North Carolina's 60,000 wild turkey hunters harvested 18,819 birds in the spring season of 2017. It was a new harvest record, beating the former harvest record of 18,409 birds set in 2013. It was also an increase of 5 percent over the 2016 harvest of 17,932 turkeys.
However, turkey densities have changed over the years, with some areas benefitting from a larger number of gobblers and while some other areas have had flat populations or even suffered through population downturns. Many factors come into play with respect to turkey numbers and hunter success, which are themselves of course intertwined. Habitat is one factor, as human beings change the landscape for the better or worse through urbanization, agricultural and forestry practices. Another big factor is weather. Poor spring and summer nesting and brood conditions are the primary factors impacting turkey numbers if the birds' habitat needs are met. Still another is hunting pressure on the gobblers. If hunters take too many toms during one hunting season and they are not replaced through recruitment, the following seasons may find the forests and fields filled with fewer gobbling birds during the spring breeding season.
Since these factors do not affect turkeys uniformly across the state, areas of gobbler abundance or absence are also not spread out systematically. The state has such a diversity of habitats and weather conditions — one part of the state may be experiencing a drought while another part may be suffering through floods — that hunters should think of it as a slice of Swiss cheese. Overall, it is a quite a tasty tidbit. Nevertheless, there are empty holes of various sizes and shapes throughout. Turkey hunters want to put their efforts into the places where the gobblers are present in large numbers and not waste their precious few days of vacation in areas where gobblers and therefore, the opportunities for success, are scarce.
The top five counties for gobbler harvest in 2016 were Rockingham, 495; Halifax, 455; Northampton, 452; Pender, 450 and Duplin, 425. Right away, hunters should notice that the bulk of these counties are in the coastal plain, with the exception of Rockingham. Traditionally, counties with the highest harvests were in the mountains.
Chris Kreh is the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's turkey biologist. He said that perusing total harvest figures is not necessarily the best way to pick a turkey-hunting destination.
"It is a little misleading, based on looking at the numbers from a county perspective," Kreh said. "If you take into consideration the size of the county, our top five counties would be a bit different. As with our deer harvest, which we also report as the harvest per square mile, you have to take into consideration the size of the county. A county with a small landmass will not have as many turkeys harvested as a county with a large landmass, all other factors being the same. Stokes, Caswell, Rockingham, Northampton and Franklin were the top five counties in terms of turkey harvest per square mile. That means that if you want the best hunting, you should be looking at the counties along the Virginia line."
The same rationale extends to Commission game lands. A large game land such as Nantahala with 528,782 acres spread across Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania counties will likely produce a high gobbler harvest because of its enormous size. But some small game lands produce more birds per square mile.
Another factor is hunting pressure. Although hunting pressure is more difficult to quantify, too much pressure on gobblers in an area can have an adverse impact on current and future success rates. The Commission attenuates this effect by limiting turkey hunting on some the smaller, high-use game lands, allowing turkey hunting only by those hunters who draw successfully draw lottery permits. A dedicated turkey hunter would be well ahead of the game if he consistently applied for several permit of these hunts each year. These limited permit hunts tend to fall into the smaller game land category, with their apparently low turkey harvests due primarily to their small sizes.
A couple of exceptions include areas such as Jordan Game Land and Butner-Falls of the Neuse, which are so close to large human population centers that opening them to all hunters would result in excessive hunting pressure along their lakeshores. Their large acreages — Jordan with 40,937 acres in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties and Butner-Falls of the Neuse with 40,899 acres in Durham, Granville and Wake Counties — are the primary reasons for their high turkey harvests. Large size is also the reason for high turkey harvests at the Upper and Lower Roanoke River Wetlands Game Lands throughout their various tracts along the Roanoke River that total 35,772 acres in Bertie, Halifax, Martin, and Northampton counties.
In the Coastal Region, the Commission's game lands permit hunts and harvests were: Brunswick County Game Land, 4; Pender 4 Tract of Holly Shelter, 7 (for the entire game Holly Shelter Game Land); Singletary Tract and Turnbull Creek at Bladen Lakes State Forest, 14 (for the entire Bladen Lakes game land); Suggs Mill Pond, 13; Goose Creek, 3; J. Morgan Futch, 0 (this was a new permit-only area); Lantern Acres, 2; Lower Roanoke River Wetlands, 19; Rocky Run, 1; Whitehall Plantation, 8 and White Oak River, 5.
In the Piedmont Region, the Commission's game lands permit hunts and harvests were: Nicholson Creek, 1; Butner - Falls of the Neuse, 27; Chatham, 1; Harris, 4; Jordan, 18; Rockfish Creek, 0; Sandhills, 11; Second Creek, 3; Tillery, 1; Upper Roanoke River, Wetlands, 23.
In the Mountain Region, the Commission's game lands permit hunts and harvests were DuPont State Forest, 9 and John's River, 8.
Another thing a hunter should understand about Commission game lands is that wildlife professionals manage these areas intensively to produce good hunting for many game and non-game wildlife species. Planting food plots, using prescribed fire, shorter timber harvest rotations and other landscape-scale practices produce turkeys at much higher densities than most private properties or even much of the national forest properties — Pisgah, Nantahala, Croatan, Uwharrie — because the U.S. Forest Service's top priority goals do not necessarily include providing hunting opportunities.
For every upside, there is a downside. Kreh pointed out some of the counties that were once turkey strongholds that are not producing as well as they were.
"Turkeys are not doing great everywhere in the state," he said. "In the northwestern counties — Ashe, Alleghany, Person and Watauga — this year's harvest was quite a bit lower than the peak harvest for those counties in the early 2000s. In some of those counties, it was 50 percent less. For example, in Alleghany County, the harvest was 150 turkeys in 2017. Back in 2001, the harvest was 309. The decline could have been caused by a lot of things, but no one knows for sure what is happening."
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Southeastern Turkey Decline has occurred in other states. Right now, though, it is just a name to pin on an event that biologists know is happening, but are unsure about its cause or causes. Nevertheless, turkeys are definitely on the decline in some localized places. While a decline has been noted in the northwestern counties, Kreh said its cause can't be chalked up to anything that biologists can determine at this time. Still, science marches forward, seeking to solve such riddles.
Scientists detected a new wild turkey disease, lymphoproliferative disease virus (LPDV) in 2009, so the Commission undertook a study to determine its effects. LPDV was formerly a disease known to infect only domestic poultry in Israel and Europe.
Symptoms are similar to another disease, avian pox, and may cause skin lesions and tumors, weakness and listlessness in wild turkeys. They may become emaciated and die. In 2013 and 2015, Commission biologists analyzed tissue samples, which they took primarily from the donated legs of hunter-harvested gobblers to assess LPDV impacts on wild turkeys. In 2015, hunters donated an amazing 759 leg samples for bone tissue analysis, or one of every 24 harvested gobblers. Biologists were overjoyed with hunter cooperation because they hoped for 500 samples. That showed how concerning LPDV was to hunters.
The infection rate for adult turkeys was higher than for juveniles. The infection rate was 59 percent in the mountains, 46 percent in the piedmont and 46 percent on the coast. The conclusion was that, while the disease is prevalent, it does not appear to have an adverse impact on the turkey population or hunter success, which is great news for hunters.
Another factor on everyone's mind is predation by coyotes. But, nothing can really be done about it. Studies underway in several southeastern states show that they may be a contributing factor to deer mortality, but any impacts, if any, on turkeys has not been determined. The best way to control coyote numbers is through trapping. However, the state's mishmash of county fox trapping and fox hunting laws and county trapping ordinances make trapping only a means of localized control and therefore an ineffective coyote management tool on a statewide level. In counties that do not allow trapping or selling foxes, the coyote take is zero because foxes are the money catch in canine sets.
The Commission is doing research to make sure the spring wild turkey season is biologically sound for optimal turkey numbers and hunters success. Current hunting season dates do not have sufficient science behind them to say whether they open too late or too early and run too short or long. The dates are more-or-less in line with what hunters want to hear and see — gobblers actually gobbling and displaying other breeding behaviors. To that end, the state set up acoustic recording equipment in spring of 2016 around the state, strategically locating the devices in areas where gobblers are not subject to hunting pressure such as state parks and large tracts of private property where the landowners do not allow hunting.
"I have been very encouraged by the preliminary data," Kreh said. "Our acoustic equipment is working very well and we now have thousands of hours of gobbling information. We recorded over 20,000 hours of listening in 2016 and 12,000 in 2017. We made some adjustments in 2017. Instead of recording five hours, we recorded 2.5 hours in the morning because we learned that was when they gobbled the most. It is too early to draw conclusions, but the acoustic study should give us more information. We recorded substantial amounts of gobbling activity from early March through the end of May."
Once Commission biologists have enough data that they are confident with the trends in gobbling activity, they will be able to propose adjustments to the hunting season dates or bag limits that could benefit both turkeys and turkey hunters. At that time, they may propose changes to the season. Any changes would be subject to a public review and comment process, like all other regulations. For 2018, the turkey seasons will remain essentially unchanged, except for a lowering of the adult age for youth turkey week from 21 to 18 to the bring the age requirement into compliance with other language in state and federal hunting regulations.
"I would encourage hunters to look a little bit beyond just the harvest numbers for the counties and various game lands," Kreh said. "You should not overlook our smaller game lands, especially those that have special permit hunts. Put in your applications for several different permit hunting areas or camp out at some of our more remote game lands to get away from some of the heavier hunting pressure." \