Back when North Carolina was moving wild turkeys all around the state and in from other states, some of the last counties to get imported gobblers and hens were those in the coastal plain. They were considered to have the least turkey-friendly habitat across the state, well behind the Piedmont, the mountains and counties along the Roanoke River.
Now, looking at harvest figures from the past few seasons, it’s obvious that those counties in the corridor between Raleigh and Wilmington are now among the best places in North Carolina to be toting an owl or crow call before daylight on April 11, when the state’s spring gobbler season opens.
Last season, four counties in the southeastern corner of the state were among the top 10 in overall harvest. Hunters in Bladen County took the third-most birds of anywhere in the state, 476. Duplin County came in fifth with 387, with Pender County sixth with 383. Onslow County was eighth with 332.
Add in the Roanoke River trio of No. 1 Halifax (568), No. 2 Northampton (507) and No. 10 Bertie (326), and that puts seven of North Carolina’s best 10 turkey counties east of Raleigh — unheard-of in a state where, 15 years ago, the top three counties, year-in and year-out, where Caswell in the northern Piedmont and Alleghany and Ashe in the northwestern mountains.
“These days, good turkey habitat is being defined by the turkeys, not by biologists,” said Chris Kreh of Dobson, the biologist who heads up the upland game bird project for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “We have learned a lot about turkey habitat during our restocking project. We’ve learned they’ll do well in places that were not thought of to be good places for them.”
Kreh doesn’t know exactly how the harvest will work out during the April 11-May 9 spring gobbler season, or in the April 4-10 youth-only season that precedes it. In 2014, hunters took 15,906 bearded birds, ending a streak of seven years of record harvests in succession. Was that a blip on the radar caused by a couple of poor years of reproduction or the beginning of a downturn that matches what many states are experiencing across the Southeast.
“There’s no reason to be worried,” Kreh said. “The harvest did fall some, but the overall trend the past several years has been upward, and I don’t see anything changing for the next year or two.
“We still have a large part of the state where the flock is increasing. That will keep the harvest up compared to other places where the flock has leveled off or is dropping.”
The southeastern corner of the state, especially a handful of counties along the Cape Fear River, has a growing flock of birds. The state stocked most of the area between 1990 and 2005, with Duplin County getting some of the last birds moved around in 2005. In the same fashion that birds in other parts of the state expanded — especially along the Roanoke River — turkeys took up residence in the bottomland and used the river and feeder creeks as routes to fill up the surrounding areas.
“I think these birds have done the same thing, in that when you get good, fertile bottomland along the river, they use it a lot. That’s how they’re expanding,” Kreh said. “The southeastern part of the state is one area where the flock is growing and where the harvest is growing. Part of it is more turkeys, and part of it is that there are more hunters out there. I think the flock is expanding, and people who are members of clubs are getting interested in turkey hunting, people who wouldn’t travel anywhere else to go hunting.”
Kreh said several other areas of the state are showing similar promise, mentioning Davie and Stokes counties west and north of Winston-Salem, and foothills counties of wildlife District 8. Stokes has regularly appeared in the top 10 counties in total harvest for the past decade, with harvests between 300 and 350 birds a year. Last year, hunters took 336 birds, good for the No. 9 spot. It was 2005 before hunters took 100 birds in Davie County, but since 2010, the harvest hasn’t fallen below 150 in a county that’s barely one-third the size of the four leading counties in southeastern North Carolina.
Stokes, Davie and the counties in the southern foothills were restocked pretty early during the 1990s, and all have major rivers coursing through them: the Yadkin, the Dan and the Broad. Rutherford County had a fairly good population of birds in some areas before the restocking began, and it was No. 7 in the statewide harvest standings last year. The harvest has been steadily increasing in Cleveland County over the past half-dozen years, ditto Burke, McDowell and Polk counties.
The harvest through the northern Piedmont has remained consistent. Caswell County may have fallen out of the top 10, but not because its annual harvest has fallen; it’s in the 300s every season. Neighboring Rockingham County was No. 4 last season with 406 birds; its harvest has been in excess of 400 since 2010. Neighboring Granville County’s harvest remains in the high 200s, and the harvests in Vance and Warren counties to the east have been consistent.