2013 Spring Turkey Preview — Where to up your odds for hunting success
Sooner or later, record harvests will stop, so North Carolina hunters should take advantage of a burgeoning turkey population while it lasts.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, 57,233 hunters spent 286,501 days in the woods during the month-long spring season in 2011. The average hunter chased longbeards five days that season, and only 38 percent tagged a bird, giving them a daily success ratio of around 7 percent.
Almost every hunter has to make around a half dozen realistic turkey sounds — using a mouth, slate, box or other kind of call — in order to fool a gobbler into believing a receptive hen is interested in him.
There’s no comparison to talking turkey on a one-to-one basis with a wary old bird — even trying to lure a big whitetail buck into range with a grunt call or rattling horns. Moreover, these conversations might last for hours. Add a gobbler’s legendary eyesight and acute hearing to his natural wariness, and it’s a major achievement when a hunter is able to lure a bird within range.
That being said, hunters have set harvest records for the past few springs. During the 2012 season, they tagged 15,451 bearded birds, an increase of 945 over 2011’s record harvest.
One of the reasons for increasing harvest numbers every season is the spread of the birds across the state.
Evin Stanford, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s big-game biologist, said other factors are helping drive harvests higher, but he doesn’t think the trend will continue forever, even if there’s another increase in the upcoming season that opens April 13 and closes May 11.
"It could be that we had more turkey hunters last year or more birds to hunt," he said. "I know the Youth Day harvest was really up, too, but our turkey harvest eventually has got to level off. It’s happened everywhere else."
When it comes to wild turkeys, North Carolina basically breaks down into four regions: the coastal plain, Piedmont, Foothills and mountains.
Marshall Collette has chased turkeys across the Tarheel State, and few people know more about the topic than the 57-year-old Greensboro resident who is a pro staffer for Quaker Boy calls and Mossy Oak camouflage.
He really likes the situation in two mountainous counties in the northwestern corner of the state.
"I don’t hunt up there much anymore because I’ve got places nearer home, but I really like the northwestern counties," Collette said. "There are probably as many turkeys in Alleghany and Ashe (counties) as anywhere else in the state.
"Alleghany is loaded with turkeys, provided you can find a place to hunt."
The two counties, known for their Christmas tree farms, hardwood ridges, large pastures and deep valleys, have relatively little public hunting land — Alleghany has none, so getting permission to hunt private land is the key.
It’s not unusual to spot flocks of 50, 75 and 100 birds roaming there, Collette said.
"They’ve got great habitat for turkeys, and from what I’ve seen, because almost all the land is private, the birds don’t get a lot of hunting pressure," he said.
Wilkes County, on the southern borders of Ashe and Alleghany, produced 329 kills last spring, ranking eighth in the state.
To the southwest are the sprawling Pisgah and Nanthala national forests, which cover almost a million acres and make up the largest part of North Carolina’s public hunting areas.
Collette said the two national forests’ rugged terrain and distance from major population centers in the Piedmont make the region perfect for turkeys.
"Tactics don’t change a lot when you’re hunting wild turkeys," he said. "A turkey is still a turkey, no matter where you hunt him."
According to the 2012 harvest figures, the Nantahala led all North Carolina game lands with 272 reported gobbler kills, with the Pisgah second with 254. A distant third is the Uwharrie National Forest with 55.
Nine of the top 10 counties in public-lands harvest have land in either the Nantahala or Pisgah national forests, headed by Cherokee (70), Macon (65), Graham (59), Burke (58), McDowell (53), Montgomery (52), Jackson (49), Caldwell (34), Transylvania (34), Jackson (29) and Avery (26).
The best harvest last year among counties in the region was Rutherford, which has mountain and Foothills habitat. Hunters took 363 birds, sixth in the state.
"Turkey hunting in the west is like turkey hunting in the east with one big exception — you have to be in really good shape to go up and down those mountains," Collette said.
One favorite western turkey-hunting tactic is to use old logging roads to climb ridges, arriving at the top before daylight to listen for gobblers, then move in or begin calling, depending on the proximity of the birds.
On a statewide basis, the biggest harvests are in the Piedmont north of Collette’s Guilford County stomping grounds. Most have some urban areas, but outside of those limited areas, there’s plenty of agricultural land, hardwood forests and pastures well-suited for turkeys.
"Rockingham, Person, Caswell, Alamance and Guilford counties all have good numbers of turkey and good habitat, but they get a lot more hunting pressure than the northwest or far-western counties," Collette said.
Some of that pressure may have altered gobbler behavior, he believes.
"Caswell County was the original place that had the most turkeys in this part of the state," Collette noted. "Those birds have been hunted for a long time by a lot of hunters, so Caswell has some birds that just don’t gobble a lot. In certain pockets, they’re really tough to kill and don’t seem to gobble at all."
Some hunters have surmised that an increase in the coyote population has made Caswell County birds reluctant to gobble.
Before coyotes, most of the turkeys live-trapped in North Carolina and moved to other counties as part of the state’s stocking program came from the Caswell Game Lands, and the county ranked No. 9 in overall harvest last year, with 315 turkeys killed.
However, neither hunting pressure nor coyotes seems to have affected Rockingham County’s turkeys. Its land north of Guilford and west of Caswell was No. 1 in 2012 with 423 birds taken.
Mostly rural, Rockingham County has only four small towns, and the Dan River divides the county almost evenly, flowing from its southwest to the northeastern corner. The landscape is interspersed with large farms, agriculural fields, steep hardwood ridges and pine forests that also make it ideal turkey territory. With a small human population, Rockingham birds live most of the year with limited contacts with people.
Another good Northern Piedmont county for turkeys is Stokes, which is Rockingham’s western neighbor and ranked fourth in statewide harvest last spring with 366 turkeys. The Dan River flows through the northern part of the county, and the surrounding terrain — part of the Sauratown mountain range — offers excellent wild turkey habitat.
The Roanoke River drainage also supplies good turkey habitat; Northampton and Halifax counties were second and third last spring, with hunters tagging 420 and 399 wild birds, respectively.
"Halifax and Northampton are great turkey places," Collette said. "Any of the counties where the Roanoke River flows usually have great turkey habitat."
That environment includes large swamps where turkeys roost and huge agricultural fields — mostly soybeans, corn and peanuts. The Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge covers land on both sides of the river in several counties and is a favorite for hunters to apply for one of the special permit hunts the Commission oversees.
Turkeys are also expanding into virgin territory east of I-95 to the coast.
"That’s really different hunting in the east," Collette said. "You’re hunting flat ground down there, and the land is a lot more open, with a lot of agricultural fields. You see more turkeys in the fields in the east.
"But when you’re hunting them, you’ve got to really take care to stay hidden. But they’re like the same turkeys you hunt everywhere else.
"The main differences in the east are big game lands, such as Croatan and Holly Shelter. I think landowners are more likely to let you hunt turkeys, too — if you ask them."
Several eastern counties ranked among the top 10 last spring: Bladen with 361, Pender with 332 and Duplin with 298.
2012 Total Harvest
1. Rockingham 423
2 Northampton 420
3. Halifax 399
4. Stokes 366
5. Bladen 361
6. Rutherford 353
7. Pender 332
8. Wilkes 329
9. Caswell 315
10. Duplin 298
2012 Game Land Harvest
Top 10 Game Lands
1. Nantahala NF 272
2. Pisgah NF 254
3. Uwharrie NF 55
4. Croatan 44
5. South Mountains 39
6. Alcoa 29
6. Green River 29
7 Lower Roanoke River Wetlands 25
8 Caswell 24
9 Butner-Falls of Neuse 22
10 Sandy Mush 21
2012 Game Lands Harvest
Top 10 by Counties
1 Cherokee 70
2 Macon 65
3 Graham 59
4 Burke 58
5 McDowell 53
6 Montgomery 52
7 Jackson 49
8 Caldwell, 34
(tie) Transylvania 34
9 Madison 29
10 Avery 26
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