By the mid-1960s, North Carolina’s wild turkeys had neared the bottom of a free-fall, with only 2,000 left in the state.

A fall/winter season that allowed killing of gobblers and hens was devastating for North Carolina’s flock.

In 1970, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission took the first step to repair the damage by hiring Wayne Bailey away from West Virginia to become its supervising turkey biologist. Bailey brought live-trapping and relocation of turkeys to North Carolina.  

 The Commission spent $608,000 and received help from the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Super Fund as local chapters raised $309,477 to purchase birds captured in other states and transport them to North Carolina for release.

Bailey and the two biologists who followed him upon retirement, Brian Hyder and Mike Seamster, oversaw the transfer and stocking of turkeys in North Carolina for 16 years. Through 2015, the Commisison had released 6,031 turkeys on 358 restoration sites, including 4,443 since 1990. Today, restoration is complete.

But Bailey set the table by convincing skeptical hunters to support a spring, gobblers-only season. The first was held in 1972, but results were so small they weren’t recorded.

By 1977, hunters in 23 counties had bagged 144 birds, with Caswell County leading the way with 51 reported kills. In 1985, when the statewide turkey population had risen to approximately 100,000 birds, hunters tagged 500 turkeys for the first time. Then, the growth of the statewide flock exploded, as the harvest doubled every two to five years. The harvest reached 1,000 in 1988, 2,225 in 1992, broke the 3,000 mark in 1998 and topped 10,000 in 2006. It set records in five seasons between 2009 and 2013, with the record harvest of 18,409 that season.

“We’ve observed two hens per gobbler for years,” Kreh said. “With the overall growth of our turkeys, it’s easy to see why the gobbler harvest rate also has grown.”