The second half of Virginia's split turkey season sees much less hunting pressure. Here are some destinations and some tips on how to score during the late season.
By Bruce Ingram
When Virginia's fall turkey season reopened last December, I knew where I would go on the first Saturday of the season: a Botetourt County farm where I had observed a flock during the early bow season.
So when I left the school where I teach on Friday, I immediately drove to the farm, climbed the mountain, and at 4:30 p.m., saw the birds foraging toward a roost site just below the crest of the mountain.
I don't like to scatter a flock before its members fly up for the night. So the next morning, I eased up that same mountain and some 20 minutes before sunrise went charging into the roosted assemblage, sending the birds sailing down the mountain in several different directions.
It became apparent later in the morning, as I listened to the hoarse yelps of the separated birds, that I had busted a flock of mature gobblers. They were not inclined to heed my yelps or move toward my position. As the day progressed and all my efforts at finding the flock were in vain, I noticed a darkening sky and heaviness in the air - a northeaster was moving through the area.
Saturday night a combination of snow and sleet pelted the area, and Sunday morning saw icy conditions prevailing over southwestern Virginia.
It was then that a revelation occurred to me.
The band of brothers had not reassembled on Saturday, and the ice/snow storm ensured that the gobblers would be "frozen in place" on Sunday - meaning the birds would likely remain on the roost all day.
When the weather warmed, relatively speaking, on Monday, the turkeys would no doubt head for the only open area of the farm - a spring that trickled down the mountain and formed a small branch in a pasture. Western Virginia schools were closed on Monday, but I figured that the birds would remain on the roost until late in the morning, until the spring's warmth had had a chance to heat the fringes of the branch and bare some ground where the birds could feed.
So I left my house at 11:30 a.m., and by noon I was at the lower section of the branch's passageway through the pasture. I cautiously peered over a knob, and there were the gobblers some 75 yards "upstream." I hurriedly set up against a pine some 30 yards from the branch and yelped several times. The gobblers responded, and gradually I could tell that they were slowly coming toward my position.
At 12:45, three of the toms arrived together, and to my surprise, ignored my calls and began fighting with one another. Suddenly, they all flew into the trees - one landing in a pine above where I was sitting.
While I was trying to make sense of what had happened, a fourth gobbler arrived directly in front of me. He was late for the fight, but was spoiling to become engaged in the fracas. His tardiness was my good fortune, for by 12:50 - and thanks to my Remington 1100 - I was toting the tom through the pasture, gingerly making my way across the crusty snow. I have never enjoyed a snow day off from school more.
I would rate the early part of Virginia's split turkey season as a far better and easier time to take a fall turkey, but I would also rate the late season as the more pleasurable time to be afield. Over the past five years or so, I can recall encountering only one other individual who was pursuing turkeys. Yet, on the vast majority of my days afield I have been able to locate late-autumn/early-winter flocks.
That is true despite the fact that turkey reproduction in the Old Dominion has been quite poor in recent years. Indeed, when I asked Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), what kind of statement he would like to make concerning fall turkey hunting for this autumn, he gave a concise answer: "Pray that a good hatch happened this year."
Norman's concern is understandable. In 2001, the hatch was 2.2; in 2002, 1.4. The 2003 hatch was poor as well at 2.0, still well below the figure of 3.0 or so that the turkeys need in order to maintain their numbers.
"Generally, we've had a string of poor hatches, and recruitment this bad has to limit population growth," Norman said. "Recruitment has been below average since 2000, and populations have been stable (based on spring kill as an index) over that period of time."
The quality of the 2004 hatch will not be known until several months from now, when VDGIF staff will have had a chance to analyze this fall's kill. Norman did tell me, however, that he was concerned about the large amount of rainfall that fell during May in much of the state. He said that study results "point to May rainfall as a potentially problematic event for nesting birds."
And May in the Old Dominion is the month where hens spend most of their time incubating eggs. Again, though, biologists will not know what influence the May showers had on birds for several months. A plus side for the coming season, said Norman, was that the age structure of Virginia's turkey population is "probably heavy on the adult side, and we've found that 3-plus-year-old females are the most productive age-class."
Last autumn, state sportsmen saw the results of those recent poor hatches, as the tentative harvest was 6,921, some 26 percent below the five-year average and a major decline from the 2002-2003 kill of 8,084. The harvest declined west of the Blue Ridge (from 3,959 to 3,035) and east of the Blue Ridge (from 4,125 to 3,886).
A Giles County hunter with a turkey he killed in the Jefferson National Forest in that county. Quality fall turkey hunting exists on the national forest. Photo by Bruce Ingram
WHERE TO GO
I asked Norman about how much public lands contributed to the overall harvest. The importance of the 1.8-million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest was once again apparent.
"Federal lands, primarily the national forest, accounted for 9 percent of the statewide fall turkey kill in 2003-2004 and 14 percent of the harvest west of the Blue Ridge," Norman said. "State lands (VDGIF and others) contributed 1 percent east of the Blue Ridge and 3 percent west of the Blue Ridge."
What was especially fascinating was when Norman shared with me the amount of Jefferson National Forest land, or other federal land - such as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property - that exists in 19 southwestern Virginia counties. This real estate is a tremendous resource for hunters not
only living in that region, but also for sportsmen from all over the state, especially those who lack access to private land.
For example, seven counties contain more than 50,000 acres of national forest land; those counties (with the acreage in parentheses) are, in alphabetical order: Bland (74,698 acres), Botetourt (81,134 acres), Craig (116,351 acres), Giles (63,394 acres), Rockbridge (66,797 acres), Smyth (74,480 acres), and Wythe (58,384 acres). I have tagged turkeys on national forest land in Botetourt and Craig and hunted for birds in Rockbridge. But from this listing, I ought to consider some outings to Bland, Giles, Smyth and Wythe - as other sportsmen, no doubt, should.
The other 12 counties have wildly varying acreage. For instance, the first turkey I ever killed was in the Jefferson National Forest in Roanoke County, which has only 3,140 acres. Roanoke has less national forest land than any of the 19 southwestern domains do. At one time or another, I have probably rambled over much of that land. I have also turkey hunted on national forest land in Grayson (33,079 acres). But there is also property to explore in Bedford (18,810 acres), Carroll (7,286 acres), Dickenson (14,613 acres), Lee (11,335 acres), Montgomery (19,455 acres), Pulaski (19,288 acres), Scott (34,580 acres), Tazewell (9,804 acres), Washington (22,301 acres), and Wise (36,273 acres).
Last year, a baker's dozen counties recorded harvests of over 140 birds. They were (with harvest numbers in parentheses) Franklin (314), Pittsylvania (278), Bedford (264), Grayson (186), Botetourt (186) Rockbridge (178), Giles (173), Amelia (157), Craig (156), Augusta (146), Pulaski (144), Powhatan (143), and Wythe (141). Among those 13, eight counties contain significant amounts of Jefferson National Forest: Bedford, Grayson, Botetourt, Rockbridge, Giles, Craig, Pulaski and Wythe. Augusta features land in the George Washington segment of the national forest, and Amelia contains land in the Amelia WMA (2,217 acres), which lies along the Appomattox River.
The Amelia WMA is mostly rolling hill country with numerous openings, as the public land used to include some working farms. The Powhatan WMA (4,462 acres) lies in the heart of Powhatan County. This is yet another Piedmont public land, and, as such, features plenty of rolling hill country, as well as numerous small streams and many open fields. Four old farm ponds also dot Powhatan.
Our top county, Franklin, also contains public land in the form of the aptly named Turkeycock WMA (2,679 acres). This public land spills over into Henry County. Turkeycock is heavily forested and elevations range from 1,100 to 1,700 feet, fairly steep by Piedmont standards, but just "big hill country" when compared to the vertical uplands of counties such as Scott, Wise and Dickenson. In summary, among the top 13 counties, only Pittsylvania lacks national forest or WMA real estate.
I also decided to check the harvest figures for some of the counties that lie within some of the larger WMAs in the state. The Clinch Mountain WMA (25,477 acres) is one of the largest state-owned public lands in the Commonwealth and sprawls over four counties. Those counties recorded harvests of Smyth (70), Washington (59), Russell (98), and Tazewell (68). Far western Virginia offers as well the Hidden Valley WMA (6,400 acres), which has land in Washington and Russell counties.
The Havens WMA (7,190 acres) is the most significant amount of public land in heavily urban and suburban Roanoke County (69). Highland County (89) offers its namesake public land, the Highland WMA (14,283 acres). And northern Virginia residents may want to consider the Rapidan WMA (10,326 acres) in Madison (15) and Greene counties (7).
As a last comment on the harvest figures for 2003, as well as an important fact to keep in mind concerning what kind of season we will experience in 2004, recall Gary Norman's statement that turkey enthusiasts should pray for a good hatch. The total of 6,921 turkeys checked in last year was 14.4 percent lower than the 2002 harvest of 8,064. But the true import of that harvest decline is seen when we peruse the harvest figures from 1994 through 2001. They are as follows: 1994 (14,681), 1995 (11,229), 1996 (11,931), 1997 (11,251), 1998 (8,840), 1999 (9,664), 2000 (8,264), and 2001 (11,891). The average harvest for that period was 10,276. Obviously, the downward trend is discomfiting at best, and better-than-average turkey reproduction is very much needed. With turkey reproduction being poor the past three years, several solid years of poult production may need to take place.
For more information on hunting in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, consult the forest's Web site at 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 at www.dgif. state.va.us.
The past two late turkey seasons have seen snow being present in a number of Old Dominion counties. Two other negative factors have been low temperatures and brisk winds. How hunters deal with these three conditions has a direct effect on how successful they may be.
The low temperature factor is an especially difficult condition with which to cope. That's because late-season turkey hunting involves a great deal of two activities that are wildly different: lots of sitting and lots of walking - both of which are often done for long periods of time over the course of a day.
For example, one of my favorite strategies is to spend much of the morning period walking up and down mountains in search of a flock to scatter. If after several hours of this activity I can't find birds, I like to set up near a known food source - where scratchings of various ages exist - and call for an hour or more. At first, my body welcomes sitting and resting for a while. But after my perspiration begins to cool, the inevitable shivering occurs.
Outdoor experts have long recommended that hunters dress in layers, and that advice is especially good for the Old Dominion late season turkey chaser. I own a seat cushion with straps that I can carry on my back. That cushion also has a compartment that can store clothes. I also keep a blaze orange hat within. I can put on garb from that compartment or store clothes there. And I always try to remember to wear the blaze orange cap after I have killed a bird or when I am moving through an area that might have other hunters. I have owned that seat cushion for about 10 years, and I never go fall turkey hunting without it.
Wind is another late-season condition that can be a very negative factor. However, two positives do exist where wind is concerned. First, during breezy conditions, turkeys almost always seek out sheltered roosting sites of some sort. Know where those sites are and you definitely have a better chance at locating birds at sunrise when they are still on the roost - the best time, in my opinion, to scatter a flock.
One of the most common sheltered roost sites is a steep-sided cove with a stream flowing through it. Another is a grove of mature trees on the lee side of a mountain. And a section of forest that features Canada hemlocks, white, Virginia, or pitch pines, or evergreens of some sort will always see more roo
sting activity than places that contain leafless hardwoods.
The second positive associated with gusty conditions is that turkeys will seek out places to feed that are out of the wind or that are so open that the birds can forage without worrying that predators will approach them unheard because of the howling wind. The same places that offer sheltered roosting sites also provide feeding areas that are out of the wind. At this time, I also find a lot of birds looking for nourishment in pastures, overgrown fields, and agricultural areas.
The "creek" gobbler I tagged last December is a prime example of where turkeys will go when snow covers the Commonwealth. The quartet of gobblers had no other place to forage but that spring-fed branch, as was true with other game and non-game on the mountain that day. Indeed, while I was walking along the branch, I flushed several snipe that had likewise been attracted to the exposed ground.
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Virginia hunters can certainly understand why the turkey hunting was tough last year. Whether the same will hold true this fall depends on how successful the state's hens were in their poult production last May and June.
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