Fall success flocks to turkey hunters who find a crowd


In the minutes before the sun clears a ridge to the east, there is a stirring high in a thick stand of hemlock rooted in a neck of bottom land in Western Maryland. As the dawn begins to walk down the face of an oak ridge to the southwest, the stirring in the hemlock increases and a wild turkey leaves its overnight roost to search for food.

It is autumn, the hardwoods are losing their leaves, the oak ridges are covered with hard mast, the wild turkey is flocking and on Friday Maryland opens its five-day hunting season in Garrett and Allegany counties and Washington County west of Interstate 81.

The fall season is different than the spring season that has become increasingly popular over the past few years.

In the spring, male turkeys are strutting their stuff, eager to mate and ready to be called in by heavily camouflaged hunters in all or parts of 14 counties from the Eastern Shore to western Garrett County.

In the fall, said Darrell Roberts, forest wildlife project leader with the Department of Natural Resources, the behavior patterns of the wild turkey change, and hunting strategy changes as well.

"The turkeys are in flocking behavior right now," Roberts said. "They are going to be in large flocks rather than just a tom seeking out a hen for breeding purposes and that sort of thing.

"And more or less a hunter is going to have some success trying to find flocks that are feeding on oak ridges and that kind of thing. You end up waiting more on turkeys in the fall season rather than strictly calling."

The calls that do seem to work in the fall, said Roberts, an avid turkey hunter, are lost calls and hen yelps that encourage the flock to come look for the lost hen.

The other strategy is to find the habitat that will draw the birds and then narrow the turkey's options.

"As far as the fall and winter are concerned," said Roberts, "turkeys seek out two things -- food and roosting cover. Food is going to be their main priority; the other is roosting cover because of these cold rains that we are going to be getting in November and the snowfall through February.

"Good cover is going to be critical for these birds."

As the hardwoods lose their leaves, a turkey's options for roosting cover decrease, and the importance of conifer trees increases because they keep their foliage, and foliage provides shelter from wind, rain and snow.

"A lot of times they may roost in bottom land due to the fact that we have a lot of hemlock around here," Roberts said. "They will get in these white pine hemlock thickets, roost down there and soar over to a ridge and start their feeding."

The ridges that will be favored early in the day will be those with southern exposures because they will be the warmest and likely will have the denser mast, on which the turkeys feed.

The trigger to flocking behavior, Roberts said, is decreasing hours of daylight.

"These birds are very sensitive to photoperiod," Roberts said, "and when they start this flocking behavior a lot of times you will see bachelor groups of toms and sometimes mixed groups of toms and hens.

"So chances are that you are going to have more than one bird in sight, and you get a little better pick sometimes."

For a number of years, the accepted figure of home range territory for wild turkeys was 20 square miles per bird. However, Roberts said, recent studies have determined that the annual home range varies from 370 to 1,360 acres.

"The old figure is no longer valid," Roberts said. "We have birds down in some of our urban areas that are doing very well."

The key to how much area a turkey needs is how much food is available. In lean years, the birds will have a wider range. In years of abundance, they will not need to travel as far or concentrate as heavily.

"This year we had an excellent mast crop up here, so it is going to be fantastic for the birds because they are not going to be in dire need of food," Roberts said. "As far as the hunting is concerned, it might spread the birds out a little bit, making it a little bit more difficult to find where they are.

"One thing I would look for would be to find a good roost sight," Roberts said. "That would give a good indication of what ridge they might come down on."

More than 70 years ago, the wild turkey was determined to be absent from Maryland except in the extreme western portion of the state. In the past 30 years, trap and transplant programs have rebuilt the state's population to 15,000 birds spread through all 23 counties.


The fall turkey season in Maryland runs from Nov. 5-10 in that portion of the state from Interstate 81 west. The following is how the fall kill of 369 broke down last year.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. No. .. .. .. Pct.

Area ... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. killed .. .. of kill

Garrett County Private lands ... .. .. .. .. .. .. 74 ... .. .. 20.0

Savage River State Forest ... .. .. 78 ... .. .. 21.1

Potomac State Forest .. .. .. .. ... 2 ... .. ... 0.5

Garrett State Forest .. .. .. .. ... 4 ... .. ... 1.1

Mt. Nebo Wildlife Mgmnt. Area .. ... 2 ... .. ... 0.5

Frostburg WS . .. .. .. .. .. .. ... 2 ... .. ... 0.5

Garrett totals .. .. .. .. .. .. . 162 ... .. .. 43.9

Allegany County Private lands ... .. .. .. .. .. .. 85 ... .. .. 23.0

Dan's Mtn. Wildlife Mgmnt. Area ... 16 ... .. ... 4.3

Warrior Mtn. Wildlife Mgmnt. Area .. 7 ... .. ... 1.9

Green Ridge State Forest . .. .. .. 44 ... .. .. 11.9

Billmeyer Wildlife Mgmnt. Area . ... 3 ... .. ... 0.8

Rocky Gap State Park .. .. .. .. ... 1 ... .. ... 0.3

Belle Grove Wildlife Mgmnt. Area ... 3 ... .. ... 0.8

Sideling Hill Wildlife Mgmnt. Area . 2 ... .. ... 0.5

Allegany totals . .. .. .. .. .. . 161 ... .. .. 43.6

Washington County (West of I-81) Private lands ... .. .. .. .. .. .. 35 ... .. ... 9.5

Indian Springs Wild. Mgmnt. Area ... 4 ... .. ... 1.1

Sideling Hill Wildlife Mgmnt. Area . 1 ... .. ... 0.3

Washington totals .. .. .. .. .. .. 40 ... .. .. 10.8

Note: 6 kills came from unknown zones.

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