OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a turkey hunting fanatic spring or fall. For example, one morning last April, I had exactly 80 minutes of daylight to hunt before heading for my teaching job at Lord Botetourt High School.
Laying my school clothes and shoes in the front seat of my pickup and the hunting gear in the backseat, about an hour before sunrise I headed for a Botetourt County cattle farm.
About 30, and then 20 minutes before sunup, I performed the requisite barred owl music with no response. Some ten minutes before daylight, I issued some sleepy tree yelps and at dawn some hen cutting — again no replies. Frustrated, I headed for the adjacent farm where I also had permission to go afield. Just as I was about to cross the property boundary, I decided to belt out some raucous crow caws, and to my shock four different gobblers responded near where I had first set up to utter owl hoots.
Turning around and running back to that spot, I made another round of crow calls, and once again the quartet greeted me with thunderous indignation. Knowing the farm well, I took off to the edge of the back pasture where turkeys often go to feed in the morning. Setting up, I issued some hen talk, and the gobblers responded with…silence. It was then that it occurred to me that these toms were in a fighting mood — for whatever reason — instead of a courting one.
So, I let loose with a series of jake yelps and fighting purrs. The most intense gobbling of the morning was the result, and it was then I was absolutely sure that I was going to tag a tom that morning. Ten minutes later — tom in tow — I was scudding back to the truck. I had just enough time to phone check and clean the bird before heading for school. Since I had tagged two birds back in the fall, my Virginia season was over as the limit remains three per year. Of course, if they want, Virginia hunters can punch all three of their tags in the spring.
My bird was one of 16,186 checked in last year, a 16 percent drop from last year. Gary Norman, Virginia Game Department (DGIF) wild turkey biologist, gave me two reasons for the decline: poor hatches in 2016 and 2017 and inclement weather. The disappointing 2016 hatch meant that there were relatively few two-year-old toms about last season, and, of course, it is that age male that provides most of the gobbling excitement in any given year. And the low recruitment in 2017 will result, Norman predicts, in not many two-year-olds available this coming season. In short, the spring 2019 season could be a challenging one for us turkey chasers.
Another reason for the lower 2018 harvest was the huge amounts of precipitation last spring. Many mornings, thunderstorms and/or steady to heavy rains greeted hunters when they awoke. Add in some unseasonably cold mornings and many days of brisk winds, and it’s no wonder that we hunters often struggled to encounter turkeys. To make matters even worse, those same rains and cold, blustery periods negatively impacted the 2018 hatch.
For a turkey population to grow, the poult per hen ratio really needs to be 3.0 or better. That ratio has not occurred in the Old Dominion since 2011 and is a major reason why the state’s flock is rated as stable instead of increasing. The 2016 and 2017 ratios were both 2.4 which helps explain why both two-year-old and three-year-old toms could be scarce in many areas this spring and is a large part of the reason why Norman is not optimistic about this season.
“I look at brood data for a rough forecast of the spring harvest,” he says. “Those birds two and three years old typically make up 75 to 80 percent of the harvest. So, for the spring 2019 forecast I will focus on reproduction in 2017 and 2016 [which was below average]. One thing that might mitigate the poor production in 2017 was poor weather during the 2018 season. I think harvest rates were probably lower than normal which will result in good carry-over of adult birds. But, that’s hard to estimate.”
The aforementioned rainy, cool weather not only hurt turkey hunting in 2018 but also the reproduction of these birds. Norman describes himself as “really worried” about the 2018 hatch. He explains that the Old Dominion’s poults often hatch between late May and June 15.
“There was not good weather for much of the state after the hatch began,” he says. “There was simply too much rain. The one saving grace might be, though, that the temperatures were not awfully cold. The really bad situation is when we have extended wet and cold during the hatch. Then close to 100 percent mortality can occur.
“It’s actually better for poults to have bad weather when they are first born than later. When poults first hatch they can live off their egg sac, and they are small enough that the hen’s wings can cover them. But if the birds are, say, over five days of age and then poor weather hits, they are too big for all of them to fit under the wings. And it’s too cold and windy for them to forage for insects.”
Many sportsmen often hold out hope for the turkeys to nest again later in the summer. However, Norman informs that turkeys don’t generally re-nest if they lose their poults. The hens do try to nest again sometimes when predators destroy their eggs.
Currently says the biologist, the best turkey hunting regions are the Tidewater and Southern Mountain ones as they both have kill per mile of turkey habitat and kill per mile of forest habitat above the state averages of 0.45 and 0.65, respectively. Both of these regions have flocks that are stable and close to carrying capacity. The South Piedmont has a stable population with a slight decline and ranks third. The North Mountain and the North Piedmont regions come in fourth and fifth and feature lower densities. However, both are slowly rebounding.
Any discussion of turkey hunting in Virginia has to include the 1.8 million acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF). Anyone looking for public land opportunities who lives from near the Maryland state line in the northern part of Virginia, to near the West Virginia border in the western reaches, or down to the North Carolina and Tennessee lines in the southwestern part of the state has national forest land nearby.
Eagle Rock’s Jerry Paitsel, who operates Struttinbird Turkey Calls, has hunted in the GWJNF for some 50 years. He gives these tips for pursuing turkeys there.
“To get away from the crowd, go back into the national forest at least a mile or two and then begin your scouting,” he says. “My ideal spot begins with it having a brook trout stream running down through a hollow. Somewhere near that stream would be a bench with some hardwoods. Turkeys like to roost on the edges of benches where they can pitch down toward the creek or fly down and feed or strut along the bench. If there was a heavy mast crop the previous fall, the turkeys could still be eating acorns. Many times, I’ve killed gobblers that had sprouted acorns in their crops.”
“If the turkeys fly down toward the creek, they can find all kinds of things to eat from minnows and crayfish to green leafy vegetation. If I can’t find birds along the creeks or the benches, I’ll go to the top of a ridge and begin walking. Every once in a while, I’ll use my long box call to belt out some aggressive yelps. Sooner or later, I should contact a gobbler.”
In the Piedmont region, DGIF wildlife biologist Dan Lovelace offers this info.
“In my area there are some of the highest turkey population densities in Virginia,” he says.“Bedford, Pittsylvania and Franklin counties consistently rank in the top five for spring gobblers harvested. Wildlife Management Areas in the southern and western Piedmont, including White Oak Mountain and Fairystone Farms, should be productive for spring gobbler hunting. WMA staff have done outstanding jobs creating nesting and brood rearing habitat. Numerous turkey sightings have been reported.”
At 2,748 acres, the White Oak Mountain WMA lies within Pittsylvania County. This public land offers classic Piedmont habitat with its rolling hills, mixed hardwoods and pines, scattered ponds, and the odd opening. The Bannister River contributes some bottomland hardwood expanses.
Fairystone, a 5,321-acre WMA in Henry and Patrick counties, flaunts some of the most extensively managed public lands in our state as Lovelace notes. Hardwood and pine stands dot the rolling hills of this public land. Tributaries of the Smith River provide bottomland habitat.
In the Northern Piedmont, biologist Mike Dye agrees with Gary Norman that turkey numbers are down in his region. Dye also doesn’t feel comfortable mentioning the smaller public lands in his area because of the pressure that might ensue. Private land options do exist.
“In more general terms, Fauquier County seems to be consistently good if you can gain access,” says Dye.“I would also suggest Goochland and Powhatan counties. Overall, the hatch in 2018 is very low from what I’ve seen. The North Piedmont in general has lower turkey densities than many other areas.”
In the Southeast Piedmont, DGIF biologist Katie Martin, offers better news. “Top WMAs in my part of the Piedmont would be Amelia and Featherfin WMAs,” she says. “Both have quota hunts for the early part of spring gobbler season, but then are open to everyone once the season goes to all day. Both have a good mix of mature oak woodlands, crops, and old field areas that provide a great mix of habitat for turkeys. Top counties would probably be Cumberland, Buckingham, and Amelia, again due to all the great mixes of habitats.”
Martin informs that the 2017 hatch was poor in her area, but the preliminary reports of the 2018 one are encouraging. “I saw quite a few turkeys with young poults in Nottoway, Lunenburg, Brunswick and Buckingham counties,” she says. “Most of the hens didn’t seem to have a large number of poults individually but were in groups of three to four hens with a total of 15 to 20 poults amongst them. There were definitely some late hatches that must have been re-nest attempts as some of the poults were quite small.”
DGIF Tidewater biologist Peter Acker says in his part of the state, Suffolk, Surry, and Isle of Wight are traditionally the best counties. He also reports having observed a good number of poults last summer in the western reaches of Tidewater. For public land options, the biologist informs that the Big Woods and Cavalier WMAs hold good numbers of turkeys.
The 2,208-acre Big Woods lies in Sussex County. The WMA is unique among state public lands in that pines are the predominant tree. Also, of note is that prescribed burns and tree thinning are part of the management program, so early successional habitat, which turkeys relish, is enhanced. The Cavalier WMA in Chesapeake sprawls over 4,550 acres. Clear-cuts, swamps, and tidal creeks characterize this public land.
Gary Norman believes that one of the most misleading indicators of good turkey hunting is the harvest per county. A much better indicator, as noted earlier, is the kill per square mile of forested habitat. Here in alphabetical order are the 14 counties that topped the 1.0 mark, an indicator of excellent turkey numbers for sure: Bedford (1.14), Carroll (1.24), Clarke (1.78), Essex (1.02), Grayson (1.01), Lancaster (1.86), Loudoun (1.63), Northampton (1.47), Northumberland (2.05), Richmond (1.84), Suffolk (1.10), Surry (1.26), Westmoreland (2.16), and Wythe (1.17).
This spring, the Youth and Apprentice Spring Turkey Hunting Weekend is April 6 and 7, and the regular season begins April 13. From May 6 through May 18, we can hunt all day.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish