After last year's decline in the fall turkey harvest, hunters now more than ever need to scout their birds. Here's where to find your Christmas turkey.
By Bruce Ingram
It was the morning of the night before Christmas and all through the house, the only sounds stirring were not coming from a mouse but from me as I dressed to go fall turkey hunting.
My good friend Scott Guilliams of Roanoke and I had planned to pursue birds on a Franklin County farm near Ferrum where I had killed a gobbler the previous spring. In earlier autumn visits there, the farm had hosted good numbers of birds, and I was quite optimistic about our chances.
But optimism doesn't always produce drumsticks and by 10:00 a.m., Scott and I had covered the farm's environs and failed to score. I then suggested that we head to a farm in the Boones Mill area - another place where birds had been abundant in the past. Upon arriving, I instructed Scott to walk a ridgeline while I made my way through the hollow below. Five minutes after we parted, I saw fresh scratchings and moments later I very clearly heard the sounds of a flock foraging toward me. Quickly I set up against a tulip poplar.
Only then did I realize that I was in an untenable position. Because the flock feeding toward me had the sun directly behind it and the light was shining straight into my eyes. Closer and closer the gang came, yet I could not shoot. I could see "bits and pieces" of feeding birds - a leg here, a wing there, and occasionally a tail - but never did a shot present itself that I felt confident enough to take even though the turkeys were just 15 or so yards away. The sun crosses the horizon at a lower angle during the winter months, and the beams, the poplar, the turkeys and I had lined up in the worst possible way.
Another reason I was hesitant to shoot was because I wasn't sure where Scott was. Had he moved in behind the birds where I couldn't see him as well (because of the sun's angle)? While I waited for the sun to go behind a cloud or the direction of the assemblage to alter, the answer came to where my cohort was. A shot rang out and then another and seconds later, I heard a loud thud.
Scott Guilliams of Roanoke kneels beside a Franklin County turkey he killed the day before Christmas last season. Photo by Bruce Ingram
Shortly afterwards, Guilliams was at my side, explaining that he fired once to scatter the flock and upon doing so, one luckless turkey had flown into a tree directly above Scott. Then came the second shot, and the resultant noise was the aftermath of a dead bird falling to the forest floor. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to call in the scattered flock, but no bird ever answered my summons or appeared. Scott went home with Christmas dinner.
December is my favorite time to chase after Virginia's fall turkey flocks. Both public and private lands are virtually void of hunters, and most years both categories of real estate contain sufficient numbers of flocks to duel with. The key - and more on this topic to come later - is dedicating three to five days of your time to locate and possibly pattern a flock.
Even more important, however, in terms of finding birds is whether there are plenty of turkeys to locate. Last year, the harvest of 8,084 was 32 percent lower than the 2001 total of 11,891. Gary Norman, forest game project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) sited a poor hatch - the recruitment index was an extremely low 1.4 per adult hen - for the harvest decline.
Although at press time the results for this year's hatch were not in, I am able to list some of the better places to prospect for birds this autumn.
THE TRADITIONAL DESTINATION: THE NATIONAL FOREST Dave Steffen, research biologist supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), relates that the 1.8 million acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest maintains its popularity as a traditional destination for fall turkey hunters.
"There may be public hunting areas that are managed more intensively for turkeys, but none of them are used more for fall turkey hunting than the national forest," he says. "The Washington and Jefferson is our largest in terms of acreage and of use. Nearly 20 percent of all fall turkey hunting man-days statewide takes place in the national forest and 35 percent of the hunting West of the Blue Ridge occurs there. Those figures show just how important this public land is to turkey hunters."
To put those numbers in perspective, just 3 percent of fall turkey hunting takes place on the state's wildlife management areas and only 1 percent occurs on military lands. Steffen says that the VDGIF conducted a survey to learn what turkey hunters want out of their hunting experience. Some 26 attributes were listed and two of the highest rated ones were "getting away from civilization" and "seeing few other hunters." The game biologist emphasizes that the vastness of the national forest gives sportsmen the ability to achieve both of those goals.
Other attributes that hunters listed were "being with friends" and "seeing birds." Not surprisingly, many individuals listed the importance of just having the opportunity to pursue turkeys. Well down the list, continues Steffen, was there a ranking for actually killing a turkey. The biologist was not surprised because it is well known that killing something "is not one of the most important aspects concerning why hunters go hunting," he said.
To hunt the national forest, Steffen suggests that sportsmen follow these steps. First, contact the ranger district closest to you or the one on which you would most like to go afield. Ask about the turkey population, especially if many birds have been sighted this autumn. Then, request ranger-district maps that display the land's general contour and give roads, drainages, boundary lines and place names.
The biologist then recommends that interested individuals obtain a more detailed topo map of the area that they would like to hunt. Companies such as Maptech produce detailed topo maps on CD-ROM. The United State Geological Service also creates excellent contour maps, and these are often available at local sporting goods stores.
Steffen says he likes to ascertain where gated roads are, especially if these travelways have been seeded with some form of perennial vegetation. Roads that lead to wildlife clearings, prescribed burns or other kinds of habitat diversity are well worth the time to check out.
"One of the real values in hunting today is the $3.00 national forest stamp," says Steffen. "And there is no question that there is less hunting pressure on the national forest than it was a decade ago because of the continuing decline i
n hunter numbers. So don't buy into that notion that the national forest is badly over hunted. That's simply not true, especially during the second half of Virginia's fall turkey season in December and early January (the season closes the first Saturday in January)."
For more information on the Washington and Jefferson, contact the national forest at (540) 265-5100, www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj.
STATE WMAS According to a VDGIF survey, the 20 percent of fall turkey-hunting man-days on the national forest translates into the Washington and Jefferson accounting for 86 percent of all public hunting for fall turkeys. This means that approximately 14 percent of public hunting occurs on the state WMAs. Thirty WMAs are open to hunting and together they encompass approximately 190,000 acres.
Since the WMAs total a little more than 10 percent of the public land in the Old Dominion and the hunting pressure accounts for about 14 percent of that which takes place, the state WMAs, as a group, are neither over or under hunted in comparison with the national forest. Steffen notes, however, that since the Piedmont and Tidewater regions lack the public land that the Mountain region does, the WMAs in those two sectors likely receive more of a hunter presence than WMAs West of the Blue Ridge do.
Generally, another reason the Mountain WMAs receive less hunting pressure per square mile is that they are larger in size, and thus hunters are more spread out. The Goshen-Little North Mountain WMA (33,697 acres) is an excellent example of this theory. Sportsmen in the Lexington and Buena Vista areas should find this mountainous WMA to their liking.
The Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres) and the Hidden Valley WMA (6,400 acres) offer excellent public hunting for individuals who live in Bristol, Abington, Marion or the general far Western Virginia area. The Havens WMA (7,190 acres) has long been a magnet for Roanoke, Salem and Vinton sportsmen.
The Gathright WMA (13,428 acres) is where many turkeys around the state have their genealogical roots. That's because this WMA was a popular place for biologists involved with the VDGIF's trap and transfer program to get "seed" turkeys for the rest of the state. This program helps re-establish the Commonwealth's turkey flock. Today, Gathright is a viable destination for hunters living in the Clifton Forge and Covington communities.
Greater Richmond area hunters should consider the Amelia WMA (2,217 acres), although this public land has a reputation for receiving a goodly amount of hunting pressure early in the season. Another bet for Richmonders is the Powhatan WMA (4,462 acres). The Briery Creek WMA (3,164 acres) is a popular public land in the Farmville area, and northern Virginians have the C.F. Phelps (4,539 acres) and the Rapidan (10,326 acres) WMAs. Tidewater dwellers have only one real choice, the Chickahominy WMA (5,217 acres) near Providence Forge.
For more information on the state's WMAs, consult the VDGIF's Website: www.dgif.state.va.us.
BEST COUNTIES Last year, the Top 10 harvest counties were all in either the Mountain or Piedmont regions. Those counties (with harvest total in parentheses) were Botetourt (265), Scott (265), Bedford (246), Alleghany (208), Franklin (205), Rockbridge (201), Bath (197), Pittsylvania (196), Grayson (182) and Bland (170). These figures show that seven of the Top 10 counties were West of the Blue Ridge: only Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania are east of the Blue Ridge. And, Bedford and Franklin, border the Mountain Region.
All seven Mountain counties contain national forest land and Bedford in its western reaches possesses some national forest real estate. This fact is certainly good news for the individual who does not have access to private land.
Statewide, the following is a list of all counties (in alphabetical order) that recorded harvests of over 130 birds: Amelia (168), Augusta (162), Buckingham (163), Caroline (153), Carroll (139), Craig (146), Dickenson (162), Floyd (132), Giles (153), Goochland (132), Halifax (159), Shenandoah (137) and Wythe (132). Among these 13 counties, all lie in the Mountain or Piedmont regions except Caroline. Some obvious advice for Tidewater residents would be to try to gain access to some private land in Caroline County.
Overall, 4,125 turkeys were checked in East of the Blue Ridge, with the greatest percentage of those, of course, coming from the Piedmont region. The harvest decreased a whopping 44.8 percent from the 2001 total of 7,477. West of the Blue Ridge, the total harvest was 3,959, a decline of 10.3 percent from the 2001 tally of 4,414. The majority of counties in all regions endured a harvest decline, again, primarily because of the poor hatch during the spring of 2002.
The North Mountain sector recorded a harvest of 1,274, a decrease of 19.8 percent, while the South Mountain had a harvest of 2,685, for a small decline of 5.0 percent. The North Piedmont experienced a harvest of 1,104, for a drop of 46.5 percent, while the South Piedmont had a similar precipitous drop with a harvest of 2,309, for a decline of 44.3. As usual, the Tidewater region brought up the rear with a harvest of 693 - a decrease of 44.8 from 2001.
Virginians are allowed to harvest three turkeys per combined fall and spring seasons. They can take either one or two birds of either sex in the fall. If, for example, an individual kills two turkeys this fall, he still has one tag left for the spring of 2004. Some people save all three tags for the spring, but in my opinion, those who do so miss out on some exciting autumn sport.
HOW TO TIPS Here are four quick tips that will hopefully make your fall turkey hunting outings more productive this year.
First, be in the woods as much as possible. If at all possible, allot three to five days to finding and patterning a flock. Since the second half of the fall turkey season falls during the Christmas holidays when many people are off work, such a plan is possible. I have found late season birds much harder to find and call in than turkeys from the early season. The more time you can spend observing a flock's feeding preferences, its roosting area and travel patterns, the higher your odds for success. Spring gobbler hunters can hunt an area one morning and with the presence or absence of gobbling, determine if the locale is worth visiting the next day. Fall enthusiasts may have to spend an entire day on a particular section of woods to determine its potential.
Second, use a decoy. Many spring gobbler hunters rely a great deal on decoys, believing that they both calm and attract birds. The same plusses concerning decoys apply to fall turkey hunting. I like to set out a decoy or two within 20 to 30 yards of where I have set up. A jake or jenny hearing kee-kees and seeing "fellow turkeys" is much more likely to come in than a bird that only has auditory clues. As is true in the spring, do not deploy decoys if you are hunting on land that is heavily pressured or if you sus
pect that someone else is using that property on the day you are there.
Third, look for scratchings - they are the best sign to find. Feathers, droppings and tracks are all nice to locate, but scratchings are by far the sign to base a game plan around. Look for scratchings that are damp on the inside and have no dried leaves on the outside of their rings. Another favorable indication is when you find fresh, medium-aged and old scratchings in a locale. That indicates that the birds are regularly visiting.
Fourth, try building a blind. Both fall and spring turkey chasers infrequently construct blinds. But if you have located an area that has scratchings of different vintages, then that locale is a prime one to construct a hiding place. Fallen pine or cedar boughs are the best main cover ingredients for blinds. Mix those evergreens with branches and limbs that lie on the forest floor and use leaves to fill in the chinks. A triangular shaped blind works well, and the point should face outward from the bole of a mature tree. Don't build a blind so high that you have trouble shooting over it.
The 2002 fall turkey season saw harvest declines around the state in most of Virginia's counties. But if more favorable weather conditions occurred during the brooding and rearing periods in your home county this past spring and summer, then look for turkey numbers to bounce back this autumn.
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