Since the 1950's, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has made efforts to restabilize the wild turkey population in North Carolina and has made significant headway.

Beginning today, youth turkey hunters will be the first to try to bag a wild turkey during the spring hunting season.

The 2017 turkey season for male or bearded turkey opens April 8 and ends May 6, giving hunters nearly a month to bag the two-turkey limit. The youth season takes place a week before the regular season opens, April 1 to 7.

Russell Rhodes, president of Neuse Sport Shop in Kinston, said turkey hunting is popular in the area and he typically sees a surge of customers before the season starts.

“Turkey hunting is only one of a few spring opportunities for hunting,” Rhodes said. “Turkey season is a unique opportunity for sportsmen to go out and it’s a really challenging sport. There’s a lot of unique knowledge required, it’s very different than any other kind of hunting done in our area.”

A short, spring turkey hunting season hasn’t always been the case in North Carolina, said Chris Kreh, an N.C. Wildlife biologist. In the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, habitats greatly changed in the state. Deforestation, conversion to agriculture and unregulated hunting caused the wild turkey to be overhunted, decimating the population.

By 1970, the wild turkey population hovered around 2,000.

“If you were a turkey hunter in the 1960s and 70s, you didn’t have much opportunity,” Kreh said.

Even before reaching what Kreh called the population “low point” for wild turkeys in 1970, efforts had been made to restore the birds’ population.

Initially, N.C. Wildlife attempted releasing farm-reared wild turkeys into rural settings, which failed because of the pen-reared turkeys’ lack of knowledge relating to survival in the wild. Kreh said the birds simply weren’t as hardy as their wild counterparts.

“Restoration would’ve been easy if we could’ve done it that way,” Kreh said. “What we found is it didn’t work and we continued to have declines in the population because hunters during the fall season were overhunting the birds we did have.”

Kreh said things began to turn around in 1970 when N.C. Wildlife hired turkeybiologist Wayne Bailey, who had been experimenting with catching wild turkeys in one place and moving them to another.

Between 1950 and 2005, more than 6,000 turkeys were caught and released in the state. While most turkeys were simply relocated within the state, about 1,700 turkeys came from other states to rejuvenate the population.

Along with catching and relocating turkeys, Kreh said regulation change was instrumental in boosting wild turkey numbers. The state moved away from having a fall hunting season to a spring, male or bearded turkey-only season, which Kreh said was “much more conservative.”

Now, about 265,000 wild turkeys roam the state, which Kreh described as a “robust” population. In 2016, hunters statewide harvested 17,932 turkeys during the season.

“We have restored the turkey population in every county of the state,” Kreh said. “There are a few pockets here and there that don’t have birds, but by and large if there’s a good turkey habitat there are turkeys there. If there aren’t turkeys in a given area, it’s probably because the habitat is just not right.”

Though N.C. Wildlife considers requests annually to change the turkey hunting season, Kreh said overall turkey hunters are “hooked” on the thrill of the spring season.