VIRGINIA’s 2020 spring turkey season ended last Saturday and the final tally of gobblers taken by hunters reported via the telephone and online check-in system won’t be available until tomorrow. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Director Ryan Brown said that, based on informal updates as the season progressed, hunters tagged more birds this spring than last year.
Rumors have been floating that several states are expecting record or near-record harvests, due to the fact that many hunters could hunt more frequently since their jobs were shut down due to the coronavirus.
Ordinarily, spring turkey hunting isn’t a game for people unable to flourish when their mind is frustrated and their body quakes from days of sleep deprivation. The sun rises a little bit earlier each morning this time of year. Alarms set for 4 a.m. or earlier are a must for the dedicated gobbler-getter intent on being at a favorite outdoor listening post in time to hear the first shout-outs by wild turkeys to a slumbering world.
The toughest toms often greet a new day by announcing from the treetops their presence and dominance to all who will hear. Sometimes, destinies of the hunter and gobbler intersect, resulting in a daybreak rendezvous where a skilled hunter fools a wary tom into strutting gaudily toward its demise. Those moments are rare, but they yield such an incredible adrenaline surge that some humans become addicted to the challenge, ritually rising earlier each morning looking for a fix.
I know such addicts. They seek no cure. They are also among the hunters most in tune with what is going on in the world of the wild turkey. They spilled their guts, sharing what they saw and heard (or didn’t).
Steve Owens is a wildlife biologist and avid hunter in Virginia’s southwestern mountains near Marion. He said most gobbling activity he heard was before the season began. He surmises breeding there occurred during February and March.
“The best gobbling for me was on youth weekend and it fizzled from there. The birds I did hear just gobbled a few times on the roost and then would go quiet,” Owens said. “I hunted hard and only killed one gobbler. My daughter killed her first bird during youth weekend.
“I did call in three coyotes at different times and managed to kill one of them,” he said, adding, “We’ve got way too many predators.”
Trebark camouflage inventor Jim Crumley and his wife Sherry, a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Board of Directors, hunted their Botetourt County property every day that brought no rain. Jim successfully tagged two toms. He said Sherry also hunted hard.
“We hunted together the last two weeks, set up on roosted birds every morning and they either shut up at fly-down, or gobbled going away, still roosting with hens. So, she did not shoot. She thinks it was the turkey gods’ way of payback since she got two birds opening week last season,” he said.
The Crumleys also hosted five guests. Each worked birds, but took no shots. Five turkeys came off their property last season, a record. “I think too many birds can be as frustrating as too few!” Crumley mused.
Waynesboro resident Jeff Hoke, an avid deer, bear, turkey and raccoon hunter, as well as a board member of the Virginia Wheelin’ Sportsmen, kept meticulous records of his Virginia 2020 season.
He hunted two days in Bath County on national forest land without hearing a gobble. He heard gobbling on three of the eight days he hunted in Augusta County, again in the national forest. He didn’t get a turkey at either location.
Switching to private property in Amherst County, he heard gobbling on four of 11 hunting days and he took two mature toms two weeks apart. He tagged out May 3 on private land in Southampton County after hearing multiple gobblers.
“I heard gobbling on more days this year than I did last year,” Hoke said. “Last year, I never heard a bird on public land and did not hear a bird until the fourth week of the season.” Still, Hokes said hearing gobbles on only seven of 22 hunting days was well off the mark compared to most of his past years of turkey hunting.
Mark Jenkins, president of the NWTF’s Gray Ghost Gobblers Chapter, said he hunted in Fauquier County each morning of the entire season.
“I heard birds gobbling a total of three times the whole season,” Jenkins said. He said gobbling started around 5:50 a.m. while turkeys were still in the trees and stopped at 6:15, almost as soon as they flew to the ground.
Despite the quiet woods, Jenkins tagged out. He attributes his first two toms to his intimate knowledge of the property he hunts and ability to figure out where the turkeys wanted to be and what they wanted to do. His third turkey gobbled on his own, not in response to any calling. Upon hearing the bird, Jenkins quickly closed the distance, gave a soft yelp and the motivated turkey marched into his lap.
“It was a very wet, cold spring almost an exact duplicate of last year and not a real enjoyable season except for the results,” Jenkins said.
A low point for him was discovering that a nest he had been monitoring with a trail camera was destroyed May 7. He first spotted the nest, with 15 eggs in it, on April 29. Three raccoons, followed by a skunk, did the damage. A coyote scent-marked the spot a couple hours later. The hen, apparently, escaped.
Par for the Course
I took my usual two mature toms. I could have tagged out the first week had I been willing to shoot year-old males (commonly known as jakes). I passed on a mature tom in Caroline County because I estimated he was a little too distant from my shotgun’s muzzle. In all likelihood, I could have tumbled him but didn’t risk taking a wounding shot.
My first gobbler came on opening day in King George. He followed two hens right into my spread of three decoys, never gobbling, but popping into several struts as he painstakingly worked into gun range.
My second turkey came at a friend’s farm in Caroline. I watched this strutting dude get dragged all over a planted cornfield by two hens before disappearing into the woods. He was oblivious to calling.
I repositioned the next morning and watched as he squired his ladies into the field at 6:30 a.m. This guy, apparently, also doesn’t gobble. One hen moved away, came back for a quick conjugal visit and then hastily disappeared. Soon after, the other hen ambled in the opposite direction. Sensing abandonment, the tom began ogling my hen decoy with amorous intent. A couple soft calls had him happily stroll over for a visit.
Friends in the Northern Neck reported another good season as they called in birds on turkey-rich lands. Some gobbled; many didn’t–at least not much.
So, it was an odd year. Perhaps, though, odd years are what we’ve come to expect with turkey hunting. Is decreased gobbling an emerging phenomenon? Many theories exist as to why this may be occurring—weather, fur-bearing as well as human predators keying on vocal turkeys, season timing, turkey “relationships” and more.
It is a fascinating topic for wild turkey researchers. I’ll be sure to share any insights they uncover.