Virginia's Fall Turkey Hunting Prospects
September 30, 2010
The Old Dominion's turkey flock suffered through terrible hatches in 2002 and 2003. Is more of the same on the horizon, or are better days ahead?
Photo by Ralph Hensley
By Bruce Ingram
Last year on Saturday, November 1, Virginia sportsmen were faced with a difficult choice to make among three options: go deer hunting on opening day of the early muzzleloader season; go turkey hunting across most of the state; or continue bowhunting for deer statewide. I chose to hedge my bets, traveling from my Botetourt County home to Franklin County, one of the east-of-the-Blue-Ridge domains. And I placed both my 12-gauge and in-line muzzleloader in my SUV.
State law forbids hunters having both guns in the field at the same time, so upon my arrival at a Franklin County farm, I selected the smokepole and headed up a mountain to a crossing where I thought the deer might pass at first light. While waiting for dawn, I heard a flock of turkeys on the roost and as their din became louder and louder, my desire to cease deer hunting became more and more intense.
The morning hours passed and by 10:00 a.m. I had not seen a deer, and the noise from the flock had continued unabated. Several obnoxious jakes were among the flock, and they had spent much of the morning gobbling. Finally, I could withstand my favorite call of the wild no longer and I quickly walked down the mountain, stowed the muzzleloader in my vehicle, and headed back up the mountain, shotgun in tow.
Ironically, although I called a great deal, the birds that for hours had been unable to remain quiet now developed hush mouth. So at 12:30, I ambled back down the mountain and once again exchanged guns. I trudged back to my morning stand, afield only with the muzzleloader.
Of course predictably, the entire turkey flock showed up 90 minutes later, and at a distance of just 8 yards from my position, I placed my muzzleloader's scope on an unsuspecting jake. Long ago, I had promised myself two things in regard to turkey hunting: never to shoot a bird with a rifle or muzzleloader, and never to kill a bird that I had not called in. So I let the jake and his comrades walk.
At 2:50 p.m., the birds returned to my position, and, this time, I decided to forget completely about deer hunting; a hardcore turkey enthusiast such as myself can only withstand so much temptation. I put the smokepole down and made a headlong rush into the flock. Most of the assemblage sailed over a ridge to my left, but two birds ran off in the opposite direction into a mountain laurel thicket.
I then scudded down the mountain, shouldered the 12-gauge, and ran back up the mountain. The air temperature was in the 70s that day, and I was dressed in full camo, so I arrived at my "deer stand" drenched in sweat. Some 20 minutes had transpired since the scatter, just the right amount of time for me to commence calling.
For the next 20 minutes, no turkey sounds emanated from the woods, but then some kee-kees began to come from the laurel copse. I increased the loudness and desperation of my kee-kees, and so did the duo that was answering me. At 3:45, the two turkeys emerged from the mountain laurel, and at 3:50, I had the shot I wanted. I was so dehydrated from all my mountain ramblings that when I brought the turkey to a check station, I purchased a gallon jug of water - and drank the vast majority of it on the way home.
The 2003-2004 Virginia fall turkey season was not a good one for the state's hunters. I usually chase after turkeys on 15 or so farms, woodlots, and national forest parcels in Botetourt, Craig, and Franklin counties. Last year, as an indication of how scarce the birds were, I only consistently found flocks at two of those locales. Places, both public and private, that for years had hosted flocks had no birds whatsoever last season.
Turkey hunters across the Commonwealth shared my inability to find birds. The harvest was just 6,921, about 26 percent below the average of the past five years. West of the Blue Ridge, the kill was 3,035, and east of the Blue Ridge the tally was 3,886. Even more alarming, this was the second straight decline in the turkey harvest: the '02-'03 harvest was 8,084, which itself was 30 percent lower than the '01-'02 tally of nearly 12,000. The '02-'03 harvest west of the Blue Ridge was 3,959; east of the Blue Ridge, the figure was 4,125.
Biologist Gary Norman of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is the individual most responsible for keeping tabs on the Old Dominion's turkey flock. He offers a blunt assessment of the precipitous harvest decline.
"I attribute the decline to poor recruitment," he told me. "A late spring and heavy May rainfall likely contributed to poor poult survival."
Norman also believes that the spotty mast crop from 2002-2003 may have caused turkeys to enter the spring mating season in substandard condition. Over the years, research has seemed to indicate that hens in good condition are likely to be more successful in producing offspring. A hen that has been weakened for whatever reason during the winter is not as likely to experience successful reproduction and rearing. And if green-up in the spring is delayed and a hen is unable to gain weight before the breeding season, she is similarly unlikely to have good fortune during the reproductive period. Norman summarizes what can go wrong - and what hopefully could go right.
"The aforementioned weather parameters (a late spring and heavy May rainfall) have been correlated to poor recruitment," he says. "In addition, mast conditions and hen condition probably contribute, although our data doesn't support the importance of acorns from the previous year as a determining factor. A mild spring with low May rainfalls are probably the best things we can hope for. June rainfalls don't seem to deter recruitment."
Norman also weighs in on whether the winter of 2003-2004 was much of a factor.
"In Western Virginia, the prolonged ice was not helpful for turkeys," he told me. "However, I have not heard of any significant winter kills, so I believe the birds wintered okay."
There is an old axiom that "all politics is local." A similar proverb for turkey hunters might be that "all successful poult production is local."
That is, whether or not the turkeys in your hunting area experienced good reproduction this past spring depends on weather conditions during the mating, brooding, and early stages of the rearing season. If, for example, cool, rainy conditions existed the first 10 days to two weeks after turkeys hatched in your area, don't expect many birds in those same woods this autumn. Generally, the peak of the hatch in Virginia is considered to be from early to mid-June. Of course, some hens produce po
ults as early as early May and as late as July. July nesters are typically birds that have lost their original clutch or brood.
AROUND THE STATE
I also asked Norman if certain areas of the state are better than others right now in terms of turkey populations. The biologist replied that the South Piedmont, the Southwest, and Tidewater, in that order, are currently the best regions for numbers of birds. Those population figures are reflected in the Old Dominion's top ten fall turkey counties. The counties (with the harvest numbers in parentheses) are Franklin (278), Pittsylvania (278), Bedford (264), Grayson (186), Rockingham (178), Giles (173), Amelia (157), Craig (156), and Augusta (146).
Franklin, which is where I killed my bird, lies within the South Piedmont, as do the second and third place finishers, Pittsylvania and Bedford. With their slightly milder winters and their slightly warmer springs, the counties of the South Piedmont just might feature enough warmer weather for the birds to survive the winter in better shape, for the oaks not to be harmed by a spring frost, and for the poults to withstand a crisp June morning. Another positive factor for the South Piedmont is that the region has more farms, agricultural and cattle-rearing operations, than the Mountain regions do. Thus, the turkeys have a more diverse food base, something that can be crucial when the hard mast crop fails as it has the past two years.
The fourth place finisher, Grayson, is part of Southwest Virginia, and that region seems to have a great deal of potential in terms of an expanding turkey flock. The recovery of turkeys in the Southwest was a little slower than other regions around the state, but now that the comeback has occurred, the turkeys appear to be flourishing.
POSSIBLE PUBLIC LAND DESTINATIONS
Gary Norman notes, "Virginians are blessed with almost two million acres of public land to hunt." The major component of that public land is the 1.8 million acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. Over the years, I have called in and killed quite a few turkeys on the Washington and Jefferson, and the public land is a particular favorite of mine for fall hunting.
The reason this is so is because of the nature of both fall flocks and the vastness of the national forest. Many years, fall flocks travel great distances in search of food, and the national forest obviously encompasses enormous chunks of land. If I don't hear birds on the roost on a fall morning, I can comb many acres of land over the course of a day and eventually - and usually - encounter a flock. Whether or not I am successful in punching a tag depends on a variety of factors, of course. The point is that the enterprising hunter can usually make contact with fall flocks, something which isn't always true when an individual is restricted to, say, a 100-acre farm.
The Commonwealth contains a number of state-owned wildlife management areas, and these public lands similarly can provide quality hunting. WMAs in the Mountain region that merit consideration include the 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).
In the Piedmont region, possibilities include the 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). Public land for turkey hunting is very scarce in the Tidewater region.
For more information on hunting in the George Washington and Jefferson, consult the national forest's Web site: www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj, or call 540-265-5100. For more information on the state owned WMAs, consult the game department's Web site: www.vdgif.state.va.us.
POULTS BY THE NUMBERS
Dave Steffen, research biologist supervisor for the VDGIF, is the individual who has all the numbers in terms of big game management. Every year after the fall turkey season concludes and all check stations have reported their harvest data, Steffen and other VDGIF personnel assemble and age and sex the turkeys checked in. When state hunters check in a bird, they are required to pull breast and primary feathers and enclose them in an envelope, which is sent to the VDGIF. From those two feathers, staff can determine the age and sex of an individual turkey.
Interestingly, Steffen told me that in 2001, for example, only about one-half of the hunters who killed a bird were able to correctly pull a breast and primary feather from a bird and place them in an envelope. A common error, for instance, was an individual detaching a fan feather instead of a primary. Primary feathers are the ones that are worn down from a gobbler strutting. All of us Old Dominion turkey chasers need to do a better job of "pulling feathers" so that we can give the VDGIF a goodly amount of useful data.
After the VDGIF staff has aged and sexed the feathers, the biologists are able to compile a juvenile-to-adult-hen ratio. The 24-year average is 3.3, and that figure is about what the state's turkey flock needs to have a stable population. A ratio over that figure, and turkey numbers will increase; a ratio under that figure, and turkey populations may well decline.
In 2000, the ratio was 3.0; in 2001, 2.2; in 2002, 1.4. The 2003 hatch was slightly better at 2.0, but still well below the figure that the turkeys need in order to sustain their numbers.
"The 2001, 2002, and 2003 juvenile-to-adult ratios are among the lowest ever on record," Steffen told me. "Rarely have we seen that poor production. Even the 3.0 ratio from 2000 is lower than average. Those ratios are probably what are driving a lack of growth in the state's turkey population. In 2004, we are very much in need of the turkeys experiencing good poult production. With the poor poult production and poor hard mast production in recent years, our turkeys need some help and good luck. If good poult production does not occur, the birds simply are not going to be there.
"I believe it is a very good thing that Virginia's long fall season was shortened back in the 1990s. Our season is still one of the longest in the country, but if the season were as long as it used to be, it could have had a negative effect on turkey numbers. The shorter season now in place has been a help."
Steffen says that an early indicator of how well turkey reproduction has been are the brood observations that take place over the summer and early fall period. He says that survey gives VDGIF personnel an "early glimpse" of turkey numbers, but, again, the juvenile-to-adult ratio is the best indicator.
I recently gave a turkey hunting seminar, and one of the most common questions was what my favorite calls are. If I could master just one call for fall, it would be the kee-kee run. Whether I am trolling for birds across vast expanses of land, have set up to call to birds in the area or have scattered a flock and am attempting to lure them in, the kee-kee is the best sound to utter.
Kee-kees are the sounds that jakes and jennies emit when they are separated from the flock. If the birds have not been scattered, my making a kee-kee will elicit a sympathetic response from the flock hen or the young birds themselves. The flock hen may make the assembly yelp, or her offspring may let loose with kee-kees of their own. The advantage I receive from this response is that I then know approximately where the flock is.
If the birds have already been scattered, as was the case last November in Franklin County, kee-kees are the sounds that the scattered birds will most likely use first. On that November outing, I did not wait for the birds to begin kee-keeing before I held forth with the same sounds. The result was a punched tag.
The bottom line for the upcoming fall turkey season is that Virginia desperately needs for its turkey flock to experience a successful reproductive season. If that occurs, the hunting will be good. If it does not, the kill will likely be very low.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Virginia Game & Fish