Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Gary Anderson, Director of the Virginia Game Department, said the statewide turkey harvest for last fall was 2,363 birds. That figure is just five birds less than the previous year. The harvest is considered stable and is in line with management projections for the state’s wild turkey populations.

Like many other states, particularly in the Southeast, our turkey populations in Virginia have declined over the last few decades. In the 1980’s, harvests often ranged from 9,000 to 12,000 birds. At its highest ever, the harvest was once around 16,500. But over the 90s and the early part of this century, a gradual decline began. Now, sadly, harvests of 2-4,000 birds are more common.

For the most recent season, the harvest declined slightly in counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains (down about 2 percent), while the tally increased slightly in counties west of the mountains (up 2 percent.) Turkey hunters in the region that includes the Shenandoah Valley had particularly good luck, with the harvest increasing over 15 percent.

Fall harvests fluctuate due to a number of factors, in addition to the population size. These include the number of hunters out in the woods, mast conditions, breeding productivity the spring before, and weather. Reproductive success can vary widely with bad weather in May and June leading to nest losses or the death of the newly born turkeys. Predation can also take a heavy toll, with predators destroying nests, eating the turkey eggs and also killing both young and adult birds.

Acorn abundance can have a major impact on fall harvest rates. In years with lots of acorns, wild turkey home ranges are small. This makes them harder for hunters to find. As a result, harvest rates decline. When hard mast is scarce, turkeys travel longer distances looking for food and are more likely to encounter hunters.

Gary Norman, Wild Turkey Project Leader, said turkey harvests varied across the state this past fall according to the various patterns seen in turkey production in spring and mast crops. The Northern Piedmont had a 7 percent increase in the turkey kill. Fair to poor acorn crops combined with very low production resulted in an 8 percent decline in the harvest in the South Piedmont. The South Mountain Region also had poor production and scarce acorn crops and a 3 percent decline. The Tidewater Region saw little change in the harvest, with white oak crops that were good, but poor reproduction.

The best increase in the fall harvest came in our North Mountain Region, where the harvest increased 16 percent. Here reproduction was good, and mast crops were poor—the prefect combination for local hunters.

East of the Blue Ridge hunters collected 1,268 turkeys, or 54 percent of the harvest. West of the Blue Ridge hunters took 1,095 turkeys, or 46 percent.

Early archery hunters tagged 149 turkeys. On the Youth/Apprentice day 51 turkeys were taken. Opening Day yielded 145 birds. The First Week gave up 384 turkeys, and the second week, 396. A lot of hunters had luck on Thanksgiving Day—306 toms and hens were bagged. January hunting was tougher. It yielded just 127 turkeys.

Some 759 birds were harvested with shotguns, while 787 were taken with rifles. Muzzleloader hunters collected 447 turkeys.

The top ten counties were Bedford, with 71 birds, Dickenson, 58, Russell, 55, Franklin, 55, Augusta, 54, Montgomery, 53, Washington, 51, Botetourt, 50, Rockbridge, 49, and Brunswick, 47. Unfortunately, none of our local northern Shenandoah Valley counties made the top ten list, even though the harvest in this area was better than the previous year.

One good way to look at the only modest turkey hunting success in a positive light is that this low tally just leaves more birds in the woods for the upcoming spring season. And that, after all, is the most important turkey hunting opportunity of all for most fans of this great gamebird. That season will open on April 13.

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