This big bird has come on strong throughout Maryland and New Jersey, allowing a fall season in select areas of both states. Here's where you should try right now. (November 2006)
You can just about toss everything you've ever learned about traditional turkey hunting into the round file when it comes to hunting this big bird during fall. After all, toms will no longer respond to the call of a love-starved hen -- at least not as they would during spring.
And that cleverly concealed spot you've chosen, where you blend in like an ink spot on a blue suit, can also be somewhat disregarded since once you locate a cluster of turkeys, you'll need to run after them like a herd of bulls chasing people in the narrow streets of Pamplona in Spain.
Nevertheless, you get the idea. You're going to "bust-up" that flock in the hopes of calling them back to the area where you'll be waiting -- unlike the spring season when a turkey gunner enters the woods and remains as silent and still as a statue.
Indeed, fall turkey hunting is a bit different than what we've been taught in order to succeed during the standard spring season. And it's a bit tougher -- or at least it is for guys and gals who have yet to try bagging a bird when the leaves are falling and that early-morning chill doesn't necessarily translate into warmer temperatures by midday.
But why scatter a flock of wild birds, only to call them in again?
When speaking with Larry Herrighty, chief of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Wildlife Management, I asked that very question.
"You know those signs on Jeeps, placed high on the windshields that say, 'You wouldn't understand, it's a Jeep thing?' Well, that's a lot like fall turkey hunters. You wouldn't understand unless you're a turkey hunter. The reason fall turkey hunters scatter a flock of wild birds is the 'calling tradition' of turkey hunting. It's what makes the sport so satisfying to most of us.
"Certainly there's no law that says a turkey gunner cannot take a bird after locating a flock -- if you can get close enough to take a safe, sure shot. But turkey hunters would rather scatter the flock and then call, and call, and call, just for the satisfaction and challenge of calling in a nice big bird," Herrighty said.
Despite a rather drastic departure from typical spring hunting, the fact that New Jersey and Maryland even have a fall season is a tribute to all those conservationists (read: hunters) who helped in some way to bring turkeys back from the brink of (geographical) extinction, to the extent that today, these birds' numbers are higher then they've ever been.
Presently, Maryland offers fall turkey gunning in only three of the state's 23 counties: Allegany, Garrett and Washington. These three are the state's westernmost counties. Nonetheless, the Old Line State's fall season may be one of the nation's oldest annual fall turkey seasons, dating back to "before we even kept records," according to Bob Long, the state's upland bird biologist who places the start of the state's all season date somewhere in the mid- to late 1940s. New Jersey's dates back only to 1997, when the Garden State instituted its first fall season.
What was the genesis for these fall turkey seasons? According to Herrighty, the Garden State implemented its fall season at the request of turkey hunters. But those hunters were adamant about having certain fall-season restrictions in place, such as a reduction in the regions where turkeys could be hunted, as well as a strict one-bird limit.
"We (the wildlife managers and biologists within the division) shared the concerns of local and state chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), in that as much as turkey hunters in New Jersey wanted a fall season, no one wanted to harvest too many adult turkeys, fearing the taking of large numbers of birds (especially hens) would negatively impact the following spring season's reproduction numbers," said Herrighty.
"Consequently, we implemented certain regulations that would limit a fall turkey hunter to one bird per season, and the season would last only one week."
In a similar manner, Maryland's contingent of fall gobbler gunners may take one bird per season, but that one bird counts against their coming spring limit of two birds, according to biologist Long.
"We also shared concerns about overharvesting birds in the fall. But in Maryland, we have a two-bird limit during the spring season. Hence, if a hunter takes a bird during the fall, that bird will be deducted from the coming spring limit, thus limiting that successful fall hunter to one bird during the spring season," Long said.
MARYLAND'S FALL SEASON
Starting with Maryland, what can autumn turkey gunners expect this season? And for those hunters who have yet to secure a choice piece of private property to hunt, where would be their best bet to down a bird? And on those public lands, what can hunters anticipate in the way of hunting pressure? Let's take a look.
During Maryland's spring turkey season, hunters may take advantage of the turkey population statewide. In fall, however, they are restricted to Garrett, Washington and Allegany counties only.
Long has some hotspots to suggest, as well as some observations concerning hunting pressure.
"For starters, our fall turkey hunting has seen a decline in hunter participation during the last few years. But I do not feel that decline has anything to do with the popularity of the fall turkey season. Instead, small- game hunting nationwide has been declining during the last few years, as deer hunting becomes more and more popular. The fall turkey season falls into the small-game category. In addition, many turkey hunters would rather opt out of the fall season to take advantage of the two-bird limit during the spring," said Long.
Thus, the hunting pressure should not be as great this fall. Nonetheless, Long's suggestions as to the best public-land areas are based upon turkey harvest rates.
"Harvest rates for the fall season in the three counties includes last year's figures, which we recently compiled. The results are a harvest total of 137 birds, with Allegany County tallying 54, while Garrett County came in second with 46, followed by Washington County with a total of 37. Despite the hard data, however, some of the best spots would include Savage River State Forest in Garrett County and Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County. Those are two of the top turkey producers. But hunters also have several choices of wildlife management areas in each of the three counties," said Long.
Last fall's harvest rates are down somewhat compared to the 2004 fall season in two of the three counties, according to Long.
During the 2004 fall season, according to Maryland's DNR Web site, hunters tallied 107 birds in Allegany County, while Garrett County accounted for 67 birds and Washington County registered 33 birds.
"The decline during the 2005 fall season can be partially attributable to poor spring reproduction rates as well as a significant decline in hunter participation," Long said.
Has the DNR ever considered expanding the fall season into other counties? Long offered an unequivocal "No."
"We never even considered expanding the season," Long said. "Actually, we don't want an excessive harvest during fall because it could negatively impact the spring breeding season."
Maryland's fall turkey hunters may opt to hunt all day, as opposed to only during morning hours. They can also use a dog (or dogs) to break up a flock. But unlike New Jersey hunters, gobbler gunners in Maryland don't need to purchase a permit for either the fall or spring season. However, successful hunters are mandated by law to report their harvest.
"We no longer have physical check stations as we did in the past. But hunters are required to electronically register any birds taken by using the Internet and going into the DNR's Web site where there is a form to complete," said Long.
Though restricted to only one bird per fall season, Maryland turkey hunters may take a turkey of either sex. The season dates for this fall are Oct. 28 to Nov. 4. Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.
NEW JERSEY'S FALL SEASON
New Jersey's contingent of fall turkey hunters increased slightly, or at least remains stable, according to Herrighty.
"If anything, we've had a slight increase in the number of fall turkey hunters in the Garden State," Herrighty said. He noted the state's 11-member Fish and Game Council set a quota of 4,875 fall turkey hunting permits, and of that number, 3,105 permits sold last year.
"That, of course, does not offer an exact count of hunters afield, but it (the sale of the permits) does offer a reasonably good representation of the number of fall turkey hunters," Herrighty said.
But what about the best bets, or so-called hotspots, for fall turkey gunners? Herrighty said just about any Turkey Hunting Area (THA) where there are permits available hold promise. But if given his druthers, he'd head north.
"Based on our harvest data, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area seems to be one of the most popular areas, as does Stokes State Forest in Sussex County. But that does not mean federal lands are the only place that hunters stand an excellent chance of bagging a bird. The Flatbrook-Roy Wildlife Management Area as well as Whittingham WMA, both in Sussex County, are equally promising, as is Worthington State Forest in Warren County," said Herrighty.
Hunters new to the fall turkey season should keep in mind that New Jersey, unlike Maryland with its three-county fall restrictions, is governed by Turkey Hunting Areas as opposed to merely hunting within a specific county. The northern sections of state forests and WMAs that Herrighty referred to lie within certain proscribed THAs. That's an important consideration for any sportsmen who are new to the game, since hunting outside of a proscribed THA during fall could result in a conservation officer offering you an invitation to a session of night court, written on a 5-by-7-inch piece of pre-printed cardboard.
For instance, fall turkey hunting is allowed only in THAs 1 through 11, 20 and 21. Unhappily for those just getting started in turkey hunting, you will not find a map or description of the locations of the specific fall THAs in the hunting edition of the New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest. But take heart, all is not lost.
Merely pull the rope on that Briggs-Stratton engine that runs your computer. Once started, click on www.njfishandwildlife.com, the Web page of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife. Then in the search box, enter the words "Turkey Hunting Areas." And voilÃ -- on the initial page, you'll find a place to click on for turkey hunting information.
Once you're on that page, merely click on "Turkey Permit Information" and "Maps," and you'll have not only a map of all THAs, but a description of all public lands and boundaries within whatever THA you're interested in. The easier way, of course, is merely to pick up the Turkey Hunting Supplement to the Wildlife Digest at your favorite sporting goods emporium. The supplement has the same information that you'll find at the division's Web site.
Essentially, THAs 1 through 11 cover just about the entire portion of the northern section of the state, from the middle to its northern borders with New York and the Delaware River.
Conversely, THAs 21 and 21 are located in Cumberland and Salem counties. You'll also find reason to panic if you failed to apply for a permit prior to February this year. Again, take heart. For the fall season, there is usually a rather substantial number of leftover, or surplus, permits available "over-the-counter," that you can obtain at most division offices, including the Trenton office. These surplus permits usually go on sale during the first week of October.
Permits aside, Herrighty said that last year's fall turkey harvest was somewhat down from the previous season. But there is a reason for that.
"In New Jersey," Herrighty said, "we had a hunter success rate of 3.9 percent for the fall season. Last year, there were 120 birds taken from all of the THAs statewide. But that is attributable to two successive poor hatch rates during unusually wet springs. The previous season's harvest was 177 birds. Broken down, last season's harvest was 45 birds taken from THA 20, and 25 birds from THA 21, with the remainder taken from THAs located throughout the northern section of the state (THAs 1 to 11).
"Merely because I prefer some of the northern THAs doesn't mean THAs in Salem and Cumberland counties are not productive. There's some fine turkey hunting to be found in those THAs."
This year, the Garden State's fall season will run from Saturday, Oct. 30, through Saturday, Nov. 4. Hunters may use dogs to break up flocks and they may hunt all day.
How does one hunt turkey with a dog?
"You can use just about any kind of a dog that will take out after and break up the flock. But most knowledgeable turkey hunters use the flushing breeds. Once the dog finds and chases the flock, then the dog merely returns to sit in a blind with his human hunting partner in much the same fashion as a waterfowl hunter's dog would," Herrighty said.
Season hours are the traditional one-half hour before sunrise to one-
half hour after sunset. But hunters must remember that unlike the spring season -- during which hunters may take additional birds as long as they've purchased another permit for that bird -- once hunters bag a bird during the fall season, they're finished. Each hunter is allowed only one bird of either sex during the fall season.
Incidentally, the permit will set you back $21, the same cost as a spring turkey permit.
Herrighty also notes that neither the division nor the council is contemplating any expansion of either the seasons or the THA regions:
"For the same reasons we've discussed previously, (the division) does not plan to expand the fall season in either bag limits or the number of days, nor do we anticipate increasing the THA areas."
Either state is a good bet for fall turkey. But remember, you're going to have to work for them. Turkeys are a bit spookier during fall than in the spring, when reproduction is their motivation for responding to a call. In addition, make certain to check the regulations of whichever state you're hunting in concerning shot size and other variables, such as using decoys.
Regulations aside, I can't think of a better way to spend a day in the fall woods than hunting a wary gobbler or hen. If you've never tried it, give it a shot!