Gerald Almy: Fall turkey harvest drops

Gerald Almy

Hunters in Virginia certainly experienced a mixed bag last year. The deer harvested dropped dramatically, falling some 22 percent. But the black bear kill set a new record. The 2014 fall turkey harvest continued that mixed picture with a harvest that fell 44 percent from the 2013 season.

Once again, biologists point to the mast crop as the explanation. But first, let’s look at the numbers. Some 2,988 turkeys were bagged during the most recent fall season. This was 44 percent below the previous year’s kill of 5,351 birds.

The harvest declined 36 percent in counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with 1,205 birds taken compared to 1,869 the year before. East of the mountains the kill decreased by a whopping 49 percent. Those hunters took 1,783 birds compared to 3,482 in 2013. Eastern hunters took 11 birds per 100 square miles of forest range. That’s just a tad below the western part of the state, where hunters tallied 13 birds per 100 square miles of forest range.

Botetourt and Pittsylvania led all counties, according to Gary Norman, Wild Turkey Project Leader. They each gave up 85 birds.

A total of 91 percent of the turkey harvest came on private lands. The Youth Fall Turkey Hunt Day produced 29 birds, compared to 50 the previous year. In the nearby George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, the harvest declined 35 percent.

This was the first year hunters could get out in the woods on Sundays, but the harvest on that day of the week only accounted for 5 percent of the total kill. In contrast, said Norman, “27 percent of the harvest took place on Saturdays during the firearms seasons.”

This was the fourth year when two weeks of turkey hunting were allowed during January. The harvest during that season was 179 birds, down from 265 the year before. “Although the harvest was light during that season,” said Norma, “many enjoy hunting with less competition and oftentimes have the opportunity to track birds in the snow.”

A hefty 12 percent of the harvest, some 358 birds, occurred on Thanksgiving Day. Most turkeys were harvested during the second week of the firearms season.

In counties west of the Blue Ridge, the turkey harvest was nearly evenly split between rifle hunters (34 percent), shotgun hunters (28 percent) and muzzleloader hunters (25 percent.) Archers and pistol hunters made up the balance.

In contrast, turkeys taken in eastern counties were mostly collected by shotgun hunters (48 percent), followed by rifle (25 percent) and muzzleloader hunters (19 percent).

Norman said “the decline in the harvest was expected because mast crops were generally above average across the state. Good mast crops depress harvest rates as turkeys move less to find food and typically spend most of their time in forested areas, using smaller home ranges and remaining out of view.”

“In years with poor mast conditions, like 2013, birds travel longer distances and routinely spend time in fields and clearings, in view of the public. That typically results in higher hunter success rates. The magnitude of change in harvest between years is significant and the wide contrast in mast crops is believed to be the primary cause.”

Despite the poor fall harvest, Norman says the turkey population is in good condition. “Our August brood survey reported seeing near record numbers of broods and total numbers of turkeys. The widespread availability of acorns, the turkey’s favorite food, simply made for tough hunting conditions last fall as birds were hard to locate.”

That means this spring’s season, which began April 11, should be excellent. Fewer birds harvested in the fall means more available for spring hunters. Even though the season runs through May 16 this year, the next two weeks should be particularly productive. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to break out the calls, grab your shotgun and hit the woods. Gobblers are sounding off, and the Shenandoah Valley is one of the best places in the country to hunt them. Good luck, and hunt safely.