Here is what's happening in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware when it comes to the spring turkey-hunting season. (March 2006)
Following a slight downward cycle, many Mid-Atlantic region spring turkey enthusiasts found things more to their liking last season. In general, wild turkey populations are up, equating to excellent harvest numbers. Expectations are high for the upcoming spring gobbler season as well.
Like most things in nature, wild turkey populations tend to rise and fall in direct response to a variety of factors, perhaps the most important being spring breeding conditions. Poor nesting conditions, exemplified by extended periods of cold, wet weather, can stifle production for the year. When poor weather occurs during the summer, recruitment levels of young birds can drop. Game managers ascertain the production of the nesting season by poult counts conducted during the summer.
Hunters quickly feel low reproduction rates for a couple of years, as many of the birds bagged during the spring are 1-year-old jakes or 2-year-old gobblers. Conversely, a banner nesting season or two can rapidly turn things around, translating to excellent hunting opportunities.
An upswing in the turkey reproduction cycle began in 2004 and continued, albeit on a lesser scale, last spring. Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware's wild turkey populations have been re-established over the past two to three decades by extensive trap-and-transfer work by the various state resource agencies. That work is now mostly complete, though natural expansions of flocks continue to occur, increasing the availability of birds as well as hunting options. Ups and downs in wild turkey populations from here on out will largely be the result of natural trends driven in a large part by springtime nesting success.
Here's a review of last year's spring hunts in the three-state Mid- Atlantic region, as well as a general look at things to come for this year's hunt.
Following a year when the harvest of wild turkeys dropped a significant amount, Maryland wild turkey hunters set a new record during the spring of 2005 when 3,136 wild turkeys were bagged. What happened in Maryland the past two years serves as an excellent example of how quickly numbers of birds can drop, and how fast they can rebound.
During the 2004 season, the bag was 2,760 bearded birds, a figure 12 percent lower than the 3,120 toms that were taken in 2003.
The result of the 2004 season prompted Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife and Heritage Division Director Paul Peditto to comment: "Maryland's wild turkey population remains strong, but the drop in harvest was not unexpected. 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."
Bob Long, the DNR's wild turkey biologist, notes, "As many as 75 percent of gobblers taken in a typical year are either 1- or 2-year-olds. Without those age-classes, fewer birds are available for hunters and most of them are older, more wary and harder to bag than young gobblers."
In 2004, only 22 percent of the harvest was made up of jakes. More typical numbers see 30 to 40 percent of the take consisting of yearling birds.
Though the 2004 spring offered few birds for Maryland hunters, excellent breeding conditions existed, allowing populations to significantly increase. This was reflected not only in the total amount of toms killed last spring but in the number of jakes.
During the 2005 spring hunt, Maryland hunters bagged a record 3,136 birds, an increase of 14 percent over the 2004 season, and a total that surpassed the previous record of 3,127 toms dropped in 2002.
Just as the decrease in the 2004 harvest was not unexpected, Director Paul Peditto said the increase in 2005 was not unexpected either.
"Turkey populations had been somewhat lower in recent years, but the record harvest demonstrates that turkey numbers can rebound quickly under the right conditions."
In speaking with biologist Long recently, he noted that the quality breeding conditions the state experienced in 2004 can be attributed to the increase in turkey numbers, and a harvest strongly bolstered by 1-year-old birds.
"Many young birds were produced last year and the result was plenty of young gobblers being available for hunters this past spring," Peditto said. "Just under 50 percent of the birds taken were jakes. The guys and gals were successful."
A statement issued by the DNR following the 2005 hunt revealed that about half of the harvest occurred during the first week of the season. As the season progressed, harvest numbers decreased. The final week of the season, the fifth week, saw about 8 percent of the harvest occurring. It is typical for harvest numbers to drop as the season moves along. Conditions often become tougher to kill a wild turkey, as birds adjust to hunting pressure and visibility decreases as the woods green up. Last season, some 16 percent of the total bag took place on public lands, with private lands accounting for the remainder of the take.
Young hunters fared well during the one-day youth hunt, bagging 157 turkeys. This special event is designed to allow junior hunters (along with an unarmed adult) the opportunity to hunt gobblers before the general season begins and the hunting pressure increases.
Last year's top spring gobbler counties were Garrett, Washington, Dorchester and Allegany. Garrett, located in extreme western Maryland, accounted for 365 bearded birds. A bit to the east, Washington County hunters bagged 340 birds. Dorchester County, in the southwestern portion of the Eastern Shore, provided 332 birds. Another 328 gobblers and jakes were bagged in Allegany County in western Maryland.
By contrast, during 2004, Garrett County hunters bagged 325 birds. Washington County produced 305 toms that year. Another 289 gobblers and jakes were taken in Dorchester County, while Allegany hunters bagged 337 bearded birds last year.
Other counties that experienced good wild turkey harvests last spring include Worchester (284), Somerset (215) and Charles (213). Worchester and Somerset are lower Eastern Shore counties, while Charles is located in south-central Maryland, south of Washington, D.C. Increases in harvest took place in non-traditional counties, such as Queen Anne's, St. Mary's, Cecil and Caroline, indicating the natural expansion of the wild turkey range is continuing.
Western Maryland contains the state's largest public land holdings, as well as excellent numbe
rs of wild turkeys. The area held wild turkeys before the DNR's successful trap- and-transfer program, and is still considered the traditional wild turkey range by many state sportsmen.
In Garrett County, public-land hunting can be found within the Savage River, Garrett and the Potomac state forests. Allegany public lands include Dans Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located near Frostburg. The Green Ridge State Forest furnishes another extensive parcel of public land in Allegany County. Washington County public areas include the Indian Springs and Sideling Hill WMAs, and the Woodmont Tract.
Biologist Long expects the coming season to be a good one, a spring hunt fueled by 2-year-old birds produced in 2004, as well as jakes hatched last spring.
"There should be many 2-year-olds, which should provide some exciting hunting," Long noted. "Often 2-year-old gobblers respond the best to calling. Last year's nesting season was about average, so there should be a good number of jakes as well."
Long reports that though the summer was a dry one, there was rain during the spring, which unfortunately seemed to coincide with the peak of the nesting season.
"Based on brood counts we conducted last summer, it appears things are about average, and below what we experienced in 2004," he said. Long added that it seems late nesting birds made up, in part, for young birds lost during the peak of the nesting season.
In terms of best areas to hunt this spring, biologist Long noted that, as in the past, the hotspots will be western Maryland and the lower Eastern Shore counties. But as the harvest numbers listed here have shown, wild turkeys are well distributed throughout Maryland. Excellent hunting opportunities are available near population centers like Baltimore and Frederick. It will take effort on the part of enterprising hunters to secure permission to hunt private land in order to experience the highest quality hunts.
Maryland hunters should be aware that changes have been made in the process of checking in harvested birds. It is no longer necessary to bring your bagged bird to a check station. The process of checking in a turkey is the same as it is now for deer. The steps include: Completing the Maryland Turkey Field Tag and attaching it to the leg of the bird. The hunter must then fill out the Big Game Harvest Record, which includes recording the species (turkey, in this case), date, county, sex and weapon class. Once this is done, the turkey can be moved.
Hunters have until midnight the day of the harvest to check the harvested turkey by means of either the agency's Web site or toll-free phone line. The address of the Internet check-in site is www.gamecheck.dnr. state.md.us.
The other option is calling the Maryland Big Game Registration phone line at (888) 800-0121. During the process, be it Internet or a phone call, a confirmation number will be supplied to the hunter. This number must be recorded on your Big Game Harvest Record.
Garden State spring gobbler hunters have experienced a similar trend of ups and downs as have those from the Free State, though harvest numbers don't indicate quite as severe a swing.
Looking back to the 2005 season, New Jersey sportsmen were faced with somewhat reduced wild turkey numbers. Nesting success was particularly low in 2003. Things improved somewhat in 2004, but not on the same level as was experienced in Maryland. Game biologists termed the brood production of the year as "much better than 2004, but not optimal." Relatively few 2-year-old birds were available during the 2005 spring hunt. Most of the bearded birds were jakes hatched the prior year.
New Jersey hunters enjoy one of the longest spring seasons in this part of the country, a hunt that typically spans six weeks. During the 2004 hunt, sportsmen bagged 3,059 toms. Though it was the fourth-highest harvest on record, it was below the average of recent years. Game biologists were not surprised by the take, in that the 2002 nesting season was not a particularly good one.
Extended periods of cold, rainy weather were common during the springs of both 2002 and 2003 in the Garden State. Hunter success was also down somewhat during the 2004 season because of the hot weather that allowed the woods to green up a bit earlier. But it was this same dry, warm weather that was common throughout much of the spring that increased the poult production during 2004.
Following lower harvest rates in 2003 and 2004, New Jersey hunters enjoyed much better success during last season's hunt, bagging 3,779 bearded birds. It was the third-highest harvest since the spring season was established in 1981, and an increase of 6.7 percent over the 2004 bag. A significant percentage of harvested birds during the 2005 spring hunt were jakes.
Looking at New Jersey as a whole, the past couple of years of hunting have been better in the southern reaches of the state. Managers suspect that northern portions of the state were more affected by poor reproduction conditions than areas in the south.
New Jersey is managed by means of 22 separate turkey-hunting areas (THA). The most productive areas last season were THAs 20 (600), 21 (465), 8 (247), 15 (228), 5 (206) and 11 (204).
THA 20 contains portions of Cumberland and Salem counties. About 16 percent of the land is in public ownership. These counties are located in the southwestern portion of the state. THA 21 includes a significant portion of Cumberland County, and is located to the east of THA 20. THA 8 is found in the northern portion of the state, and includes portions of Hunterdon and Warren counties.
Portions of Burlington and Camden counties make up THA 15. Approximately 47 percent of this THA is in public ownership. Wharton State Forest provides a significant amount of this public land. THA 5 includes a portion of Sussex County, while THA 11 is made up of portions of Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex and Somerset counties.
Specific descriptions of boundaries of all New Jersey turkey-hunting regions can be found by referring to the 2005-06 Wild Turkey Hunting Season Information and Permit Application.
The outlook for the 2006 season is a fairly bright one. There should be a fair number of 2-year-old gobblers produced during the spring of 2004. Last year's nesting season appeared to be a decent one. According to the Division of Wildlife's (DFW) Wild Turkey Project leader Tony McBride, preliminary research conducted last summer indicates a fairly good production of young birds from the 2005 nesting season. Areas that produced well the last year or two should be top choices for the coming year.
Hunters must apply for a permit to hunt wild turkeys in New Jersey. The DFW conducts three lotteries each year, and the first two apply to spring hunts. Top areas like THA 20 fill up quickly. The deadline to apply is late February. Check your permit application for exact dates and further details.
Harvest rates have remained pretty much status quo in Delaware the past few seasons, with bags running about 100-plus birds per year. The state has experienced similar trends in nesting success the past couple of years as that of Maryland and New Jersey.
Of note for this coming season, though, is a return to the three split seasons format.
Wildlife biologist Ken Reynolds of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife notes, at the June 2005 meeting of the agency's Advisory Council, that in recent years only about 70 percent of the slots have been filled under the six three-day hunt system. By going to three splits of five-, six- and seven-day seasons, he said, more of the available days would be filled, and hunters would have more days to hunt.
Sussex County tends to produce the state's best hunting. Redden State Forest is an important public area for spring turkey hunters. Spring gobbler hunting in Delaware requires a permit.
Before entering the woods this spring, be sure to review the booklet of rules and regulations supplied with your license, specifically the section regarding this year's spring turkey hunting.
Though the Mid-Atlantic region has experienced some difficulties, wild turkey population-wise during the past few years, it's important to keep things in perspective. Record springtime harvests have been taken recently. So even when things are down a bit, there are still substantial wild turkey populations available, particularly when compared with a decade or two ago. The good old days of wild turkey hunting in this region are right now!