WMA in Athol, Leominster State Forest in Leominster, Douglas State Forest in Douglas, Upton State Forest in Upton and High Ridge WMA in Gardner all offer prime turkey habitat. Combined these properties cover over 20,000 acres.
To the west, Franklin, Hampshire and Berkshire counties (not always in that order) also produce their share of birds and offer some of the largest state forests and public hunting areas in Massachusetts. Warwick SF, Wendell SF, October Mountain SF, Beartown SF, Savoy Mountain SF and Mohawk Trail SF, to name but a few are prime examples.
In the east, bird numbers have been increasing for the past number of years and recent harvest figures point that out. Plymouth County produced 217 birds last spring, Bristol County 227 and Barnstable County 90, the latter two all-time highs. The turkey kill by hunters was also up for all other eastern counties. Public land open to hunting is less available in these counties, but Gilbert Hills SF in Foxborough, Wrentham SF in Wrentham, Miles Standish SF in Plymouth and the Freetown-Fall River SF are good places to look for birds.
For information on turkey hunting in Massachusetts and public properties to hunt visit the MassWildlife web site at www.massgov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw.
Connecticut hunters have been bagging well over 1,200 spring birds for a number of years now. With an estimated 30,000 birds statewide, and good poult production last year, hunters certainly come close to or even surpass the 1,500 birds killed back in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It depends on spring weather conditions and how many hunters hit the woods.
Better than 80 percent of the annual turkey harvest in Connecticut is taken on private property. Hunters looking for good public land should look to properties on the northeast and northwest corners that offer some of the largest state forests in the state.
In the northeast take a look at Nipmuck SF in Union and Willington and Natchaug SF in Ashford. Both have several parcels so plan some pre-season scouting. The Kollar WMA in Tolland should be another good bet. The same is true of Marlborough State Forest, the Salmon River SF (both in Marlborough) and Nathan Hale SF in Andover. Most of these areas are open under general regulations, but be sure to check.
In the northwest the Housatonic SF near West Cornwall, Alconquin SF in Colebrook, Tunxis SF in Hartland and People's SF Barkhamsted all hold decent number of birds.
For more information on these area and other public hunting areas in Connecticut open to turkey hunting visit www.ct.gov/deep.com.
Wild turkeys in the Ocean State have been going through some hard times in the past few years, largely due to poor brood production. Other factors include loss of habitat and predation. Since 2001 when the statewide population was estimated at 6,000, the estimated number of turkeys in the state has fallen to about 3,000 now. As a result hunter harvest has declined more than 50 percent since 2006.
But some birds are out there, although you might have to scout and hunt a little harder and it the woods early and often to find them. With about 60,000 acres of public land open to hunting (about 10 percent of the state) there is plenty of room to give a good try.
Based on past harvests, some prime destinations include Arcadia WMA in Exeter, the George Washington WMA and Big Buck WMA in Burrillville. The Durfee Hill WMA in Glocester is another good turkey spot as is the Big River WMA in West Greenwich. Further south the Carolina WMA in Richmond and the Great Swamp WMA in West Kingston also produce some birds.
For season dates, limits and other particulars visit wdem.ri.gov.