Thursday, August 12, 2004
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Finally, a decent turkey hatch -- maybe
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
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Impressive numbers of young turkeys are showing up in several sections of Virginia, the fruit of a successful spring hatch. Wildlife biologists and hunters are saying, “It’s about time!”
A string of poor production years that date back to 2000 have slowed the population growth of the wild turkey in Virginia and contributed to a dismal 20-percent drop in the number of toms reported killed during the 2004 spring hunting season. The kill of 14,388 was the lowest since 1999.
Freddy McGuire of Bedford County, who is on the Primos Hunting Calls pro staff, said this week that he is seeing lots of poults of various size. “All I can say it is a heck of a lot better than the last several years and, as you know, we need a good hatch bad.”
The staff of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reports record numbers of broods in the Tidewater region of the state, according to Gary Norman, DGIF turkey biologist.
“I’ve had good numbers of broods reported also in the Southern Piedmont,” said Norman. “Jim Clay [a noted turkey call manufacturer] called to say that they’re seeing great numbers of young in Frederick County.”
Bob Ellis, assistant chief of the DGIF wildlife division, reported seeing two turkey hens with 16 poults while he was banding doves in Louisa County.
The good news, unfortunately, doesn’t cover the entire state. The Central and Southern Mountain sections report average or below average production, probably the result of frequent spring rains, which can be fatal to young chicks.
In general, things look promising for the fall turkey season, where success depends heavily on the wellbeing of the spring hatch; however, that hatch isn’t anything like the “boom” that Norman said the state was due. Biologists are garnishing their comments by calling reproduction “spotty.” This means that while populations may be up in some areas, that won’t be the case in others.
Wildlife officials won’t have detailed information on the success of the 2004 hatch until this fall’s turkey season results are analyzed. The number of young birds per hen in the kill is the measuring stick used by DGIF. For the past 24 years, the ratio has been 3.2 juvenile birds per hen. In 2003, it was 2.0; in 2002, 1.4 and in 2001, 2.2. Little wonder spring hunting success has declined.
“Unfortunately, next year’s spring kill will probably drop further, Norman said, because the bulk of the mature toms available hunters then will be from the poor hatches of 2002 and 2003. After that, there is a promise of change.
“I hope that we’ll see gains in turkey populations given the recruitment we’re seeing this year,” Norman said.
The 2004 spring kill represented 4,000 fewer toms than registered in 2002, when the take was a record 18,345. Even a couple of new wrinkles--a youth hunting day and afternoon hunting--couldn’t save what can only be called dismal results.
Youngsters reported killing 191 turkeys during a first-ever youth hunting day on the Saturday before the general season began. No matter what the kill, the day was a success, because it introduced new hunters to the tradition.
Hunting went from a half-day to full-day affair during the late portion of the season, but there isn’t an accurate way to determine what impact this had on the season’s kill, Norman said.
“If I had to guess, I’d say that afternoon harvest contributed less than 5 percent of the total,” he said. There was a slight, 2 percent, increase in the kill during the fourth week of the season, when afternoon hunting was in play.
The low 2004 spring kill certainly wasn’t what wildlife officials expected when fall hunting opportunities were reduced in 1995 with the promise that the turkey population would take off, resulting in significant increases in both the spring and fall kills within 10 years. That just hasn’t happened.
“When we modeled the change in fall harvest we assumed average recruitment would be seen, some good years; some bad,” Norman said. “The recent reality has been below average production since 2000.”
This isn’t to say the new regulations haven’t been beneficial, he said.
“Who knows where we’d be without the changes we made in 1995. If there’s any consolation, I’ll offer that other adjoining states are seeing the same trends.”