Gerald Almy: Fall turkey harvest declines

Gerald Almy

Shenandoah Valley turkey hunters have something in common with the area’s deer hunters. They seemed to be seeing fewer of their targeted quarry in the woods during the recently completed season.

A total of 2,132 wild turkeys were harvested in Virginia during the 2017-18 fall season. According to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, that represents a 24 percent decline compared to the 2016-17 season. It’s also 31 percent below the recent five-year average harvest. The decline hit both eastern and western parts of the state, with the harvest falling 24 percent in eastern counties and 25 percent in areas west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Fall harvests fluctuate due to a number of factors besides the population of turkeys. These include variations in spring breeding productivity, mast conditions, weather, and hunting pressure.

Turkey productivity can vary widely due to weather conditions in May and June when hens are hatching eggs and raising their young. In 2017, productivity was 2.3 poults per hen. This is below the long-term average of 2.5 poults per hen. It equaled the lowest ever previous production estimate from 2009.

Acorn abundance also varies greatly from year to year, affecting hunter success rates. When food is readily available in years with abundant acorns, wild turkey home ranges are smaller. That makes them more difficult for hunters to find because they move less. On the other hand, when acorns are scarce, turkeys must move farther and for longer periods of time, increasing the chances a hunter will encounter them.

The largest decreases in harvest (31 percent) came in the northern regions of the state where acorn production was better than in southern areas. The harvest was just down 8 percent in counties near the North Carolina border where the mast crop was poorer.

Gary Norman, Wild Turkey Project leader, said that he anticipated a decline in the fall 2017-18 harvest because of a number of reasons. These included the poor reproduction, uneven mast crops, and most of all, the decline in hunter interest in fall turkey hunting.

“Despite efforts to promote interest in fall turkey hunting, the long-term decline of hunting effort may be having the biggest influence on total harvest. Other states have seen similar decreases in fall turkey hunting interest by sportsmen.”

One of the major goals of the Game Department’s wild turkey management plan is to reverse the general decline in fall turkey hunting participation. The October Youth and Apprentice fall turkey hunting weekend and the late January fall season were designed to encourage interest, as was the Thanksgiving Day season. Additional surveys of hunters will be needed to fully understand whether these opportunities have enhanced participation in fall turkey hunting and what other steps might be taken.

Fall hunters killed 692 birds without beards, 370 with beards less than 6 inches long, and 1,070 with beards over 6  inches long. East of the Blue Ridge hunters collected 1,177 birds. West of the mountains, 955 turkeys were harvested.

The special youth season accounted for 34 birds. The late January season yielded 162. The special Thanksgiving Day season gave up 242 turkeys.

Archery hunters collected 286 birds. Rifle hunters shot 683. Muzzleloader hunters harvested 432. Shotgun hunters scored on 731 turkeys.

Locally, Shenandoah County hunters harvested 64 turkeys. Page 49, Warren 30, Frederick 7. Rockingham County hunters had the best luck of all with an exceptional harvest of 179 fall turkeys.

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