Virginia's Fall Turkey Prospects

While harvest numbers are near historical highs, last year's hunters killed fewer birds than the year before. Will this trend continue?

Photo by Paul Tessier

By Bruce Ingram

Of all the big and small game animals we can pursue in Virginia, the turkey is my favorite. I enjoy both the spring and fall seasons, but it's in the fall that I most enjoy going afield for this magnificent bird. So much so that on Sunday afternoon before the Monday opener last Oct. 28, my son, Mark, and I went scouting for a flock on a Botetourt County farm. I did so even though I knew I would have to be at the school where I teach by 8:45 a.m. the next morning.

Although we combed an entire mountain, sign was scarce and no birds were seen or heard until I listened to a flock go to roost at twilight. The next morning rain fell heavily, but heck it was opening day; and before sunrise, I busted the birds off the roost. A rather animated flock hen did a much better job calling in her young than I did, and I left the woods wet and determined to renew my pursuit the next morning.

But events played out exactly the same on Tuesday morning - except no rain fell - and the frustrating pattern continued the rest of the week as all of my one-hour-before-work hunts ended in failure. On Friday, I decided to try to locate the flock after school and scatter them before they roosted together. My theory was that the jakes and jennies would be frantic to assemble the next morning and would come flying or running in to my sunrise calls - before the flock hen had a chance to sound off. And that afternoon, I was successful at scattering the birds.

Once again, however, the flock hen foiled my best efforts, aggressively calling her young away from me. So at 9 a.m., I sat down on the side of the mountain to review what I had learned about the flock. There was no chance that I could outcall big mama, but maybe I could outflank the flock. From chasing after the gang for a week, I had learned that the hen had the tendency to lead her young up and down the seven ridges that existed on that particular mountainside. When she finished ascending one ridge, she would use a saddle to access the adjoining one.

Another trait of the flock was that its jakes were becoming restless and were periodically fighting with one another. As many turkey enthusiasts know, the jakes often leave their "birth" flock sometime during autumn and form their own assemblages. I had also learned that emitting the kee-kee (that is, the lost call) was futile because none of the jakes and jennies would hark to me when they had the flock hen countering my best imitations with her own assembly call. So I determined to periodically mimic the sounds of harsh jake yelps and fighting purrs. Once the jakes had responded and given away the flock's position, I would run to the nearest saddle and intercept the entire gang.

Around 11:30 a.m., I had just finished cranking out some jake yelps when several of the shortbeards responded near the top of the mountain. I quickly ran up the adjacent ridge to a saddle and set up just as the flock came into view. My 12-gauge boomed, and I sprinted to the downed bird. Although the jakes had given away the entire flock's location, it was a jenny that took a load of No. 4 pellets. The whoop of joy that I let out was probably as loud as the blast of the scattergun.

That was one of the 8,084 turkey that Old Dominion sportsmen toted to check stations during the 2002-03 season. The harvest was more than 30 percent lower than the previous season's tally of nearly 12,000 birds. The kill was especially down east of the Blue Ridge, where only 4,125 birds were checked in - a decrease of 45 percent from 2001-02. But the harvest also dropped west of the Blue Ridge as 3,959 birds were brought to check stations - a decline of 10 percent.

The precipitous harvest decline was somewhat of a surprise. Last summer and fall, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) reported a decent number of sightings, seeming to indicate that the 2002 reproductive season had been at least fair. In any given autumn in any given state, young of the year birds constitute the majority of the kill. If the hatch has been successful, that fact is often reflected in a high kill. Indeed, with the possible exception of the status of the hard mast crop, the previous hatch is the key factor influencing the harvest. I asked Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), about the lower harvest.

"The decline in the 2002 fall kill was due to the combined effects of lower reproduction and mast crops," said Norman. "We collect feathers from hunters in order to determine age and sex of harvested birds in the fall. The VDGIF uses the ratio of juveniles per adult female in the fall harvest as an index to recruitment. We then contrast annual estimates to long-term trends to see if recruitment is above or below average. The 2002 recruitment index was 1.4. Clearly, 2002 was a poor year for juvenile survival. When juveniles comprise 60 percent of the harvest and production is 50 percent below average (as was true in 2002), then a decline in the fall harvest can be expected."

And those two figures, of course, are exactly what occurred last year. Regarding the other major factor, the mast crop, Norman said that too greatly influences the turkey harvest. The biologist noted that poor mast crops cause birds to move further in their search for food, and oftentimes they spend more time in clearings and pastures. Under these conditions, the harvest rate increases. Conversely, with good mast crops, their vulnerability to hunting declines.

West of the Blue Ridge in every county I hunted, I found the acorns generally scarce. Norman said that the western counties did indeed endure a hard mast failure, which explains why the kill in that region was down just 10 percent. East of the Blue Ridge, however, the hard mast production was quite good in many counties. With fewer turkeys and abundant food for forage, one would expect that eastern Virginians experienced little success at even finding birds. And that too is exactly what happened. Interestingly, the lower harvest in Virginia was mirrored in West Virginia and Maryland, as those two bordering states also saw their turkey kill drop. North Carolina has no fall turkey season.

I was fascinated to hear Norman give another possible reason for the harvest decrease. He feels that the lower hatch may be the turkey's natural way of slowing the growth of a population.

"There seems to be declining trend in reproduction of turkeys," said Norman. "The recent average production has declined compared to previous years. Density dependence in deer populations is commonly understood. As deer numbers increase and food sources are affected, we typically see reduced reproductive success. While this appears to be happening in turkeys, we have no idea of the mechanism.

"Unlike deer, we don't think turkeys are affecting their habitats, nor does it appear that competition for nesting or brood habitat would limit production. Anyway, this is only speculation on my part. But we're taking a closer look at this question with a multi-state research project at Virginia Tech. A Ph.D. student is looking closely at this issue now."

What should the conditions have been like this past spring and summer in order to have an abundance of turkeys this fall? Gary Norman relates that according to some preliminary work that the VDGIF has completed, April days below freezing and June precipitation amounts many times predict recruitment.

"Cold temperatures in April probably delay spring green-up," said Norman. "This could cause some hens to delay breeding or not breed at all. Generally, hens need a good shot of nutrition just before egg laying and this nutritional link could be important. May weather in Virginia didn't show up as important in our analyses. In other states and studies, May weather affected predation rates on hens. Wetter conditions improved predators' scenting conditions and resulted in reduced nest success rates.

"Peak nest initiation in Virginia is in May. Peak hatching occurs in early June. June precipitation is likely to be an important mortality issue on poults. There are two hypotheses about rainfall and poult mortality. One is that overall rainfall is critical; the other is that heavy rainfalls are more critical."

The latter statement means that if cold, late spring rains are the norm in early June when poults are hatching, then the mortality rate among these very young birds will be quite high - and hunting in that area may well be poor come autumn. Also, if winter weather lingered for well into April, then hens might ultimately not lay eggs. In short, a mild April and a dry June would likely herald a great hatch. If your home county experienced that kind of weather, expect to see good numbers of flocks when you conduct pre-season scouting.

Interestingly, one aspect of turkey reproduction that I used to think was an important factor was the relative severity of the winter. Such is really not the case, though. The winter of 2002-03 was one of the harshest in the past five years or so, yet Gary Norman expressed little concern over the frigid conditions that afflicted the Old Dominion.

"We may have lost some adult birds because of the winter weather, particularly in the northwestern part of Virginia," he said. "However, we had radios on hens during the 1993 blizzards, and those turkeys seemed to do OK then."

If turkeys survived the 20- to 30-inch snowfalls of 1993, then they certainly made out all right during the ice storms and minor snowfalls that occurred in January and February of this year.

Although the harvest was down, some counties still recorded impressive tallies. The top ten counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were Botetourt (265), Scott (265), Bedford (246), Alleghany (208), Franklin (205), Rockbridge (201), Bath (197), Pittsylvania (196), Grayson (182) and Bland (170). As has been the trend in recent years, all of the top 10 counties lie in either the Mountain or Piedmont regions. In fact, seven of the elite group are west of the Blue Ridge, while three are from the Piedmont portion: Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania.

Also of note is that all of the western counties in the upper echelon possess land in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. If hunters are not able to find a place on private land in these counties, then they can still enjoy quality turkey hunting in the 1.6 million acres of the national forest. As an unabashed fan of this tremendous resource for the sportsmen of the Commonwealth, the only thing I wish about the Washington and Jefferson is that there were even more acres of it.

Virginia's state-owned wildlife management areas also offer quality turkey hunting. Public hunting opportunities for turkeys are scarce in the Tidewater region, but fortunately, the same cannot be said in the Piedmont and Mountain regions. For the former, some of the possibilities include Amelia (2,217 acres), Briery Creek (3,164 acres), Horsepen Lake (3,065 acres), C.F. Phelps (4,539 acres) and Powhatan (4,462 acres). As a group, these WMAs feature rolling hills, small streams, occasional clearings and mixed hardwoods.

As a whole, the Mountain WMAs typically encompass larger tracts than those in the Piedmont do, thus giving sportsmen much more of a chance to enjoy unpressured birds. Some of the better bets include Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres), Gathright (13,428 acres), Goshen-Little North Mountain (33,697 acres), Havens (7,190 acres), Hidden Valley (6,400 acres), Highland (14,283 acres), Rapidan (10,326 acres) and Thompson (4,000 acres). As a group, the Mountain WMAs are characterized by rugged uplands, steep, narrow hollows, unbroken stretches of mature hardwoods, and highland rills.

The question I am most asked about fall turkey hunting is what my favorite calls are. The answer is the same as the ones in the spring - the yelp and the cluck - in addition to the kee-kee. But being successful in the autumn woods is much more about being a good woodsman than being able to run a diaphragm or scratch a slate with conviction.

Five major kinds of sign exist: scratchings, droppings, tracks, feathers and dusting areas, and only the last of the quintet lacks relevance in the fall. And of the remaining four, scratchings are the form of sign that I like to clue in on. Analyzed correctly, scratchings can tell a hunter when turkeys were in the area and in which direction they were heading.

For example, scratchings that have a moist inner circle and that encompass few or no leaves are very likely newly made. The first thing I do when I encounter fresh sign is to stop walking and to listen. If the wind is not blowing and the birds are within 100 yards or so, then I may well be able to hear the telltale sounds of forest duff being raked over by turkeys. If no audio clues exist, I examine the scratchings to learn which direction a flock is traveling. A turkey's legs force leaves to the back of a scratching. Position yourself behind a scratching and proceed forward. Continue onward until you encounter more of this sign and then adjust your course if need be. Also, occasionally stop, set up against a wide tree, and utter a few clucks, yelps or kee-kees.

Locating droppings can be almost as good as encountering scratchings. Jakes leave behind J-shaped droppings while those of jennies are popcorn-like in consistency. Droppings that are fresh are usually brown, moist, and totally lacking in gray. The harder and grayer that a dropping is, the less value it has for the individual prospecting for birds.

I rarely find tracks deep in the woods with the exceptions being old logging roads and creek bottoms. The best time to locate tracks is after a rain. If you find turkey "footprints" that have well-defined edges and precipitation has recently fallen, this sign can lead you to a flock just as surely as scratchings can. Field edges and agricultural areas are other places where this sign commonly occurs.

Feathers likewise can be turkey indicators. Unfortunately, feathers are the hardest kind of sign to age, and frankly I am not any good at determining how long a feather has been lying on the forest floor. What feathers can impart to us, though, is where turkeys have been roosting. If I am in an area that I am unfamiliar with and am unsure whether or not a flock has been using the locale, I try to locate pine or cedar groves. If feathers lie about under these trees, be sure that are you in that area come late afternoon. Birds flying up to roost may show you where to hunt the following morning.

Last season was a disappointment for some Old Dominion turkey hunters, and the birds were definitely harder to find in many areas. But if the weather conditions were favorable for poult production in your home county this past spring, look for good numbers of birds to be present this fall.

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