The bad news? North Carolina's turkey hunters bagged 8 percent fewer birds than they did 2013.
The good news? The decline really didn't matter because it was still the second-highest gobbler kill on record.
Evin Stanford, who was 2013 North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission wild turkey biologist, said the 16,912 birds that hunters tagged last spring actually kept the state's harvest statistics right on track.
"A harvest decrease for this past season was not at all unexpected, given the tremendous harvest increase we observed in 2013 and the fact this past season followed two years of record low wild-turkey productivity," he said.
In theory, Tar Heel State turkey hunters should have tagged fewer birds during 2013 following a poor 2012 (1.6 poults) spring. So Stanford considered 2013's off-the-charts harvest actually the anomaly, not 2014's decline.
But Chris Kreh, the former District 7 biologist who became the WRC's turkey biologist on September 1, 2014, said hunters who chase longbeards April 11 to May 9, 2015 (and during the special Youth Turkey season of April 4-10) shouldn't worry. Although the final 2014 brood survey wasn't complete before this story's deadline, he said a new manner of compiling figures should indicate North Carolina's turkey population is stable.
It should be noted that if the 2015 turkey harvest drops, it'll be a third consecutive year and that's never happened in North Carolina.
So the question now becomes for 2015 hunters: "Where are the best places to go to have the best chance to hear a gobbler and lure him within shotgun range?"
The answer, as such things usually are, is hidden in the details, and the best place a hunter can look with any hope of finding a passable answer, is 2014's county and regional harvest statistics.
Determining the landscapes in the Tar Heel State with the best turkey habitat isn't easy because "best" depends on the criteria one chooses to use and where a hunter lives. So the choices become: (a) "Do I want to drive a long distance in hopes of getting in the middle of a big flock?" and (b) "Are there enough turkeys locally I don't have to drive 500 miles to find a gobbler?" The answers to these questions also depend on private-vs.-public-lands issues.
Happily for turkey hunters, the situation has changed over the years. During the last 20 years, because of WRC re-stocking efforts, wild birds have spread into each of the state's 100 counties.
For two decades the WRC used extensive cannon-net-trapping and relocation efforts — and NWTF matching funds to purchase wild, trapped birds from other states — until turkeys inhabited every habitat nook and cranny from Dare County's Atlantic Coast beaches to the slopes of Parson Bald in Cherokee County near the Georgia-Tennessee border.
Wild turkey releases typically included 14 adult hens and two gobblers at each site. After focusing first on piedmont/central North Carolina counties for turkey releases, today most central North Carolina counties have turkeys, including heavily-developed Forsyth and Guilford.
"I don't think there's any better place to hunt turkeys today than along the Dan River drainage," said Marshall Collette of Greensboro, a long-time Quaker Boy pro staff member, former North Carolina Wild Turkey Federation president, and hunting guide. "I think the (Dan) river bottoms in Rockingham County (north of Guilford) have some of the best places in the state for wild turkeys."
Rockingham County rated fourth in 2014 spring-gobbler harvests with 406 tagged birds.
"Lots of times we'll have three gobblers coming to calls when I take clients turkey hunting at Willow Oak Plantation (Rockingham County)," Collette said. "All the land we hunt is on the Dan River's shoreline.
"I know other places in North Carolina have good numbers of turkeys. If you want to see large flocks, just go to Ashe, Stokes or Alleghany (counties in northwestern North Carolina). They got some huge bunches of birds up there.
"But I just don't go there anymore because there's so many Rockingham turkeys."
East Becomes a Beast
Eastern North Carolina was the WRC's second restocking target during the '80s and mid-1990s. Reaching the agency's restocking goal was made easier because of native birds that lived along the Roanoke, Neuse and Cape Fear river drainages.
With a few strategic WRC releases, turkeys quickly overspread most eastern North Carolina public and private lands, particularly in the northeastern peanut belt counties.
But private lands there benefited the most.
Halifax County led the state's 2014 spring turkey harvests with 568 tagged turkeys while next-door Northampton County followed with 502. The two northeastern Peanut Belt counties were the only two with more than 500 shot birds last spring. Moreover, they haven't been challenged as North Carolina turkey-harvest leaders during the past 20 years.
One of the best public lands for turkeys is the northeast's Roanoke River Wetlands Game Lands and National Wildlife Refuge. Portions of this large game land on the north side of the river — in Northampton, Halifax, Bertie, Martin and Washington counties — are owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but are administered as WRC game lands. The WRC owns the southern-banks game lands, but they feature the same hunting regulations.
However, although the Roanoke River game lands teem with turkeys, harvest totals don't compare to nearby private lands, probably because access is permit-restricted (see the WRC's "Public Hunting Opportunities in North Carolina 2014-2015" booklet for how to obtain a permit to hunt this game land).
Happily, many hunting preserves and other private lands exist in Halifax and Northampton counties and cater to turkey hunters. Some preserves have "cast-and-blast" specials that include morning hunts and striped-bass fishing during afternoon hours.
(Note: Some farmers allow hunters on their land in the spring to take "depredating" turkeys they claim ruin truck crops, such as tomatoes).
Southeastern North Carolina proved a little tougher to fill with wild turkeys, but once they were released by the WRC, restocked birds quickly filled habitats along the Black, Cape Fear, Lumber, Neuse, NE Cape Fear, Pamlico and South rivers drainages.
Four of 2014's top harvest counties — Bladen, Duplin, Onslow and Pender — were in the southeast.
Bladen County, in fact, had last spring's third-best turkey total with 467 tagged-by-hunters birds. Duplin was No. 5 with 387, with Pender number 6 at 383 and Onslow in eighth place at 336.
The west proved to be the toughest nut to crack for restocking.
The 1 million acres of game lands (Pisgah and Nantahala National Forest in the Great Smoky Mountains) seemed perfect for wild turkeys in the early restoration days. But turkey habitat was, for the most part, marginal. Federal policy in the 1980s that ended timber cutting, even thinning, in national forests meant a high-canopy, old-growth landscape covered most of those 1 million public acres, except for a few scattered balds and adjacent privately-owned pastures.
Turkeys require new growth (that springs up at timbered lands). That requirement is especially true for poults, who survive their first few weeks by eating insects, mostly grasshoppers. Try finding a grasshopper at, for instance, Joyce Kilmer National Forest.
However, the northwestern corner of the state (Ashe, Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes) had more private land with hardwood slopes, fields and pastures. Once wild turkeys were transplanted at the northwest, their numbers exploded. Multiple flocks totaling 30 to 50 birds aren't unusual today.
Restocked public lands in the southwestern Smokies also eventually saw turkey numbers increase. The restrictive elements today in western turkey hunting are its mountains. So western birds are now more numerous but remain tough to hunt.
Public-lands turkey hunting decisions aren't glaringly easy when looking at harvest data because the western landscape, where most turkeys are killed at game lands, is so vast and steeply inclined.
The two national forests (Pisgah and Nantahala), covering 1/2-million acres apiece, are each much larger than any other state game land. In fact, the top eight 2014 game-lands harvest counties for turkeys were at counties inside those two national forests. But total kills are low.
Graham County, with 79 tagged birds, led 2014 game-lands harvests. Next-door Cherokee County rated second with 70 turkeys, followed by another Nantahala county, Macon, with 69. Similarly, Jackson County was fourth with 55 birds. Burke, McDowell, Madison and Buncombe in the Pisgah NF group broke the Nantahala's string and rated 5th through 8th with 50, 43, 32 and 26 birds, respectively.
But the total number of birds taken in the top-10 western counties with gamelands is 417 birds — 151 fewer turkeys than were taken in the one county — Halifax — that led the sate in turkeys tagged.
Two game lands outside the Pisgah-Nantahala umbrella — Bladen Lakes State Forest and Uwharrie National Forest — cracked the top 10 for 2014 turkey kills. But hunters only bagged 25 and 23 birds, respectively, at those spots (Uwharrie is in the piedmont and Bladen Lakes in the east).
Although overall, public lands provided only 6 percent (1,006 birds) of 2014's total harvest, specific spots may hold enough turkeys to deserve interest.
For instance, anyone who gains hunting permission at property adjoining the Asheville Watershed (22,000 acres surrounding the city of Asheville) may find a good situation. The wildlife-sanctuary watershed doesn't allow hunting, but turkeys often wander onto and off that property (and the northeastern corner joins a section of Pisgah National Forest where hunting is allowed).
In the piedmont, Triangle-area hunters know big flocks of turkeys live near and are inside the Butner-Falls of the Neuse, Jordan Lake and Caswell game lands.
Tactical Tip: Outwaiting Gobblers
Enticing a Tar Heel wild turkey gobbler to come to a hidden hunter's calls often is a matter of patience — which a lot of hunters don't have.
"It's easy to (1) get too close to a gobbler when he's calling from a tree and (2) call too much when he's sounding off on a roost early in the morning," said Barry Joyce, a retired WRC enforcement officer who now owns and operates Hyco Lake Marina & Outfitters in Person County.
Joyce, who hunts turkeys primarily with a bow and arrow, understands the importance of getting a wild bird within shooting range.
"Sound does funny things in the morning," he said. "You'll think a gobbler is a lot farther away than he really is, and you can (get too close and) bump him (off the roost), and there goes your hunt. But the thing is you know he's up there because you've heard him gobble. So don't bump him or rush him."
Joyce said he'll choose an ambush spot and wait for the gobbler to fly down from his perch, and then he will call to him.
"If I want to speed up things, sometimes I'll do a hen fly-down cackle and beat my cap against my pants leg (to mimic) a hen's wings when she flies down (from her roost)," he said.
"A lot of times gobblers will come in silent. So don't worry if he doesn't gobble a lot after he's on the ground."