Here are six-plus places for you to try this gobbler season in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. (April 2006)
The sound of a hen turkey at first light is one that every person who has ever hunted wild turkeys can vividly recall. While the initial calls may be somewhat faint, they're often followed by a tom's reverberating gobble echoing from the hillsides, a sound that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up and sends chills running down your spine.
As the forest floor is illuminated by the sun's first rays piercing the morning mist, the faint sound of rustling leaves can be heard nearby, an indication that turkeys are scratching the ground looking for tasty morsels. Within seconds, a dozen wild turkeys can be seen just 50 feet away, some of which are trophy toms sporting long beards and big spurs.
Three decades ago, the only locations where hunters could enjoy this exhilarating experience were in the remote mountains of western Maryland and in northwestern New Jersey. Back then, just hearing a turkey during the spring hunting season was considered a successful day afield.
Today, after three decades of trapping and transporting wild birds to new locations, these same sounds can be heard in the back yards of many urbanites residing throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Yes, the nation's wariest and largest game bird has adapted to suburban living, and some may be residing and feeding right in your back yard.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said Jarrettsville, Maryland, resident and avid hunter Art Robinson. "It was the first day of the 2005 bow season for white-tailed deer and I had just climbed into my tree stand. It still wasn't daylight, but I could clearly hear something rustling in the leaves, and it was not very far away. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a big buck I saw two weeks earlier, a 12-pointer that would have easily tipped the scales at 180 to 200 pounds or more, dressed weight. As the sun peeped over the ridge, I could make out some movement about 50 yards away, but the underbrush and shadows made it impossible to determine what it was. The next thing I knew, a half-dozen turkeys strutted out of the thickets and walked into the clearing right below my tree stand."
Robinson said the turkeys spent much of the entire morning foraging on the forest floor, turning over leaves to expose beechnuts, acorns, bugs, worms and bits of greenery, all of which were rapidly consumed. The irony of this was he was hunting on a small parcel of woodland surrounded by massive housing developments. The only disturbance came about when a fat doe walked within range of Robinson's crossbow.
Ironically, when he climbed down from his tree stand to retrieve his deer, the turkeys were not startled. "They kept a close eye on me, but they were never really out of sight during the entire time I was there dressing out the deer. As I dragged the deer up the hill, the birds were a little startled, flew across a nearby creek and went back to feeding. I guess the wariest game bird in the world isn't nearly as wary as I believed."
Daily phone calls to our states' fish and wildlife departments pertaining to wild turkeys are now just an everyday occurrence. "You would be amazed at the number of calls I receive from people asking what they should do about wild turkeys in their back yards picking up sunflower seeds and cracked corn that have fallen from bird feeders," said Ken Reynolds, a biologist with Delaware's Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
"I had a call a few weeks ago from someone who wanted me to trap and transport a big hen turkey from his back yard because he was concerned the bird may be struck by passing cars. I went to the home, which was located on a busy highway, and there was the bird, walking through their back yard picking up tidbits of food. I had a long-handled net with me, and as far as I was concerned, I didn't believe I had a prayer of netting the bird. The bird obviously felt the same about being netted. Every time I got relatively close, the hen would fly a few feet across a swampy ditch and resume feeding. I would then wade through the muck and mire to the other side of the ditch and the bird would return to the yard. After crossing the ditch a few more times, I decided this was an exercise in futility, so the turkey went back to feeding and when I left it was doing just fine," Reynolds chuckled.
In Delaware, particularly in the state's southern reaches, turkey populations have reached record levels. The population increase was clearly reflected in the First State's 2005 spring gobbler harvest, the second highest in recorded history. "Turkey hunters bagged 148 birds this past spring, the second-best season on record," Reynolds said. "A majority of the birds were bagged in the lower counties, and about two-thirds of them were taken during the season's first week. Our season lasts three weeks, but during an average year, most of the birds are taken during that first week, which is fairly standard."
Redden State Forest
"Redden State Forest, which is smack dab in the center of Sussex County, seems to be among our most productive state lands for turkey hunters. The forest is composed of various, scattered tracts throughout the county. Most of the area consists of some swampy sections in the middle of fairly dense stands of hardwoods and loblolly pine," Reynolds said.
Most of the tracts are situated near the town of Redden Crossing, which is located halfway between Georgetown and Ellendale. The largest parcel of land is just east of U.S. Route 113, and much of the woodlands border on major county highways, thereby providing hunters with relatively good access to the entire area.
Tracts located west of Route 113 are considerably smaller and some are not interconnected. All, however, have good to excellent access via state and country roads. Reynolds said if spring's weather has been somewhat wet, the birds will be concentrated on higher hummocks that are often surrounded by flooded woodlands. Consequently, individuals willing to walk the extra mile into some of the remote, isolated areas will be more likely to bag a big gobbler.
Nanticoke Wildlife Area
Delaware's Nanticoke Wildlife Area, situated along the south shore of the Nanticoke River, is a vast parcel of swampland interspersed with meandering creeks, tidal marshes and fragmented stands of hardwoods and loblolly pine. The nearest town is Laurel, which is located just west of Route 13 a few miles north of Salisbury, Maryland.
I was talking with someone who was in this area and said they saw a flock of nearly 60 turkeys. The birds were walking up a dirt road and picking up seeds when he came upon them. Most of the area can be accessed via Phillips Landing Road, which borders the area's northern edge. The parcel situated north of Broad Creek, however, is more difficult to access. This segment can be
accessed via Red House Road, which is northwest of the town of Bethel.
When asked about Delaware's overall turkey population, Reynolds said.
"In certain areas, the population seems to be increasing, particularly in Sussex County where we have better habitat. Generally speaking, the farther south you go, the better the habitat. Kent County's habitat is being lost to urban sprawl and the rate of development is likely greater than New Castle County. Sussex County's development isn't far behind, though. I heard in a recent meeting that since 1999, there have been 1,300 new developments built in the state. That's incredible when you consider the size of the state."
While Garden State hunters did not have a record-breaking year for spring gobblers, the preliminary estimates put the number of birds harvested at 3,264, which makes it the third-best season since 1981. The state's highest harvest recorded took place in 2002, when 3,779 birds were taken. Keep in mind, however, the weather during 2005's spring season was abysmal. Hunters were deluged with torrential rains, bone-chilling temperatures and blustery winds. The amazing thing is that hunters managed to bag as many birds as they did.
New Jersey's turkey program has been a tremendous success story, one that spans nearly three decades and began with a small stocking program in the state's northwestern regions. Today, there are turkeys in every county, which encompasses 22 turkey harvest areas (THAs) or management zones. The smaller zones are all located in the state's northwestern tier, which according to New Jersey's Division of Fish & Wildlife, were affected by poor productivity conditions over the past few years. The decreased turkey numbers in those THAs was reflected in this year's harvest figures. The most productive THAs were all located in the state's southern region, mainly along the Delaware River's shores in Cumberland and Salem counties.
Approximately 600 gobblers were bagged in THA 20, a huge tract of land that is located both in Cumberland and Salem counties. It begins along the Delaware River's east bank near Bridgeport, heads southeast along state Route 322 for several miles, and then takes a jog back to the southwest before ending at the mouth of the Cohansey River.
Much of the terrain in THA 20 consists of rolling hills interspersed by wooded valleys created by small to midsized streams. Large tracts of hickory, oak, pin oak, beech and pines create ideal habitat for foraging flocks looking for an easy meal. While the majority of the birds are bagged on private lands, there seems to be increasing numbers being harvested from public lands during the past few years.
Salem County's THA 21, which also borders the Delaware River's shores, produced 465 gobblers during the 2005 spring season. This is a significant increase over the 377 birds bagged during the 2004 season. Much of the zone is a maze of creeks meandering through lowlands before reaching major waters, such as Cedar and Natuxent creeks. The zone also includes small portions of Atlantic, Cumberland and Gloucester counties.
Overall, New Jersey's turkey population appears to be stable, with slight decreases noted in the northern tier counties, which are being offset by increases in areas south and east of Somerset and Middlesex counties. The exceptions to this are THA 5 where 206 birds were bagged, and THA 8 where 247 gobblers were harvested.
Maryland's turkey population continues to rise dramatically in every county, especially in some of the suburban areas. However, because urban sprawl continues to gobble up major farms situated in counties surrounding metropolitan Baltimore, many areas experiencing significant increases in the number of birds can no longer be hunted. Consequently, hunters continue to harvest the highest gobbler numbers from the mountains of western Maryland.
Garrett County, which consists of some of the state's most rugged terrain, produced 365 gobblers during the 2005 spring season. Similar to New Jersey, the state was plagued with nasty weather conditions, which essentially made hunting all but impossible. The highest number of birds bagged in Garrett County was during the 2001 hunt, when 567 gobblers were taken. The DNR said this reflects poor nesting conditions over the past few years, which represents an annual decrease in the turkey population of nearly 5 percent per year during the past five years.
Maryland is second to none when it comes to public hunting lands and great wild turkey habitat. The steep slopes of Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Deep Creek Lake State Park, Potomac/Garrett State Forest and Savage River State Forest provide hunters with hundreds of square miles of wilderness. Much of the near-vertical terrain is rarely hunted primarily because its relative distance from the nearest road could be several miles.
Mount Nebo WMA, which is the smallest parcel of public land in the county, covers 1,763 acres of mountaintops. Just a short distance to the south, Potomac State Forest encompasses more than 10,000 acres of heavily forestland that connects with Garrett State Forest, a 6,781-acre patch of hardwoods and pines. Add to this 52,812 acres of Savage River State Forest and the combined WMAs cover more than half the county's total land mass. It's real easy to get lost here, but the hunting opportunities are incredible.
Washington County's hunters bagged 340 gobblers during the 2005 spring season, an increase of 11.5 percent over the previous year's harvest and still well above the 10-year average of 308 birds. While most of the harvest took place on private land, Washington County provides hunters with plenty of public land where gobblers abound.
Sideling Hill WMA, which is located in both Allegany and Washington counties, covers nearly 2,200 acres of forested land. Most of the WMA is heavily forested with towering hardwoods interspersed with dense stands of pine. The WMA's southern boundary is along Pearre Road, located on the Potomac River's north shore. Sideling Hill Creek meanders through much of the WMA's length, and the surrounding hilltops are where some of the best turkey hunting usually occurs.
A short distance to the north at Indian Springs WMA, hunters can roam through four tracts that take up nearly 6,400 acres of the Appalachian Mountains' slopes and nearby agricultural lands. Most of the woodlands are forested with oak, hickory and beech, all of which provide an excellent source of food for the region's growing population of wild turkeys. This particular area is not suited for individuals who are not in top physical condition. The towering slopes near the Pennsylvania border are among the most rugged in the entire region, and much of the area is only accessible via footpaths that wind across ridgetops.
Overall, most of Maryland's turkey populations are either stable or increasing. The only areas that showed decreases were Allegany, Calvert and Garrett counties, with Calvert showing the largest percentage of decline at 11.2 percent. Much of this, however, could well be attributed to urban sprawl and loss of available hunting lands, which in turn would re
flect a decrease in harvest. In reality, the turkey population in Calvert County may be rising, but because some of the population estimates are based on harvest data, it would appear as if the number of birds is going down.
What do hunters have to look forward to during the 2006 spring gobbler season? Biologists in all three jurisdictions were confident that if the weather cooperates, record harvests would be made throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Of course, everything depends on the whims of Mother Nature.