More On Mid-Atlantic Turkeys

More On Mid-Atlantic Turkeys

Here are more places to seek gobblers this spring in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. Are any of these picks near you?

One of the biggest wildlife management successes ever along the East Coast is the resurgence of wild turkey populations in the Mid-Atlantic. New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware have successfully rebuilt their wild turkey populations, which were almost non-existent just 30 short years ago.

When you stop to think about it, the turkey is not only the bird of choice for Thanksgiving, it was also Ben Franklin’s pick for our national bird, although I think I still prefer the eagle! Today, turkeys have become main targets for hunters during the spring and fall, Fortunately, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey have excellent turkey hunting programs that provide sportsmen with some banner opportunities.

These days, the gobble of male turkeys has becomes commonplace to hunters in our neck of the woods; however, this has not always not been the case in recent years. The history of the wild turkey goes back to the early days of our country when the first settlers from Europe landed on the East Coast. Turkeys were one of the most plentiful game birds in the Mid-Atlantic states when settlers first put their feet on our shores, and as a result, they became a main source of food. Let’s face it, Thanksgiving did not come about because there weren’t turkeys available. Turkeys were a prized table treat for settlers and Indians.

Turkey populations along the East Coast remained stable into the 1800s, even though they were a prime food source for the growing human population centers along the East Coast. But with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and increased land use, better transportation and growing cities, the wild turkey population started to decline.

By the early 1900s, dwindling wild turkey populations caused some states to restrict or stop hunting all together in many areas. This is when thoughts of rebuilding the turkey stocks began to come into play. Numerous attempts were tried to stock pen-raised turkeys into the wild with the hopes of creating reproducing populations. Some stockings produced limited success; however, most of the programs were complete failures.

What has taken place over the last few decades is largely responsible for the resurgence of the wild turkey populations? If pen-raised turkeys would not work, why not use the real thing? Today, trapping and transplanting wild turkeys has become the proven method for rebuilding wild turkey populations.

Technology has made this process a lot more successful with advances in trapping, along with tracking the restocked birds once they are released. There are now more then four million turkeys in the United States, with huntable turkey populations in every state in the lower 48. In short, the information age has benefited the wild turkey populations in the Mid-Atlantic states and throughout the country.


According to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), spring wild turkey hunters harvested an estimated 2,944 gobblers during last spring’s six-week season. This was the fourth largest harvest since the spring turkey season was established in 1981, but it is below the recent average. Turkey hunting is becoming more and more popular among hunters and the division said it issued approximately 21,877 spring turkey-hunting permits for the 2004 season. And hunters achieved a success rate of 13 percent.

Despite high snowfall amounts over the winter, gobblers appeared to be in great condition and check station operators recorded excellent weights and beard lengths. Food availability and snow depth during the winter months can affect weights and beard lengths of wild turkeys. However, winter weather was not a significant factor, since heavy snows quickly crusted over and allowed turkeys to be mobile. According to DFW wildlife biologists, no reports were received of wild turkey mortality attributable to the winter elements, which is a good omen.

New Jersey uses a similar approach to turkey hunting as it does with deer hunting. The DFW divides the state into 22 hunting zones and issues a certain number of permits for each zone based on what the population of that zone is capable of handling. The permits are handed out by lottery for each zone. This system also enables the hunter to get a look at which of the zones traditionally produce the best harvest (results of each hunt, spring and fall, are posted on the DFW’s Web site), thus enabling hunters to pick a zone that offers the best chance for success.

The statistics released by the DFW for the 2004 spring season show a drop in the numbers of turkeys harvested from the previous season. Zone 20, which is located at the very bottom of the state and is dominated by lowland pine forest and scrub pine, produced the largest number of turkeys (522), which is 121 fewer than the 643 birds taken in the 2003 spring season.

The No. 2 turkey hunting area in New Jersey last spring was Zone 21, which is located along the east side of Zone 20, and possesses the same type of terrain. Zone 22 produced 380 birds, 34 fewer than what hunters harvested in the 2003 spring season. If you combine the two zones, a total of 1,023 birds were harvested. This is over one-third of the state’s spring harvest total.

The one thing that the two previously mentioned zones have in common is the type of terrain that makes up the majority of their land. This region is on the fringe of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which is a tract of land that has a mix of scrub pine and oak, intermixed with small farms and scattered small towns.

A rich cache of acorns, pine nuts and other natural foods, combined with the corn and grain raised on the small farms, are some of the main reasons these two zones are home to a healthy turkey population. In addition, the scrub pine and oak trees also provide turkeys with natural roosting places and good cover. Reproduction in these zones has been documented as being the best in the state.

Rounding out the state’s top five zones are Zone 8, where 251 birds were taken; Zone 11 with 245 birds harvested and Zone 5 with 205 birds taken. Zones 8 and 11 are found along the Delaware River in the central western portion of the state. This area is made up mainly of foothills, forest and farmlands. Zone 5 is located in the northwestern mountainous portion of the state; but here, too, the terrain is a mix of wooded forest, small farms and fields.


The 2004 spring gobbler season in Maryland was also below that of

the previous year. According to Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife and Heritage Services Director Paul A. Peditto, sportsmen recorded a harvest of 2,760 wild turkeys during the 2004 season. This is nearly 12 percent below the 2003 near-record harvest of 3,120 turkeys.

Maryland’s wild turkey population remains strong, but the drop in harvest was not unexpected, Peditto stated. Two consecutive years of poor reproductive success has caused turkey numbers to fall statewide, and the lack of young birds was reflected in the low harvest. There are about 16,000 hunters who spend an average of four days hunting turkeys per year. Currently, about 25 percent of Maryland’s spring gobbler hunters are successful in bagging a turkey.

Following a 25-year restoration effort in Maryland, wild turkey populations continue to expand their range. Their increasing numbers are providing abundant recreational opportunities. The current turkey population is estimated at around 30,000 birds and growing, and tough winters are considered to be a minor setback.

Maryland’s DNR takes a different approach to carving up the state for turkey-hunting purposes. Instead of turkey zones, such as those in Delaware and New Jersey, the state keeps statistics by county. Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties, the state’s traditional stronghold for turkeys, lead Maryland in total harvest based on 10-year average statistics.

The 10-year average for these counties are: Garrett, 543 birds harvested annually; Washington, 305 birds taken; and Allegany, 387 birds harvested. Burgeoning populations on the lower Eastern Shore allowed Dorchester (a 10-year average of 246 birds) and Worcester (a 10-year average harvest of 197 birds) counties to support large harvests as well. However, the last five seasons have seen numbers significantly over their 10-year harvest figures in all five counties.

In addition, increases in harvest were noted in many areas such as Baltimore, Caroline, Somerset and Talbot counties, confirming that turkey populations and hunting opportunities continue to increase in many regions. According to the state’s biologists, almost half (46 percent) of the total harvest occurred during the first week of the regular season. About 9 percent, or 263 turkeys, were taken during the fifth week, a new addition to the traditional four-week season.

Statistics also show that public-hunting lands continue to be popular among spring turkey hunters. In recent years, 16 percent or more of the statewide spring harvest occurred on public lands, especially in the western portion of the state. Two of the most productive areas during the spring hunt are Savage River and Green Ridge state forests.


According to Delaware biologists, the state’s turkey population has been stable for the last 10 years with about 3,000 to 4,000 birds living in the state. Delaware has about 1,000 avid turkey hunters as well. The First State takes a similar approach to turkey hunting as the Garden State does in that it divides the state into 17 turkey-hunting zones. Most of the better turkey hunting is in the southern portion of the state, with zones 11, 12, 14 and 16 traditionally producing the largest numbers of birds.

While Delaware has some of the best waterfowl hunting along the East Coast, the type of terrain that makes for good waterfowl hunting is not a favorite haunt of wild turkeys. One of the reasons wild turkey populations are smaller in Delaware is that favorable wild turkey terrain is limited to central parts of the state, mainly away from the coastline.

This is why the better turkey-hunting zones are located in the lower and middle areas of the state, which is the widest part of Delaware. Here the habitat is prime turkey real estate, as farms and woodlands are intermixed, and away from the salt marshes and tidal areas of the eastern side of the state. Huge tracts of corn and soybeans lie close to sheltering woodlands. It is a picturesque, bucolic area of Delaware.

The Delaware wild turkey season has only 18 days available for hunters. The season starts on the third Monday in April and runs through the first Saturday in May. The season is further broken up into hunting on private land and hunting on state game lands. Hunters who hunt on private land can hunt the full 18 days of the season. On the other hand, hunters who hunt state lands must apply for a three-day permit for a specific zone. Only a limited number of permits are issued for each zone and permits are awarded by lottery. As a result, almost 90 percent of the birds harvested in Delaware each season come from private lands. The 2004 spring season produced a total of 108 birds taken by hunters, which is about average for the past several years.


Acquainting the younger generation to the world of hunting is the only way of preserving our sport for future generations, and many states sponsor youth hunting days for gobblers.

In Maryland, a one-day youth hunt allows hunters age 16 or younger to hunt wild turkeys when accompanied by an unarmed adult of at least 21 years of age. Both hunters must possess a valid hunting license or be exempt from Maryland hunting license requirements. Each young hunter may harvest one bearded turkey on the Youth Day, which will count toward the season bag limit of two bearded turkeys if no turkey was taken during the fall season.

In New Jersey, the youth turkey-hunting day is usually the third Saturday in April. Youth hunters must have a current spring turkey season hunting permit in order to hunt. This date is considered a one-day, early extension of the regular permit that the young hunter holds. The special youth turkey-hunting program is designed to ensure all applicants ages 10 to 16 years will receive their first choice permit request in the first lottery of the spring and fall turkey season.

In New Jersey, the spring turkey-hunting season traditionally starts the third Monday of April and runs through the end of May from Monday through Friday. Some areas allow Saturday hunting.

Permit quotas are filled by lottery. Hunters may apply for more than one permit and can take a turkey on each permit, but no more than one turkey per day, no matter how many permits a hunter holds. Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise till noon. Birds killed must be taken to a certified check-in station by 3 p.m. the day the bird is killed. The hunter who made the kill is the only person who can transport and check in the bird. Hunters may only hunt in the area where their permit is valid. All turkey hunters are required to have a turkey-calling device while hunting.

In Delaware, the 2005 spring turkey-hunting season will run from April 18 through May 7. Private-land hunters may hunt during the entire 18-day season. Public-land permits can only be used on the property for which they are issued. Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise till 1 p

.m. All turkeys must be checked in by 2:30 p.m. at an authorized check-in station the day the bird is killed. Bearded birds only can be taken with a one-bird-per-day bag limit.

In Maryland, the 2005 spring turkey hunting season will run from April 18 through May 23 in all the state’s counties. Hunters may take one bearded bird per day with hunting being allowed from one-half hour before sunrise till noon. A field tag must be completed and attached to the bird before removing it from the place where it was killed. All harvested birds must be checked in at a checking station in the county where they were killed, or an adjacent county, within 24 hours.

There you have it, a look at spring turkey hunting in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. Even though harvests may be down slightly over the last several seasons, the turkey populations in our states are doing just fine, thank you. So if a wild turkey is in your sights for the 2005 spring, target the healthy turkey populations in the Mid-Atlantic region for a good shot at a bird this spring!

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