A relatively good hatch in 2004 could foretell hunting success for this season. Does an Old Dominion tom have your name on him? (March 2006)
The author with a Botetourt County tom that he killed on the next-to-the-last Saturday of the season last year.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram
It was the 24th time I had gone hunting in what was my 20th season as a Virginia turkey hunter, and I had still to punch a tag. Sure, I had killed two birds back in the fall, so there was only one tag left on my big-game license. But the tag had continued to cling stubbornly to the license, and it was the next to last Saturday of the season.
Yes, there had been mornings when I had come close. That Saturday in Franklin County when a longbeard hung up just 55 yards from the tree where I sat. That Monday morning in Botetourt County when I had to head for work and leave a red-hot tom that was gobbling with every breath. That Tuesday morning in Botetourt when a mature bird flew down from the roost and marched to within 18 yards of my position but never offered a shot. But the most disappointing morning of the season had been the first Wednesday when I missed a tom 35 yards distant. That and because there just didn't seem to be many 2-year-old toms in the woods.
The old proverb about misery loving company is true, so I had found solace in that hunting buddy, Mike Wade of Troutville, was having a season just as wretched as mine. Nearly every evening we would call one another and commiserate about our poor luck and ineptitude.
And that next to last Saturday of the season had started out with my showing lots of ineptitude. For starters, I had busted two birds off the roost while I was walking into the woods. Then I had bumped a tom when I had attempted to move in too close to him. By 9:30 that morning, tired and frustrated, I had decided to sit 20 yards off and at the far end of a long, linear field in Botetourt County, call softly every 30 minutes, and wait until dark for a lonesome tom. The gambit seemed logical, as numerous times during the season I had witnessed gobblers strutting at that spot. And all-day hunting was now in vogue, as it was the last two weeks of the season.
But by 4:10, no gobbler had approached what had previously been a longbeard gathering spot. Throughout the day, I had heard sporadic gobbling at the far end of the linear field. I had called and called to the toms "over there," but all I had received in turn was a total of four courtesy gobbles.
Therefore, I decided to play a hunch and leave what had been a hotspot, make a big loop around the property, and sneak around to the opposite side of the linear field -- using the forest and the terrain to conceal my approach. When I was just 20 yards from the edge of the far end of the field, I lined myself up with a massive white oak, dropped to the ground, crawled to the base of the hardwood, and upon arriving there, slowly peeked around the right side of the tree.
There, 50 yards from me, were three gobblers and a hen feeding in tall grass. My first thought was to softly cluck, but I had been calling to these toms all day to no avail. And if I did call, given the birds' proximity, they would be able to pinpoint the location of the sounds and would see nothing there -- an alarming situation for turkeys. Then the possibility of busting up the gang occurred to me, and I briefly pondered charging into the unresponsive gobblers and perhaps calling in one of them before twilight time.
It was then that fate took control of the situation. The hen abruptly stopped feeding and left the field, entering the woods on the far side of my position. The male trio started to follow her, but then, unexplainably, turned around and began heading toward my position. I slowly began to raise my Remington 1100.
The situation still seemed bleak, however. A lone tree grew 30 yards away in the field and the odds were tremendous that all three toms would pass behind the tree at the same time so that I could take careful aim. But soon, the next best thing happened. The trio continued their approach and just as the lead bird passed behind the tree, the two followers thrust their heads deep into the grass to feed. When the tom moved around to the other side of the tree, the autoloader roared -- and my Virginia spring gobbler season was at long last over. A few days later, Mike Wade called me to report that he had killed his first-ever spring gobbler -- a hook-spurred 3-year-old Botetourt County longbeard.
Wade's and my frustrating seasons were typical of what many Old Dominion hunters endured in 2005, and, for that matter, in 2004. In 2003, state sportsmen tallied 17,988 toms -- which was an excellent total and preceded by harvests of 18,240 and 18,345 in 2001 and 2002, respectively. But in 2004 and 2005 (when the harvests were 14,388 and 14,355, respectively), many adept turkey hunters struggled mightily.
In fact, the disappointing totals from 2004 and 2005 had much in common. Hunters east of the Blue Ridge experienced a 1 percent decline from 8,864 in 2004 to 8,779 in 2005. Their counterparts west of the Blue Ridge saw their harvest rise just 2 percent from 5,474 in 2004 to 5,576 in 2005. The top 10 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were Franklin (557), Pittsylvania (473), Bedford (427), Scott (368), Patrick (345), Grayson (321), Southampton (306), Giles (275), Wythe (273) and Botetourt (260).
Certainly, all these counties are fine ones to hunt turkeys, but the harvest total, just as certainly, does not necessarily tell the entire story. An excellent indicator of how good a county will be for this spring is the kill per square mile of forest percentage the previous year. Franklin County led the state in the number of birds killed, but the county was also high in the kill per square mile ranking with a figure of 1.24. Fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth place finishers Scott, Grayson, Giles and Wythe also had impressive percentages of 1.03, 1.27, 1.0 and 1.20, respectively. Any county over 1.0 definitely is producing a lot of toms.
That statement is proved when we look at the average kill per square mile of forest east of the Blue Ridge (0.55) and east of the Blue Ridge (0.62) and the overall average of (0.58). Two counties whose top 10 listing is deceptive would be second-place finisher Pittsylvania and 10th-place holder Botetourt. They recorded rather mediocre kill per square mile figures of 0.76 and 0.68, respectively. Those figures seem to indicate that the presence of Pittsylvania and Botetourt in the top 10 was more a matter of the two counties being large in size than in having large numbers of turkeys.
Conversely, there were a number of counties that are often not considered as turkey magnets, but whose kill per square mile figures might make sportsmen living in or near those counties want to conduct some scouting forays before the season commen
ces. For instance, in alphabetical order, the following counties (with their kill per square mile figure in parentheses) are sometimes overlooked as hotspots: Floyd (1.19), Isle of Wight (1.15), Lancaster (1.42), Matthews (1.0), Middlesex (1.11), Northampton (1.11), Northumberland (1.56), Richmond (1.37), Surry (1.03) and Westmoreland (1.55),
From this list, one thing is immediately clear: The vast majority of these counties are in the Tidewater region. Northampton, in fact, is on the Eastern Shore. Yet, if I lived in the Greater Virginia Beach area and was a turkey-hunting fanatic, I would certainly explore trying to gain permission to some farms in Northampton.
Another striking fact that comes from a perusal of this list is the underrated hunting that exists in the counties that lie on or between the tidal Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Indeed, the top-ranked county (for kill per square mile of forest) in the entire state, Northumberland, falls into this category, as does the county that Northumberland barely edged out, Westmoreland. Others that also are located in this region are Lancaster, Matthews, Middlesex and Richmond. If I dwelled in Northern Virginia or in the Greater Richmond area, I would definitely plan to take a March weekend to visit the back road farms of these counties and knock on doors.
SEASON DATES, HOURS, AND HATCH INFORMATION
There are some favorable tidings for this spring, which begins on Saturday, April 8, and continues until Saturday, May 13. (There is also a special Youth Spring Turkey Hunt on Saturday, April 1 for hunters 15 and younger. A properly licensed adult must accompany these youngsters.)
Hunters may take one, two or three bearded turkeys depending on how many turkeys were taken in the fall season. For example, if a hunter killed one fall bird, he may only take two bearded turkeys in the spring. If a hunter killed two fall birds, he may only take one bearded bird in the spring. The fall limit is two birds.
The good news is that the Commonwealth experienced a decent hatch in 2004 of 3.1 juvenile birds per adult hen. That hatch followed two poor ones in 2002 and 2003 of 1.4 and 2.0, respectively. The long-term average is 3.2. Gary Norman, forest game project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), offers a look back and ahead.
"The 2005 spring harvest was about what I expected/predicated," he said. "Telecheck may have had some impact on the harvest, but we'll never know. I suppose we should put an asterisk by the 2005 season, as it really doesn't compare with anything previously because of the Telecheck factor. But West Virginia had a similar harvest in 2004 and 2005, so I'm thinking that Telecheck probably didn't inflate the numbers significantly."
Telecheck is the system where hunters can call a toll-free number, (866) GOT-GAME (468-4263), and check in their spring gobbler via that manner. Hunters must check their elk, fall turkeys, bears and any animal that they wish to enter in the Virginia Big Game Contest at a check station.
"Based on the 2004 recruitment data, I am expecting an increase in the spring 2006 kill for a change," Norman continued. "The past two seasons have been hard for a number of veteran hunters that I know. They normally take a season bag limit and recently they've had problems taking one or more birds. On the other hand, I know some hunters who seem to have had very easy seasons. I suppose this has averaged out over the state. I think it goes to show that there is not a uniform density of birds across regions."
At press time, the biologist related that it was still too early to predict how the 2005 hatch had been. A major indication of the strength of a hatch comes when the fall turkey season totals have been tabulated. Norman did say that he had some encouraging brood reports back in the summer "but nothing to jump up and down about."
Norman added that the entire first year of the Gobbler Survey has now been completed. An objective of the survey is to identify survival rates of gobblers annually and, in particular, how many birds are being taken during the spring gobbler season. I found the data fascinating.
"As of April 2005, we had 25 gobblers radioed in the Tidewater Region," Norman said. "The sample size included 17 juvenile and eight adult birds. Through the spring gobbler season, we had 11 mortalities resulting in a 56 percent overall survival rate. The mortalities included legal harvest (7), unknown (2), mammal predation (1) and illegal (1). Overall (ages combined), the legal harvest rate was 28 percent. Including the illegal kill, the hunting-related mortality rate was 32 percent.
"Survival and mortality patterns differed by age group. Although we only had eight adults radioed, the adult survival was only 38 percent during the spring season. Four of eight adults were legally harvested for a harvest rate of 50 percent. Another adult was killed illegally, making the hunting-related harvest rate 63 percent. Survival of juveniles in Region 1 in the spring gobbler season was 65 percent. Three of 17 jakes were legally harvested for a harvest rate of 18 percent. The sample size of birds alive at the end of the spring season was 11 juveniles and three adults."
In Region 3, which is the mountains of western Virginia, the biologist related that the spring season began with 35 gobblers radioed, including 21 adults and 14 juveniles. During the spring season, there were 14 mortalities reported, including legal harvest (10), illegal kill (2), crippling (1) and unknown (1). Overall survival rate for the region was 60 percent during the spring season. Legal hunting harvest rate for the region (including both age groups) was 29 percent. Including the illegal kills and crippling loss, the overall hunting-related harvest rate was 37 percent.
Survival and mortality patterns differed by age group. Survival rates were higher for juveniles (93 percent) than adults (38 percent). Legal hunting harvest rates were higher for adults (48 percent) than juveniles (0 percent). Including the illegal kill and crippling loss, the hunting-related harvest rate was 62 percent for adults. Twenty-one birds were alive at the end of the spring season.
The VDGIF also conducted some fieldwork this past spring with its radioed gobblers. A major goal was to learn if flushing a bird off the roost affected a tom.
"We did a little experiment where we flushed some birds off the roost and compared them with others that we've flushed," Norman explained. "This took place before the spring gobbler season. We wanted to see if the distance the flushed birds moved between successive roost sites was greater than the control birds. What surprised us were the movements that the control birds made. In two cases, control gobblers moved 2.5 and 3.5 miles between successive roost sites. These kinds of movements make it difficult to evaluate the flushing, but clearly there are a lot of movements going on with adult birds early in the season.
"The gobbling data logger is another exciting potential research idea we're hopeful will work. If we debug it successfully, we hope to put these units on some birds in spring 2006."
PUBLIC LAND OPTIONS
Gary Norman encourages Virginia sportsmen to consider public land options.
"Public lands are very important destinations for many hunters that don't have access to private lands," he said. "Oftentimes, turkey densities are lower there and pressure can be a factor, too. But for the avid hunter who is willing to do the scouting, public lands are great opportunities."
The chief public land, of course, is the 1.8-million-acre Washington and Jefferson National Forest. For more information, visit the Web site at www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj.
For more information on state WMAs, visit the VDGIF's Web site at www.dgif.virginia.gov.