New York's Public Land Gobblers

Bad weather kept hunters out of the woods last season, but that means more birds and better hunting in 2004. Try these top-rated public lands for some exciting spring turkey hunting near you.

Photo by Bruce Ingram

By J. Michael Kelly

Weather is routinely cited as a limiting factor in turkey reproduction, but rain and sunshine also play a critical role in turkey hunting. Think about it. A forecast of mild temperatures and blue skies urge a tired sportsman to get out of bed and into the woods before sunup, while an early-morning downpour would convince most of us to roll over and go back to sleep.

Last spring's weather undoubtedly caused many New York hunters to spend less time than usual with their backs against the trees.

Although the rain came down harder in some regions than others, drizzles and downpours gave most of the state a good soaking during the month of May. As a result, hunter effort was diminished, and the reported statewide kill of 7,117 turkeys, 5 percent fewer than the previous spring, might have given the wrong impression of how many birds were out there in the first place.

This year, hunting prospects are generally good, but opportunities may vary considerably from region to region along with the weather.

In the Syracuse area, for example, about two inches more rain than average fell last May. That meant nesting turkeys were probably harried constantly by foxes, skunks and other ground-bound predators. It's reasonable to assume that hens near the Salt City had an elevated rate of nesting failures and hatched fewer poults than usual.

But in some other areas of the state, such as the extreme southwest corner of the state and the Tug Hill Plateau east of Lake Ontario, precipitation in May '02 was moderate or light. In those locales, it's likely that a high percentage of eggs were hatched. The bottom line is more encouraging than discouraging for hunters.

Peering through a computer model that links reproductive trends to the volume of rainfall in May and June, the resident turkey expert at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry sees an upward trend in the statewide flock. Dr. William Porter estimated the state would harbor about 35 percent more birds in autumn 2003 than in the fall of 2002. Presumably, there should also be more jakes out and about this spring than last season.

It's worth noting that the model Porter uses has been 95 percent accurate in predicting up or down population trends since it was devised in the 1970s.

Hunters who struggled to kill a gobbler last spring can also find solace in a couple of long-term trends. In the more than three decades since New York's trap-and-transfer program kicked into high gear, turkeys have multiplied and proliferated in virtually every corner of the state, except for New York City and the high peaks region of the Adirondacks, although turkeys are seen in both places on occasion.

Empire State hunters killed a record 10,341 turkeys during the 1995 spring season, and in three of the seven seasons since then, they've topped the 9,000 mark. Wet springs and poor poult production resulted in disappointing hunting the last two years, but it would be no shock if the statewide take rises slightly this season.

Here is a look at six public lands where New York's turkey hunters can reasonably expect to collect their share of the harvest.

It probably gets more visits from turkey hunters than any other public hunting area in the region, but Allegany State Park can take the pressure. Camouflaged yelpers and cluckers who obtain the necessary free hunting permit at the park office have more than 60,000 acres to choose from.

Outside of the Adirondacks, Allegany Park is the largest contiguous public hunting ground in the state. Most of its hills, gullies and woods are traversed by wild turkeys. It happens to include some of Cattaraugus County, which is one of New York's steadiest producers of wild Thanksgiving dinners. During the spring 2003 season, hunters bagged a reported total of 392 bearded birds in the county, second only to the 423 gobblers slain in neighboring Chautauqua County.

My first visit to the park, several seasons back, was a typical newcomer experience. I didn't score on a gobbler that weekday morning, but did convince several birds to talk back to me. I had more than a square mile of steep, hardwood-covered slopes all to myself. Amazingly, the birdy spot I selected after minimal scouting was no more than 300 yards uphill from the park stretch of Wolf Run Road.

The point is that while you could follow your compass to a backwoods corner of Allegany State Park, you don't have to. Much of the good hunting in the park is readily accessible even for relatively inexperienced woodsmen.

The lay of the land in the park varies from flat to almost straight up and down. Hillsides are covered with about a 60/40 mix of hardwoods and conifers, by my own unscientific estimate, and many of the hardwoods are acorn-laden red and white oaks.

Because the park abuts the Pennsylvania border and the Seneca Indian Nation reservation, visiting hunters would be wise to study a map before venturing into new territory. The ranger's office offers a suitable black-and-white handout hunters can get when they acquire the aforementioned permit.

To reach the park headquarters, take U.S. Route 86 (New York Route 17) to the Red House exit in Cattaraugus County south of Salamanca. The office is open 24 hours a day, so you can obtain the necessary papers on the morning of your hunt, if need be.

A limited number of park cabins and trailer sites are available for use during the May turkey season. To reserve a spot, call the park office at (716) 354-9121 at least a couple of weeks in advance of your trip.

For information on other accommodations near the park, call the Cattaraugus County Tourism folks at (716) 938-9111.

Some folks insist that venomous snakes still slither around the Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Area in southern Livingston and northern Allegany counties, while others say the stories of nasty reptilians are pure hokum. Nobody, however, disputes the abundance of turkeys on the premises.

Rattlesnake Hill totals about 5,100 acres. As the name suggests, most of it is hilly, and the western half is remote. Its slopes are shaded by a rich variety of mast-producing trees including red and whit

e oak, beech and cherry. It receives relatively light hunting pressure. A hunter who visits it in midweek is very apt to have several hundred acres all to himself, and even on weekends one should have little trouble finding some elbowroom.

To get to the WMA, take Route 436 west from Dansville in southeastern Livingston County for about six miles to Westview. About one mile beyond Westville, turn left onto Walsworth Road. It dead-ends on Ebert Road, which goes through the heart of the management area.

Rattlesnake Hill is at the north end of some of New York's best turkey habitat. Allegany County annually ranks in the top three counties for spring harvests. Last year, the May hunt in the county produced a total of 262 birds.

For information on lodging in the Dansville area, call the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce at (716) 413-4160 or the Allegany Tourism office at (716) 268-9229. The DEC Region 8 office in Avon at (585) 226-2466 offers a free brochure on Rattlesnake Hill.

Wayne County may not stack up with the Southern Tier counties in terms of turkey density, but it does offer some very good spring hunting. Last May, despite the dank and dreary weather that prevailed for most of the month, hunters managed to bag 145 turkeys in the county, an increase of 10 compared to the previous spring. Further, from 1996 to 1999, the county produced an average kill of 174 birds a season.

The only public hunting opportunities for Wayne County turkey callers are found within the 6,138-acre Lakeshore Marshes Wildlife Management Area.

Lakeshore Marshes consists of seven separate parcels scattered from Sodus Bay to Black Creek, which lie south of Lake Ontario. At first glance, these units may appear better suited for ducks and geese than turkeys, but if you look beyond the cattails and weedy fields, you'll see wood lots, gullies and overgrown orchards where you can set up for gobblers.

Of the seven "units" or contiguous blocks of land within the WMA, two that merit extra attention from turkey hunters are the Beaver Creek and Black Creek units.

Beaver Creek is west of Port Bay. It's bounded by Wright Road on the northwest and Richardson Road and Port Bay Road on the south. The wooded ridge visible from the intersection of Richardson and Clapper roads is one good place to scout for gobblers.

The Black Creek Unit of the WMA is about 2.5 miles north of the village of Red Creek and is bisected by Kakat and Younglove roads. Hill Road, off Kakat Road, leads to a couple of old orchards and woods that are frequented by turkeys.

Another unit worth prospecting with an owl hooter is a section that wraps around the south end of Sodus Bay. On the east side of the Sodus Bay Unit, county Route 245 borders a large, gently sloping wood lot.

One caveat is in order with regard to Lakeshore Marshes WMA. Last year, many of its trees toppled or lost limbs during a major ice storm, and the fallen timber will likely limit hunter visibility and mobility this spring. Take that into account when you plan your trip.

The DEC's Region 8 office in Avon, mentioned above, offers a brochure on the Lakeview Marshes WMA. For directions to nearby accommodations, contact the Wayne County Tourism office at (800) 527-6510.

Last season, hunters killed 162 bearded turkeys in Tioga County. That was an increase of 40 compared to the previous May. Don't be surprised if the take increases again this year. From 1994 to 1996, the county produced an average harvest of 233 birds annually, and as recently as 2001, Tioga County hunters filled out 198 spring turkey tags.

Undoubtedly, the county's numbers would be even more impressive if it could offer more public hunting grounds to visiting sportsmen. Fewer than 9,000 acres of state-owned land is available. Fortunately, some of that property affords excellent opportunities for taking a spring gobbler.

Perhaps the best of the Tioga County state holdings, from a turkey hunter's perspective, is 1,349-acre Michigan Hill Forest, which is along Route 38 and Michigan Hill Road north of Richford. It abuts the Griggs Hill Forest, a 2,343-acre forest that stretches south across the Cortland-Tioga counties' border. It is characterized by the kind of moderately steep, wooded terrain that turkeys love.

Other good prospects in the county include the 1,768-acre Robinson Hollow Forest off Route 79 in the town of Caroline; Jenksville State Forest, a 1,349-acre parcel along Shirley Road north of Newark Valley; the aptly-named Turkey Hill Forest, which consists of 1,118 acres off Turkey Hill Road and Tubbs Hill Road in the towns of Richford and Berkshire; and Shindagin Hollow Forest, which is north of Candor off Honeypot Road. At 5,265 acres, the Hollow would be Tioga County's biggest public hunting grounds by far, except that about four-fifths of it lies on the other side of the Tompkins County border.

Maps of the state forests in Tioga County are included in a very useful atlas called Region 7 State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas, which is available free from the Cortland DEC office at (607) 753-3095.

For help finding accommodations near these hunting spots, contact the Tioga County Tourism office at (800) 671-7772.

Broome County has slowly evolved into one of New York's better turkey-hunting destinations, and why not? It sits along the Pennsylvania border a few miles east of the state's "Turkey Row" counties (Chautauqua, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Steuben and Tioga). It is only natural that the booming bird populations in the southwest corner of the state would gradually expand eastward into available new habitat.

Last May, when turkey kills dropped in most parts of the state, the tally rose slightly in Broome County to a total of 157 birds. The county's spring kill peaked at 248 in 1995, and since then, hunters have harvested an average of 170 per season.

Most of those roasters were undoubtedly taken on private lands, but Broome County does have some worthwhile public hunting grounds, particularly the Whitney Point Wildlife Management Area, which spreads across 4,645 acres along the Otselic River at the north end of Whitney Point Reservoir. In fact, about half of the WMA is in Broome County and about half in neighboring Cortland County. It has a wildlife-conducive mix of overgrown fields, wooded hills and brushy bottoms, and supports a thriving flock of turkeys.

If you go, pay special attention to those subtle junctions where woods blend into fields. That transition cover is often used by randy toms for both mating displays and travel to and from favorite feeding areas.

To find Whitney Point WMA, take Interstate 81 south from Syracuse or north from the Binghamton area to the Whitney Point exit. From the village of Whitney Point, go

north on Route 26 to Upper Lisle, where you'll begin to see WMA signs along the left side of the road.

Broome County also has several state forests that are hospitable to turkeys. There are some good calling locations in the 1,987-acre Melondy Hill Forest, which is in the southeast corner of the county, north of the hamlet of North Sanford along either side of Melondy Hill Road. Another likely location is the 812-acre Whittacker Swamp Forest south of Deposit off Oquaga Lake Road. Both areas are clearly mapped in the Region 7 State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas book previously mentioned.

Readers needing advice on lodging and other amenities in Broome County may contact the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, at (800) 836-6740.

Something of a sleeper among turkey-hunting hotspots is Albany County, where hunters filled out only 97 tags during the spring 2003 season. That number is misleading for two reasons. First, it's a bit of an aberration, since the county has logged four annual kills in excess of 200 turkeys since 1994. Also, at 524 square miles, Albany is one of upstate New York's smaller counties. Considering its size, Albany County's recent 10-year average spring harvest of 176 birds is doubly impressive.

The best public turkey-hunting opportunities in the capital county are on the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, which spans approximately 5,000 acres in the town of Berne. To find it, follow Route 85 north from Rensselaerville and then take a left onto Route 6, which bisects the WMA. There are also several local roads abutting the property

Partridge Run, which holds plenty of ruffed grouse as well as turkeys, features many gently rolling, wooded hills with some steeper slopes along its east and west ends. The cover consists mainly of northern hardwoods, but there are also a couple of substantial pine plantations and several open fields. It's a good all-round habitat mix for ground-feeding game birds, and the DEC has helped to maintain the WMA's biodiversity by conducting periodic timber sales. The small clearcuts that result from those transactions are good places to start looking for dusting areas, wing feather tips and other turkey sign.

A brochure on Partridge Run, including a sketchy map, is available at no cost from the DEC Region 4 office in Stamford at (607) 652-7367. The Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau at (518) 434-1217 is a logical source for nearby lodging advice.

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