Virginians can know how to call, how to read sign, where to set up, and how to entice a longbeard away from his hens. But if we don't know where the premier public lands and the top counties in our home regions are, we may be eating tags instead of punching them. Here are this spring's top destinations.
THE NATIONAL FOREST
Last year, the some 1.7-million acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest accounted for 837 bearded birds, which was 4.4 percent of the statewide turkey kill. Of the national forest land total, the GW portion accounted for 386 birds, the JNF for 951. Dave Steffen, coordinatingscientist, terrestrialscience team for the VDGIF, has been going afield in the GWJNF for some 30 years. He explains why he relishes his spring days afield there.
"The national forest gives me room to roam either by walking or biking into the backcountry," he said. "The hunting pressure is not that bad; in fact, there's less pressure now than it used to be. The past few years I've been doing more and more biking to get to where I want to go.
"I'll ride back about three miles on a gated Forest Service road, stow my bike somewhere, then head for spots I've scouted. I used to lock my bike and hide it well off a trail. But, really, I can't imagine seeing anyone when I go that far back."
If someone wants to duplicate what Steffen does, he says it won't be hard. Look for national forest land in the county nearest you, then download maps from the Forest Service website or use Google Earth to begin the process. Just what should hunters search for once they've obtained the maps?
"Look for what I call 'turkey woods,'" Steffen advised. "That means, hardwoods in creek coves, hardwood flats and benches, and saddles that lead from one flat or bench to another. All those types of places draw turkeys."
Obviously, the best reconnaissance occurs when we can actually visit a particular section. By definition, a bench is a long stretch of flat land that extends along a section of the highlands while a flat is just a short stretch of level land on a mountainside. Steffen relates that one small highland flat can be a hot spot if roosting trees exist above it and water sources (notably spring seeps or creeks) exist nearby.
Another key is whether acorns still litter the forest duff come spring. For example, the Craig County gobbler I killed high on a mountain this past April had a sprouted chestnut oak acorn in its craw. The best way we can ascertain whether acorns still can be found, as well as all the aspects of a particular flat, is to actually visit that spot after our map study has indicated its possibilities.
The biologist also suggests another strategy for Virginia sportsmen. Try to find private land parcels that have public roads in front of them and the national forest. Ask those private landowners for permission to cross their property, not hunt it. If those individuals agree to let you cross, chances are that you'll find turkeys that are very lightly pressured. And in those cases where landowners grant permission for you to hunt, so much the better.
HUNTING STATE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS
Through its game check system, the game department tabulates WMA kill by county. That means, if, for instance, two WMAs exist in a county, there's no way of knowing how many turkeys were killed in each domain.
"We don't know the exact kill in every WMA," said Steffen. "Another problem we sometimes encounter is a person will phone check his gobbler and say that it came from federal land when no federal land is in that particular county, just state land. So we just have a general idea how many birds are being killed on WMAs."
State turkey biologist Gary Norman agrees.
"The harvest on WMAs comes with caution because I get the number using county and land ownership data," he says. "So if I get a record with a kill that occurred in Highland County on state owned land, I know it is likely to be the Highland WMA. This works well if the WMA in a given county is the only state land.
"Oftentimes we have more than one WMA and I suspect some people may not know the difference between state WMA and federal land — GWJNF or other federal land. We also have issues where there may be other state lands beside DGIF — maybe Department of Forestry or state parks. So the data is not very 'clean.' I think the WMA kill numbers are minimum estimates."
Given all that, let's look at the turkey harvest from public and private lands by region.
The Tidewater region has fewer and smaller WMAs than the rest of the state, but it does offer a number of counties that boast impressive kill rates. VDGIF wildlife biologist Pete Acker says a key to experiencing good flatland hunting is to find quality roosting areas. In fact, believes the biologist, birds frequently roost over swamps, and later in the day, a draw is where recent prescribed burns occurred. Turkeys often feed in such places so they would be ideal spots to set up after morning gobbling ceases.
Fellow Tidewater biologist Todd Englemeyer agrees about the bird's affinity for marshes and swamps and adds that that flatland birds typically congregate in fields, especially on windy or wet days.
One of the best public lands in Tidewater is the Big Woods WMA, where 12 birds were checked in last spring. At 2,208 acres, this Sussex County public land is known for its pine forests, tidal creeks, and scattered marshes. Another possibility is the Cavalier WMA, where six turkeys were checked. This 3,800-acre public land actually lies within the City of Chesapeake and also adjoins the Dismal Swamp. Cutovers, pine plantations, and bottomland hardwoods characterize the Cavalier.
Many hunters like to peruse the turkey kills in individual counties, but a far better indicator is the kill per square mile of suitable habitat. Last year, the state average for the latter was 0.48. Some of the Eastern counties that topped that figure (with percentages in parentheses) were Westmoreland (1.45), Richmond (1.32), Northumberland (1.24), Surry (1.01), Charles City (0.88) Southampton (0.75), and Sussex (0.71). All of these domains have a reputation for possessing numerous agricultural enterprises, scattered woodlots, and tidal streams.
To visualize the Southern Piedmont, think, roughly, west of Richmond to the Danville/South Boston vicinity. This is rolling hills country with forested hillsides and small to mid-size farms in the valleys. Tributaries of the James and Roanoke watersheds are also an important feature.
Traditionally, one of the premier public lands in this region has been the 2,748-acre White Oak Mountain WMA in Pittsylvania County. Mixed hardwood and pine forests cover most of White Oak, but over the years DGIF staff have performed numerous habitat improvement projects such as controlled burns and wildlife opening creation. In 2017, only four turkeys were reported to have been killed there, but don't let that low number dissuade you from going there. This place has potential.
Two other public lands to consider include 2,679-acre Turkeycock in Franklin and Henry counties and 5,321-acre Fairystone in Patrick and Henry counties. Because they are both in part inside Henry, the DGIF can't determine from the harvest records how many birds were killed in each public land. However, we do know that together at least 13 bearded birds were taken last year. Both of these public lands feature the classic Piedmont countryside mentioned earlier and would be worthwhile destinations.
Last year, some of the most impressive kill per square mile of suitable habitat counties included Bedford (0.77) and Franklin (0.71). I checked the figures for many of the counties in this region, and most were in the slightly above average category. The South Piedmont remains a solid bet this spring.
For the Northern Piedmont, think that part of that state generally north of Richmond on through Fredericksburg to the D.C. exurbs. Although more developed than the South Piedmont, this region still offers considerable amounts of rural land with that same rolling hills environment.
In many of these counties, the kill ratio was below the state average. Still, several bird bastions shine such as Caroline (0.61), Goochland (0.59), Amelia (0.50) and Powhatan (0.49). The latter two adjacent domains are particularly important for public land devotees as they contain the 2,217-acre Amelia WMA in its namesake county and 4,462-acre Powhatan WMA (also in its namesake county) which combined totaled seven birds.
One of the positive aspects of Amelia is the bottomland hardwood countryside/swamp habitat along the Appomattox River, becausd that habitat produces prime roosting areas. Powhatan's major feature is swaths of former farmland (prime strutting areas) and numerous openings as well. For those sportsmen living in central Virginia, these public lands are very much worth scouting before the season.
DGIF biologist Dan Lovelace offers how to tips.
"Gobblers in the Western Piedmont and Blue Ridge areas have adapted to the coyote presence," he said."Wary longbeards will gobble more on roosts and stay in trees longer, then go silent on the ground. Once a bird is located, hunters should practice patience, listen carefully, and stay still once set up.
"Soft calling techniques should be used to attract a gobbler's attention and get him within range. Later in the day, gobblers will likely move to large, open fields to strut. Calling from a blind or setting up along a field edge could prove to be successful."
Northern Mountain Region
Many of the counties in the North Mountains have experienced lower turkey populations in recent years. Counties such as Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Highland, and Rockingham, all of which contain large numbers of acres in the GWJNF, have kill ratios below, or considerably below, the state average. As many sportsmen groups well know, preservationists have fought habitat improvement projects in the national forest to the detriment of game and non-game species. However, several of the counties do sport solid credentials, among them Clarke (0.73), Warren (0.57), Frederick (0.54), and Shenandoah (0.47).
The North Mountain counties mostly contain acreage in the George Washington part of the national forest, but several state WMAs are worth considering too, among them the Gathright and Highland ones. The former is a 13,428-acre WMA in Bath County. I've hunted turkeys there. Trivia fans should know that when Virginia began its turkey restocking efforts, Gathright contributed birds to the effort. Gathright is largely steep, heavily forested with oaks, hickories, and poplars, and with numerous mountain streams cascading down mountains up to 3,600 feet. The public land contributed six gobblers to the statewide tally last year.
If anything, 14,283-acre Highland in its namesake county hosts more vertical mountainsides (topping out at nearly 4,400 feet) than Gathright does. Highland is heavily forested, though it does have some openings. Ten hunters checked in bearded birds last year. Early season hunters should dress warmly as spring comes slowly and late here.
Southern Mountain Region
Generally, the Southern Mountain Region hosts more turkeys than its northern counterpart does and that statement is proven via the kill ratio. Carroll (0.78), Grayson (0.68), Craig (0.65), and Wise (0.59) are just a few of the domains that checked in birds greater than the state average. Likewise, the Jefferson part of the GWJNF is likely to offer turkey enthusiasts better action. Upland farms, cold-water creeks, and heavily forested mountainsides with the occasional clear cut and pasture characterize the rural areas of this region. Much of the best private land farms back up to the national forest, like the property where I killed my Craig County tom last April.
Two of the better WMAs are the 25,477-acre Clinch and 6.400-acre Hidden Valley ones in the far western reaches. Clinch, which lies in Smyth, Russell, Washington, and Tazewell counties, boasts some of the state's steepest mountainsides. And the Hidden Valley WMA in Washington County can make the same claim. Together, they totaled 22 birds last spring.
Without a doubt, Virginia turkey hunters have many options this spring. Whether we will be afield on public or private land, chances are that quality turkey hunting will be available.