Forecasting the outcome of a New York spring turkey season was never easy, but it is more difficult than usual this year. The data that are essential to reliable projections have temporarily vanished into a bureaucratic limbo.
According to a New York Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman, the percentage of gobbler-getters who fulfill their legal obligation to report their successful hunts has declined in recent years, to the point where the agency was losing faith in its own harvest statistics.
To correct the situation, state biologists decided to revamp their method of calculating the turkey take and delay reporting the results from the fall 2003 and spring 2004 hunting seasons. The numbers weren't done in time to include in this issue of New York Game & Fish.
With that caveat, we can make one prediction with confidence. Namely, conditions are bound to be better this spring than they were in the spring of 2004.
You remember last May, don't you? Cool temperatures and incessant showers made it one of the soggiest springs in state history. The Syracuse area, for example, was drenched in 7 3/4 inches of rain in May, more than twice the average amount for the month. Many hunters complained of not being able to see the few toms that they heard.
The conditions were tough on turkeys, too.
Dr. William Porter, a turkey expert and researcher at the State University of New York College of Environmental Forestry in Syracuse, has found that turkey reproduction is most successful during dry, mild springs and least efficient when the weather is cold and wet. Dank conditions increase the risk of disease for newly hatched poults, and also help foxes, skunks and other predators in their search for turkey nests.
"May was pretty miserable," Porter said, "and that gave us two wet springs in a row, so I'm not optimistic about the number of young toms that will be out there this season."
There is a glimmer of hope, however. Last season's foul weather undoubtedly spared many birds from hunters' guns. Consequently, we may be pleasantly surprised by the number of toms we hear calling from the roost this spring.
The best way to maximize your chances of bagging a gobbler, whether birds are numerous or scarce, is to hunt in prime habitat. To help readers make the most of the coming season, here's a report on five public hunting grounds that are invariably hospitable to turkeys.
ROCK CITY STATE FOREST
From 1999 through 2003, spring-season hunters bagged an average of 453 bearded turkeys a year in Cattaraugus County. No other county produced more birds during that period.
With more than 100,000 acres of public lands, Cattaraugus hunters have plenty of options, but none are better than Rock City State Forest, which consists of 2,905 acres of steep, hardwood forests, some of which back up against privately owned farms.
Rock City State Forest is north of Interstate 86 between Ellicottville and Salamanca. To find it, take I-86 to Salamanca, and then go north on Route 219 and left on county Route 38 (Mutton Hollow Road), which leads into the heart of the forest.
Also, 3,000-acre McCarty Hill State Forest borders Rock City SF on the north.
The DEC's Region 9 office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645 offers a free map, State Forests of Southwestern New York that shows the location of Rock City, McCarty Hill and other public hunting grounds in that part of the state.
LETCHWORTH STATE PARK
Many hunters chafe at the thought of special regulations areas, but the minor paperwork required to take part in the turkey season at Letchworth State Park is well worth it.
If you've never been there, know in advance that the park features some of the most spectacular scenery in the state. Known as the "Grand Canyon of the East," Letchworth is where the Genesee River rushes and glides through a deep gorge. Not surprisingly, it's a tourist magnet, but hunters needn't worry about crowds during the spring turkey season.
Approximately 10,000 acres of the park, roughly 70 percent of them on the east side of the gorge, are open to turkey hunting. Most of that land is moderately steep and covered with mature hardwoods or conifers.
Rules in the park are subject to change annually, but at last look, permits were available on a lottery drawing basis. Some permits are good only for the western side of the gorge, where park officials allow hunting only until about a week before the regular statewide season ends. Others are valid on the east side of the river for the whole season.
For specifics on this year's drawing, readers should call the park office at (716) 493-3600. Don't wait, because the lottery is held in mid-April.
SUGAR HILL STATE FOREST
If you're a hunter who yearns to have a big patch of woods to himself and isn't afraid to, consider a visit to 9,085-acre Sugar Hill State Forest in Schuyler County.
Sugar Hill, west of Watkins Glen, gets a fair amount of pressure from Rochester-area hunters on the opening day of the season and subsequent weekends. However, most of the activity takes place close to marked parking areas or adjacent to the numerous bridle trails that slice through the property. If you cut cross-country with a compass or GPS unit to guide you, solitude awaits.
To get to Sugar Hill, take Route 23 west from Watkins Glen. Tower Hill Road, about six miles from the glen, has a marked parking area and a network of trails leading into the forest from its shoulder.
The property is also bisected or bordered by Maple Lane, Sugar Hill, Evergreen and Donovan Hill roads. These rural byways are marked on the map of Sugar Hill, which is included in the State Land of Region 8 brochure available from the DEC office in Avon at (585) 226-2466.
When you make your first trip to Sugar Hill, expect to find a mix of conifer and hardwood stands on gently rolling to moderately steep terrain. Here and there, the woods will be broken up by open fields and private property.
CONNECTICUT HILL WMA
At approximately 11,600 acres, Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area is one of the largest public hunting grounds in western New York. It has plenty of turkeys roaming about its steep, wooded contours.
Well known to hunters in the Ithaca and Elmira areas, Connecticut Hill sustains a fair amount of hunting pressure. However, given the WMA
's size and abundance of high-quality habitat, a newcomer should have no problem finding a suitable spot to call in a resident tom.
To get to Connecticut Hill, take Route 13 south from Ithaca and turn right onto Carter Creek or Connecticut Hill roads. From the west side of the management area, take Route 224 east from Montour Falls in Schuyler County to Odessa. Take Route 228 north for about two miles and turn right onto Cayutaville Road, which leads to the WMA.
Connecticut Hill has a mix of conifers and hardwoods in varying stages of maturity, along with a scattering of clearcuts and brushy fields.
In the five years from 1999 through 2003, spring-season hunters bagged an average of 230 turkeys in Chenango County. Most years, the county kill is in the state's top 10, in great part because it contains about 75,000 acres of public hunting land.
One of the more productive hunting grounds in the county is the 4,600-acre Pharsalia Wildlife Management Area off Route 23 between Sherburne and Norwich. Founded in 1926, Pharsalia is New York's oldest WMA, and hunters who look closely will see traces of historic farm roads and stone fences.
Pharsalia WMA consists mainly of mixed hardwoods and conifers on a rolling terrain. Several clearcuts carried out in recent years have promoted new growth and improved habitat for turkeys and ruffed grouse.
There are a few small wetlands on the WMA's lower elevations, and some active farms abut its perimeter. In general, the best places to look for turkeys at Pharsalia would be the habitat edges farthest from the main road.
For more information about Empire State turkey hunting, contact the DEC's Bureau of Wildlife, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4753.
For lodging and other accommodations near the hunting areas covered in this article, call the New York State Division of Tourism at (800) CALL NYS.