2010 Mountain State Turkey Preview
September 29, 2010
The new spring season is just about here. What will it be like? Read on! (April 2010)
I came to know her as the "Lonesome Hen." Her calls were unique to say the least, sounding more pathetic than raspy. Lucky for me, this old gal kept a pair of boss gobblers courting her right up through the late part of last year's season. Let's just say that if you heard her, you would know exactly what I was talking about!
I was merely one of the 100,000 West Virginia spring gobbler hunters who had enjoyed many exciting and memorable experiences, regardless of whether they brought a bird to the check station. But thanks to that old hen, I would eventually get to do just that along with some 9,929 other fortunate souls last year.
What's more, it looks like a remarkably similar dose of gobbler good fortune is in store for this year's hunts. In fact, as we will see, it's highly likely that with a decent number of rain-free hunting trips, we should tack a few more birds on while tipping the scales to the topside of 10,000 gobblers this time around.
But not so fast, this scratchy old hen had dragged me through the mountains on several unsuccessful bouts before she eventually tantalized those big boys to follow her to the business end of my Mossberg 835 barrel.
For example, there was an opening week jake that couldn't resist getting out ahead of the old girl literally jumping the gun to my chances for an early-season score. He came in silent and got right up on me while I had just stood up thinking the morning hunt was over. I missed him on the flush up-close and personal.
There was a later hunt with plenty of calling excitement from the hen and her long-bearded comrades that turned silent in a flash. Wondering what I may have done wrong, I finally ended the setup and walked in for a closer look. I saw both the Lonesome Hen and a skulking coyote that explained that morning's abrupt silence.
At my sight, both the coyote and hen scattered for parts unknown. A second or two later, one of the gobblers flushed from the safety of its coyote-eluding tree perch but just out of range. On another morning, my setup was too close. A sneak peak over a nearby stump revealed two cherry-red gobbler heads and their scratchy-voiced girlfriend slip, sliding away.
With time running out on the season, all the stars finally lined up just right. Why this raspy old hen was not nesting by then was beyond me. Apparently not being able to resist some female companionship, she would not follow the gobblers away from my calling, much as they wanted her to do so. Like errant playboys, however, they finally broke, coming back to the squawky calling hen.
The late in the season greenery can be a hunting disadvantage, but on this occasion, it both provided me some ground cover and allowed for a bit of movement to make the shot for what seemed like an eternity. Based upon its prescribed spur length, the bird was a dandy 4-year-old and I wondered how many times this Logan County big guy had put the slip on me in prior years.
As I traipsed the mile or so back down the mountain to my pickup truck, the rains began to fall like they had for several other mornings of the season. Rains have, in fact, been dampening both the hunter kills and peak hatching periods for wild turkeys. Steady rains can, in turn, cause chick mortality and reduce those ever important "brood counts."
That in effect has been the story the past several years, as the flocks are doing good but just not bonkers a la the prior reigning record years of 2001 and 1995, when 17,875 and 16,770 gobblers were bagged, respectively. With Mountain State flocks saturated or at carrying capacity statewide, the populations now and hereafter may thus look a lot alike when plotted out over time.
Weather and its effects on autumn mast, spring chick survival and hunter harvests are the primary controlling factors. Commenting on yet another soggy spring hunting season, current Division of Natural Resources' (DNR) chief of Wildlife Resources and former long-term turkey project leader Curtis Taylor states: "Wet weather dampened hunter turnout, reducing gobbling activity and resulting in a lower-than-expected harvest."
Reports from DNR field personnel indicate hunting pressure last season was lower than normal. Much of this decrease in hunting can be attributed to the very foul weather conditions. Looking on the bright side, wildlife biologists expect a good carryover of mature toms. With more favorable weather conditions and sufficient fall foods, there should be an abundance of gobblers for the 2010 spring season."
Additional evidence on the currently lower turkey population status is provided by the fall bowhunter survey. Yet another very important key to the flock numbers (and in turn the spring harvest level) is the brood count data two years before the season. For example, it is the brood counts of 2008 that ultimately result in the bulk of the birds bagged this spring. Per the greater proportion of these now 2-year-old gobblers in the overall flock, you can see the connection.
Getting down to that specific brood count data, the counts for 2007 and 2008 were very similar to the five-year average. Therefore, current DNR wild turkey project leader Bill Igo is calling for a similar gobbler harvest for 2010 as was taken in 2009.
With the overall mast indexes for autumn 2009 being relatively poor, the worst-case scenario would be for a severe winter with prevailing deep, heavy snows. This effect would be most pronounced for the higher elevation counties. Though wild turkeys are very winter hardy, just such a sequence of events is very likely the cause of the rather pronounced decline in turkeys exhibited around 2002 and 2003. They have not yet fully rebounded yet, but could very likely turn that corner with an excellent brood count year. Better yet, make it the next two in a row for some new record potential.
With all that behind us and ever mindful of that statewide flock status, it's now time to talk some turkey specifics. Just where will the best gobbler producing counties, regions and wildlife management areas (WMAs) likely to be this spring?
TOP GOBBLER COUNTIES
Counties are not only the makers and breakers of bragging rights; they are the tried-and-true management units for the West Virginia wild turkey just as they are for many other states. So, let's take a look at some of the top turkey-producing ones.
There is no better way to look at a county potential than to visit its gobbler kill per square mile. To spare us all that arithmetic, I just look at the hunting regulations pamphlet since I know that the DNR folks run the numbers for us. The rest is easy.
short, the non-traditional or "kill based" counties open to the one-week fall season's hunting are the quickest way to ascertain the best counties to hunt this spring. These are the richest in turkey numbers pure and simple. In fact, they account for an astounding minimum gobbler kill check-in rate of one per every 500 acres of turf. Without further ado, these counties mostly lie in the Northern Panhandle and other Ohio (Ohio River) bordering counties in the state's northwest sector.
The specific hot turkey density counties are as follows: Brooke, Hancock, Harrison, Marshall, Mason, Ohio, Upshur, Wirt and Wood. If some of these sound like the Interstates 77 and 79 deer factory or beltway counties, that's because they are. Deer and turkeys parallel each other for the greatest perennial densities. The answer lies in just the right mish mash of hayfields, farms and forests. Counties adjacent to the listed ones are usually close runners-up.
If on the other hand, you like the counties with the best overall numbers of birds bagged, then Mason, Preston, Harrison, Upshur and Wood were the top five producers in that category. Hint . . . except for Preston, the others are found on both lists!
I rarely get to hunt any of those blockbuster counties, primarily since I live in the heavily forested southern portion of the state. There are similar hayfield habitats provided by reclaimed surface coalmines that can be taken advantage of there. Many turkeys meet their maker within a mile or so of such perimeters.
TOP GOBBLER WMAs
For the top five gobbler-producing non-national forest wildlife management areas, there is some gobbling thunder to be stolen from the state's northern sector. Here is last year's top five by name, county and with last year's gobbler kill following in parenthesis: Beech Fork in Cabell and Wayne counties (26); R. D. Bailey in Mingo and Wyoming counties (26); Bluestone in Summers and Mercer counties (25), Stonewall Jackson in Lewis County (20); and Amherst/Plymouth in Putnam County (19).
For the best bets in Monongahela National Forest-based WMA parcels, the Cranberry at the juncture of Webster, Nicholas Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties chalked up 32 birds. The Mon's Potomac WMA at the confluence of Grant, Pendleton, Randolph and Tucker accounted for 31 birds. The Neola WMA's sector of the Mon in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties tallied 26 gobblers.
For an oft-overlooked federal hunting land option, the National Park Service, New River Gorge National River area boast some 70,000 acres of rugged turkey-rich turf. Lying in the southern sector's Fayette and Summers counties, it is readily accessible from the Turnpike, Interstate 64 or U.S. Route 19. I've never visited this turf without running into turkeys or turkey sign in short order. For all kinds of maps and other info, ring them up on the Web at www.nps.gov /neri/index.htm.
For some state WMAs with a nifty National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) connection, try these nicely scattered WMAs. First, you may want to give yourself a pat on the back. Your NWTF Superfund Banquet dollars contributed greatly toward more than 1,000 acres of land acquisition just over the past 20 years or so. What a shot in the arm, especially when such funds have become harder to come by with each passing year.
It should come as no coincidence that these areas all afford some excellent gobbler hunting. These NWTF purchase assisted WMAs include: Ritchie Mines in Ritchie County; Wallback WMA in Clay, Kanawha and Roane counties; Beury Mountain WMA in Fayette County and Little Indian Creek WMA in Monongalia County.
If you'd like to hook up with a local NWTF Superfund banquet in your area, check them out on the Internet at www.wvstatechapternwtf.com.
This year's special one-day youth spring gobbler hunt will be held Saturday, April 24 just before that month's traditional fourth Monday (April 26, 2010) regular season gala. This marks the sixth year of the successful youth gobbler hunts that are exhibiting an increasing harvest trend, thus showing that it can be a great opportunity. The one-day hunt last year resulted in 385 youngster tagged gobblers for 4 percent of the most recent kill. Not bad for one day, not bad at all!
The season is available to youngsters at least 8 years old but not more than 14 years old on the day of the hunt. A licensed adult of at least 21 years of age must accompany the youngster. Consult the regulations pamphlet for additional details or ring them up on the DNR's Web site at www.wvdnr.gov.
This year's statewide, four-week season runs from April 26 to May 22. There are no changes to the regular season, bag limit or other regulations of the spring gobbler framework. The daily limit remains at one bearded bird per day, two per season. Baiting and the use of electronic calls are prohibited. Hunters must be out of the woods by 1 p.m. each day.
On a sad note, there seems to be a slew of baiting prosecutions with every season. Peer pressure from the hunting community is perhaps the best bet for curtailing the practice. There is not only the legality and ethics aspects of baiting to contend with, but there are disease transmission and contaminated food concerns as well. For example, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recently attributed four dead elk to human do-gooders providing corn.
Tree-stand-related accidents had edged out turkey-hunting-related ones in the past decade or so. The fatal shooting of a human being mistaken for a turkey just last spring has again reminded us of this peril. There is no excuse in mistaking a human or a hen turkey, or any other creature for that matter, for a bearded gobbler. All of us must maintain our vigilance in the spring woods.
SPRING GOBBLER SURVEY
The DNR's annual cadre of spring gobbler hunting surveyors is always in need of more eyes and ears. The nation's longest-standing survey of its type is co-sponsored by the State Chapter of the NWTF. The information gathered is simple to tally, yet quite valuable to the management of the West Virginia wild turkey. If you would like to participate, call Randy Tucker at (304) 637-0245 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Folks who participate in the survey get an exclusive copy of the prior year's results that includes a lot of anecdotal information from the spring gobbler hunting fraternity, as well as the usual fun facts on gobbling rates, harvest times of day and season. For a small sampling thereof, some 65 percent of gobblers are bagged before 9 a.m. More than half of the gobbler kill is made during the first week of season. Roughly one of five gobblers bagged over the long term are "jakes" or shorter bearded young-of-the-year birds.
As if talking to turkeys weren't enough fun, the springtime woods are full of warblers, wildflowers and mushrooms to boot. And of late, there has been a cadre of bears and bobcats to spice up the whole affair with their antics.
It's about that time of year again. Be safe and enjoy your 2010 spring gobbler season. You never know what you might run into besides one of the finest and dangly bearded monarchs that wild and wonderful West V
irginia has to offer.