This Saturday (April 10) is opening day for turkey hunting. The Department of Game and Fish released the numbers for the fall harvest of turkeys and I wanted to share it with you. Where you one of the numbers?

A total of 2,092 wild turkeys were harvested in Virginia during the 2020–21 fall turkey hunting season, a 3.7 percent increase over the 2019 harvest of 2,018 turkeys. The harvest declined approximately 1.5 percent in counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains but increased 11 percent in counties west of the Blue Ridge. Nearly 96 percent of turkeys harvested this fall were reported through the electronic harvest reporting systems (telephone, online, and mobile app).

While Virginia’s turkey population is close to record levels for modern times, fall harvests will fluctuate due to a number of other factors beyond the population size. These factors, which vary across the state, include the length and timing of the fall season, annual variation in reproductive success, acorn abundance, hunting pressure and weather.

Reproductive success can vary widely; inclement weather in May and June can lead to nest losses or death of the young turkey poults. In 2020, the statewide productivity estimate (1.9 poults/hen) fell well below the long-term average (2.6 poults/hen) for Virginia. However, productivity varies by region, and juvenile birds typically account for 40–60 percent of the fall bag so reproductive success can greatly influence turkey population size and fall harvest.

Acorn abundance also has a significant impact on fall harvest rates. In years with abundant acorns, wild turkey home ranges are small, which makes them harder for hunters to find. As a result, harvest rates decline. On the other hand, during years of acorn scarcity turkeys must range further to find food and this typically helps hunters find and harvest more birds.

An interesting aspect of the 2020-21 fall harvest was the marked increase in harvest by hunters using archery equipment (bows or crossbows). The archery harvest made up nearly 19 percent of the total fall harvest, with crossbow users accounting for nearly 12 percent of the total fall harvest. This represents a 125 percent increase over the archery harvest from the 2019–20 season. 

This increase may be attributed to acorn abundance that was not uniform across the landscape. In areas where there were acorns, field reports generally indicated a “bumper” crop. Archery hunters, much like the turkeys and other wildlife, likely keyed in on areas of high acorn abundance.

Thanksgiving Day and the newly added hunting opportunity on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving continue to be popular fall turkey hunting days statewide. This new day was added in 2019 except for counties that only have a two-week fall season. This year a total of 519 birds were harvested during this two day timeframe, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the total fall harvest. Thanksgiving Day accounted for the single highest day of harvest with 333 birds or 16 percent of the total fall harvest.

Even with the slight increase in fall harvest this year, the overall decline in fall turkey hunting seems to continue for Virginia and many other eastern states. One of the goals of the DWR Wild Turkey Management Plan is to reverse the general decline in fall turkey hunting interest. 

The October youth and apprentice fall turkey hunting weekend and the mid-January season were designed to encourage interest in fall turkey hunting. Unfortunately, poor weather (heavy rain, wind, and fog) during the youth/apprentice weekend may have hampered efforts during that weekend during the 2020–21 season.

Good luck to all and know your target and what’s behind it. 

Until next week- H.S.F.H.-L.M.

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