Judging by recent data received from the tri-state area of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, last spring's production ranged from good to excellent and weather conditions were favorable. Consequently, the upcoming 2005 spring gobbler season should be near or slightly above average, based on the lag time theory.
Though a couple of wet springs the last two years have put a damper on overall turkey numbers in the Mid-Atlantic, there are still plenty of gobblers around for hunters in our states. Photo by Richard P. Smith.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist Bob Long coordinates the state’s wild turkey program. When asked about the past spring’s hatching success, Long said, “It was excellent throughout much of Maryland. We did not have a whole lot of data from the central part of the state, but it appears that if there were anywhere that hunting wasn’t exceptional it was the central Piedmont area. Overall, any location where we had lots of turkeys, the hatch was great, and statistically, well above average.”
The 2004 spring gobbler harvest was 2,760 birds, down from the previous year of 3,120 birds and the record harvest of 2002, which was 3,127, a decrease of approximately 12 percent.
“This was the result of poor production two years earlier. Basically, there were not as many jakes, and there were not as many 2-year-old birds available. I think for the most part, talking with biologists in other Mid-Atlantic states, it was a common occurrence throughout this region. Typically, the 2-year-old birds are harvested more than any other age-class. They gobble and they’re easier to call in. Without those birds, and the two-year lag time involved, hunter success will undoubtedly fall,” Long said.
Long said it’s easy to distinguish the difference between a yearling and a 2-year-old. “The 2-year-old bird will have a 7- to 10-inch beard, and realistically, they’re adult gobblers. Most people can’t really tell the difference in the field, but there is some difference in the beard length and the size of the spurs. The spurs of a jake are quite a bit shorter than those found on a 3- or 4-year-old bird. The jakes may have a beard that only measures 2 to 3 inches at most.”
While Maryland’s Eastern Shore continues to see the largest increase in wild turkey population growth, the greatest harvest continues to come from the mountains of western Maryland. One of the reasons behind this is the high country forests are fairly open and hunters can see a bird coming at distances of 100 yards or more, especially when hunting the ridge-tops. The forest understory of Maryland’s Eastern Shore is extremely dense, making it nearly impossible to bag a turkey unless it’s foraging on the edge of a newly planted bean or corn field.
The towering peaks of Allegany County rise to dizzying heights of more than 3,000 feet. These mountains are interspersed with steep, lush valleys, clear, cool streams and surrounded by small to mid-size agricultural operations. Free State hunters bagged 337 gobblers from these mountains last season, many of which came from public lands.
One of the most productive locations is Dans Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which contains 8,376 acres of mountaintop overlooking the Potomac River’s North Branch. There are only four paved access roads leading to the WMA, but hunters will find good access via the numerous trails and paths that lead to the summit. The mountain’s top is essentially a 2,700-foot-high ridge that runs parallel to the Potomac for nearly 18 miles. The terrain’s nearly vertical; it’s an easy place to get lost, but there are lots of big gobblers roaming these mountains.
Garrett County provided hunters with 325 birds, which is approximately 20 percent fewer than the previous year. Again, poor poult production two years earlier is the likely reason behind the decrease in harvest. There are five public hunting areas in the county that comprise more acreage than anyone could traverse in their lifetime.
Among the largest is Potomac State Forest, which covers more then 10,000 acres of mountains, valleys and dense, hardwood forests, locations that provide excellent habitat and sources of food for wild turkeys and grouse. While all three segments of this forest hold good numbers of birds, the best hunting frequently takes place in the northeast sector where there is only a single access road.
Washington and Frederick counties both reported good to excellent harvests last spring, but again, the bag was lower than preceding years by 12 to 20 percent on average. The only areas that showed significant increases were Anne Arundel, Saint Marys and Harford counties, all of which now have very limited hunting access because of urban sprawl. In each of those counties, the bag increased by a significant percentage, but the overall number is still relatively low, with just 75 birds coming from Anne Arundel, 44 from Harford and 61 from Saint Marys.
Biologist Long said there will likely be little or no changes in the upcoming spring season. “The 2005 season will be April 18 to May 23, and we also have a youth day on April 16. Hunters have a two-bird bag limit, unless they took a bird during the previous fall season, then the bag limit would be one bird. Hunters are limited to shotguns and archery only. Keep in mind that some of the counties have a lot of birds, and there are more and more hunters trying their luck with bows. The shotguns are limited from 10 through 20 gauge and shot sizes can range from 4 to 6 shot.”
Long said additional public lands have been opened on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which is part of the Chesapeake Forest Properties. This recently acquired property is somewhat fragmented through several Eastern Shore counties and much of the terrain is newly emerging hardwood forests, which were previously logged off.
This year, approximately 12,000 acres will be open to the public, and the amount of acreage will increase over the next decade to nearly 50,000 acres.
“Keep in mind these lands are located right in the best turkey production areas on the Eastern Shore. These counties are at least equivalent to the mountains of western Maryland when it comes to turkey density. In certain areas, the populations may even exceed the top areas in the western part of the state. There are phenomenal numbers of birds down here now and their population continues to rise,” Long said.
New Jersey’s spring gobbler season is somewhat complex.
There are different dates depending on where you intend to hunt. The dates will range from April 18 through May 27. Check your latest regulation listing for specifics.
New Jersey’s youth season will likely take place on April 16. New Jersey’s bag limit is one bird for each hunting permit and permits are selected from a lottery drawing that took place earlier in the year.
Similar to Maryland, New Jersey experienced a significant decline in spring gobbler harvest during the 2004 season, a decrease that amounts to nearly 18 percent statewide. Considering the fact that Garden State hunters endured two of the wettest years in recent history, this alone could account for much of the decrease in the overall number of birds bagged.
New Jersey manages wild turkeys in 22 different zones and issues permits based on population statistics and harvest data obtained from each zone. Zone 20, which has consistently provided hunters with the greatest number of birds during the past decade, remains right at the top of the list with 522 gobblers bagged during the spring season. The zone is situated along the Delaware River’s shores, and extends into both Gloucester and Cumberland counties.
A large segment of the zone lies mainly in dense stands of hardwoods interspersed with hundreds of small streams, swampy areas and small to midsize ponds. Surrounding the forested areas are hundreds of small agricultural operations, farms that primarily raise corn and other grain crops. At this time of year it’s not unusual to see birds foraging the edges of recently tilled and planted fields, picking up worms and other insects disturbed by the planting process.
While the harvest in Zone 20 fell by 121 birds, wildlife managers feel this was the result of a combination of poor hunting conditions during the spring season, and poor reproduction the previous two years. Much of this decrease could be reversed during the next two seasons, if the weather cooperates.
Zone 21 is in Cumberland County and also borders the Delaware River. Garden State hunters bagged 380 gobblers from the area, which translates to approximately 9 percent fewer birds than the 414 bagged the previous spring. Keep in mind, however, that nearly 30 percent fewer permits were issued for this zone, which means that hunter success was somewhat higher than in Zone 20 where more birds were bagged.
The success of New Jersey’s trap- and-transport program can readily be seen when you look at the number of gobblers bagged in Zone 10, which is among the most populated regions on the East Coast. Despite this, relatively large populations of wild turkeys have taken root and survived the hustle and bustle of suburban living.
Last spring’s harvest in Zone 10 was just 60 birds, which is significantly fewer than the 86 gobblers bagged during the 2003 spring season. However, given the fact that there is very little public land open to hunting in Bergen County, it’s amazing the harvest is this high.
Ken Reynolds is a biologist with Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. He said the past year’s spring gobbler harvest was almost identical to the previous season. First State hunters bagged 109 gobblers from Delaware’s three counties, most of which were taken from the dense hardwood swamps and adjacent farmlands of Sussex County.
“Hunters bagged two birds more than they did the previous year, which as far as we’re concerned is statistically insignificant. As usual, our top harvest county is Sussex. This is where we currently have most of the state’s best turkey habitat, and most of the open lands where hunters can readily gain access.”
Reynolds said the proposed 2005 spring gobbler season opens April 18 and closes May 7. The bag limit is one bearded bird per season, and hunters can begin hunting one-half hour before sunrise till 1 p.m. All private lands in the state that allow hunting are open, and most state wildlife lands are open as well. Of course, there are some state parks where hunting is impractical. Hunters can use shotguns ranging from 10 through 20 gauge and legal shot sizes are 4, 5 and 6.
Additionally, in Delaware all birds must be checked in at the state’s designated mandatory check stations. Public land hunters must possess special permits; however, those hunting on private lands are exempt from the permit.
During the past three seasons, there have been some exceptionally large gobblers bagged from Delaware’s dense woodlands and swamps. The season’s largest was a 24-pound behemoth bagged by Jeff Howell of Dover. Howell was hunting on a private farm. His bird was relatively young and its spurs measured just 1 inch long; however, it sported a 10-inch beard, which is slightly above average.
Howard Lynch of Dagsboro set his sights on a gobbler that tipped the scales at 19.25 pounds. His bird was bagged on a private farm as well. In contrast, his gobbler sported an 11-inch-plus beard and had spurs that measured 1 1/4 inches long. Both birds were listed under the adult category.
Biologists in all three jurisdictions are confident their respective programs have been effective at restoring their state’s wild turkey populations to the highest levels in more than a century. As for the odds of bagging a big gobbler, those, too, are the best in recent history, and will continue to improve as turkey populations grow in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware.