Wild turkey populations in Virginia reached a plateau near the end of the 20th century, ranging between an estimated 120,000 -130,000 birds. The population stalled there due to record poor production in 1997 and 1998. However, following those dismal hatches, reproduction improved in 1999 and 2000, and the population is again gaining ground. With this boost, the turkey population has increased dramatically, to an estimated 180,000 birds in 2001. Population estimates are at all-time record levels for the state and all regions. The southwest and Tidewater regions have the highest densities, followed by the southern piedmont, northern mountain, and north piedmont.
Fall hunters can generally look forward to good to excellent hunting conditions this year. However, local reproduction, and local mast conditions can affect local fall hunting prospects. Generally, juvenile birds comprise a large percentage (55-60 percent) of the fall harvest and a good hatching year generally translates to good fall turkey hunting. Reproduction does vary from year to year, and department research has found that cold April days and wet June days can affect poult survival and recruitment. While April weather was generally favorable for turkeys this year, a cold and wet June may have lowered the potential for a great hatch. Overall, however, we went into the spring with a record number of hens, and, despite the June weather, department staff has reported encouraging numbers of turkey broods during the summer. It is interesting to note that the many broods that have been reported were apparently from late-hatched clutches or from hens that re-nested. Thus, at mid-summer it appears that turkey reproduction is slightly below average, with late-hatched broods saving the day (year).
In addition to reproduction, mast conditions (namely acorns) have a critical impact on fall hunting success rates. Acorns are preferred turkey foods when they’re available. Acorns are high in energy, especially carbohydrates and fats. In a good acorn year turkeys are able to meet their energetic requirements very easily. Under these circumstances, birds tend to travel less, have smaller home ranges, and avoid openings and clearings. All of these factors generally reduce turkeys’ vulnerability to hunting and add more difficulty to the hunter’s already challenging sport. At mid-summer it appears that most regions of the state will see reasonable mast conditions this fall. Red oak production appears good, better than white oak in many regions.
Last year, with a good acorn crop, we harvested 8,215 birds in the fall season. When there is little change in mast crops between years, we have found that the fall kill generally remains about the same. Therefore, with questionable reproduction and good mast crops this year, we expect only modest increases in the 2001 fall season harvest. This forecast is somewhat contradictory in that we report record turkey numbers, but the over-riding factor we have observed in the past is the effect of mast conditions on the fall harvest. So fall turkey hunters should take heart that the birds are there, but under these circumstances, they may be harder to find. Pre-season scouting for acorns may help you bag that fall bird. Fall harvests are generally higher in the southern piedmont and southern mountain regions. Bedford (324), Pittsylvania (241), Franklin (220), and Amelia (217) led all counties in fall kill in 2000.
As far as spring gobbler seasons go, 2001 was particularly good. Excellent weather and good numbers of two-year-old birds contributed to the record harvest of 18, 240 gobblers. The 2001 harvest represented a 24 percent increase over the 2000 harvest (14,696). Turkey hunters in counties West of the Blue Ridge Mountains harvested an amazing 34 percent more birds in 2001 (5,174 vs. 6,909). The harvest was particularly good, too, in counties East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, up 19 percent over 2000 (9,522 vs. 11,331). These figures suggest exceptional growth in the turkey population and record turkey numbers for modern times.
Upstaging the 2001 season would be difficult, at least in terms of the percentage increase in the spring season. Over the past 10 years, the spring kill has increased six percent annually, so the 2001 increase was exceptional. Much of the growth in any given year can be attributed to two-year old gobblers. Therefore, reproduction two years before the spring season can be important. Looking back at reproduction in 2000, we find that the hatch was near average. In fact, it was slightly better than 1999, which was the foundation for the record 2001 kill. Reproduction is indexed by the proportion of juveniles in the fall harvest per adult female. In 2000, the average was 3.0 juveniles per adult female, while in1999 it was 2.8. So based on the two-year old age class, it appears we can expect another good year with a significant increase in the spring kill. Surprisingly, juveniles do not ordinarily make up a significant part of the spring gobbler kill. On average, juvenile toms or “jakes” comprise less than 10 percent of the spring kill.
The wild card that can dramatically affect the spring kill is inclement weather. Windy and rainy conditions make it difficult to hear gobblers, and male turkeys tend to gobble less under these circumstances. A significant percentage of the spring harvest comes on Saturdays; therefore, bad weekend weather during the five-week (six Saturdays) season can depress the harvest.
Bedford (677), Pittsylvania (577), Franklin (564), Scott (426), and Grayson (409) had the highest county spring kills in 2001. The best counties in terms of kill per square mile of forest range were Northumberland (2.6), Westmoreland (2.3), Richmond (2.0), Lancaster (1.8), and Grayson (1.6). The spring gobbler season opens April 13, 2002 and closes May 18, 2002.