March 17, 2015
I called in over 20 gobblers this past spring and never killed any of them. I missed one of those longbeards at a distance of 7 yards and another at 12, resulting in the conclusion that my installing an extra full choke that was guaranteed to kill toms at incredible distances maybe, well, wasn't such a good idea after all, especially, statistically, when most shots are under 30 yards.
Let's look at some more blunders. The time I called in a Roanoke County longbeard that I was sure would come in to my left, and he approached from the right, leaving me with no shot. The time in Botetourt County when I had a perfectly good shot at 35 yards, and I decided to let the old boy approach a few more yards — and he turned and melted into some brush.
And the absolutely most frustrating outing of the spring: On the first Friday of the season, I was hunting behind my Botetourt County home before school. I called in a hard gobbling bird, which came strutting down a seeded logging road. I picked out a tree at a distance of 15 yards where I would shoot when the bird appeared on the other side. Instead, the tom stayed behind the tree for agonizingly long seconds, then turned and fled.
I see no need to go into further details. Those misadventures have been colliding around my cranium for a year now, and I want to move on (have to move on for my sanity) to this season. Let's start with some public land possibilities for this spring.
Great Public Land Opportunities
For public land hunting opportunities for this spring, I contacted Virginia Game Department wildlife biologists from around the state. In Region 1, I asked Tidewater biologist Todd Engelmeyer to recommend some destinations.
"I would include Virginia Department of Forestry lands," he said. "They are often unknown and underutilized. In my area, the ones that come to mind are Sandy Point and Dragon Run."
Engelmeyer said Tidewater sportsmen looking to gain more information on these VDOF lands should visit here.
Located in King and Queen County, the 9,562-acre Dragon Run State Forest consists of both flatland forests and swamps, and, of course, the namesake creek.
Situated in King William County, the 2,043-acre Sandy Point State Forest features both tidal and non-tidal wetlands, but, for turkey hunters, the best action could be in the bottomlands along the Mattaponi River.
Although the deadline to apply to the following special hunts was last September, Engelmeyer says that the DGIF is offering some new turkey hunts this spring to youth and apprentice hunters. These outings will be at York River State Park and New Kent Forestry Center. Interested individuals should keep this website in mind for future springs.
Fellow Tidewater biologist Aaron Proctor weighs in on some more opportunities in the eastern part of our commonwealth.
"Big Woods WMA and Big Woods State Forest in Sussex County are approximately 4,400 acres of predominantly pine forest with good turkey populations," he said. "Recent pine management timber operations have undoubtedly benefited the turkey habitat on site. Chickahominy WMA in Charles City County is approximately 5,200 acres and is primarily an upland forested property with ample turkey populations throughout.
Moving on to the Piedmont, Mike Dye says the northern reaches of his region possess two WMAs that should offer solid action this month: the Powhatan (4,463 acres) in Powhatan County and the Mattaponi (2,542 acres) in Caroline County.
"The Powhatan WMA typically holds pretty good numbers of birds and the pressure tends to be surprisingly light," he said. "There is a pretty good mixture of habitats that create good bird numbers as well as diverse hunting opportunities. If you like hunting fields, that is available; and if you like hunting big timber, that is also available.
"I would also recommend the Mattaponi WMA. There are very good numbers of birds here, but put on your walking boots. The turkeys tend to be hard to get to and often require getting your feet wet. There are a lot of wetland areas on Mattaponi and the turkeys seem to have learned to use them to their advantage. It's definitely worth your time to check out though."
The Southern Piedmont is not to be left out, says biologist Dan Lovelace.
"White Oak Mountain WMA [2,712 acres] in Pittsylvania County and Fairystone Farms in Henry/Patrick counties [5,321 acres] are very good choices for spring gobbler hunting," he said. "White Oak Mountain WMA has a mixture of upland hardwoods, river bottomlands and agricultural fields which are attractive to the wild turkey. A good number of turkeys can be found throughout the area.
"Fairystone Farms WMA, along with portions of the adjoining Fairystone State Park and Army Corps of Engineers property, offer excellent opportunities for spring gobbler hunters. Fairystone is predominantly wooded but an extensive array of forest openings have been created to provide foraging areas for wild turkey and other wildlife."
Al Bourgeois, a district wildlife biologist for the Mountain region, says that two WMAs in particular should provide stimulating sport come April.
"The Highland WMA [14,283 acres] in Highland County is a good choice for turkey hunting. The area is mostly oak/hickory forest with some old field areas and wildlife openings intermixed making it attractive to turkeys. We have had some active timber harvesting and prescribed burning done on this WMA, which has enhanced habitat for turkeys.
"Also, the Goshen WMA [33,697 acres] in Rockbridge County is another good destination for spring gobbler hunting. Again, the area is dominated by oak/hickory and upland hardwood forest with small forest openings interspersed throughout. Timber harvests and prescribed burns have helped improved the habitat for turkey."
Of course, the major public land in all of the Old Dominion is the 1.7 million acre national forest. Every spring, if at all possible, Dave Steffen, research biologist supervisor for the VDGIF, goes on treks into the George Washington and Jefferson with Gary Norman, forest game bird biologist. Why do these two individuals, who are both avid turkey hunters, reconnoiter every year there as they have for some 15 years?
"Gary and I have some national forest territory in Highland County that is a real confidence place for us — it just feels and smells like home," said Steffen. "The beauty of the national forest is that it is open to everyone, and if people are willing to do some exploring, they can find places all to themselves.
"Within that territory that we call ours, certain spots stand out for turkeys, and we have learned over the years where those places are. One of the things that I am excited about concerning hunting the national forest this year is that there was such a good acorn crop the fall of 2014. That good hard mast crop should have helped the turkeys over winter better."
Steffen has done research on what turkeys eat in the spring and says on average their diet consists of about 20 percent acorns, and the percentage rises in years when the oaks have produced heavier yields. Find a creek hollow in the national forest that still contains acorns, and you may just have located a hot spot.
I, too, have a national forest locale that I consider mine. Although I hunted it last fall, I still will check the place out this spring to assess the acorn situation and look for sign.
Concerning the topic of which counties offer the best hunting, most where-to-go turkey and deer articles concentrate on the overall harvest numbers. The downside of that approach is large counties often sport inflated kill figures just because of their size.
A better indicator on how good a county will be to hunt in this spring is the kill per square mile of forested habitat. Last spring, the East of the Blue Ridge domains barely edged the West of the Blue Ridge ones by 0.72 to 0.67 turkeys killed per square mile.
But when it came to counties topping the magic 1.0 mark, the Tidewater counties were clearly dominant, and all the following should be good bets this spring: Westmoreland (2.60), Richmond (1.86), Northumberland (1.72), Lancaster (1.61), Isle of Wight (1.58), Surrey (1.54), Essex (1.21), King William (1.16), Northampton (1.15) Prince George (1.04), and King George (1.01). I find it simply amazing the way Westmoreland outpaced every county in the entire Old Dominion.
Some of the rolling hills counties of Northern Virginia acquitted themselves quite well, such as Clarke (1.70) and Loudoun (1.29) while Bedford (1.18) in the southern reaches of the Piedmont was impressive. Bedford is one of those rare counties that annually ranks in the top 10 overall harvest but also has a solid kill per square mile figure. The premier Mountain counties were Wythe (1.25), Scott (1.07), and Rockbridge (1.06).
Last spring, sportsmen tagged 17,582 birds, which was 9 percent lower than the 2013 record harvest of 19,265. That does not mean that 2014 was a bad year, however: Last year's harvest was the fifth highest all-time.
Gary Norman offers a look back and ahead, stating that the small drop in the harvest last year was expected because of the below-average recruitment in 2012. The below average hatch in 2012 also means that there may well be a lack of three-year-old longbeards this season. However, good news exists as well.
"Recruitment rebounded in 2013 and 2014 so I expect the spring gobbler harvest to increase, hopefully 5 or more percent in 2015," he said. "But weather on weekends is also a critical factor, as most harvests take place on Saturdays in the old season format.
Sunday hunting may increase the harvest further, but there are a lot of unknown variables about Sunday hunting to make a prediction. First, Sunday hunting may not be additive — it could be compensatory. In other words, birds killed on Sundays early in the season might have otherwise been killed later in a season without Sunday hunting.
"Also, tradition appears to have a significant impact on Sunday hunting effort. For example, when Sunday hunting was legalized in West Virginia, it appears to be insignificant in their harvest — people simply did not care to hunt on Sundays. West Virginia counties had to vote to have Sunday hunting, but a majority of counties opposed hunting on Sundays. So if Virginia hunters are like West Virginia hunters, the impact of Sunday hunting may be minimal and could be compensatory."
Norman says the VDGIF is taking a wait-and-see approach rather than trying to predict any impacts and shorten any seasons prematurely. But if the data show Sunday hunting is taking an unacceptable number of hens in the fall then the fall season length may have to be adjusted accordingly.
Norman also reports that the 2014 hatch was "very good, well above average."
"Turkey observation rates in 2014 set a new record, barely eclipsing the previous record set in 2011," he said. "The brood production rate record still stands in 2011, although the 2014 season moves into second place. Reproduction in the South Mountain was exceptional and good numbers of broods were noted in the South Piedmont Region as well.
"Reproductive success in the Tidewater and North Piedmont regions were below average. In the North Mountain Region, the record low average of total numbers of turkeys seen combined with the low number of broods seen suggest the turkey population has declined sharply."