The excellent hatch of 2004 should push a fresh wave of 2-year-old gobblers into the breeding season -- and maybe into your gun sights -- this spring. (March 2006)
The number has been out there for years, always just out of reach, like the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister came along.
The number is 10,000 -- 10,000 harvested turkeys in one season, that is.
"It's so tantalizing," admitted Mike Seamster, a wildlife biologist who heads the wild-turkey program for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
In about two months, Seamster hopes that he's looking at 10,000 from a different point of view, with the eyes of a proud father whose kids have all brought home stellar report cards.
Ten thousand is a barrier that turkey hunters in North Carolina have approached for years. They've been right there, rubbing up against it, but have never been able to push through.
This is the year, Seamster hopes, when North Carolina's spring turkey harvest breaks into five figures and never looks back.
"We've been so close," said Seamster. "We get right to the edge and have a bad hatch and drop back, then get right to the edge again."
Even though this past spring's hatch was forgettable -- poor is another word -- Seamster thinks hunters will take a giant step forward around the Tar Heel State.
"I think we'll get it this time," he said. "I'm pretty sure because we had a real good hatch (in 2004). We had a heavy harvest of jakes last year, but there should be plenty of those birds in the woods this spring, and they'll all be 2-year-old gobblers, which are the easiest ones to kill."
Not that any gobbler is easy.
"But providing we have good weather on our traditional high-harvest days (Saturdays), we'll have an abundance of 2-year-old birds in the woods. They're mature, but they're the most vocal of all your gobblers, and they're the easiest to kill.
"Having so many 2-year-old birds out there creates plenty of competition. You've got several birds out there gobbling, and they all want to get to that hen first. That sets us up for a good spring -- if the weather cooperates."
Last season, the 10,000-mark almost fell, especially if you add in the winter harvest. Hunters took 151 birds during the six-day either-sex season in January, then reported taking 9,824 birds during the month-long spring gobbler season, which opens this year on April 8 and runs through May 6.
Last year's spring harvest was the second largest on record, trailing only the 9,862 birds taken in 2003, the year before the first winter season. The combined winter-spring harvest in 2004 was 9,022.
For the past half-dozen or so years, a handful of counties have dominated the annual harvest figures. Caswell County is probably North Carolina's best-known county for wild turkeys -- the Caswell Game Lands are probably the most productive public acres in North Carolina, at least in terms of the number of birds killed per square mile.
Caswell was the top-producing county from the time the commission started keeping score in the early 1970s through 2003. Its harvest broke the 400 mark on several occasions, but the past two years, Caswell has taken a back seat to Wilkes County, which led the state last year with a harvest of 334, compared with 320 for Caswell.
The two counties, however, are perfect representatives of the two best areas in North Carolina for turkeys -- the northern Piedmont and northwestern mountains. There's little doubt in Seamster's mind that the two areas have the best turkey habitat and the heaviest flocks. The habitat consists of brood range -- a combination of open pasture land and woodlands that provide plenty of forage for young turkeys -- plus heavily wooded areas that offer turkeys some measure of protection.
Wilkes and its two neighbors to the north -- Ashe and Alleghany counties -- have long been among the top producers in North Carolina. Seamster, at one time, believed that Ashe and Alleghany had the best turkey populations in the state, but their total harvests, even though close to the top in the state, were somewhat limited because both counties are relatively small in area and have very little public land open for hunting.
Adding to the area's reputation in the past five or six years has been Stokes County, which has jumped into the top five statewide in total harvest, finishing third last year with 306. Three other northwestern counties -- Watauga, Surry and Yadkin -- all had harvests of at least 130 turkeys.
Even more impressive over the past handful of years has been Caswell and the northern Piedmont, one of the areas that had a smattering of turkeys even in the early 1970s. The most productive areas are north of the I-40/ I-85 corridor, away from the state's most populated urban areas, such as Greensboro, Burlington and Raleigh-Durham.
Besides Caswell's 320 birds taken last spring, Granville ranked fourth in the state with 305 birds, Rockingham was fifth with 291 and Person was eighth with 241.
Seamster doesn't expect his big harvest increase to come in the northwestern corner of the state or in the northern Piedmont.
"I think you'll probably see the big counties level off a little," he said. "They'll bump up and down a bit, depending on the level of the hatch, but I don't anticipate seeing those counties continue to have big increases. Obviously, we've seen some of that over the past few years, but we're reaching the carrying capacity in some of those counties."
Seamster's hopes for a 10,000-bird harvest are based on two things: a very successful hatch in the spring of 2004 and the growth and expansion of turkey populations in counties that have not had open seasons for very long.
The commission spent much of the 1980s and 1990s moving and restocking turkeys into areas with suitable habitat but not resident population. Last year, for the first time, all 100 counties in North Carolina had an open spring gobbler season.
From a low-water mark in 1970 when the statewide flock had dwindled to around 2,000 birds, North Carolina now has approximately 130,000 turkeys picking their way through woods and fields. The commission released almost 1,000 turkeys on restoration areas through the 1980s, and from 1990 through 2005, it stocked more than 4,000 birds. Regions where birds were relocated had closed seasons for a period of years while the birds acclimated the
mselves to their new surroundings, and when the population reached a suitable level, spring hunting was allowed.
The statewide bag limit for the spring season is two birds, with a daily limit of one. Only bearded turkeys may be taken. Any hunter who took a turkey during the winter season will be allowed to take only one turkey during the spring season.
Seamster said that the excellent hatch that spread across most of the state in the spring of 2004 should put more 2-year-old birds in the woods this year. Those birds typically make up the largest percentage of the harvest.
The great hatch of 2004 will also promote the further expansion of turkeys, especially in the eastern half of the state, into areas where there have traditionally been none or very few birds.
"We do have a number of counties that still have rapidly growing populations," Seamster said. "I think they will continue to grow like that for several more years. Typically, those counties that are open for the first time have a surplus of gobblers because we've protected them during the four or five or six years when the counties were closed to hunting (after restocking). The first year, you see a very high harvest of gobblers. They're relatively easy because they've never been hunted before. You see that initial high harvest, then it drops back a little bit because you've killed all the surplus gobblers and (you've) educated the ones that survived. Then, you see steady improvements for several years after that."
Seamster said that at least a dozen counties fill that profile, and he's encouraged by the trend of an expanding flock and increasing harvest.
"We just opened Wilson County, and we stocked six sites there. Like a lot of counties in eastern North Carolina and the eastern Piedmont, the flock is really beginning to grow," Seamster said. "Currituck County has gone from 12 birds in 2002 to 40 in 2004 and 67 last year. Franklin County has gone from 37 birds in 2002 to 80 birds last season. Randolph has gone from 44 to 58, Harnett from 38 to 70, Moore from 56 to 101, Onslow from 38 to 58 to 95, Richmond is at 115, Sampson from 66 to 98, Scotland from 28 to 49.
"Cabarrus County is a fairly populated area, but the harvest is still beginning to go up pretty rapidly, from 20 in 2002 to 45 in 2004 to 60 last year. Those are still fairly low numbers compared with some of the real popular turkey-hunting counties, but you see a lot of counties growing rapidly like that. They'll probably never get to the level where their harvest is equal to something like Alleghany, Ashe or Caswell, but they can conceivably get up to between 100 and 150 birds a year."
In the western Piedmont, Lincoln County's harvest has increased from 48 to 68, Rowan from 115 to 158, Davidson from 40 to 50 to 60.
"I see many counties like those," Seamster said. "They are in the 50 to 100 range right now, and the population is still growing rapidly. If you put a percentage on it, it's a pretty good percentage of growth. You'll see the population continue to grow, and the harvest will probably continue to grow over the next five to 10 years."
Besides the northern Piedmont and the northwestern mountains, the area with the best combination of current population and harvest levels and potential for growth are those counties along the Roanoke River. Two of the best counties in North Carolina are Halifax and Northampton -- by sheer coincidence, the Nos. 1 and 2 counties in terms of total deer harvest. Hunters took 264 turkeys in Halifax County last season, ranking sixth in the state. Northampton produced 227 birds to finish 10th. Their neighbor, Bertie, has had a consistent harvest between the 150 and 200 mark.
"Those river counties have the potential to have Caswell-Alleghany-Ashe kinds of numbers," Seamster said. "We've always had birds along the river, but about 10 years ago, we stocked six sites in Northampton that were away from the river. We found out that when we put birds in close to the river, they really didn't expand away from the river, so we took them to other parts of the county, and they really took off."
Counties in the western North Carolina mountains have had consistent harvest levels for years. Seamster and the commission finished stocking the western third of the state first, and flocks in the remote country have been at consistent levels for the past 10 years. They will never reach the levels of the northwestern mountains or northern Piedmont, Seamster said, because there is a limited amount of brood range, but there is good habitat, and a big portion of it is in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.
"We really have some good game lands for wild turkeys: Caswell, Pisgah, Nantahala, certainly the Uwharrie National Forest, the Croatan National Forest, and Thurmond-Chatham up in the northwest corner," Seamster said.
"Some of our permit hunts are really high-quality hunts; some of them are our most popular hunts. If you apply and get picked for one, it's a great hunt to get drawn for."
Those include hunts on the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, the Sandhills Game Lands, the Dupont Game Lands in the western part of the state, and the Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Lands, Jordan Game Lands and Shearon Harris Game Lands near Raleigh.
Seamster fears that a poor hatch for the spring of 2005 might have an effect on the overall harvest this spring, but he doesn't think it will keep it under the 10,000 mark.
Last spring's hatch was the second poorest on record, trailing only a horrible hatch in 2003 that negatively affected the 2004 harvest. Seamster said that statewide the hatch was a poor 1.7 poults per hen. Broken down by area, it was two in the Coastal Plain, 1.5 in the Piedmont and 1.8 in the mountains.
"All three regions were pretty low," Seamster said. "Anything above three poults per hen is considered exception, and around 2.5 is a pretty good year. But you get it down about two, and it's fair at best, and below two, it's poor.
"One thing that contributed was, we had an unusually late spring, and we had some pretty cool, damp weather through the nesting season, especially in the western part of the state," he said. "The weather started breaking up about when the birds were hatching off, and we were hoping that, with things being late, a lot of the hatch would be after the rainy period, but it doesn't appear that it was."
Seamster said one statistic that stood out to him in the 2005 summer brood survey is that, in the Piedmont, only 41 percent of all hens observed had poults -- extremely poor reproduction.
"That makes for a strange survey, because we had a high number of hens without poults, but the hens that were observed with poults had good numbers of poults, especially in some areas. When you look at the total number of poults per hen, it wasn't good," he said.
Seamster believes that a large percentage of the hens observed without poults were year-old hens, produced in the huge 2004 hatch, that do
not normally have good reproductive records.
"The irregular age structure of our current population is a contributing factor in this year's hatch," he said. "We had our worst hatch in 2003, which resulted in very few 2-year-old birds in the population this year, but all three regions of the state had exceptional productivity in 2004. So a large percentage of our population this year consists of 1-year-old hens. Some research indicates that young hens are not as good at nesting and brood-rearing as adult hens. Logically, those hens would have lower reproductive success than normal.
"I think that's the case. Those young hens aren't as successful at nesting and rearing as older hens. Older hens are better at picking nest sites where they're more protected from ground predators, or at protecting them. Young hens are sexually mature, but they're just not very experienced at hatching and raising, and that could have contributed to our poor reproduction.
"We did have a large number of young hens out there, and the few older hens that did nest seemed to have done pretty well. The hens with broods had pretty good numbers."
The poor hatch should keep the number of jakes in this spring's harvest down, he said. "In 2004, we had a real good hatch, so there will be a lot of 2-year-old birds out there. There were many jakes last spring, so I think we'll have a good spring this year. I don't expect to see nearly as many jakes as there were last year, and I think our percentage of jakes in the harvest will go down."