Will the Old Monarch be gobbling in your neck of the woods this season? Here's the latest on the statewide turkey hunting prospects in Virginia this year. (March 2007)
Photo by Philip Jordan
Every year, I look forward to spring break from the Botetourt County high school where I teach so that I can travel out of state and out of my home region to turkey hunt. So for six days, I had been on the road in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Scott County in far southwestern Virginia. I had killed two birds during Virginia's fall season, and I thought that I would have easily tagged out before spring break began, but to my chagrin, had been unable to do so.
Adding to my dissatisfaction was the fact that my week-long road trip had been fraught with frustration. In North Carolina, two hunters on ATVs had run off a longbeard. In the Volunteer State, twice on the same outing hail storms came to wreck my chances just when multiple toms were approaching. On another Tennessee hunt, dogs had spooked turkeys that were on their way in. Finally, in Scott County, a thunderstorm and feral dogs combined to shut up a longbeard and a jake that were almost within shooting range.
And so it was that on Monday before school, after a week of having proverbially all the time in the world and not killing a bird, I decided to go to my favorite Botetourt County farm, my "home farm" as I call it, where I have killed five turkeys this decade. But with only 90 minutes to hunt and my past week of failure, I was not optimistic.
I teach my high school English students that one of the definitions of the literary term irony is when an outcome is different than expected. And as just about anyone who hunts spring gobblers knows, this pastime is steeped with irony. I had scouted the property the day before and had heard a gobbler repeatedly sounding off at 9 a.m., so before dawn broke, I was set up in a hollow about 100 yards down the mountain from where I thought the old boy might roost.
I know the conventional wisdom is to position oneself above a gobbler, but I was afraid that if I tried that gambit I would spook the turkey off the roost in the pre-dawn murk. Better to be cautious, I thought, and then make a move, if necessary, after fly down.
In this case, the conventional wisdom was correct because when the lonely longbeard sounded off on the roost, as I knew he would, he was only 75 yards away and dawn had already broken. I sat helpless and frustrated (that word again) as the frantic bird gobbled repeatedly from his chestnut oak. When I saw him fly down just 65 or so yards away, I gave him some soft yelps. However, he was not impressed with those come-hither sounds or the hen decoy that I had placed in front of me before sunrise.
So for the next hour, I sat motionless and watched the tom strut back and forth, rooted to the same spot and still 65 yards distant. It was then that his racket attracted a hen and she joined him on his strutting ground. The commotion also drew four other gobblers that, out of respect for their apparent superior, skirted his strutting zone and marched right past my position, just out of shooting range. I called to the approaching quartet, but they were apparently on a mission to somewhere else.
Having seen five gobblers before 7:15 a.m. but not sealing the deal with any of them had sent me into an even deeper funk. But that's when the fates intervened. Unexplainably, one of the gobblers peeled off from his gang of four and the next thing I knew had gobbled directly behind me, just 20 yards away.
I glimpsed him out of the corner of my left eye and quickly ascertained that he was not as impressive a bird as the tom out in front of me. But this satellite gobbler offered something that the longbeard still 65 yards away did not: a shot at a tom that was within range of my 12 gauge. When the gobbler moved so that he was in front of me and disappeared behind a tulip poplar, I mounted my shotgun, then fired when he reappeared, thus putting an end to my Virginia turkey season. Ironically, I had traveled over 600 miles the week before and not fired a shot and traveled six miles one morning before school and tagged out.
A great many Old Dominion sportsmen experienced the joy that I did that late April morning, as 17,915 Virginia toms were checked in. The tally was the fourth best ever and was an impressive 20 percent increase over the 2005 harvest. The upsurge was evident statewide.
Individuals east of the Blue Ridge killed 11,069 turkeys, an increase of 26 percent over 2005. Their counterparts west of the Blue Ridge experienced a solid 10 percent gain with a tally of 6,126. Gary Norman, the individual most responsible for keeping tabs on turkeys for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), believes the 2004 hatch had quite a bit to do with the 2006 harvest.
"Over the past five years, the poult-to-hen ratio has averaged 2.1, the biologist explained. "In 2004, the ratio was 3.1, well above average for recent estimates. Two-year-old birds generally make up about one-third of our harvest, so that age-class was well represented in the population. Three-year-old birds are also a key component of the harvest.
"The ratio of juveniles to hens in 2003 was average. Collectively, we had a good number of 2- and 3-year-old birds available this past spring. Of course, it takes good weather, too, particularly on weekends and during the early part of the season, when most of the birds are harvested."
Norman is correct that generally, the weather was favorable. On the opening day Saturday, I spent the morning in Franklin County where I heard approximately 12 gobblers sound off on the farm on which I was afield. Obviously, Saturdays are the days when most state sportsmen can go hunting, and that day throughout the season saw cool, sunny weather for the most part.
One of the most interesting things about spring gobbler hunting is that biologists often know well before the season what kind of year it will be. In any given year, the most vocal birds will be those 2-year-old males -- the same ones that are often most willing to venture in. So for the coming 2007 season, the 2005 hatch is crucial. Norman weighs in.
"The poult-to-hen ratio was 1.9 in 2005, near the recent average," he said. "Therefore, one could expect an average age-class of 2-year-old birds, all things being equal, for example, no abnormal fall harvest due to mast failures. Given good weather, I expect the 2007 harvest to be in the neighborhood of 17,000 to 18,000 birds."
Based on the voluminous statistics that the VDGIF keeps on turkey hunting, 92 percent of the turkeys killed this past spring were 2-year-old and older gobblers. Some years, though, 1-year-old males, jakes
, make up a higher percentage of the harvest because of good poult production the year before. The number of jakes present this spring will also give an indication of what hunting will be like in 2008 -- so the 2006 hatch is very important to hunters this season, too.
I have two simple formulas to very roughly determine how the hatch has been in Botetourt and Craig counties, the two domains where I most often hunt. In June and July, I drive back roads looking for hens with poults. This past summer, I observed quite a few mama hens with young -- sometimes as many as 10 to 12 birds. I also watch for flocks coming to my back yard in July to dine on the wild blackberries that grow in a transition zone between the yard and woods. This past summer, I glimpsed a flock several times -- a very good sign. Gary Norman, of course, has a more reliable method of determining poult production. One positive sign was that much of the state experienced a mild winter and an early spring.
"The early warm spring weather always helps get things going as far as spring green-up, which does seem to help with earlier nesting and more re-nesting efforts," he said. "Rainfall picked up later in the summer, which typically is not a problem unless accompanied by cold temperatures. We had good numbers of brood reports early. Seems like brood reports in eastern Virginia weren't as good as the west."
Of course, the success or failure of a hatch is not known until the VDGIF has had time to analyze the fall harvest, and figures for the 2006-07 season were not available at press time. The number of jakes and jennies in the harvest tells biologists what poult production was like the previous spring and summer.
TRENDS AND STATS
As noted, Gary Norman keeps voluminous amounts of statistics regarding turkeys and that enables him, the VDGIF, and us turkey fanatics to know much more about this marvelous big-game bird. One of the more interesting aspects of the statistics is how each region fared.
Norman reports that the North Mountain region's harvest in 2006 was 15 percent greater than its five-year average, which was better than any other region. The Tidewater (7 percent), South Piedmont (5 percent) and Northern Piedmont (4 percent) also did well. However, the South Mountain expanse exhibited a harvest of 4,147 -- a decrease, but a decrease of less than 1 percent.
The top 10 counties (with the harvest number in parentheses) were as follows: Bedford (627), Franklin (539), Pittsylvania (528), Southampton (426), Scott (338), Halifax (336), Rockbridge (325), Grayson (312), Sussex (301) and Patrick (298).
Perhaps even more important than the actual harvest is the kill per square mile of forest. A county with a high harvest could attain that tally simply because the county itself is large. A county with a high harvest and a high kill per square mile of forest would be an outstanding place to go this spring, but so would a small county with a high harvest per square mile.
The following is the kill by square mile of forest by region: Tidewater (0.91), South Piedmont (0.73), South Mountain (0.75), North Mountain (0.57) and North Piedmont (0.43). Statewide, the figure was 0.69.
Alphabetically, here is every county in the state that attained a kill per square mile of forest harvest of 0.90 or better. If your home county is in this list, chances are good that this domain has a history of providing quality spring hunting and that the same will likely hold true this year.
The counties are as follows: Amelia (0.93), Carroll (0.94), Charles City (1.00), Clarke (1.09), Cumberland (0.91), Floyd (1.28), Franklin (1.20), Frederick (1.09), Gloucester (1.02), Grayson (1.24), Isle of Wight (1.35), Lancaster (1.77), Lee (0.91), Matthews (0.93), Middlesex (1.13), Northampton (1.52), Northumberland (1.89), Prince George (1.09), Pulaski (0.90), Richmond (1.45), Scott (0.94), Southampton (1.13), Surry (1.25), Westmoreland (1.61) and Wythe (1.22).
Several tidbits become noticeable after examining these lists. First, Franklin, Southampton, Scott and Grayson made both lists, confirming that this quartet offers outstanding turkey hunting. Second, a number of small, especially Tidewater, counties offer underrated sport. These flatland domains include Charles City, Gloucester, Isle of Wight, Lancaster, Matthews, Middlesex, Northampton, Northumberland, Prince George, Surrey and Westmoreland, among others. If you can obtain permission to farms in this group, chances are very good that you will hear plenty of gobbling on opening morning.
One of the most interesting aspects to me is the percentage of Virginia spring turkey hunters that actually kill a bird.
"Our most recent estimate was that 25.4 percent of spring gobbler hunters are successful," Norman said. "That's slightly higher than previous years. I think we're on par or ahead of most other states in the region. Another way of looking at this statistic is how long does it take to harvest a gobbler. In 2004, it took 13.3 days to harvest a bird. In 1993, it took 25.6 days on average to harvest a bird. So clearly, things are getting better for spring gobbler hunters."
There are more of us in the woods chasing birds, too. In 1993, only 43,000 Virginians sought spring gobblers. Today, the total is 73,000 and has been holding steady at that figure.
Another interesting aspect is the kill per week. The Commonwealth has offered a special youth opener for several years now on the first Saturday in April. Last year saw a harvest of 341 birds on that day. The harvest by time period was as follows: Opening day: 13 percent; week 1: 32 percent; week 2: 18 percent; week 3: 13 percent; week 4: 12 percent; and week 5: 10 percent.
All kinds of explanations can be given on why opening day and the first two weeks of the season account for 50 percent of the harvest. Certainly, it is true that more toms are available then and as more males are checked in, fewer exist to hunt. But I also believe, as noted earlier, that since only one-fourth of all Virginia turkey hunters are successful and given how hard it is to kill a gobbler, many of us simply give up after the first fortnight.
My personal philosophy on killing a turkey is very simple. I hunt every day, even if the time is only an hour in the woods before work, until I tag out or the season ends. In 21 spring seasons, I have only killed two birds on opening day and infrequently have done well the first week. But eventually persistence does result in success, for me or anyone else.
Gary Norman also suggested that I share the gobbling intensity per week information with readers. The VDGIF groups gobbling intensity into three categories (no gobbling, poor gobbling, or fair-good). The best hunting conditions appeared during the second week of the season with the highest positive conditions (fair-good gobbling) and the lowest negative conditions (no gobbling). Hunts with no gobbling tended to increase as the season progressed. This, of course, could be another reason that the harvest declines later in the season.
This spring, Youth Day is on April 7 and the regular
spring season begins on April 14, with the hours being from one-half hour before sunrise until noon. Beginning May 7 and continuing until the last day of the season, May 19, all-day hunting is in effect. The limit is one bearded bird per day, three per license year, providing that no turkeys were harvested in the fall. If a hunter killed one fall bird, then he will have two tags left for the spring; if an individual killed two fall birds, then he will have one tag left for the spring.
For more information on seasons and where to hunt, and a complete list of WMAs, consult the Web site of the VDGIF at DGIF.Virginia.Gov.