Expert Tips For Hunting Virginia Gobblers

Expert Tips For Hunting Virginia Gobblers

The Old Dominion's turkey numbers have been up and down the past few years. Here's how that will affect your hunting this year.

The Saturday before the opening day of turkey season saw me overlooking a Franklin County alfalfa field where the farm's manager and I watched from afar as a huge gobbler and his seven hens fed slowly through the opening.

"You want to mess with him on opening day?" said the manager pointing dismissively at the tom in full strut. "You're welcome to him. I've hunted him for several years and failed. He's had a bunch of girlfriends with him for weeks."

"I got no chance of killing him," I replied.

"We're both better off going somewhere else on the property," was the response.

So on opening Saturday, I was somewhere else on the farm, a forested hillside that overlooks a creek bottom which borders a rye field some 500 yards from the henned up monarch.

When dawn began to break, I heard a tom roosted along the stream and so I looped around and set up at the field, thinking the turkey would head for the rye patch. Instead, the old boy flew down and began walking upstream, sending forth gobbles every 10 minutes that sounded farther and farther away. Finally at 8:45, I gave up on that mature bird and decided to see if the tom and his harem from the week before were foraging in the alfalfa field.

The assemblage wasn't there; nevertheless I decided to blind call for about an hour with the somewhat foolish hope that the dominant male would hear me and perhaps be without his entourage. An hour later, that plan too was obviously not going to work.

It was then that I decided to return to the creek bottom where the early-morning gobbler had drifted away from me. By 10:15, I was on the hillside above the creek and began walking up the valley, emitting several hard yelps every five minutes or so, as I moved in the same direction that the gobbler had gone several hours earlier.

At 10:40, I let loose with another series of yelps, and the morning monarch erupted with a gobble. He was maybe 80 yards away on the opposite side of the creek, so I quickly ran down the hill and set up next to the stream.

As soon as I was settled against a hardwood, I gave a few soft yelps on a box call, put it down, and followed with two gentle yelps with a diaphragm. Seconds later, I glimpsed the tom heading toward me through heavy streamside brush. I decided that the vegetation was too thick for me to risk a shot, but then the old bird walked across the creek and popped up on the same side I was on. I centered the 12 gauge's bead on his head/neck area, and my hunt was over at 10:45.

Later, I made note that the tom weighed an even 19 pounds and sported 1-inch spurs and a 9-inch beard, a typical Franklin County farmland two-year-old. Do I regret meekly giving up on the trophy tom that I encountered the week before? No way!


Gary Norman, wild turkey project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), presents biologists' view of the state of the Old Dominion's flock.

"Long-term low recruitment seems to be plaguing turkey populations in Virginia and other Mid-Atlantic states," he said. "So I think we're in a holding pattern of stable populations unless we have an above average [hatch] year, or better yet, years. [Hunters should be aware] that many Southeastern states are very concerned about the significant drop in spring harvests."

Norman says that the Southeast Wild Turkey Committee has put together an ad-hoc sub-committee to evaluate the issue, propose recommendations for research, and continue to monitor and evaluate the declines.

"There are many different opinions from professionals ranging from coyotes to density dependence (DD). DD is when populations become self-regulating when they reach a certain population level relative to their habitat carrying capacity," he said. "The concept has been well-accepted in deer, and it may be happening with turkeys, but the mechanism is unknown. With deer it's generally a factor of their influence on their habitat/food resources."


Norman explains that for any given season, the prospects for that year depend on how the hatch was two years earlier, since two-year-old toms usually make up the majority of the harvest. But that's not the only factor to consider.

"The bottom line, though, is that it's not only recruitment, but a complex interaction of recruitment, hunter effort, weather, land use changes (fragmentation of larger parcels where oftentimes hunting is not permitted), poor economy, mast conditions from the previous year and many other unknowns, " he said. "It is not an exact science, but I typically rely most on reproduction with the qualification that gobbling is good and the weather on Saturdays is good."

Given all of the above, Norman does not expect hunters to see much change in 2011 from harvests in recent seasons. He also states that the poor economy might or might not influence harvest rates. For example, if more people are out of work, would more people hunt more days in the spring because they have the time to do so, or do they forego hunting because of the costs involved? And what happens if spring Saturdays bring poor weather? Usually that weather-related factor results in a harvest decline.


Norman notes that the results are not in on what the 2010 hatch was like, because firm data will not be known until fall 2010-11 turkey harvest data is complete and because the DGIF is in the middle of a new process on how to report broods.

"But from what I've heard, 2010 appears to have been an above-average year, generally across the state," he said. "We certainly are overdue for a good hatch.

"Most regions are stable; the exceptions are the North Mountain and North Piedmont, where populations in many counties are declining significantly. Many are counties with national forest lands....possible causes [for the decline] include reduced hunting effort due to expanded populations; although I hunt national forest lands in Highland County and I'm not hearing the birds I used to. Second, reduced habitat maintenance/development on national forest lands; [national forest staffers] are doing less with fewer dollars, reduced staff, and lower goals for timber harvests."

Cully McCurdy, Virginia and West Virginia regional biologist for the National Wild T

urkey Federation, is working to improve turkey and wildlife habitat on the George

Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF). Here are specific projects he is pursuing.

'¢ Actively pursue opportunities for wildlife habitat improvement projects on the GWJNF through stewardship contracting and agreements.

'¢ Assist with the coordination of a seed subsidy program -- Operation Oak, a seedling distribution plan.

'¢ Participate in the development of the new national forest plan and strongly promoting active management on the forest through timber sales and the development and maintenance of early successional habitat.

'¢ Research and apply for grants and other funding opportunities to assist with the VDGIF and USFS to perform wildlife management practices on public lands.

'¢ Work with chapter members and state technical committee representative (Gary Norman) to develop the annual Hunting Heritage Super Fund budget.

'¢ Prepare comments and keep the NWTF Virginia State Chapter members informed on topics that affect turkeys, habitat, and hunting regulations.

Dr. Carol Croy, forest wildlife biologist for the GWJNF, states that she and staff members are working on a number of projects. One of them involves striving to have more timber cutting done on the national forest. Unfortunately, many preservationist groups fight against any tree cutting at all in our national forest under the guise that felling a tree destroys wildlife habitat. This, of course, is poor science and wretched biology. Incredibly, many hunters also do not understand the benefits of well-planned logging jobs, which can create nesting and bugging habitat for wild turkeys, plus valuable edge habitat.

Because of such opposition, the GWJNF only cut 1,092 acres in 2009 (the 2010 figures were not available at press time). This includes logging carried out by such methods as clearcutting, shelter cuts, and salvage operations. Croy emphasizes that more cutting would be very beneficial to turkeys and other wildlife, including and especially whitetail deer.

The biologist relates that GWJNF staff members strive "to create a mosaic of habitat conditions that turkeys and other wildlife prefer." Creating clearcuts helps to facilitate future oak regeneration and form open land where forbs, shrubs, and grasses will grow. Poults especially require such habitat as that is where they can "bug," that is consume the high protein crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles that will enable them to gain weight so the young birds can later face the rigors of winter.

Croy says that another major habitat improvement project involves prescribed burning. In 2009, the forest service burned 15,649 acres in the GWJNF and in 2010, that figure was approximately 21,000. Readers should realize that this national forest lies in both Virginia and West Virginia; thus, the figures are for the public land as a whole.

"A really good spring hunting strategy is to set up within a section of mature national forest that borders an area that recently had a prescribed burn," continued Croy. "Prescribed burning opens up the understory and gives gobblers a good place to strut and also offers turkeys many places to feed."

Croy emphasizes that GWJNF personnel are also laboring to maintain wildlife openings. Over the years, I have hunted a number of these openings and have consistently found birds there. The biologist believes that this is an extremely effective management tool as native wild grasses will be "freed up" to grow, as will legumes, forbs, and berry producing plants. If you have ever observed turkeys foraging under grape arbors or wild black cherry trees in the fall, then you realize why wildlife openings are important to maximize a flock's survivability chances. A bush hog is a very valuable tool in maintaining these openings, emphasizes Croy.

Additionally, the GWJNF performed timber stand improvement operations (TSI) on 2,461 acres in 2009. Croy believes that TSI is a great way to improve/create turkey habitat as this practice relates to the removal of non-mast-bearing trees such as poplars and maples from an area and allows oaks, hickories, beeches, and cherries to spread their crowns and produce more mast. Indeed, fall turkeys forage within these areas, and spring birds use them to strut and roost in.

Of course, VDGIF staff members are carrying out projects in every part of the state. For example, Drew Larson, district wildlife biologist for Region 2 gives examples from the Southern Piedmont.

"Most notably, WMA Supervisor Mark Frank has created, maintained, and monitored a large 50-acre brood range for turkeys at Fairystone Farms WMA," explained Larson. "WMA Supervisor Thomas Moss recently supervised 12 acres of mulching on the James River WMA that were replanted with browntop millet and grain sorghum. Region 2 staff has also been actively managing several hundred acres of early successional habitat at Featherfin, Amelia, and Dick Cross WMAs with prescribed burning, rotational disking, timber stand improvement, and mulching.

"These areas provide excellent food resources for turkeys while also providing the necessary cover from predators. In March 2010, wildlife biologist Dan Lovelace, in cooperation with personnel from the Virginia Department of Forestry, hosted a prescribed fire workshop for landowners in Bedford County."


Unfortunately, the spring harvest in 2010 was less than that in 2009, as tally dropped from 16,611 to 15,190, a decline of 8.6 percent. East of the Blue Ridge the kill dropped 8.8 percent from 11,103 to 10,130 and West of the Blue Ridge the total declined a comparable 8.1 percent, from 5,508 to 5,060.

The top 10 counties in 2010 (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were Bedford (537), Pittsylvania (465) Franklin (464), Southampton (405), Halifax (366), Scott (306), Sussex (288), Botetourt (268), Grayson (267), and Campbell (263).

Gary Norman and staff further break down the harvest figures by week, and those numbers (and their respective percentages of the overall harvest) are as follows: Youth -- 2.2 percent; Opening Day -- 13.6 percent; Week 1 -- 31.1 percent; Week 2 -- 17.5 percent; Week 3 -- 12.9 percent; Week 4 -- 10.8 percent; and Week 5 -- 11.8 percent.

These figures bear further analysis. First, it's a positive that so many adults took youngsters hunting on Youth Day. That budding sportsmen accounted for 2.2 percent of the total harvest is quite impressive. Second, there really is something to be said about going on opening day and hunting hard that first week. An astounding 13.6 percent of the harvest took place on that first Saturday. My opening day gobbler was my third turkey of the season (as I killed two birds back in the fall) so I was through hunting in Virginia for the year, given the state's three bird limit for the spring and fall seasons combined.

Hunters can try to take th

ree bearded birds in the spring [one bearded bird per day], if they killed no fall birds. Or, for example, if a hunter killed one bird in the fall, he can kill two bearded turkeys in the spring.

Many state hunters told me that they struggled after the first week of the season, and the stats certainly seem to bear out that opinion. After the first week tally of 31.1 percent, hunters never topped even 18 percent again with the worst weekly figure coming in Week 4 with 10.8 percent. Going early and often is certainly sound strategy.


Although at press time, the 2010 hatch seemed promising, the birds from that hatch will have little effect on the overall 2011 harvest as they will be the jakes that we will encounter this spring. Often, the best gobbling birds will be those vocal two-year-olds; in this case, the males that hatched in 2009.

Unfortunately, the statistics for the 2009 hatch are not promising. Keep in mind that a very productive hatch, one that would increase the turkey population, would be over 3.0 for the poult-to-adult-hen ratio.

No region met that standard in 2009.

The figures by region (with the ratio in parentheses) are as follows: North Mountain (2.4), South Mountain (2.4), North Piedmont (1.5), South Piedmont (1.8), Tidewater (2.6), and Virginia as a whole (2.0).

Also bear in mind that turkey populations on public lands are often not as good as they are on nearby private lands, especially those private lands with a mixture of woodlots, agricultural areas, and fields. Thus, hunters in the North Piedmont and South Piedmont could especially find public hunting difficult in 2011 and private land bird numbers are likely to be down as well.

Hunters in these regions may have to aggressively run after a gobbling bird, as there will likely not be a lot of toms in many areas. Fortunately, in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, hunters can often make assertive moves on longbeards.

Adding to the problems created by the 2009 hatch is that there won't be a lot of three and four-year-old toms available. The five-year averages for the region are as follows: North Mountain (2.1), South Mountain (2.1), North Piedmont (1.9), South Piedmont (1.7), Tidewater (1.4), and the Old Dominion as a whole (1.8).

Although the Tidewater region experienced the best hatch, relatively speaking, of any locale in 2009, it has the worst five-year average by far. Look for a scarcity of trophy toms in Tidewater (that is those long spurred three and four-year-olds), a subpar number of two-year-olds and possibly quite a few jakes -- again hatch rates were nowhere near complete at press time. Tidewater hunters could well have to travel to a number of their favorite spots in order to locate gobbling birds. Waiting to a day or two before the opener to scout could be a major mistake.


For complete information on county-by-county harvest and results of the Spring Gobbler Season Survey, Norman suggests that readers go to the department's Website: The biologist also encourages sportsmen to e-mail him if they would like to participate in the tom survey: This year, Youth Day is Saturday, April 2 and the regular season begins on April 9 and runs through May 14. From May 2 through May 14, hunters may be afield from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. Before May 2, hunting hours end at noon. Additionally, as was true in 2010 for the first time, hunters must check their birds by calling 1-866-GOT-GAME.

Editor's Note: to read the author's outdoors web blog, go to

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