A large handful of Empire State counties are in the running as "the best" for spring turkey hunting, but only one tops the list. Can you guess which county is the state's perennial harvest leader?
By Rod Cochran
Every turkey-hunting season is different, but one thing is certain, hunting should be great in New York this year.
With plentiful populations of birds inhabiting many areas of the state, hunters naturally focus on the best places to hunt. Seems pretty simple - just go wherever there are the most birds.
Real addicts - the "trophy hunters" of the turkey world - would rather find an uncrowded covert where multiple gobblers respond to calls and decoys, where they can wait for a boss bird without worrying about being cut off by another hunt. Other sportsmen, especially those without a lot of landowner acquaintances, want plenty of public hunting opportunities and lots of birds.
There's also the matter of convenience: How far are you willing to drive to hunt? The majority of hunters believe their home county, with its average turkey population, beats driving to a county a couple of hundred miles away. Are they missing out on better hunting, even if it is farther away?
The debate rages whenever turkey hunters gather during the off-season. "Quality hunting" is a personal thing and varies with the individual.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
AND THE WINNER IS . . . With that said, New York Game & Fish enters the debate declaring Cattaraugus as the top turkey hunting county in the state. We base this on our analysis of annual computed harvest totals provided by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and examination of public hunting areas in the state.
Wild turkeys were first re-introduced into New York nearly 50 years ago. Cattaraugus County was included, along with Allegany and adjacent western-region counties. From the very beginning, this region has been a hotspot for wild turkeys, leading the county harvest reports year after year in habitat quality and turkey production.
Anyone who has studied the DEC's harvest reports over the years would immediately consider Chautauqua, Allegany and Cattaraugus as possible top counties. These are large counties, giving them an advantage over smaller counties in calculating statistics. Also, environmental changes occurring throughout the state over the last five decades have allowed other areas to evolve better habitat for turkey production, and that seems to be the case in a few instances.
HARVEST AVERAGES To get a handle on the situation, we combined the yearly county turkey harvests for the last 10 years - during both spring and fall seasons - in an attempt to average the ups and downs of individual-year hunting conditions and harvests. The 10-year harvest totals were divided by the square miles in each county to obtain comparable figures. For example, the calculated harvest during the spring seasons in Cattaraugus County from 1992 through 2001 totaled 4,380 turkeys, and the fall seasons for the same period produced 5,285 birds. Dividing the grand total of 9,665 turkeys by the 1,310 square miles in the county indicates that during the 10-year period, 7.37 birds were reported taken per square mile.
Surprise! Cattaraugus did not lead the state although it is among the top half dozen counties in New York, in fact, offering some of the best turkey hunting in the country. Chautauqua County, a perennial leader, ranked considerably higher, with a 10-year harvest of 8.81 birds per square mile.
Hunters interested in phenomenal turkey production should also check out Otsego and Schoharie counties, in that stretch of turkey territory between the Mohawk River valley and the Catskills. Its 10-year harvest numbers show 8.99 and 8.28 birds per square mile.
Tiny Tioga and Yates counties, which produce anemic harvest totals, are really statistical giants as turkey producers, with 7.27 and 7.19 birds per square mile.
Massaging the DEC's harvest reports with a calculator can also reveal areas with overlooked turkey populations. The really startling discovery that emerged from this little per-square-mile analysis is how many of New York's southern counties uniformly provide high-quality turkey habitat and maintain high numbers of birds. In all honesty, one way to find a top turkey county this spring is to put a map on the wall and throw a dart anywhere south of the New York State Thruway.
Turkey season this spring will be open in 55 of the 62 counties in the state, and it became obvious early on that several were in the running for first place. But, when they are matched against public hunting opportunities, Cattaraugus County is easily the winner. It contains 64,000-acre Allegany State Park and 33,685 acres of state forestlands, totaling 97,685 acres of public hunting opportunity in some of the state's best turkey habitat. That is 152.6 square miles, or 11.6 percent of the county!
Here are a few details on where to find your spring gobbler in New York's top-ranked turkey county.
ALLEGANY STATE PARK Allegany State Park is truly unique, a vast semi-wilderness within driving distance of Buffalo-area hunters. Located on the Pennsylvania border south of Salamanca and about 10 miles west of Olean, the park has the usual facilities for state parks around Red House Lake and Quaker Lake, including beaches, picnicking areas, tent and trailer sites and cabins. These areas are off-limits to hunting, but all of the rest of Allegany County is remote backcountry.
The country here is rugged, with hills reaching above 2,500 feet in elevation. Mature, mixed hardwoods cover the steep slopes and narrow hollows with extensive stands of beeches and oaks that attract turkeys.
There are 135 miles of marked trails in the park that greatly enhance hunter access. Free hunting permits (required) are available at the park police office, which is in the administration building at Red House Lake. Hunters seeking permits are issued maps and copies of the park hunting regulations.
State Route 17 nips the northern edge of Allegany State Park, and exits 18 through 21 provide access. (Exit 19 leads to the main park entrance.) A free map and other information is available by writing to the Allegany State Park office, 2373 ASP Route L, Salamanca, NY 14779; or call the State Park Region office at (716) 354-9101.
STATE FORESTS There are 23 state forests scattered throughout Cattaraugus County. All are managed by the DEC to p
rovide multiple-use benefits, including turkey-hunting opportunities. Comprised mainly of abandoned farms that were acquired by the state many years ago, most of the forest cover now includes conifer plantations, native hardwoods, grasses and shrubs. A mix of pines and spruces, with a high percentage of maple, black cherry, ash, oak and hickory along with shrubby edge growth, provides excellent turkey-hunting opportunities.
Here are some of the larger state forests in the county:
Sozah Valley State Forest contains 4,177 acres in several parcels in the extreme southwestern corner of the county, across the Allegany Reservoir from Allegany Park.
McCarty Hill State Forest is south of Ellicottville and contains 3,110 acres. On its south side, the tract has a joint boundary with Rock City State Forest, which offers an additional 2,905 acres of public hunting.
Ninemile State Forest, containing 2,911 acres, is north of state Route 17, about halfway between Olean and Allegany Park.
Bush Hill State Park, near the eastern county border east of Franklinville, is a large L-shaped property comprised of 3,109 acres.
Cattaraugus State Park, east of the village of Cattaraugus, encompasses 1,059 acres.
All of New York's state forest properties have uneven boundaries, and while they are marked with yellow DEC signs, hunters are advised to scout the areas they intend to hunt and to obtain maps of the area.
For more information about turkey hunting in Cattaraugus County, call the DEC office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.
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