Harvest patterns are shifting in subtle ways as the turkey population has shifted and expanded in North Carolina. Here's a look at what this season will hold for hunters. (March 2008).
Photo by Mike Marsh.
Like a hunter hiding behind a camouflaged head net, the face of turkey hunting in North Carolina is becoming more difficult to identify. Where once biologists and hunters could reliably name which counties were likely to produce the best chances for bagging a big gobbler, the entire complexion of turkey hunting has changed. There are several factors at work and biologists are still puzzled about exactly what is going on with turkeys and turkey hunters. However, they can make some educated guesses.
With the recent retirement of long-time North Carolina Wildlife Commission turkey biologist Mike Seamster, that role is being temporarily filled by David Sawyer, the Surveys and Research Program Coordinator. Since there is a short-staffing situation in the absence of Seamster, Sawyer had not yet had time to thoroughly analyze the summer brood survey from 2007. However, he could still provide an analysis and some predictions for the 2008 turkey-hunting season based on a preliminary look at the data, as well as historical harvest and reproduction figures.
"The most interesting thing we're seeing is that some of our more traditional counties in the upper Piedmont and mountains have dropped some in terms of turkey harvest, while some of the coastal counties are beginning to experience an increase in harvest," Sawyer said. "It's hard to know for sure exactly what's going on because we don't know the extent of hunter effort in those counties. But as turkeys are becoming more abundant in these non-traditional turkey-hunting areas, people may not be traveling as far to hunt them. The same thing happened with deer hunting as the deer herd expanded. While it can't be proved that's what is going on, I expect it is. Turkey harvests in northern mountain counties, such as Ashe and Alleghany, are down. But the (statewide) 2007 turkey harvest was still the second highest on record."
While there were steep declines in many of the traditional counties, other counties had sharp increases in harvest numbers to offset them. These increases may also be attributed to an expanding turkey population, despite what brood surveys count in the poults-per-hen category.
"It's a numbers game," Sawyer said. "You may have fewer hens seen without poults or you may count fewer poults per hen. But if you have a lot of hens, reproduction and recruitment can still occur at a high level."
The turkey population is still expanding and the last estimate was 150,000 turkeys in North Carolina. However, even that's a big assumption, since there's no way to really count the number of Tar Heel turkeys.
"Our biggest concern is with the rapid development that is going on all across the state," Sawyer said. "Turkeys do well in close proximity to humans, but there's a lot of land that is good turkey habitat being transformed into subdivisions."
Eventually, turkeys will occupy the state's available turkey habitat and the population will stop growing. However, there are other reasons limiting harvest and weather seems to be the biggest factor of all. High driving costs may keep hunters closer to home as new hunting opportunities arise in their back yards. But Mother Nature trumps economics when it comes to actually producing those new opportunities.
Wild turkey hunting is becoming more popular than ever. It is estimated there are now 75,000 turkey hunters in the state, whereas in 2001, there were 50,000. They harvested a total of 10,082 turkeys in 2007, a decrease of 14 percent from the 2006 harvest of 11,706. With turkeys becoming increasingly available to hunters statewide, there appear to have been some shifts in harvest trends. While the actual reasons for these harvest shifts are supposition at this point, analysis of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission's turkey harvest data show a shift in harvest away from the more traditional hunting areas.
While a 14 percent drop in harvest may at first raise eyebrows, it was nevertheless the second-highest wild turkey harvest in state history. The Youth Turkey Day hunt for 2007 had a reported harvest of 333 turkeys. The total turkey harvest taken from game lands was 778 and the total turkey harvest from private lands was 9,304.
Total harvest in 2003 was 9,862, which was an increase of 4 percent from 2002. The harvest in 2004 was 8,846, a decrease of 10 percent from 2003. In 2005, the harvest was 9,824, which was up 11 percent from the previous year. In 2006, the harvest was 11,706, up a whopping 19 percent from 2005. In 2007, the harvest was 10,082, which was down 14 percent from the year before but still the second highest level ever.
There appears to be a cantilever effect going on with the harvest numbers and it is likely to be largely based on weather conditions during the spring and summer nesting and brood-rearing seasons. The record 2006 harvest was probably the result of superior recruitment identified in the summer brood survey in 2004 and Mike Seamster had actually predicted the record harvest could happen. The large number of poults hatched and reared in 2004 became the 2-year-old gobblers in 2006 and 2-year-old gobblers make up the majority of the hunter harvest.
The fact that the 2007 turkey harvest was the second highest ever reported in North Carolina is therefore almost a phenomenon that begs for an explanation because of poor recruitment in 2005. But there may be no explanation, except in hindsight as more years of harvest and population trends are established in the future. The second-place harvest follows three out of the last four years as being the poorest reproductive years for turkeys that have ever been recorded. Low recruitment rates for birds that have hatched and grown to adulthood were blamed for 2007's reduced harvest compared with the year before.
Overall productivity of turkeys is determined by the ratio of poults (juvenile turkeys) per hen during the July and August survey period. A ratio of 3.0 poults is considered good productivity.
Backtracking through the state's recent years of poor turkey reproduction, it is clear that 2006 was the third poorest recruitment year ever recorded, with 2.0 poults observed per hen as a statewide average. That could mean a lack of 2-year-old birds in the flock during 2008 and bode badly for hunter success. The male poults hatched and surviving from the brood in 2006 would have been jakes during the 2007 season.
However, 2005 was the second poorest recruitment year, with 1.7 poults per hen. The male poults would have been 2-year-old gobblers in 2007, yet the harvest was still relatively high.
The year 2004 had good productivity, with 2.8 poults observed per hen and those male poults would have been 3-year-old gobblers in spring of 2007. Hunters may have killed a disproportionate number of 3-year-olds and as a result dipped into their future capital for the 2008 season by doing so because of the poor recruitment in 2005. The year 2003 was the poorest recruitment year ever recorded at 1.6 poults per hen and the male poults would have been 4-year-old gobblers in spring of 2007. Not many gobblers survive much longer than age 4.
That leaves the newer areas of the turkey restoration project supporting higher harvest rates and one defining factor is probably better weather in those counties. The newer counties with escalating harvests are along the coast or at the edge of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain and are definitely establishing a trend. Brood counts have been slightly higher in the warmer counties, as the effects of cold, rainy and even snowy springs in counties at the higher elevations have limited their turkey reproduction.
There is a winter season conducted in 10 traditional turkey counties and hunters may question whether this special season is having an adverse effect.
However, there are two answers to this question: No and no. First, the fall season harvest numbers are so low as to become statistically insignificant. Second, it's not a traditional fall or winter season, because the harvest is skewed toward gobblers, whereas traditional late-season hunts in other states have harvests consisting mostly of hens. The winter season turkey harvest was 181 in 2004, 151 in 2005, 174 in 2006 and 130 in 2007. The proportion of gobblers is 55 percent in each of those years. Even in the high-harvest counties of Ashe and Alleghany, the total winter harvest was only 17 and 19 turkeys, respectively.
"It's a very small number of birds and the highest percentage are males," Sawyer said. "It means a county that's' been killing 200 to 300 gobblers per year is killing 10 gobblers three months early. It's difficult to believe that's affecting recruitment. The amount of concern depends on your objectives for turkey management. If your priority is a quality spring harvest, then you certainly have to keep a close watch on your winter harvest."North Carolina hunters were not alone in suffering through these years of poor reproduction. Other states in the same latitude as North Carolina, such as Arkansas, also experienced a decline in turkey reproduction and survival.
The most likely causes of poor wild turkey reproduction in the southern and central states are rainy weather and cool temperatures throughout the nesting and brood-rearing periods, or worse, during both periods of the spring and summer months. Hunters with good memories can certainly remember these conditions occurring during the spring and summer of the last few years. But weather conditions during the spring turkey-hunting season can also affect the number of turkeys taken home by hunters because bad weather constricts hunter effort and hunter success rates.
"Weather factors in spring of 2007 may have also contributed to the year's lower harvest," Sawyer said. "We definitely had some poor hunting conditions with cool temperatures and extremely high winds in the early part of the season. One day during the first week of the season, WRC Section Manager Perry Sumner said, 'Any gobbler attempting to puff out his feathers and strut today will just get blown away and go rolling across the field like a tumbleweed.' "
Another observation that state biologists use is the ratio of gobblers per hen. During the summer of 2006, this ratio was 0.41 gobblers per hen, the lowest gobbler per hen ratio in four years. A good ratio is .50 gobbler per hen or greater. This count is a good indicator of how many adult gobblers actually survived the hunting season. Therefore, it also probably translates into a reduced number of 2-year-old gobblers for the 2008 hunting season.
Let's look at the harvest numbers to see where the hunter success has shifted. Simply by sticking closer to home, hunters may be able to experience increased success the farther south and east in the state they may live. The 25 percent of the state's counties that had increased harvests for 2007 included Duplin, 19 percent (an increase of two birds); Edgecombe, 25 percent (31); Franklin, 13 percent (16); Gaston, 10 percent (4); Green, 5 percent (1); Hoke, 14 percent (2); Hyde, 28 percent (5); Iredell, 4 percent (3); Johnston, 13 percent (2); Lenoir, 16 percent (7); Martin, 30 percent (12); Moore, no change, Nash, 70 percent (7); New Hanover, unchanged, Pamlico, 83 percent (19); Pender County, unchanged, (led the state in Youth Turkey Hunt day with 14 birds); Pitt, 19 percent (14); Rowan, 4 percent (7); Union, 5 percent (1); Wilson, 9 percent (2); Yancey, 6 percent (8); Columbus, 9 percent (14); Cabarrus, unchanged, Brunswick, 10 percent (7).
The other 75 percent of the counties saw harvest decreases and the biggest losers were counties that were former super producers like Alleghany, where the harvest decreased by 25 percent (62 birds).
In the 2006 summer brood survey report, the mountains suffered the greatest, with a poult-per-hen ratio of 1.9. In the Piedmont, the count was 2.1 and at the coast, it was 2.0. That will likely also translate into a reduced number of 2-year-old gobblers in the mountain counties in 2008.
Counties experiencing declines in harvests of 25 percent or
more included: Alamance, 39 percent (a decline of 40 birds); Anson, 28 percent (58); Caldwell, 25 percent (28); Bertie, 16 percent (47); Camden, 26 percent (12); Caswell, 27 percent (107); Cumberland, 36 percent (16); Durham, 32 percent (32); Guilford, 43 percent (49); Henderson, 26 percent (19); Macon, 33 percent (42); Mecklenburg, 43 percent (4); Orange, 26 percent (51); Person, 26 percent (74); Randolph, 34 percent (33); Richmond, 29 percent (37); Rutherford, 28 percent (77); Scotland, 37 percent (15); Swain, 46 percent (27); Warren, 36 percent (57); Wayne, 29 percent (6); Wilkes, 30 percent (93).
Many other traditional counties also suffered big drops in harvest numbers, but the statistical decline was less than 25 percent. For example, the Granville County harvest dropped 57 birds, but it's only a 16 percent decline. Halifax County's harvest also dropped 57 birds for a 16 percent decline. Those are the types of counties that seem to be suffering from poor reproduction or being subjected to a reduction in hunting pressure.
In some of the counties, the long-term affects of poor reproduction could be that as older hens suffer natural mortality, there are no younger hens to replace them, and the population could begin to decline or already may be falling off.
"Some areas may have already suffered a population decline," Sawyer said. "But the keys to a continued good harvest are probably a shuffling of hunter effort to counties closer to home to offset poor recruitment in traditional areas. In counties where we used to hit the birds hard, we didn't have the number of birds we used to and it's been that way for the last three years. In Wilkes County, the turkey hunting is closely tied to reproductive rates, compared with other areas w
here turkeys were recently absent or scarce and are not present. Hunters don't have to travel anymore to hunt in those traditional areas if they find new opportunities closer to home.
"But looking at the big picture without the benefit of having the brood survey data compiled at this time, we seem to have had a fair number of poults, with the exception of the Blue Ridge, where we had snow on Easter weekend. The closest I can come to a prediction is to say we will have a similar turkey season in 2008 to what we had in 2007."