February 26, 2016
The benefits of scouting a few days before opening day of Virginia's spring gobbler season had never been more apparent. It was Saturday, April 11 last year and two days earlier, a friend, Doak Harbison, and I had located seven gobblers on a Franklin County farm. The septet had flown down from creek bottom sycamores and entered two different fields separated by a woodlot.
After watching the gobblers and their hens for a while, Doak and I conceived a simple game plan: He would set up on a field on the left side of the woodlot, and I would set up on an alfalfa patch to the right.
In the dark on opening day, as I walked toward the edge of the alfalfa, the sonorous booms of one of the longbeards began reverberating through the Piedmont air. Hurrying my pace, I quickly positioned a decoy 10 yards into the field, set up against a tree 5 yards inside the woodlot, and popped in a Perfection Turkey Calls 3-D Omega.
Already breathing hard from the excitement, I waited a few minutes for my nerves to calm. I then emitted a few roost pits, following with several sleepy tree yelps. To both sounds, the tom erupted with paroxysms of gobbling. I decided I need not call again for at least 15 minutes.
Actually, I had uttered my last calls of the day. A few minutes later in the half light of dawn, the gobbler flew across the creek, landed five yards from the decoy, and I shot him, thus ending my 2015 Virginia season mere minutes after it had begun (I had killed two birds back in the fall).
My success was not unusual: Virginia turkey hunters sportsmen killed a record 20,580 gobblers in 2015. What's just as impressive is the harvest from the past three years. The 2013 tally of 19,625 held the previous record. And the 2014 harvest was the sixth highest in the state's history and was a very respectable 17,582. Indeed, these are marvelous times to be a turkey enthusiast in the Old Dominion.
Other figures prove this as well. Last year, the kill east of the Blue Ridge was 13,874, which is 20 percent higher than the 2014 figure of 11,582. In the West, the total was 6,706, which was 12 percent greater than 2014's total of 6,000.
Let's take a look at public land opportunities for this spring, and the likely top counties and regions for this year. But first, a forecast from state turkey biologist Gary Norman.
2016 — ANOTHER SUPERB SEASON?
"All of the elements are in place for another very good or record harvest this year," said Norman. "The wildcard that makes these predictions tentative is weather during the season. Most of the harvest comes on Saturdays. If we have poor weather on two of the first three Saturdays, then all bets are off, particularly the first Saturday. I'm comfortable with a plus/minus 3 percent prediction [as compared to the 2015 harvest].
"One interesting note: I've seen movements of birds into the central part of the Shenandoah Valley over the past 10 years, areas that have never had birds before. I was stopped [last summer] by a gentleman who saw birds on his property east of Staunton in 2014 and broods in 2015. Ditto for some areas east of Harrisonburg. So part of these record harvests are coming from range expansion.
"The Shenandoah Valley looks like Missouri habitat from a plane. I've wondered for a long time why now the birds have 'discovered' the valley. There may be other areas that have the potential to equal Virginia's best turkey region — that being the counties of the Northern Neck and Westmoreland County in particular."
And more good news exists. Two-year-old toms always constitute the majority of the harvest in any given year, and the 2014 brood report showed that 4.0 broods were observed per 1,000 miles (of survey), the highest figure in the last eight years.
And though at press time, Norman could not predict what the 2015 hatch was like (those birds will be the jakes in this spring's woods), he does say that production appears to have been at least average despite the record amounts of rainfall in June. Too much rainfall in late May and early June, when poults mostly hatch, can often be fatal to young turkeys as hypothermia can set in.
Unfortunately, some bad news does exist. Norman says that he continues to be concerned about low turkey numbers in the Central Mountain counties such as Alleghany, Bath, and Highland.
In 2011, the fall season in that region was shortened to two weeks; nevertheless, turkey numbers have not rebounded and densities have dropped to very low levels. Long-term trends indicate little change over the past 10 years. This region features a great deal of national forest land, where little habitat management (timber cutting) has occurred in recent decades.
The result has been a loss of diversity in wildlife habitat and decreased populations of deer, turkeys, and many species of songbirds.
VDGIF game biologist Aaron Proctor says that several WMAs and one region stand out in the state's flatlands.
"For public lands in the east, the Chickahominy WMA and Big Woods WMA still hold strong with indications of good recruitment," he said. "We commonly see turkeys and turkey sign at these places when we're working. As for hot spots in general, the Northern Neck is loaded with birds, but not much public land."
In fact, the Commonwealth counties with the highest turkey densities in the state are the Northern Neck's trio of Westmoreland (2.7), Richmond (1.97), and Lancaster (1.96). Those numbers refer to the spring gobbler kill per square mile of forest range, and they are simply outstanding.
The rural parts of the Northern Neck feature agricultural operations, scattered woodlots, and creek bottoms. Indeed, the Tidewater and South Mountain regions support the highest turkey densities in our state.
The Chickahominy WMA (5,217 acres) in Charles City County has long held the reputation as the premier public turkey hot spot in Tidewater. It supports a habitat mix that cause turkeys to thrive: a combination of mature hardwoods, pine stands, and tidal creek bottomlands.
The Big Woods WMA (2,008 acres) in Sussex County is similar, except it has undergone some recent timber cuts, which are beneficial as turkey nesting and bugging areas (young turkeys need plentiful protein when they are growing, and rely on areas that produce insects for them to feed on). In fact biologist Pete Acker proclaims that "Big Woods is definitely the hotspot in my region."
Fellow Tidewater biologist Todd Engelmeyer gives insight on going afield on Tidewater public lands.
"I have hunted most of these places in recent years and they all offer good populations of wildlife to hunt, but the wildlife are wary and this creates a challenge," he said. "As with many of the public lands in the east, they are hunted quite a bit in the early part of the season. We have witnessed great production on most lands, including public (land), this past spring and so expect another great season. However, better hunter success on public lands takes persistence and that would be the best advice I can offer."
Veteran VDGIF wildlife biologist Dan Lovelace proclaims that the South Piedmont offers several high-quality public lands. Among them are White Oak Mountain (2,712 acres) in Pittsylvania County and Fairystone Farms (5,321 acres) in Henry and Patrick counties.
A major reason why is because both have been the benefit of state wildlife managers who have diligently worked to improve the forests and fields. Agricultural fields, timber cuts, and wildlife openings, combined with bottomland hardwood stands and oak groves, have served to benefit turkey populations.
Biologist Katie Martin says her part of the Piedmont is worthy of notice, too.
"I'd say for over in the eastern part of the Piedmont the two best WMAs for turkey hunting would be Amelia and Featherfin," she said. "Both of these operate under a quota hunt system for the spring gobbler season, but are open without quotas for youth day and the last two weeks of the turkey season once it goes to full-day hunting."
Featherfin (2,800 acres) is located mostly in Prince Edward County, but also edges into Buckingham and Appomattox counties. Amelia (2,217 acres) is obviously in Amelia. I journeyed to Featherfin when it first opened and was impressed with the overgrown field habitat, the stream bottoms, patches of mature timber, and the all-round diversity of habitat that exists.
While Featherfin is one of our newer WMAs, Amelia is one of the oldest. Amelia boasts quite a bit of open land, especially the fields that are still farmed. The stands of hardwoods and pines draw turkeys as well. Gary Norman states that the South Piedmont has a moderate turkey population density, especially when compared to the Tidewater and South Mountain regions. Nevertheless, some outstanding private land hunting in the South Piedmont exists, Martin notes.
"As far as private land by county I'd say Lunenburg and Amelia would be the two best counties to look for private land spots," she said. "Lots of agriculture and actively managed timber land in both of those counties."
Martin adds that last year, she noted "a lot of big broods of hens with poults in those counties along with many other counties in the Piedmont," which is exciting news indeed.
According to Norman, the North Piedmont and the North Mountain harbor the lowest turkey populations in Virginia. However, district wildlife biologist Mike Dye says that the Powhatan (4,463 acres) in Powhatan County and Mattaponi (2,542 acres) in Caroline County hold promise.
"I think both WMAs will be good this year," he said. "We've been doing quite a bit of habitat work on the Mattaponi and Powhatan that should enhance populations going forward."
WESTERN AND NATIONAL FOREST LONGBEARDS
As is true in most states, private land accounted for the vast majority of the 2015 harvest — in Viriginia, 92 percent of the kill. In the western region, three counties experienced very good spring gobbler kills per square mile of forest range: Clarke (1.69), Wythe (1.34), and Carroll (1.10). For perspective, the statewide average was 0.82.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF) accounted for about 6 percent of the bearded birds, while state lands checked in with 2 percent.
Regarding those state lands, district wildlife biologist Al Bourgeois says that the Highland WMA (14,283 acres) in Highland County and Goshen WMA (33,697 acres) in Rockbridge County should be the best public bets in his area this spring.
Both consist mostly of oak-hickory forests, but state staff have performed timber harvests and controlled burns in recent years to improve habitat for both deer and turkeys.
Of course, the national forest is the predominant public land in the Old Dominion and much of the GWNF lies in the North Mountain region, where turkey populations are relatively low. This fact, plus the lack of habitat diversity on most of this public land, makes the forest challenging to hunt. Josh Gray, who lives in Botetourt County and is a pro staffer for Hank's Game Calls, is one of the best public land hunters I've ever met.
A major part of Josh's strategy is, through map study, to find areas (such as hardwood hollows that have bold streams) that have the potential to draw turkeys, then scout to make sure that the turkeys are actually there. He also searches for places that are back in the hinterlands of the national forest and that are not likely to draw hunters. Additionally, he avoids commonly used calls (such as boxes and barred owl calls) and instead opts for ones such as Hank's glass pot and pegs.
This year the Youth and Apprentice Spring Turkey Hunting Weekend will be on April 2 and 3 with the regular season beginning on April 9. Last year, 448 birds were killed during the former season; please consider taking a youngster or novice hunter then.
I can't wait for the season to begin — these are heady times for us turkey enthusiasts.