Gerald Almy: Virginia turkey hunters take over 3,000 birds

A turkey struts in a field off Mill Road east of Woodstock recently. Rich Cooley/Daily

Virginia has a rich history of both spring and fall turkey hunting. Sportsmen will soon be wrapping up the spring season for gobblers only, so it’s too early to know how that has gone. But the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has released statistics on the fall harvest.

Virginia’s fall turkey hunters don’t have to worry about whether they harvest a tom or a hen. In fact, you can even take birds born that spring, called jakes (males) and jennies (females.) That makes the fall season a different kind of sport, and many birds are actually taken incidentally when they are encountered as hunters pursue other game animals such as deer, squirrels, rabbits, or ducks.

Whatever quarry they had on their mind, though, when they went into the field, fall turkey hunters were quite successful in bagging the big brown and black birds during the recently completed seasons. They collected 3,120 wild turkeys, a harvest similar to other autumn seasons over the last decade or so. Of course, back in the 1980’s and 90’s, hunters encountered even more birds, collecting around 10,000 to 15,000 toms and hens each fall.

Biologists say fall turkey harvests vary from year to year according to a number of factors. These include the mast crop, turkey reproduction success, and of course, the weather. Turkey productivity or “the hatch” can vary widely due to weather conditions in May and June. The 2016 productivity was 2.4 poults per hen. This is slightly below the long-term average of 2.5 poults per hen.

Since they make up a large portion of the harvest each fall, the number of young turkeys influences the success rate greatly. Also important is the mast crop. Since comparatively few acorns were available last fall, birds had to travel more to find enough food. That makes them more likely to cross paths with hunters and increases the likelihood they’ll be harvested.

In years with abundant acorns, wild turkey home ranges are small. Without many acorns in the woods, turkeys range further and hunter success rates increase. This past year red oak acorns were about average in many areas of the state. In contrast, white oak acorns were below average for most of the Old Dominion. Biologists think this led to slightly lower success rates than the average 12 percent figure for fall hunters in a typical year.

A total of 134 birds were harvested on national forests, up from the previous year when 116 birds were taken on those public lands. To promote fall turkey hunting, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers a Youth and Apprentice hunting period each fall. Last year this special season was expanded to include Sunday. Harvest during that weekend accounted for 50 birds.

Of the total turkey harvest, 1,186 turkeys did not sport any beard. Some 522 birds had beards less than six inches long. Those were likely jakes, or young-of-the-year male turkeys. Another 1,412 fall turkeys had beards six inches or longer, meaning mature gobblers at least one and a half years old.

Hunters East of the Blue Ridge collected 1,688 turkeys, or 54 percent of the harvest. In the western counties a total of 1,425 gobblers and hens were taken, or 46 percent of the harvest.

Hunters participating in the special Thanksgiving-day season collected 435 birds. In the October and November seasons, 1,087 turkeys were killed. In December, 1,013 were tallied. The January hunting season accounted for 209 birds, or seven percent of the total harvest.

Shotgun hunters took 1,103 birds. Riflemen shot 1,025 turkeys, or 33 percent of the tally. Muzzleloader hunters collected 602 toms and hens, or 19 percent of the harvest.

Shenandoah County placed fifth among all the state’s counties, with 74 birds. That figure is seven percent higher than the year before and just slightly less than the five year average for the county of 80 birds.

The other counties rounding out the top five included Bedford with 91, Pittsylvania 81, Scott, 81, and Franklin, which tied with Shenandoah at 74. Nearby Fauquier County had 62 birds, tenth on the top-ten harvest list.

Congratulations to Hunters for the Hungry. They recently reported processing and donating 283,198 pounds of venison to people in need throughout Virginia. That’s enough venison for 1.1 million quarter-pound servings of lean, healthy meat, thanks to the non-profit program and the generosity of hunters who donated deer.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.