North Carolina Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014

If you're looking to do some North Carolina turkey hunting this spring, this is your one-stop shop for population numbers, harvest info, and hunting opportunities.

About five years ago, residents of Franklin, a small town in North Carolina's southwestern corner, became accustomed to seeing two wild turkeys appear at a fast-food restaurant's parking lot.

"They'd show up every day or three, and people would feed them French fries and stuff," said local NWTF chapter president Tex Corbin. "Then they'd go on their way."

The pair of gobblers, of course, earned the nicknames "Mac" and "Donald."

They grabbed some local notoriety, but other than providing a photo op for tourists, no one thought much about two wild toms in town for a stroll.

But biologists and hunters who observe wild turkeys knew their behavior was unusual. Mostly they understood when wildlife (that isn't black bears) venture into a town to mooch fries and Big Macs, it means the species is healthy — or the natural food supply has dwindled. But food availability never has been a problem for western turkeys.

The region always has had untapped habitat. The late Wayne Bailey, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's first wild-turkey restoration biologist, believed in 1971 the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and their mostly unspoiled 1 million acres held North Carolina's best hope for wild turkey expansion. Bailey and his successors, Brian Hyder and Mike Seamster, put most of their early restocking efforts into the Blue Ridge landscape.

Unfortunately, despite good efforts, their attempts fell flat.

"I was just too dumb (then) to know you couldn't put turkeys trapped in eastern North Carolina (cannon-netted and transported from the sandy region at Fort Bragg's military reservation) to the mountains," the self-effacing biologist once said. "Those habitats were too different for turkeys (from the coastal plain) to survive. They didn't know where to find food."

But Bailey, as Tar Heel sportsmen are discovering, wasn't entirely wrong.

Like gamblers feeding the slots at the Cherokee Harrah's for days on end, only to finally hit the jackpot, the WRC's travails finally tilted the odds in the turkeys' favor.

Since about 2005, North Carolina's spring-season harvests numbers have shown the old hunter/biologist was correct about western North Carolina. The state's biggest flocks of toms and hens now gobble, cluck and strut where blue smoke hovers over mountain tops.

Evin Stanford, the WRC's current wild turkey lead biologist, summed it up best: "I guess at one time, the philosophy of all biologists was wild turkeys needed large blocks of unbroken hardwoods to thrive and wouldn't do well in broken-up landscapes.

"I think everybody thought restoration would do better in western North Carolina, with all the national forests and hardwood stands. We learned over time we were wrong about that in some respects."

As they learned more, the WRC biologists started acquiring Eastern turkeys from states with mountainous terrain. Those birds took hold and their numbers multiplied. Soon reports of 50- to 100-turkey flocks, especially at northwestern counties, became legendary.

Tar Heel sportsmen shouldn't be too surprised to learn western North Carolina's game lands have led the state in gobbler kills since 2007, including this past spring. The 2013 total harvest of 18,409 birds set yet another record, the seventh straight year it topped the previous year's mark. But more stunningly, the 2013 total was a quantum leap toward 20,000 birds.

Eight years ago the state's total harvest finally eclipsed the 10K mark (2006, 11,706 turkeys). Ten years earlier (1996) the total was 2,559.

Since 2006-07, North Carolina's year-to-year turkey-kill increase has swung from plus-700 to 1200 birds. But 2013's increase of 2,958 — 2012's total take was 15,451 birds — was the largest (17 percent) numerical jump from one season to the next in WRC annals.

For years North Carolina's turkey harvests trailed other southeastern states by a wide margin, but 2013 compares favorably.

Not only that, but the state's wild bird population is growing, while the populations of many southern states is falling. It's as if someone or something ignited a rocket booster to push North Carolina turkeys into a higher orbit while other southern states are starting to fall back to earth.

But to return to the beginning of the story, if a 2014 spring-season turkey hunter in North Carolina wants to have the best chance to fill his two tags, he should consider going west — to game lands or private property — to Blue Ridge or foothills counties or to the northeastern or north-central piedmont.

District 8's 11 counties surrounding Asheville — on the western side of the Catawba River drainage and everything in between to the Broad River drainage — had a state-best total of 2,450 recorded turkey kills in 2013. District 8 led the state in total downed birds for the second straight year.

The kill total included a District-best 406 in Rutherford County — even though that county is partitioned by three major highways, U.S. 64, 74 and 221. Only a tiny portion in the northern tip of Rutherford includes game lands (South Mountains), so hunters killed most of their turkeys on private land.

Burke County, split by the I-40 corridor and with Morganton at its center, rated second in District 8 with 333 tagged birds. But Burke has Lake James and the Catawba drainage slicing through its middle and includes the great Johns River Game Land, part of South Mountains (southern boundary) and a large chunk of the massive Pisgah Game Lands. Two more good turkey areas include the Little River Tract north of Lake James and the Black Bear Tract northwest of that lake.

McDowell County, bordering Burke on the west and with 303 turkeys tagged last spring, ranked third in that district. McDowell also contains part of Lake James' drainage and its northern half lies completely inside the Pisgah National Forest.

"There's no doubt turkeys in the west have come on strong," Stanford said. "There's a lot of habitat out there for turkeys. Apparently more people are moving to the area and many of them hunt turkeys."

North Carolina's second-ranked region for wild turkey harvests this past spring was District 3 (2,415 tagged birds).

"That's not surprising because several counties in that district have led the state in individual turkey harvest for years," Stanford said. "(The region) has a lot of habitat, including big agricultural crop fields, good pasture land for young turkeys to find insects to eat and big swamps that offer safety in roosting areas. The Roanoke River drainage, the state's best turkey habitat, also is in this district and it also has the Roanoke River game lands and national wildlife refuge."

Northampton County, on the northern side of the river, includes federally-owned land that's part of the national wildlife refuge. In addition it has thousands of acres of private land, including several hunting preserves. Northampton led the state with 571 record turkey kills in 2013.

Halifax County borders Northampton on the south side of the Roanoke and ranked second in 2013 turkey harvests (539). The Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land is south of the river, that portion of the game land managed by the WRC (hunting for deer continued during the October 2013 federal property shutdown because the south-of-the-river land is state-controlled).

"These two counties often rank 1-2 in deer harvests each year," Stanford said. "It's obvious good deer habitat usually has turkeys."

The only portion of the state where that formula doesn't seem to work is in the far-western mountains. A traditionally small deer population in that region, caused by almost no agricultural crops because of the rocky landscape, a majority of old-growth forests at federal lands, perhaps too much pressure from hunting a small deer herd and no stockings have kept whitetail numbers low, even as the region's turkey harvests have skyrocketed.

Bertie County, which borders Halifax and Northampton on their southwest corners, provided 350 tagged turkeys in 2013 for District 3. Edgecombe County, another District 3 region with a border on the Roanoke River, saw 257 turkey tags filled in 2013. Warren County notched 273 while bordering Franklin County added 251 birds.

District 5, which includes 11 counties from Lee in the south to Rockingham, Caswell, Person and Granville side-by-side at the Virginia border, ranked third last spring with 2282 tagged turkeys.

Rockingham County was fourth in the state with 457 birds while Caswell was sixth at 350. Granville (another deer haven) boasted 262 tagged birds for District 5, while Person added 242. Those four counties also share the Dan River drainage.

Rockingham also contains the Mayo and parts of the Haw River drainages in its southern portion. It's the only North Carolina county with three major rivers flowing through it.

Each county has large farms, agricultural crops, pastures, hardwood slopes and many dedicated turkey hunters.

District 2, stretching from the central coastal region to the Cape Fear region, rated fourth with 2262 birds, only 20 less than District 5.

Pender County, north of Wilmington and containing two large game lands (Holly Shelter, Angola Bay), provided a large portion of District 2's harvest with 374 turkey kills (7th in the state). Duplin borders Pender on the north and totaled 320 turkeys.

Onslow, containing half of the Hoffman National Forest, notched 253 turkeys in 2013 while Jones, with the other half of Hoffman, recorded 212 tagged birds. Craven County, containing the northern half of Croatan National Forest, boasted 304 turkey kills, while Carteret County (with the southern half) added 104.

District 7 in the northwestern corner of the state (foothills and some Blue Ridge counties) ranked 5th with 2213 turkey kills.

The district contains the second-best WNC county, Wilkes (364 birds), which ranked No. 8 overall. Almost all of Wilkes' land is privately owned, with only two small game lands (Thurmond Chatham and Kerr Scott). Bustling Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro also are located at the heart of the county. But the region has some of North Carolina's top turkey callers/hunters and plenty of first-rate private habitat.

Stokes is a foothills county (341 tagged birds) with only a few small towns, but it has a de facto wildlife sanctuary (Hanging Rock State Park) at its center, providing a haven for turkeys and deer. Ashe County added 261 turkey kills.

District 9 in the southwestern corner was 6th with 1967 birds. Almost the entire 12 counties in D9 are in the Nantahala National Forest. The Cold Mountain, Needmore and Toxaway game lands are in D9. Surprisingly, Buncombe County, with Asheville at its center, led the district with 275 birds taken. For its part, Cherokee County added 200 turkey kills.

District 6, in the south-central piedmont stretching from Davidson County (248 birds) to Anson (239 turkeys) on the South Carolina border, rated 7th (1744 total tags). Rowan County led that region with 309 recorded kills while Moore added 220 and Montgomery 208.

District 4 in the southeastern corner of the state is marked by the Cape Fear River drainage and ranked 8th (1648 turkeys). Bladen County, with sprawling Bladen Lakes State Park and Suggs Mill Pond game lands, also has tremendous private-land habitat (soybean and corn fields plus pasture land) that grows turkeys (490 birds in 2013, the state's No. 3 ranking). Columbus County added 316 tagged birds while Sampson County to the north contributed 238 turkeys. The Green Swamp and Juniper Creek game lands spread across much of Brunswick County, where hunters tagged 202 birds in 2013.

If it weren't for District 1's eight northeastern-corner coastal counties — where turkeys are as rare as a compromising politician — the 13-county region (most district counties in the state) would rank higher than 9th. Dare County didn't help District 1's 1325 total with zero (0) tagged birds and was the only North Carolina county with no turkeys taken last spring. Five other District 1 counties reported fewer than 50 gobbler kills.

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