The Botetourt County dairy farm is one of my favorite places to fall turkey hunt as the corn fields, pastures, and mountainous forest adjoining the spread supply plenty of food and roosting areas for flocks. So, I wasn’t really surprised when dawn broke on opening day last October to hear four separate gangs greet first light.
I had set up about one-third up the mountain, and both above and below me were the sounds of young bird dominated flocks making kee-kees. To the west, two gobbler flocks announced their presence, one gathering consisting of longbeards, the other of very mouthy jakes, each member attempting to out gobble his comrades. With so many birds around me, I decided to just sit tight, call frequently, and wait for members of any of those various flocks to meander by my position.
Before daybreak that had seemed like a grand plan, but three hours later nary a bird had ventured by. I then walked up the mountain trying to engage a flock and failed to find one. Then I rambled to a cornfield only to witness the flock of mature gobblers scudding away from me — predictably they had seen me before I them. I next moved to the edge of a pasture, and, peaking into the field, saw a flock feeding about 75 yards away.
Edging up to a tree, I decided to linger until the flock moved within 50 yards or so and then scatter the assemblage and call the birds back in. But while waiting, yet another flock strolled by, and soon I had a jenny over my shoulder and was heading for the pickup. And, yes, my wife Elaine and I dined on wild turkey for Thanksgiving a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, for many fall turkey enthusiasts, the 2017-18 harvest of 2,132 showed a waning of 24 percent compared to the previous season. The harvest drop was uniform statewide with the East of the Blue Ridge counties recording a 24 percent decline and the West of the Blue Ridge domains a 25 percent one.
Gary Norman, wild turkey project leader for the Virginia Game Department (DGIF), told me that three major reasons existed for the drop: a poor hatch, spotty mast production and a decline in the hunter participation rate.
Norman says that the 2017 hatch ratio was 2.3 poults per hen, below the long-term average of 2.5 and the 3.0 that, at the very least, both biologists and hunters like to see occur. Many sportsmen don’t understand that it is not predators and hunters that have the largest effect on turkey numbers — the major factor is simply the weather. A rainy May can impact nesting success as can unseasonably cold, wet weather in late May and early June when poults are hatching. Inclement weather then can result in the poults’ experiencing hypothermia and dying in great numbers. Unfortunately, a rainy May and a cold, wet hatching season both occurred in 2017.
The spotty mast crop also had an effect on hunter success. Harvest rates are highest when the acorn crop fails, and flocks have to travel great distances, making them visible to more hunters. The acorn crop was spotty last year, meaning some areas had lots of acorns, others few or none. For example, Norman says that Northern Virginia offered the most challenging hunting in the state last autumn because the acorn crop was so abundant. The southernmost counties in the state experienced better harvests because their acorn crop was so poor.
To Norman, one of the most troubling aspects of the harvest decline is that the number of sportsmen that go afield for turkeys come autumn continues to decrease. Simply stated, the popularity of October bowhunting has come at the expense of fall turkey hunting. To increase the number of fall turkey hunters, the DGIF has initiated an annual youth and apprentice fall turkey hunting weekend and a mid-January winter season of several weeks.
The biologist told me that when the department conducts its next hunter survey, he hopes to add some questions about youth/apprentice hunts and the January season. The harvest for both has been low, but has that been because of poor participation or good participation and low success rates? A survey could hopefully resolve those questions. “When we requested the [winter] season, we indicated we would monitor the number of birds harvested in January and if necessary reduce (to one week) or eliminate,” concludes Norman. “Thus far, the harvest isn’t raising any biological concerns. We’ve built it, I only hope they [the hunters] come.”
WHERE TO GO
Many, if not most turkey harvest reports give the kill per county and then proceed with the top 10 or 20 list of the domains where the most birds were checked in. Those figures are all well and good, I suppose, but if you really want to know where to go this year on private land, peruse the harvest rate per square mile of suitable habitat figures from last year. Large counties garner the most acclaim in overall harvest rates simply because they are larger in size. The square mile of suitable habitat rates, to be blunt, tell the real story of a county’s turkey population.
Last year, in alphabetical order, are the counties with a harvest rate at .10 or better: Bedford (.11), Botetourt (.10), Craig (.19), Cumberland (.13), Floyd (.17), Giles (.11), Grayson (.10), King William (.13) and Montgomery (.18). All of these counties would be well worth a visit this autumn if sportsmen can gain access to private land.
Regarding public land, the some 1.8 million acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest always has to be under consideration. Zach Kyle is an avid public land turkey hunter from Troutville. He details what he looks for in the mountainous terrain that makes up the GWJ.
“National forest turkeys like to roost on pine ridges that have a bench or a little flat somewhere below them,” he says. “Those pine ridges should feed into hardwood hollows below them that have a creek or a spring inside. Now if you really want a perfect situation, those hardwood hollows should have private land fields below them.”
Kyle likes to set up along the spines between the roosting spots and the coves or intercept birds as they move from the hollows to the fields. He suggests that hunters find places like these by using a Google Earth search and/or by contacting the forest service and downloading or purchasing maps. But nothing beats, Kyle emphasizes, going into the national forest and doing onsite reconnaissance.
“The best sign to find when you are scouting — and it’s almost as good as seeing or hearing turkeys — is fresh scratching,” says Kyle. “I’ll go from hardwood hollow to hardwood hollow just looking for scratching.”
Regarding tactics, the Troutville sportsman says the typical two options are run and gunning and sitting still for long periods and calling periodically. The former is often the best choice in the fall, he says, the latter rates the nod in the spring.
While the national forest is a prime option for western hunters, folks living in the western piedmont have a quality destination in the form of the 5,321-acre Fairystone Farms WMA, located in Patrick and Henry counties, says wildlife biologist Dan Lovelace.
“Fairystone Farms is surrounded by the Corps of Engineers property Philpott Lake and by Fairy Stone State Park,” says Lovelace. “Cooperative agreements with these two agencies allow public hunting on an additional 9,000 acres of land. Numerous forest openings planted with wheat and clover can be found scattered within the Fairystone Farms WMA. These openings along with recent timber harvest areas provide excellent food and cover for wildlife species. The terrain ranges from rolling hills to moderately steep mountain hillsides. An extensive road and trail system provides easy access to the area.”
Numerous other quality WMAs exist around the Commonwealth. Tidewater residents have the Cavalier WMA with its 750 acres in the Dismal Swamp and another 3,800 acres on the North Carolina line. Another Tidewater WMA that traditionally provides superb sport is the 5,217-acre Chickahominy in Westmoreland, Richmond and Essex counties.
The central Piedmont claims the 16,222-acre Cumberland State Forest and the 19,808 Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest. Also offering potential in this area are the 2,800-acre Featherfin WMA in Prince Edward County and Amelia County’s 2,217-acre Amelia WMA.
Improving all Wildlife Habitat
Christiansburg’s Andy Rosenberger is one of five private land biologists under the umbrella of the DGIF, NRCS and Virginia Tech. I asked him what private landowners could do to improve wildlife habitat for not only turkeys but also grouse, quail and other game and nongame species.
“Basically, it comes down to the fact that the vast majority of Virginia’s land is held by private landowners,” he says. “If we’re going to have better habitat for game birds, we have to take the private land component into consideration. Just concentrating on public land is not going to get the job done, especially for quail.”
Rosenberger continued, “Although we do have pockets of good quail habitat in the western part of the state, the best opportunity to bring back the bob in Virginia is to conduct habitat improvement projects in the east. There are simply more farms and other private lands there to work with.”
I asked Rosenberger what the biggest misconception is, statewide, that landowners have about their properties. “The typical Virginia landowner, east or west, believes that if he has a stand of timber, he is in good shape regarding habitat and wildlife,” says the biologist. “What these landowners don’t understand is that they need timber stands that feature all stages of growth and age. The more diversity that exists in a forest, the better the habitat is for deer, turkeys, bears, grouse, quail, numerous species of songbirds and all matter of game and nongame animals.”
Rosenberger says that the average private land in the Old Dominion falls under one of these three classifications: cows, crops or houses. The areas that aren’t in these three categories have turned into mature forests, which is not good for wildlife. We simply lack the “in-between habitat stages” says the biologist.
“For quail and grouse, we especially need more old field and young forest habitat,” continues Rosenberger. “Those two habitat forms are not well represented in the Virginia landscape. One of the biggest goals of the private lands biologists statewide is to educate the public on that fact. In short, if you want a diversity of wildlife, from songbirds to game animals, on your property, you have to have a diversity of wildlife habitat. The critters need old growth forests, but they also need young forests and clear cuts, and old fields and 20- and 30-year-old forests.”
Rosenberger says the pendulum has swung too far toward the preservationist side of forest management, meaning that too many people falsely feel that timber harvest is detrimental to wildlife. Private land biologists are trying to educate the public that such is not the case.”
Dr. Paul Hinlicky, a Roanoke college professor who owns a farm in Catawba, has worked extensively with Rosenberger, “Andy has come over to my wife Ellen’s and my land I don’t know how many times and has helped me conduct all kinds of habitat improvement projects,” he says. “His availability, his counsel, and his knowledge have been invaluable to us.”
Dr. Hinlicky continued, “For example, I thought I had done a really good job with the establishment of some native warm season grass stands — switchgrass and Indian grass, which are beneficial toward establishing a flock of quail on a property. Andy praised me for my effort, but then he explained that I had over seeded the stands, and the habitat was too thick for quail. Then he showed me how to thin out my stands and make them better for quail and other wildlife.”
Virginians have an under hunted fall turkey population in our state, and dedicated wildlife professionals looking to help out our landowners. This fall would be a prime time to take to the autumn woods and, if you’re a landowner, also a good time to contact a private lands biologist.