By Gerald Almy - firstname.lastname@example.org
If you enticed a wild gobbler into shotgun or bow range this spring, count yourself very lucky, very skilled, or perhaps both. This is one type of hunting where the majority of participants go home empty-handed, so wary and elusive are these big, majestic black and brown birds. But we keep coming back, because few thrills can match watching a big tom with its tail feathers spread wide slowly, cautiously sneaking in towards our hen calls.
This year's spring turkey harvest was down slightly statewide, but down even more dramatically in the western counties, including the Shenandoah Valley.
A total of 15,326 bearded birds were harvested during the 2012 season completed in May. This is 2 percent lower than last year's total of 15,698.
East of the Blue Ridge Mountains the harvest actually increased to 10,527, compared to 10,429 in 2011. West of the Mountains, the harvest declined 9 percent, from 5,265 birds to 4,799.
Fifteen percent of the total harvest occurred on opening day. This is high, but it shows you really don't have to go out that particular day for turkeys. In contrast, deer hunters would never miss the opener, when a very high percentage of the harvest occurs.
Actually, harvest figures from this past season show that the second week of the season was the best time to venture into the woods. Some 36 percent of gobblers were taken during that week, more than any other week.
"Reproduction over the past two years has been near average," said Gary Norman, Wild Turkey Project Leader. Little change in the statewide spring harvest between years can be expected with average reproduction and with other population factors remaining similar."
Bad weather during some of the hunting season may have been responsible for the decline in success among hunters in western counties. Inclement weather can make turkeys quiet and less likely to respond to hen calls.
Norman says most of the gobblers collected were taken with shotguns, some 86 percent. Rifles accounted for 7 percent. The rest were taken with bows, pistols and muzzleloaders.
The rifle kill is somewhat disheartening. The spring gobbler hunt is associated in most sportsmen's minds with calling in birds close enough to take with a bow or shotgun. Bushwacking a tom from long range with a rifle to many people takes something away from the experience.
One thing that definitely adds to the turkey season is getting young hunters involved. In that light, a special Youth Spring Turkey Season has been a resounding success. Between 2011 and 2012, the harvest during this special season increased 53 percent. This year young hunters bagged 530 birds on their special early-season hunt. On those outings an older hunter can help the youngster with calling and setup, but not carry a firearm or bow.
Over the past 10 years, Norman said the turkey population in the state has declined 1.2 percent annually. He hopes, though, that this decline has ended.
"Due to the variation in harvests we now consider the turkey population to be stable," he said. "While we consider the population to be stable, turkey populations across the state are not uniform. Based on kill per square mile of forest range, our highest turkey populations are in the tidewater and south piedmont regions. It is interesting to note, many of the counties that received birds during our trap and transfer program from Bath County now have higher populations than Bath County."
Norman said "there are many important biological variables that may affect turkey populations and ultimately spring gobbler hunter satisfaction. Food is keenly important as hens need higher energy and protein levels for over-winter survival and the different phases of reproduction."
"Last year's mast crops were spotty, but hopefully hens were able to build up body reserves."
This year acorns are abundant in most Shenandoah Valley locations, judging from my early scouting. Hopefully this will result in good reproduction and better hunting next spring. I've seen several broods of turkeys ranging from four to nine young per hen.
Let's hope some of those make it through the winter and are ready to gobble back to our hen calls next spring when the season rolls around again in April.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.