Long a stronghold of North Carolina's turkey population, the land along the Roanoke remains a great place to hunt gobblers. (April 2006)
Back in the bad old days, when the wild turkey had all but disappeared from North Carolina, there was a handful of places where a dedicated hunter could go and have a real hope of hearing an old gobbler sound off at daybreak at the intrusion of a passing crow or the inquisition of an old owl.
Caswell County was one such place. Some remote areas in the mountains -- in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests -- were others.
And then, there was the river.
For sportsmen in North Carolina, there is really only "one" river. From the spot where it passes through the last hydroelectric dam that interrupts its path, it flows lazily downstream, winding through some of the state's most fertile land, before it pours its waters into the waiting arms of the Albemarle Sound.
The Roanoke River is full of striped bass in the spring making their spawning run from the saltwater upstream to Weldon. It's also filled with all manner of freshwater game fish from largemouth bass to sunfish to catfish to perch and herring.
The counties along its banks are among the best in North Carolina for wild game. Halifax, Northampton and Bertie rank among the leaders in the state in total deer harvest on an annual basis. The quail hunting is still fairly good, there's fair to above-average waterfowling, and a few black bears have been known to live in the area.
And, oh yes, there are some turkeys.
That fantastic river bottom habitat, those rich soils that grow all those peanuts and soybeans and corn and cotton also grow many gobblers -- at least they have since the state's flock exploded in the late 1980s and through the 1990s.
But birds along the river at least had a starting point. Forty years ago, when turkeys were very rare in North Carolina, there were always gobblers strutting on both sides of the Roanoke, in the fertile lands that remain some of the best habitat in the Old North State.
Last year, Halifax and Northampton counties ranked among the top 10 in the state in the numbers of turkeys harvested. Halifax was sixth with 264 birds taken; Northampton was 10th with 227. Those numbers reflected increases of between 15 and 20 percent over 2004, and they reflect an upward trend that has continued since restocking efforts filled those counties in the mid-1990s. In addition, hunters in Bertie County have been taking between 150 and 200 birds a year for several seasons. And to the east, tucked in between the Roanoke and two other rivers -- the Meherrin and Chowan -- Hertford County showed a 20 percent increase last year, with 128 birds taken.
Those kinds of results aren't lost on Mike Seamster, the biologist who is in charge of the upland game project for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
"We've always had turkeys on the Roanoke River; it's one of our most high-quality habitat areas in the Coastal Plain," Seamster said. "When there were very few birds anywhere, they persisted along the river because much of the area is inaccessible, and a good deal of the land is controlled by hunt clubs.
"They were never eliminated from that area. They seemed to have an affinity for both the floodplain and the high-quality habitat."
When Seamster was advising the commission about closing the spring gobbler season in different areas around the state to restock birds trapped out of state or in turkey-rich counties in the northern Piedmont or northwestern mountains, he never closed down the areas along the river. His feeling was that as the turkey population grew, birds would use drainages to expand away from the river, populating the entirety of those counties.
That feeling proved incorrect, and Seamster was forced to close areas away from the river for restocking. That restocking worked.
"We never actually closed hunting along the river, but we closed portions of the county elsewhere so we could restock. We found out that when we put birds close to the river, they really didn't expand away from the river," Seamster said. "Birds that were hatched along the river, that habitat offered them the most protection, and they just didn't expand away from it."
About 10 years ago, biologists stocked six sites in Northampton that were away from the river, and the turkey populations really took off. Biologists then went away from the river and stocked them along other drainages, around smaller creeks in the best habitat they could find. Today, hunters are enjoying the results.
"Most of the releases we made down there -- in Martin, Bertie, Halifax and Northampton -- were in the '90s, and those birds are doing real well," Seamster said. "Now, those river counties have the potential to have Caswell-Alleghany-Ashe kinds of numbers (in terms of total turkey population density). There are birds all across those counties."
When Seamster got around to stocking sites in Halifax, Bertie and Northampton that were away from the river, he made sure he brought birds in from other areas of North Carolina or other states.
"We didn't want to trap them on the river and just move them five miles; they'd probably find their way back," he said. "We didn't have to keep them closed for long. By then, we were making such quick, accelerated progress in our restocking program over what we had been doing before. In the '70s and '80s, we were maybe stocking one or two sites a year in a county. By the '90s, we were stocking three, four or five places in a county in a relatively short period of time. So we only had to keep those areas closed for three or four seasons."
Seamster explained that the Roanoke River counties have the best overall habitat in the state, comparable to the northern Piedmont and northwestern mountains. There is a near-perfect mixture of heavy, wooded areas that offer protection, plus the open fields that provide the great "brood range" that young turkeys need to flourish -- the insects on which they thrive in the poult stage.
"The public and private lands along the river system are excellent turkey habitat," he said. "There are high ridges in the swamp, and edges where not all of it is flooded when the water's up in the spring. There are many mature hardwoods in the river bottom where the birds have protection, and it's wet, there are swamps, and a much of it hasn't been logged.
"The soils are good, and where you have mature trees, you'll probably have turkeys. There are many areas with agricultural crops -- c
orn, soybeans and peanuts -- which provide good food and are attractive to both turkeys and deer.
"When we stocked those other counties along the Chowan River -- Hertford and Gates, for example, we stocked them along the major drainages. The habitat was not quite as good as it was along the Roanoke, but it was still quality habitat and it has everything a turkey needs. As it is in most of eastern North Carolina, that's where the better turkey habitat is. But there is good habitat away from those places."
One person who is tremendously happy with the way turkey populations have grown along the river is Gil Cutchin, who runs the 6,000-acre Occoneechee Lodge near Jackson in Northampton County, about 10 miles downstream from Weldon. He started offering turkey hunting along with deer and quail around 1990, and he's never looked back.
"The hunting is as good as it gets down here," Cutchin said (252/583-1799). "The population has been steadily growing. When I started doing this 16 years ago, there were one or two places you could go in North Carolina if you really wanted to hunt turkeys -- Caswell, and maybe Ashe and Alleghany and a few places in the mountains -- but since that time, our turkey population has been steadily growing."
Cutchin has noticed one thing that Seamster talked about. For years, most of the birds on the series of farms that make up Occoneechee Lodge were all very close to the river, in the extreme lowlands. That's changed in recent years, however.
"Now, you're seeing them in areas they've never been before. There are just as many birds on the other side of the farm now as there are along the river. They're just filling in the holes," he said. "And on the other side of the river, Halifax has really got them. And the Brinkleyville area has plenty of birds."
Although much of the land along the Roanoke remains tied up in large hunt-club leases, there are at least half a dozen hunting lodges like Cutchin's that offer guided turkey hunts, especially on the Northampton County side of the river. And in the 1990s, the commission became the steward for a tremendous amount of acreage along the river in the Bertie-Martin corridor in the form of the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Lands and Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge.
"Because of the way we acquired much of the property along the river, the agreement we made was for controlled hunting, so we went the permit-only route," Seamster said. "What we were trying to do was provide high-quality hunting to those people who were drawn. Some of those tracts are accessible only by water, and we set up three-day hunts, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, to try to give people a better chance at taking a bird.
"But those areas are subject to flooding, and you take that chance at that time of the year. You may get drawn for a hunt and run into a big release of water from the reservoirs upstream or heavy rain, and what you are supposed to hunt may be underwater. Not all of it is underwater, but it's hard to get back into much of the swamp."
Permit hunts are offered on all of the various tracts that make up the Roanoke River Wetlands, from the Urquhart tract along the river near Lewiston and the Boone tract near the Route 258 bridge north of Scotland Neck, downstream to Beach House Swamp, Town Swamp, Broadneck Swamp, Company Swamp, Deveraux Swamp and Conine Island tracts on the river from Hamilton downstream to Williamston, the Conoho Farms tract inland near Williamston and the Hampton Swamp and Great Island tracts near Plymouth.
Hunts will be held Thursdays through Saturdays every weekend of the month-long season. Applicants must pay a $5 fee, and if chosen, they can bring two other hunters with them. The number of hunters allowed varies based on the size of the tract, ranging from 10 acres on the Beech House tract to 60 acres on the Broadhead, Conine/Askew and Deveraux Swamp tracts.
Biologist Chris Turner of Edenton handles much of the commission's game management in the northeastern corner of North Carolina, and he sees nothing but good things in the future for turkey hunters in his neck of the woods.
"We have much to look forward to in this state; turkey hunting is a whole new ballgame to a lot of people," Turner said. "I'm very excited at our progress; there is a lot of potential on the Coastal Plain as far as turkeys are concerned.
"We have a lot of flexibility up here as far as managing the habitat because it's more stable compared with, say, the Piedmont, when it comes to things like urban growth. Turkeys can handle many things, but not living in the middle of a subdivision."
Turner's territory includes the lower end of the Roanoke River, plus the counties to the north of the Albemarle Sound and counties that border the Chowan and Meherrin rivers as they head for the sound. He said that the best turkey habitat is in the northern and western edges of his region, and that a percentage of the habitat has undergone a great deal of upheaval over the past 18 months.
"Turkeys are expanding in all of our counties, but as you start heading east to Washington, Tyrrell and Dare, you start winding up with lower densities. In Gates County, most of our restocking areas are thriving. Bertie seems to be doing pretty well all across the county. When you go north and west from there, you get some of the best habitat," Turner said. "There is much habitat not being exploited yet. There are areas we stocked five or six years ago where the birds are still expanding to other areas."
Turner likes the potential of Chowan, Gates and Hertford counties, in particular. He said the best habitat in the northeast corner of the state is probably in the northern section of Hertford County, close to the Virginia state line. It's not quite a match for the habitat of the Roanoke River bottomlands, but it's still good.
"Part of the Chowan River bottomland has good numbers of turkeys, but not like the Roanoke," he said. "There are some areas in Hertford County, up toward the Virginia line, where there are good numbers of turkeys. I think Pasquotank and Camden counties have probably done better than a lot of people thought they would.
"In some areas, it depends on exactly where you're talking about. We had some areas that were stocked a number of years ago that are doing very well -- some are doing better than others. Much of the success in some areas has had to do more with the weather. If we had good reproduction for the first couple of years after stocking, the birds did better."
Last year, the Coastal Plain had the best reproduction rate of any area in the state -- that's not saying much, since overall it was the second-worst brood survey on record. But hens hatched and raised an average of two poults each last spring -- enough to at least keep the population levels constant.
The upheaval in habitat in the northeastern corner of the state came about when a very impolite lady named Isabel roared ashore in September 2003. The hurricane that did extensive damage on the Outer Banks also tore through a great deal of the timber, and th
e resulting salvage operations have changed the nature of much of the land.
"One problem along the Chowan River is that Isabel changed the forestry on a good deal of the land. It didn't knock the bottom out of the turkeys, but it made much of the land less accessible," Turner said. "Many areas were clear cut after Isabel to salvage timber, and those were areas that supported turkeys well. Now you have plenty of good brood habitat, a large amount of openings, but it will grow back into denser stands that will preclude turkeys. At least we know they're good at moving.
"The whole district, particularly the eastern part, sustained much timber damage, and around the Chowan, you have a different kind of bottomland from the Roanoke -- it's more of a black gum and tupelo swamp. It doesn't have the topography the Roanoke does. But turkeys are still expanding all over this area of the state.