For the first time in seven seasons, North Carolina wild turkey hunters saw a decline in the total spring harvest. During the April 12-May 10 gobblers-only season, hunters downed 16,912 birds. 

From 2008-13, every harvest was bigger than the previous, culminating with the record harvest in 2013 of 18,408 turkeys.

Evin Stanford, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist in charge of the wild turkey program, said the explanation was simple.

“A harvest decrease for this past season was not at all unexpected given the tremendous harvest increase we observed in 2013, and the fact that this past season followed two years of record low wild-turkey productivity,” he said. “Let’s hope for better productivity (in 2014).”

The decline in harvest amounted to 8.2 percent from the 2013 total, but Stanford said that isn’t a statistically great drop.

“Without the previous two years of low recruitment, we probably would have broken the harvest record again in 2014,” he said.

The Roanoke River counties once again led the state in harvest including the top two counties and two more of the top 10. Halifax County took the top spot with 568 turkeys killed, an increase of 28 over 2013. Neighboring Northampton County was second with 507, a drop from 2013’s 571 birds.

Bladen County was third with 476, while steady Rockingham County was fourth with 406. Edgecombe County was fifth with 387, followed by Pender with 383, Rutherford with 362, Onslow with 336, Stokes with 332 and Bertie rounding out the top 10 with 326

North Carolina’s second week-long youth season resulted in 1,149 birds tagged, a 4-percent drop from 2013. Archery hunters bagged 326 birds, while hunters using crossbows took 92.

For several years, Stanford has predicted North Carolina might see a wild-turkey harvest decline.

“It’s been happening across the Southeast,” he said.

However, the good news is factors which cause turkey downturns in other states — lost habitat, increased hunting pressure, humans expanding into wild turkey range — apparently haven’t been major factors in North Carolina.

“Usually the problem here is weather, which has been very difficult for young birds the previous two springs,” Stanford said.

He also said 2014’s harvest numbers probably are more indicative of the overall flock’s health than 2013’s record kill.

“While fewer turkeys were harvested this season compared to last season, the harvest still was the second-highest on record,” Stanford said. “Also, this year’s harvest fits well within our long-term harvest trend. It appears the harvest increase observed in 2013 is possibly the anomaly, rather than this past season’s decrease. It’s going to be interesting to see what future harvests look like.”

Following a cold, wet late winter of 2014 that produced freezing weather, including a massive March ice storm, the state saw a stretch of perfect weather during the May nesting season.

“That should bode well for turkey hunters two years from now when all those 2-year-old male birds become active gobblers,” Stanford said. “They should make up a big part of the 2016 spring harvest.”