Early-Season Turkey Hunting in West Virginia

The three gobblers were somewhere on the Monroe County mountain. I had heard them sounding off a few days before the 2011 season began. I had observed sign all over the steep parcel from the Greenbrier River tributary at the bottom of the mountain to the clear cut at the top. But the time was now 8:00 a.m., and I still had not heard a turkey-generated sound.

Walking along the logging road that ran across the mountain and adjacent to the clear cut, I decided on a new strategy.

A grove of white and red oaks lies at the end of the logging road and abuts the clear cut. I decided to set up in that grove until 12:30 when it would be time to walk down the mountain. What's more, I committed to sitting in the same spot that entire time.

Sooner or later I hoped one or more of those gobblers would come into my hen chatter. This was a better gambit than going up and down the mountain and possibly spooking the toms and their hens.

The last part of the strategy was also the first that I would execute. Before setting up for the duration, I eased over to first one lip of the mountain and then the other and cast gobbler yelps into the hollows on the respective sides. Then follow them up with some excited hen yelps.

I ambled to the left side first, emitted some gobbler yelps and immediately I heard animated male yelps right back. I quickly retreated to the oak I had selected as my setup site, mounted my 12-gauge Remington autoloader, and settled in. From past experience, I knew that events were likely to become both tense and exhilarating extremely soon.

And I was right. A few minutes later, all three gobblers crested the mountaintop on the run. I hurriedly uttered some yelps, which were enough to slow the threesome. Then I shouldered the shotgun and fired at the middle gobbler.

Soon the tom and I were on our way down the mountainside to a Gap Mills check station.

The pre-season scouting expedition mentioned earlier was the major reason I tagged that tom this past spring. Indeed, the week leading up to the opening of West Virginia's turkey season, which this year begins on April 23 and runs through May 19, is crucial to success. With that mind, let's ask three veteran hunters for their best tips toward having a fruitful early season this year.

JIM CLAY OF PETTUS

Jim Clay was born in Pettus, a small town in Raleigh County near the Boone County line. Clay, who runs Perfection Turkey Calls, took me on my first West Virginia turkey hunt.  In fact, that 1986 outing was my initial turkey hunt anywhere. Clay killed his first turkey in the early 1960s.

"One of the challenges of hunting the early season is West Virginia is such a long way across from north to south, he said. "What the gobblers will be doing in the Southern Coalfields is likely to be very different from how they are acting in the north central part of the state."

"For example, in late April in counties like Boone and Logan in the coalfields and Monroe and Greenbrier in southern West Virginia, the forests and fields should be very green and gobbling at its peak.

"But in the central mountain counties and north central West Virginia, the woods could still look like winter and the birds might not be gobbling at all," Clay explained.

"And in the Northern Panhandle, along the Ohio River, conditions may be somewhere between those two extremes. That's why hunters in the northern and central parts of the state shouldn't be too concerned when their birds aren't gobbling well early in the season," he concluded.

Based on that scenario Clay likes to hunt the southern part of the state or the lower lying Eastern Panhandle counties early in the season. If a hunter has the time, inclination, and unfilled tags, then a sound strategy would be to hunt higher and more northward as the season progresses. Additionally, counties like Pocahontas and Webster, which feature high elevations and vast chunks of the Monongahela National Forest, often produce better hunting later than earlier in the season.

Hunters need to adapt different strategies for hunting these disparate regions.

"In the southern part of West Virginia, I would recommend doing more run-and-gun style hunting early in the season, if you're not hearing birds," Clay continued. "Try cutting and jake gobbling. In much of the rest of the state, since you likely will not be hearing intense gobbling, I would suggest trying a more stationary strategy, calling for an hour or so in one location before moving on.

"For the stationary calling, try soft yelps, clucks, and purrs. Whichever sound you make, don't be too aggressive or call too much. Finally, remember these are just general guidelines. All turkey hunting is local and gobblers in the same county can act very differently depending on numerous factors."

Clay also offered some tips for hunters who strike out during opening day and week.

"Statistically, the best week to kill a gobbler is that first week," he said. "That's mainly because just about everybody who turkey hunts is going to be in the woods that week. Some hunters will be good or lucky and tag out. Others will make mistakes or be unlucky and won't tag out. Too many folks in that second group give up after the first week or two.

"That's a big mistake. Go every day of the season that you can. You can learn so much about turkeys and turkey hunting by just going as often as you can."

Finally, Jim Clay referred back to the work of West Virginia Division of Natural Resources biologists in the 1960s and '70s when the foundation for today's turkey population was laid.

"The efforts of biologists like Jim Pack and the late Wayne Bailey still benefit West Virginia turkey hunters today," Clay said. "Pack was one of the first biologists to practice 'saturation turkey stocking,' where many birds would be stocked in a relatively small area. Today, hardly anyone in West Virginia has to drive more than 20 miles to find turkeys. When I first started hunting, people might have to drive three or four hours."

CHRIS WALLS OF CHARLESTON

Chris Walls grew up in Roderfield in McDowell County. Today he lives in Charleston and is director of public relations for the Warner Law Offices. But, he still returns home for turkey hunting with his father Morris. Chris also operates the law firm's Beyond the Backyard, which has as its goal increasing youth participation in the outdoors.

Here's what Walls has to say about turkey hunting in West Virginia.

"My best advice for opening day and week is to hunt all day until the 1:00 p.m. quitting time," he said. "The most underappreciated and overlooked strategy for early season West Virginia turkey hunting is that the people who remain in the woods can kill a lot of birds between 10:30 and 11:30. That's prime time then. And I believe that's a strategy that will work statewide.

"A big old gobbler that has a lot of hens at dawn often won't by 10 o'clock. And hearing one lonely gobbler at 10 is better than hearing 20 at daylight. You have a really good chance to kill him."

A second strategy involves an aggressive pre-dawn gambit.

"Early in the season in our state, there will be lots of times when two or three gobblers are roosting with four or more hens," Walls noted. "Then, more than any other time I like to crowd the roost. I won't call any differently than at any other time of the season. I'll still be primarily making soft clucks, purrs, and yelps, mixing in a little scratching."

But there's a purpose behind this strategy.

"With setting up tight to the roost and this light calling, all I am trying to accomplish is to lure one of those gobblers or hens to break away from the rest of the group. If it's a gobbler that breaks away, chances are he will come in without gobbling or strutting — just sneaking along. If it's a hen, chances are that she might have a two-year-old satellite gobbler trailing her. Either way, I'll be ready. Watch for those silent gobblers, even if the rest of the toms are raising cane."

Walls, a pro staffer for Hunter Specialties, also related that early season weather patterns bear watching.

"Early season West Virginia hunters can expect rainy weather and it could be quite cool, too," he said. "I've killed a lot of turkeys that had soaking wet fans. That weather affects them more than us. The turkeys are going to be out doing their thing. The main difference is that they will be more likely to be found in openings.

"West Virginia is so forested that it's hard to find those openings," Walls added. "But remember, a gas line, a power line right-of-way, a seeded logging road, or an old tote road are openings West Virginia style. That's why anytime hunters have a chance to create a food plot it can be such a draw to turkeys.

"In fact, March is a great time to take some equipment and make a small food plot. I guarantee that it won't take long for the turkeys to find it."

Regarding set up strategies for these varied openings, Walls stated that a simple two decoy arrangement of a jake and hen is often sufficient. During rainy conditions, those visual cues are often much more effective than any kind of calling strategy.

Finally, Walls encourages adults to take youngsters afield on the annual Youth Day. This year it's on Saturday, April 21. Youngsters at least 8 years old and less than 18 can participate. Individuals 15 to 17 must comply with all licensing requirements. A licensed adult who cannot carry a gun or bow must closely accompany these young folks.

"At Beyond the Backyard, we're always looking for volunteers to take kids," Walls said. "There's no shortage of kids that want to go hunting, if they only had someone to take them. One of my most memorable recent hunts was watching a gobbler come into a decoy set and a youngster make a perfect shot to kill that bird."

JASON ARTRIP OF PRINCETON

Princeton's Jason Artrip said hunters should be aware of the variable weather during the early season.

"You can see rather cool temperatures and possibly even encounter a few snowflakes from time to time, all the way up to temperatures that reach the upper 70s and 80s," he said. "And even on normal days temps will likely fluctuate 15 to 20 degrees from the time you enter the woods in the morning, until you leave at mid-day.

"How you dress is very important," he continued. "You should always dress in layers, and expect to end up sweating if you have to start moving locations or chasing birds. Moisture wicking clothing is a definite plus."

Jason also weighed in on tactics.

"Since the season does come in a little later in West Virginia, it has been my experience that the majority of mature toms are already henned up. Thus you may need to be a little more aggressive with your calling early in the morning. You will need to give that tom a reason to leave his girlfriends, and come check you out.

"Calls, like slates and pushpins, that can be used simultaneously with one another, along with decoying are good bets this time of year," Artrip said.

"I prefer using a jake and hen decoy approach. This works best where visibility is good for the tom, such as fields, ridges, or open flats.

"Of course, any time you can roost birds the evening prior, it's always a big help," the hunter added. "The toms, however, will not always have hens with them. It may take time for a bird to commit to your calling, as it is not natural for the tom to have to go to the hen. "However, a gobbler that does not have a lady with him at this time would love to meet you, so just give him time and have patience."

Artrip stated that many people are concerned with over calling. Nevertheless, he is convinced that as long as a bird is answering, we should keep calling. Besides, hens can be quite vocal themselves.

"However, silent treatment sometimes works as well," he continued. "If a bird knows you're there, and all of a sudden you quit talking to him, that may be just what it takes to get him to commit. When a bird stops answering your calls or gets quiet, he may be trying to pick you out or may have given up. Either way, hold your ground."

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