April 03, 2017
Last spring while afield in Franklin County on the opening day of turkey season, I experienced snow, high winds, bitter temperatures, and a gobbler that came in silent (I wouldn't have heard him gobbling anyway because of the tempest). That bird and left as silent as he came in because I was too badly out of position to shoot. The next morning I returned to the same farm and heard nine different toms sound off at dawn, even though the temperature fell below freezing.
After gobbler number nine greeted the onrushing dawn, I decided that I was in a uniquely sublime situation, and the best strategy was to simply do nothing and wait for one of the lonesome longbeards to stroll by. And so it came to pass at 7:15, a wandering tom came by, perhaps searching for the hen (me) he had heard earlier or maybe wanting to settle scores with one of his fellow males. By 7:30, I was thanking the farmer for letting me hunt as we both admired the 19.085 pounds of future cooked turkey breasts, legs, and neck. When I left, the temperature gauge on the farmhouse door registered 28 degrees.
Last spring, the weather started out foul and grew worse, or so it understandably seemed to many hunters. Gary Norman, the DGIF forest game bird project leader, reports that 17,243 birds were checked in last spring, a 16 percent decline from the 2015 tally.
Norman attributes the drop to the "predominant role" that weather played, such as the miserable cold the first weekend, and the unseasonable heat during the following two weekends. The biologist adds that many hunters experienced 12 to 15 days of rain to round out the season, depending on where they were hunting in the Commonwealth. And to put a sour cherry on top of this foul witches' brew of a season, some far western Virginia hunters experienced snow on the last weekend of the season.
To better understand the importance of weekends, Saturdays accounted for 31 percent of the harvest and Sundays 11 prcent.
Norman points out that some of the best news was that the Youth and Apprentice hunter season was lengthened from the first Saturday in April to the first weekend of the month, and those folks took advantage of the opportunity, killing 598 birds, an increase of 33 percent.
Generally, the age classes from three and two years ago mean the most to spring gobbler hunters (birds born one year ago are still jakes). Those hunters interested in true longbeards in 2017 should note that the 2014 season saw above average recruitment on the whole. Because of the poor weather, many of the 2-year-olds last season were not killed and will be catting about this spring.
Norman says that the DGIF uses "poults per hen" as a measure of recruitment for any given year and broods per 1,000 (survey) miles as an index to brood abundance. In 2014, there were 4.0 broods per 1000 miles; in 2015, the figure was 3.1. In 2014, there were 2.4 poults per hen; in 2015, 2.5; the long-term average is 2.5.
"No doubt, there were more broods seen in 2014 than 2015," he said. "However, while there were more broods seen in 2014, the number of young within broods was similar to the long-term average.
"The ideal scenario is to have both indices be above average. In short, 2015 was an average year for both indices, which means the 2-year old age class should be good — not great, but not bad. The encouraging thing I see for the 2017 season is that the under-harvest of 2-year old birds in 2016 will likely mean more abundant older toms (3-plus) than the norm. So my take is an average class of 2-year-olds; however, the 3-plus-year-old age class will be above average."
Norman says the spring turkey harvest is believed to be a crude index of the spring population. Using the spring kill as an index, the biologist believes Virginia's turkey population reached a plateau of approximately 200,000 birds in 2013 and has been relatively stable since then.
Based on this data, the South Mountain and South Piedmont regions have been strong in recent years, and the Tidewater region, though robust in the past, has declined in recent years. Biologists are unsure why this has been the case.
Norman says the North Mountain region (the national forest is an important part of this region) continues to have a low turkey population, though it seems to be slightly increasing. The fall season has been shortened in some counties there. The North Piedmont's turkey population also has plenty of room to grow, as it is not what it could be.
Norman says there are no new regulations on the horizon, but he does express a fear regarding the trend of "fanning," where a hunter crawls and/or scoots along the ground, meanwhile holding a gun with one hand and, with the other, a decoy with a tail fan and a gobbler's head and neck.
"I'm concerned with the apparent growing interest of fanning gobblers in the spring season," he said. "I think it's demeaning to the sport of turkey hunting and dangerous given that rifles are legal over most of Virginia. It's probably not a wildlife management issue and therefore probably outside the purview of Game Department regulations, but I am nevertheless concerned."
PUBLIC LAND BETS: THE PIEDMONT
I contacted DGIF biologists around the state to receive input on top destinations for this spring. Dan Lovelace keeps tabs on several of our best piedmont WMAs, among them 5,321-acre Fairystone Farms in Henry and Patrick counties.
"Traditionally, Fairystone Farms has been a good place to turkey hunt," he said. "Mark Frank, the longtime wildlife manager there, has done a lot of habitat improvement projects over the years, as has Kevin Cox. Numerous firewood sales have been used to open up the forest canopy and create edge habitat. Forest openings, 30 to 150 feet wide, have been constructed and planted with wheat and clover."
This combination of active forest and opening management, he notes, has created a diversity of habitat for wildlife, particularly the wild turkey. In short, Fairystone is a good place to hunt in the spring for gobblers, and a good place for hens to raise their poults the rest of the time.
Lovelace adds that the White Oak Mountain WMA in Pittsylvania County is another top-notch public destination. Thomas Moss, the wildlife manager there, has revitalized old farm habitat by plowing fields, creating food strips, conducting controlled burns, and planting corn, soybeans, and other foods. The 2,712-acre public land is truly a showplace for creative wildlife habitat projects, says Dan.
Biologist Katie Martin also watches over part of the Piedmont and says that the Amelia (2,217 acres in Amelia County) and Featherfin (2,800 acres in Prince Edward, Buckingham, and Appomattox counties) WMAs are worth considering.
"For me, Amelia and Featherfin are still great areas for turkey hunting in the spring," she said. "I am a bit concerned by the lack of poults I saw last summer, but that impact will likely be felt more in 2018 than the upcoming 2017 spring gobbler season. Hopefully there were more of those little ones out there than I could see due to all the tall hay fields.
"For counties that offer good turkey hunting due to high turkey populations I'd go with Cumberland and Amelia as about the two best. Hunting on the two local state forests, Appomattox-Buckingham and Cumberland, is also pretty good with increased [turkey] sightings and habitat projects ongoing at both forests."
The 19,808-acre Appomattox-Buckingham SF obviously lies in its two namesake counties while 16,233-acre Cumberland can make the same claim regarding its county. Many turkey hunters fail to consider state forests, but these two are known turkey producers.
DGIF biologist Mike Dye notes that the 4,463-acre Powhatan WMA should be a quality destination for Central Virginia sportsmen this spring. Powhatan features the classic rolling hills country forest that this part of the state is known for. However, Dye says that that hunters should keep in mind that at press time, the 2016 hatch appeared poor in his part of the Commonwealth. This could lead to few jakes being present this spring.
The Southside part of Tidewater hosts a strong turkey contingent and DGIF biologist Pete Acker says "we have turkeys all over my counties" there.
For public land hunting, Acker recommends the Cavalier WMA in Chesapeake and its 4,550 acres, where 12 toms were checked in last year. The Cavalier consists of a 750-acre tract bordering the Dismal Swamp Canal and a 3,800-acre expanse that lies along the North Carolina border. The latter section probably offers the best turkey hunting. Quite a bit of regenerating forest exists, which typically attracts nesting hens.
"I saw a good many gobblers there before, during, and after the season," said Acker.
The biologist adds that the Big Woods WMA is often a quality destination, but only three turkeys were checked in there last year, which was a disappointing total. However, if the low take last year was due to weather, there is a chance that there will be more turkeys around this year.
Another dandy flatlands possibility is the Chickahominy WMA (5,217 acres) in Charles City County. Biologist Aaron Proctor rates it as one of Tidewater's best public lands with its bottomland hardwoods and numerous tidal creeks with their lush, spring vegetation.
GO WEST, TURKEY HUNTERS
Biologist Al Bourgeois relates that the Highland WMA (14,283 acres) in Highland County and the Goshen WMA (33,697 acres) in Rockbridge County remain prudent choices for public land hunters this spring. These WMAs are among the steeper ones in the state and also quite expansive, so they don't receive an inordinate amount of hunting pressure. Rockbridge County, continues Bourgeois, is also one of the top counties in the highland region.
The Goshen and its companion WMA, Little North Mountain, have been the beneficiaries of several habitat improvement projects in recent years. Members of the Rufffed Grouse Society have planted such items as white pines for thermal cover, plus apple trees, clover, and hawthorns for food. The RGS has also designed food plots and all manners of seeded access roads.
Of course, the major public land in the upland region is the 1.7-million acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. I called in and killed my first gobbler in the GWJ and go afield somewhere in its expanse every year in Virginia and West Virginia. When I first began hunting in the national forest back in the mid 1980s, my preferred tactic was to hike far into the backcountry and search for unpressured toms.
Nowadays, though, a trek into the wilderness will likely be unproductive, as most turkeys seem to live along the border of the national forest where they can go back and forth between cornfields, cattle concerns, and agricultural land, and the steep, mountain coves where turkeys prefer to roost. The inner recesses of the national forest are often lacking in quality habitat, which means that they are also lacking in turkeys. Because preservation groups often fight habitat-enhancing projects on the national forests, the GWJ is becoming increasingly more hostile to wildlife.
Last year, almost 94 percent of our state's birds were killed on private land. The top 10 counties (with harvest in parentheses) were Bedford (501), Pittsylvania (446), Franklin (407), Scott (374), Shenandoah (371), Halifax (368), Carroll (315), Rockbridge (298), and Grayson (295). Obviously, gaining permission to hunt in any of these counties would be a major plus for any state hunter this spring.
Next April 8 when opening day arrives, I expect I'll be in that same woodlot where I killed a tom last year. But even if I'm not at that particular farm, I'll definitely be afield somewhere even if the weather was as miserable as last year. I imagine many of you feel the same way.