Virginia's fall turkey season is set to re-open. Here's where to go to have the best chance at the makings for a holiday feast.
The winter holidays are a time for faith, family and friends, of course, but every year for me, it is also a time when I like to spend a great deal of time afield hunting Virginia's late season turkeys. Since I am a high school English teacher, the last day of school before the Christmas break signals that I can go turkey hunting.
Last December, I eagerly counted down the minutes to the 3:35 bell at Lord Botetourt High School where I teach and ran out the door to head for a Botetourt County farm that borders a mountain. Dashing past the farmer's cows as they grazed in a field, I paused at the foot of the mountain to make a few calls. After extracting a diaphragm from a call case, I looked up to see a flock of turkeys just 50 yards away. Five minutes into Christmas vacation, and I already had a gang nearly within range of my 12 gauge.
I slowly dropped to the ground, maneuvered the scattergun into shooting position, and emitted a few soft yelps. Several flock members clucked in response, but the birds were too engrossed in scarfing down red oak acorns to come toward me. Casually, the flock fed away from me, and for the next 50 minutes I stayed just out of range of the birds, moving on them as they ambled up the mountain.
Although the day ended without my having a shot at the birds, I was in high spirits. The next morning I would return before dawn and bust up the flock. By 8 a.m., I should be on my way to a check station. The next morning I was indeed on the same mountainside, and much to my chagrin, the turkeys were not. Had they flown to another hollow after I had left them the evening before?
After dawn broke, I had to travel two hollows across the mountain before I found the birds. I attempted a bust, but given the steep terrain and the fact that I was forced to run uphill after them, the entire assemblage ran off together. The rest of the day was spent not quite catching up to the flock.
The following day I was able to successfully scatter the flock from the roost, but as is often the case with late season Virginia turkeys, they were in no hurry to return to the bust site. Although I plopped down at the scene of the bust for several hours and although the birds periodically answered, no member of this frustrating flock ever came within shooting distance.
The author and his son admire a Botetourt County turkey that the author killed in late December last year. This fall, the turkey harvest should be near historical highs in Virginia. Photo by Bruce Ingram
The third and fourth days of my turkey hunting odyssey saw more of the same. I would bust the flock sometime during the day, turkeys would answer, but I never had the good fortune of walking down the mountain with one of them over my shoulder. One particular bird was especially maddening: I called it to within 25 yards, but the entire half-hour it was out in front of me, the turkey never presented a killing shot.
Finally, on the evening of that fourth day, I gave up on the flock. My 16-year-old son Mark had asked me to meet him at a nearby woodlot around 4 p.m. so that we could enjoy 90 minutes of squirrel hunting before dark. Mark much prefers chasing bushytails to pursuing birds, so the two of us met at the appointed time to see if we could bring home the main ingredients for a baked casserole. Amazingly, the wood lot was void of squirrels, so with the turkeys still on my mind, I asked my son if he would mind me making a few calls.
To the amazement of both Mark and me, some turkeys answered about 75 yards away. Mark whispered that he wanted to check out another section of the wood lot for silvertails and wished me good luck with the flock as he left. Over the next 15 minutes or so, I periodically made a few yelps, not expecting much because of the past four days of ill fortune.
Remarkable to say, though, the turkeys began to respond, and as the sounds of clucks and yelps became louder, it was obvious that the flock was on its way. I took the lead jenny at a distance of 30 yards, my second bird of the season.
Is the moral of the story that if you want to kill a late-season Old Dominion turkey, give up and seek out squirrels? I don't think that's the high-percentage move, but I do know that state hunters should experience marvelous sport this autumn if the coming late season is anything like the entire season last year.
In 2001, Commonwealth sportsmen harvested 11,826 turkeys, checking in 7,429 birds east of the Blue Ridge and 4,397 west of the Blue Ridge. The tally was the highest since the 14,681 figure for 1994, and the highest number over the past five years. The 2002 kill probably won't approach the all-time harvest of 16,861 set in 1990, but state hunters will have numerous possible destinations to choose from this autumn.
THE NATIONAL FOREST OPTION Research biologist supervisor Dave Steffen of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries maintains that the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and its 1.6 million acres has much to offer sportsmen. Indeed, when I called Steffen to interview him for this story, his first response was that his most recent turkey kill had occurred on this public land. The 3-year-old gobbler sported inch-long spurs and had a 9-inch-plus beard dangling from its chest.
"Good numbers of wild turkeys are present in the national forest," Steffen told me after he finished giving an account of how he harvested his fine bird. "And there is lots of room to roam when you are trying to find a flock. For me that ability to explore is what I like best about hunting turkeys in the George Washington and Jefferson. Once hunters travel deep into the forest, they won't have to worry about coming across posted land."
Steffen also gave tips on how to go about pursuing turkeys on government land. First, he said, call the local ranger district office and ask for maps of the areas that the district covers. These maps can give general ideas of what the habitat is like. Next, if a particular area piques your interest, contact an agency that sells USGS maps so that you can increase your understanding of the locale.
Third, continued Steffen, try to ascertain from the USGS maps if certain terrain features are present.
"Personally, I look for benches, saddles, and flats in areas that are not accessible," he said. "Now it is nice to travel to the end of a gated road and park your car there, but the trouble with that plan is that everyone parks his car at the end of a gated road. What I like to do is look for those benches and other features that are well away from gated roads. Often those places are the ones th
at will offer the best turkey hunting and the least hunter interference.
"Another thing that a USGS topo map can tell you is where streams flow through hollows. Such places can really draw turkeys given the fact that mast bearing trees often live in those hollows. And if you can find a creek hollow that is near a saddle, bench, or flat, then you have really found a hotspot."
Steffen also recommended that hunters visit a national forest site before hunting it. No map or information obtained over the phone or Internet can match personal observations. The biologist has personal experience of that fact.
"Hunters simply cannot gain an intimate knowledge of an area without visiting it," said Steffen. "For example, several years ago turkey biologist Gary Norman and I hiked into a wilderness area that definitely looked great on a topo map. We thought that we would be hunting a mountainside that had hardwood hollows and flats and that would have all kinds of turkeys. Instead, what we found was the side of a mountain that was choked with rhododendron and all kinds of brush. And the turkeys weren't there either."
For more information on hunting the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, call the home office in Roanoke at (540) 265-5100; www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf.com. The names of the ranger districts (with phone numbers in parentheses) are as follows: Blacksburg/Wythe (540-552-4641), Clinch (276-328-2931), Deerfield (540-885-8028), Dry River (540-828-2591), Glenwood/Pedlar (540-291-2188), James River (540-962-2214), Lee (540-984-4101), Mount Rodgers (276-783-5196), New Castle (540-864-5195), and Warm Springs (540-839-2521).
TOP COUNTIES AND SOME SLEEPERS Typically, there is little change from year to year among the counties that make the top 10 list for turkeys harvested in Virginia. Of course, counties move in and out of this honor roll, but, for the most part, even the ones that do drop out usually remain in the top 20 or so. Thus, the counties that offered good hunting last year and were in the top 10 should be alluring destinations for the late season this year.
Last autumn, the top 10 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were Botetourt (388), Bedford (385), Pittsylvania (361), Amelia (329), Halifax (322), Franklin (283), Rockbridge (282), Buckingham (280), Bath (253), and Scott (239). I would find it difficult to pronounce whether the Mountain or the Piedmont region boasts the top fall turkey hunting in the Old Dominion. Six of the top 10 (Bedford, Pittsylvania, Amelia, Halifax, Franklin, and Buckingham) are situated in the rolling hills country of the Piedmont. Meanwhile, a quartet (Botetourt, Rockbridge, Bath, and Scott) is located west of the Blue Ridge. As is happening more and more often, the Tidewater region lacked a representative in the upper echelon.
Looking for common characteristics among the counties in both of the regions, the four mountain domains all contain considerable expanses of national forest land. Bath and Scott counties are extremely rural with no major population centers, making it likely that the turkey population will continue to expand. Rockbridge does have developed areas (Lexington, for example), while Botetourt is losing habitat at a shocking rate as the county becomes more and more of a bedroom community for Roanoke City. Still, both of those counties contain numerous farms and cattle-rearing operations where turkeys thrive.
The top Piedmont counties also have common characteristics. Bedford and Franklin have seen population growth from the Smith Mountain Lake area that they share. Yet, turkeys are still to be found in undeveloped sections that border the lake. In fact, on a striper fishing excursion last April, I heard a mature gobbler repeatedly sounding off from his perch near a well-known marina. The rural areas of Bedford and Franklin also teem with turkeys.
Pittsylvania, Amelia, Halifax, and Buckingham all feature excellent habitat of small to medium-size wood lots intermixed with dairy farms and agricultural areas. Turkey hunting in these counties should remain fabulous in the years to come.
Further insight into where to go this autumn can also be gleaned from studying the counties that lurked below the top ten list and/or that were smaller in size and thus did not make this elite group. A small rural county, for example, that features public land and few towns can often be a better bet than a much larger county.
In the Mountain region, sleeper counties - in alphabetical order - included Alleghany (211), Augusta (216), Craig (193), Floyd (179), Highland (146), Montgomery (179), and Shenandoah (155). Highland is a great example of a county that features a good deal of national forest land and isolated farms. Few people live in this county, which hugs the border of West Virginia, and hunters there often encounter birds that receive relatively little hunting pressure.
For the Piedmont, sleeper counties included Appomattox (190), Charlotte (211), Cumberland (218), Fluvanna (203), Goochland (202), Louisa (210), and Nelson (175). In this part of the state, Cumberland County would be my choice for a fall turkey hunting expedition. The Cumberland State Forest lies in this county, and the rural countryside offers superb turkey habitat.
The Tidewater region also features some sleeper counties. In that category are Caroline (224), King and Queen (157), King William (161), and Prince Edward (183). All of these counties exist far enough from the Greater Norfolk-Virginia Beach area so that urban sprawl and shopping mall creep have not destroyed their rural characteristics.
THE STATE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA POSSIBILITY Throughout the Old Dominion, wildlife management areas exist. However, the vast majority of WMAs that host solid turkey populations lie in the Mountain and Piedmont regions. For readers in Bristol and far western Virginia, the Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres) and Hidden Valley (6,400 acres), WMAs are marvelous choices. For those in the Clifton Forge/Covington area, consider Gathright (13,428 acres). Roanoke and Salem denizens have the Havens (7,190 acres) while Lexington area dwellers can easily travel to Goshen-Little North Mountain (33,697 acres). In the wilds of far northwestern Virginia, the Highland WMA (14,283 acres) is a compelling possibility. All of those management areas lie in the western part of the state.
South of Richmond, the Amelia WMA (2,217 acres) makes for a good choice, and Farmville residents have the Briery Creek WMA (3,164 acres) at their doorsteps. C.F. Phelps (4,539 acres) in an inviting destination in northern Virginia, and west of Richmond lies the Powhatan WMA (4,462 acres). These public domains contribute mightily to Piedmont hunting. For more information, contact the Richmond office of the Virginia Game Department at (804) 367-1000.
HUNTING THE LATE SEASON I sincerely believe that killing a late-season fall turkey is harder than tagging a mature spring gobbler. Here are some things to keep in mind when seeking out late season birds.
- As was true when I was hunting Botetourt County birds last December, late-seas
on turkeys call less than their early season counterparts. So, then, should you. Kee-kees and raucous yelps still have their place, but gentle purrs and clucks can sometimes be more effective.
- If a hollow features scratching made over a series of days, consider sitting there for an entire morning. Sometimes, the best late season tactic is to find a place with lots of sign and wait the birds out.
- Bust up a flock whenever you can. This is one tactic that does not change from the early season. Of course, it the birds appear to be coming toward your position, let them. But if the flock is slowly meandering away from you, set down your shotgun and commence to charge.
- If your schedule permits, hunt the entire day. The more time I spend pursuing a certain flock, the better my odds are at taking a bird from it. Chasing after a flock the entire day also often results in being able to roost it. Wait until the next morning, though, before scattering the birds from their perches.
- The best time to make a bust is about 20 minutes before official sunrise. There will be enough light for you not to stumble about, but not so much light that the birds will fly before you move within busting range.
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