Pumping new life into the fall turkey hunting season
By Bill Cochran Roanoke Times

If you’ve been thinking about buying a turkey dog, now is a good time. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has proposed adding a 12-day January segment to the fall turkey hunting season. Those extra days, sheltered from the intrusion of deer guns, should be ideal for sportsmen with turkey dogs.

The proposed late season is an effort to jump start interest in fall turkey hunting, which has been lagging.

“We hope it will create new fall turkey hunters,” said Bob Ellis, DGIF wildlife chief.

Last fall and winter, hunters reported killing 2,687 turkeys, a 24 percent decline from the previous season. Make that a dismal 34 percent drop west of the Blue Ridge.

It gets worse. The kill was off nearly 85 percent from the record season of 1990 when 16,861 turkeys were reported killed during the fall season. The kill pretty much has been in free-fall ever since, decreasing on the average 4 percent every year.

Biologists have blamed every downward step on what they call “poor recruitment.” Cold days in April and wet days in June can affect the survival of young birds, but it is hard to believe that nature would dish out a string of 20 years of poor recruitment.

There’s got to be something else. People are seeing flocks of turkeys feeding in fields when they drive down the highway. They just aren’t showing up in kill figures.

One factor last season was a heavy mast crop which meant that turkeys had to range less to find food, thus their chances of encountering a hunter were diminished.

But, again, there’s got to be something else. And it is recruitment -- not the recruitment of turkeys, but the recruitment of turkey hunters. The DGIF finally is getting around to recognizing that fewer turkeys are being killed because among hunters there is a decline in interest and opportunities.

For many young sportsmen, turkey hunting means spring gobbler season. This leaves fall hunting to a declining number of aging sportsmen. Some spring hunters even question the wisdom of a fall season.

Others would rather chase king deer. Most fall hunting seasons evolve around deer. Biologists don’t like to combine deer and turkey seasons. Deer hunting gets first choice on the calendar; turkeys get what is left. With limited days to go after turkeys, this resource is being wasted.

But where can you add more turkey days to the calendar without conflicts with deer hunting? That’s the purpose of the proposed 12-day January season, which would begin the second Saturday in January.

No one knows how many sportsmen would avail themselves to this season. The truth is, January isn’t the best of times for turkey hunting. The weather can turn bad and hunting interest can wane. Turkeys are pretty smart by then.

I’m guessing the January season isn’t going to be the hunter-recruitment tool that DGIF biologists want. But it is a start.

“Initial harvest is expected to be low, but eventually grow,” said Ellis.

The DGIF website provides an opportunity to comment on this proposal and others that would make adjustments to fall hunting days. The proposals are due a final vote on May 3.