Last year's turkey harvest in North Carolina was a record -- but hunters in some areas are faring better than hunters in other areas.
Author Mike Marsh carries a Pender County gobbler home from a coastal swamp. Photo by Mike Marsh.
During the 2010 season, North Carolina wild turkey hunters set a new record harvest of 13,756 gobblers. With the population currently estimated at 250,000 to 260,000 and turkeys inhabiting every county of the state, there are plenty of places where hunters can have at least a chance of hearing a gobbling bird to hunt this spring. However, some places simply have more gobblers than others, and therefore offer a better shots at success.
Evin Stanford is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's wild turkey biologist. He said the Commission's new call-in harvest reporting system has really helped in home in on the top game lands for turkey harvest.
"The new reporting system has a prompt that asks for the specific game land when a hunter reports any harvest," he said. "While there weren't any really big surprises, it helped show us those public lands where hunters may be having their best success in terms of gobbler harvest."
One thing that jumps right out as a result of the new harvest reporting system is that when it comes to wild turkeys, size matters and we're not talking about beards, spurs and body weights. The size of the hunting territory a particular game land has to offer is more important than any other factor when it comes to the number of gobblers harvested.
"The first thing you notice is that our four national forests had the highest reported gobbler harvests," Stanford said. "The top game land was Pisgah, which had a harvest of 255 turkeys. Nantahala was in second place, with a harvest of 168 turkeys. Uwharrie was in third place with a harvest of 50 and Croatan was in fourth place with a harvest of 37."
Pisgah National Forest is located in the mountain counties of Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Transylvania, Watauga, and Yancey counties and it has 505,217 acres. Nantahala National Forest is located in the mountain counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania and it has 528,782 acres.
Uwharrie National Forest, which has mountain terrain, but with much lower relief and elevations, is actually located in the southern piedmont counties of Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph and has 50,189 acres. Croatan National Forest is located in the central coastal plain counties of Carteret, Craven and Jones and has 160,724 acres.
While the mountain region produces lots of turkeys largely because of its large public hunting lands, it doesn't necessarily mean these public properties are the best places for hunting. The habitat is average to poor, and the terrain is very rugged making for some tough hunting conditions.
"The mountain game lands have few openings and consist mostly of hardwoods," Stanford said. "Therefore hunting can be more difficult on those game lands than at the piedmont and coastal plain game lands where openings are more frequent, (and there are) better access roads and foot trails and have terrain that is easier to deal with. The turkey population in the mountains has also suffered several years of poor reproduction. The reproduction was poor two years ago and therefore the jake harvest was low in 2010. That poor jake harvest will probably translate into low numbers of two-year-old gobblers in 2011, so mountain region hunters may not see or hear as many gobbler as they have in past seasons."
Uwharrie National Forest's habitat is similar to like that of Pisgah and Nantahala because it has lots of hardwood forest. However, it has more clear cuts, areas of prescribed burning and planted wildlife openings that draw turkeys and make hunting access easier. But it is also a patchwork quilt of smaller tracts except for the main block of more than 20,000 acres. The smaller outlying parcels can be blessing or curse for the turkey hunter. Private landowners adjoining public tracts tend to plant more openings with chufa, clover and other food plots that attract turkeys and that can benefit hunters on adjoining public land. However, when hunting a small national forest tract, hunters face a greater risk that a gobbler may be remain on the adjoining private property instead of strutting into shotgun range on a national forest tract.
Croatan National Forest has lots of waterlogged pocosin habitat and hardwood drains. Its turkeys are concentrated around the maintained openings, pine ridges subjected to routine controlled burns and along the swamp runs. There are also some planted deer openings that attract turkeys.
Reproduction in the piedmont and mountains has been fair over the past couple of seasons, so these coastal and piedmont national forest game lands should produce about the same chances of success as they did during the 2010 spring hunting season.
The Roanoke River Game Land was fifth in terms of public lands gobbler harvest, with a total of 36. It is a permit-only hunting area because of an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services that allows hunting on refuge property. It is located in the upper coastal plain and its 35,772 acres in Bertie, Halifax, Martin and Northampton Counties comprise a large area that accounts for the high harvest.
"At Roanoke River Game Land, hunting pressure is controlled," Stanford said. "It might be proof that limited pressure increases success, but it is also some of the best turkey habitat in the state. It is mostly hardwood bottom with some uplands and there are several excellent turkey hunting tracts."
R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell Game Land was in sixth place, with a harvest of 29. This upper piedmont game land has 17,788 acres in Caswell County. It is a perennial gobbler producer, with an excellent habitat mix for turkeys and turkey hunting.
In seventh place is South Mountains Game Land with 27 gobblers. One of the more recent additions to the Game Lands Program, it has 21,530 acres of rugged terrain in Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties. The adjacent South Mountains State Park provides protected area that may increase gobbler carryover.
In eighth place comes Butner-Falls Game Land with 25 gobblers. Its 40,899 piedmont acres border Falls Lake, with mostly hardwood forest habitat. It is a permit-only area, which may help increase the success rate among those hunters who are drawn.
Green River Game Land in the mountains ranked ninth with 23 gobblers. It has 14,188 acres of rugged mountain terrain in Henderson and Polk counties. But the terrain i
s not as severe as that of the far western mountains. The river bottoms are key to producing lots of turkeys, along with good access for increased hunter success.
Alcoa Game Land has 8,372 acres along the Yadkin River chain of lakes in Davie, Davidson, Montgomery, Rowan and Stanly counties. It has typical piedmont habitat, with rolling to steep terrain covered with hardwood forest. Alcoa Game Land came in tenth place with a harvest of 19 gobblers.
Going down through the ranking, it becomes apparent that good hunting is available on Commission game lands in all three regions. It is also glaringly obvious that what Stanford said is the common factor -- having a large acreage -- is the determining factor for producing large numbers gobblers for hunters. With the habitat essentially saturated statewide, it's is a logical observation and reasonable outcome.
But it also means the chances of success are similar at other game lands as long as the quality of the habitat is the same. Therefore, hunters should not overlook some of the smaller game lands. In term of the number of gobblers per square mile, they should all produce more or less equal chances for success.
Bladen Lakes Game Land is a tract of N.C. Forest Service land in Bladen County. Its 33,047 acres consist of mixed pine uplands and Cape Fear River bottomlands. The intensively managed forest is subjected to prescribed burns and there have been several planting projects to aid turkey restoration. While most of this game land is open on a three-days-per-week basis, the Singletary Tract is open for turkey hunting by permit only. Bladen Lakes is probably the best place to hunt turkeys of all the game lands in the southern coastal plain and it produced 18 gobblers during the 2010 season.
In a tie with Bladen Lakes at 18 turkeys was Sandhills Game Land, which has 61,256 acres in Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties. The uplands consist of pine and scrub oak savannah, which is subjected to periodic prescribed burns that create excellent habitat. There are also many swamp runs with hardwoods that increase the habitat diversity, to the benefit of wild turkeys.
Chowan Swamp Game Land in the northern coastal plain has 27,156 acres bordering the Chowan River in Bertie, Gates and Hertford counties. It has a number of gated roads that decrease disturbance, which aids in hunter success. Boating access is also possible at a few points along the river if water conditions are normal. This game land yielded 15 gobblers during the 2010 spring season.
Jordan Game Land has 40,937 acres in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake Counties. While most of the acreage is the water surface of B. Everett Jordan Lake, the bordering hardwood forests create excellent turkey hunting. It is a permit-only turkey hunting area and produced 11 gobblers during the 2010 hunting season.
The 3,870-acre Johns River Game Land in Burke County produced 9 gobblers, which seems all out of proportion to its relatively small area. The good road access throughout the Loop Road and Lower Creek units help hunter success. Roads are gated to provide secluded hunting and the Johns and Catawaba rivers also provide boating access. The rivers play a key role in leveling the terrain to create relatively easy access and the river bottoms hold lots of big gobblers.
Pee Dee River Game Land also yielded 9 gobblers, although it, too, is relatively small. It has 6,829 acres in Anson, Montgomery and Richmond counties bordering Lake Tillery and Blewett Falls Lake as well as the river below Rockingham. The territory is mostly hardwood bottomland and hunters often use the water bodies for boat access while listening for gobbler to sound off. It hunts "bigger" than it actually is, because, like Uwharrie Game Land nearby, it consists of many small, disconnected tracts.
Embro Game Land, which consists of several small, disconnected tracts with a total area of 8,892 acres, produced 9 gobblers. The game land is located in Halifax and Warren counties. It is in the epicenter of some of the best turkey habitat in the upper coastal plain, with many creek bottoms and good access roads throughout the tracts.
Buffalo Cove Game Land, which has 6,654 acres in the mountain counties of Caldwell and Wilkes, also yielded 9 turkeys in 2010. Wilkes County has always been a top turkey producer in the mountains. This game land has relatively good access along some gated access roads and also contains several creeks that result in good habitat and relatively easy access for a mountain game land.
"It's hard to pick out any certain game land that is better than the others," Stanford said. "When it comes to turkey hunting success, we have game lands in each region that are consistent, producing large numbers of gobblers year after year. But knowing when to go may be even more important than knowing where to go. An amazing 2,012 turkeys were taken on opening day of the 2010 season and 908 on second Saturday. Forty-two percent of the harvest occurs during the first week of the season, 20 percent during the second week, 14 percent the third week, 13 percent the fourth week and 7 percent the last week. Including the youth day harvest of 4 percent, two-thirds of the harvest has occurred in the first two weeks of the season. After that, there are fewer turkey hunters, but there are also fewer turkeys and they've been disturbed and are therefore harder to hunt."