Our State's Finest Fall Turkey Hunting

Here's where you should try this season to bag a wild turkey for the dinner table. Is one of these top counties near you?

Photo by Ralph Hensley

As much as I relish pursuing whitetails in West Virginia, the outdoor pastime that I am most passionate about is turkey hunting. If you are a hardcore turkey hunter like me -- or even if you are a casual one -- you are quite probably aware that the past few seasons have seen the state's turkey contingent fall upon hard times. Last autumn, the tally was 1,295 turkeys taken, 30 percent lower than the 1,841 birds checked in during 2003. Furthermore, the 2004 harvest was the lowest fall kill since 1967.

What's more, state hunters have had to endure a four-year decline in the combined fall and spring harvests. Part of the drop can be attributed to poor poult production in 2002 and 2003. Reproduction was better in 2004 statewide, but it was still low in the high mountain counties where the Monongahela National Forest is. This national forest has long been a focal point for many fall turkey chasers. Chris Ryan, a biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), had this to say about the reasons behind the decreased harvest.

"The primary reason for the decline in the fall turkey harvest has been from poor brood production, that is, bad hatches, the past couple of years. The better acorn crop in 2004 in the mountains also made the harvest lower because in years of good mast production, it is harder to harvest turkeys in the fall."

As veteran fall turkey hunters know, when hard mast, such as acorns, is available, flocks are more scattered and remain deeper in the woods. Thus, they are more difficult to locate and shoot. So with fewer birds being about and with those that were in the woods not having to forage far for food, then it is no surprise that the harvest plunged last fall.

But what about the prospects for this coming season? At press time, Ryan was not able to make a definitive prediction, but he was able to offer these insights.

"We didn't have a really bad winter, and there shouldn't be many problems (with winter die-off)," he said. "The 2004-05 winter definitely was better than recent past winters. The DNR would love to see a good turkey hatch this year. It's been a couple of years since we've had ideal nesting and young brood conditions in late May and early June. The weather just hasn't cooperated.

"Good brood production is very important, especially in our mountain counties and on our Monongahela National Forest. By maintaining wildlife openings for brood habitat in our national forest and in our mountain counties, which are primarily forested, we benefit not only turkeys but also many other species of wildlife. Our wildlife managers who work for the DNR do a tremendous job of working on and maintaining these openings."

Generally, hens benefit when there are no long periods of sustained cool rain in April and May. Damp conditions during the nesting period allows predators, such as foxes and bobcats, to better be able to scent turkeys and locate and destroy the nests. Cold, damp conditions can also negatively impact the poults when they hatch in late May and early June. Recall the weather conditions in your home county during the nesting and hatching periods this past spring. Then you may have some insight on how good the hatch was in your area.

Last year, the top five counties during the fall season (with the harvest in parentheses) were Monroe (164), Greenbrier (138), Preston (125), Hampshire (122) and Hardy (114). A breakdown of the turkey hunting prospects in those domains can provide some useful trip-planning information for the coming season.

MONROE COUNTY

Monroe County, which is located in southern West Virginia on the Virginia border, is one area traditionally open to fall turkey hunting. Although Monroe was the top harvest county in 2004, its total declined from the 203 birds brought to check stations in 2002 and the 184 in 2003. The harvests in 2000 and 2001 were 128 and 174, respectively.

On a personal basis, I have seen far fewer flocks in Monroe County during the past few summers, and the same has held true during the bow and fall turkey seasons. Normally, all one has to do to espy flocks in the summer and fall is to drive the back roads that meander through this county's valleys. Monroe is a very rural county with the small town of Union being its county seat and population center. But just outside of Union on state routes 219 and 3, the latter running toward Gap Mills, lie many farms and cattle-rearing operations. It is on those rural properties where there have been fewer turkey flocks in recent years.

Nevertheless, Monroe still hosts a fair turkey population, as witnessed by its first-place finish. The best strategy to hunt Monroe involves cruising the back roads mentioned earlier, as well as those that branch out from such communities as Sweet Springs, Hillsdale, Sinks Grove and Greenville. Then stop at the farmhouses or visit farmers working their fields and ask what can be done in order for a sportsman to gain permission to hunt a particular piece of property.

Twice last year I did just that and on both occasions gained permission to hunt farms. Both of those farms back up to the Potts Creek WMA (18,526 acres) of the Jefferson National Forest. Ideally, such farms are the best ones to hunt, because if I can't locate birds on private land, I can then journey to the public land and continue my search.

Last year, I shot a Marshall County bird on the first day of the fall turkey season, thus filling my one turkey tag for the year -- so I did not go fall turkey hunting in the Potts Creek WMA last autumn. But two springs ago, I killed two nice gobblers in the Potts Creek WMA, an obvious reason why it remains one of my favorite places to go afield. This unit of the Jefferson National Forest is very mountainous with elevations up to 3,600 feet. Oak-hickory-pine forests blanket the WMA and numerous tributaries of the namesake Potts Creek course down the mountainsides.

GREENBRIER COUNTY

Greenbrier County, like Monroe in southern West Virginia, is part of District IV, and claimed second place last year. The 138 birds checked in last October and November were a precipitous plunge from the 308 and 245 tallied in 2002 and 2003, respectively. The autumn of 2000 produced 146 turkeys tagged, with 304 the total in 2001. Like Monroe, Greenbrier County still contains a decent size turkey flock, but the numbers, as indicated by the harvest figures, are down.

The topography in Greenbrier is very similar to that already described in Monroe, except that the former county is larger in size, has a larger county seat (Lewisburg), and has more small towns, such as White Sulfur Springs, Alderson, Ronceverte, Rupert and Cal

dwell among others. And like in Monroe, a good game plan is to seek out the farms that lie outside of these communities.

For example, several years ago, two friends and I hunted a farm outside of Sam Black Church. We were able to find and scatter a flock with the help of a turkey dog. Later, we managed to call in several birds and I was fortunate enough to tag one. The farms off the exit ramps from Interstate 64 and along such highways as SRs 219, 60, 12, 63 and 92 are good places to start to look for permission.

State Route 92 will also take you to the Neola WMA (97,928 acres) of the Monongahela National Forest, which Greenbrier shares with Pocahontas County. On many mornings in recent years, I have left home early and driven up SR 92 to hunt in the Monongahela National Forest. The key to finding these public-land birds is for hunters to climb fairly deep into the mountains or high onto a peak well before dawn. After reaching a listening post -- and I have several favorite ones -- I can then hark to the sounds of turkeys hopefully greeting the dawn. If no birds sound off at first light, I immediately return to an old tote road and visit as many listening posts to cover as much ground as possible while the turkeys are still on the roost.

Neola is one of many extremely mountainous units in the Monongahela, and some 90 percent of the public land is covered with oak-hickory-pine forests. The nature of the terrain is a major reason why you should plan on arriving early to make your ascent.

PRESTON COUNTY

As the third place finisher, Preston County recorded 125 birds last year, virtually matching the 126 total from 2003. From 2000 to 2002, the harvests were 119, 246 and 238, respectively. So Preston mirrored other Mountain State domains in the harvest decline department.

Unlike Monroe and Greenbrier counties, which have had four-week seasons in recent years, this northern West Virginia county traditionally has had a much shorter season. When that fact is taken into consideration, the harvests are seen in a much better light.

Kingwood is the county seat of Preston and some of the larger communities include Rowlesburg, Tunnelton, Fellowsville, Brandonville and Bruceton Mills. However, larger is a relative word because Preston is very much a rural county. Several times, for instance, I have finished a hunt just outside of Bruceton Mills and later been "downtown" just a few minutes afterward.

The great variety of habitat in this District I county has been well chronicled in this magazine. On any given farm, expect to encounter brushy fields, pastures, wood lots, patches of forest and various crops. These farms can offer superlative hunting. Routes 72, 92, 26 and 7 are good ones to cruise when you are looking for places to hunt.

The major public land in Preston is the Coopers Rock State Forest (12,698 acres), which it shares with Monongalia County. One of the most spectacular views I have ever witnessed while turkey hunting was when I stood on a rock outcropping in the Coopers Rock State Forest and looked down upon the Cheat River, which forms the public land's southwestern border. Coopers Rock provides high-country hunting in a heavily forested setting.

HAMPSHIRE COUNTY

Holding down the No. 4 position is Hampshire County with 122 birds. This eastern county in District II actually experienced a harvest increase, albeit a small one, as the kill rose from the 2003 tally of 116. The harvests from 2000 to 2002 were 76, 138 and 139, respectively.

Romney is the county seat and population center, yet just outside of this community lies a very rural countryside. The South Branch of the Potomac flows through Romney and on a float trip this past summer, I marveled at the many farms and wood lots along the stream in the Greater Romney area. Take routes 50, 220 and 28 if you have a hankering to visit some of those farms in order to possibly gain permission to hunt them.

Other towns in Hampshire County include Green Spring, Springfield, Capon Bridge, Barnes Mill, Millesons Mill, Forks of Cacapon and Creekvale. Even the casual reader will note that water is the common theme in all these place names. And Hampshire County is certainly an area that features numerous streams. In addition to the South Branch, other important streams include the Cacapon and Potomac rivers and scores of their tributaries.

Hunting turkeys in Hampshire County often means walking river and creek bottoms in search of birds. In fact, hunters can often find birds roosting along these waterways and feeding either upstream or down -- or in neighboring agricultural areas, wood lots or pastures -- during the day.

Hampshire also boasts a quality public land, the Nathaniel Mountain WMA (8,875 acres). Situated south of Romney, this public land features elevations from 1,000 to 3,050 feet and a mixture of oak-hickory-pine forests. Camping is allowed for a small fee.

HARDY COUNTY

Rounding out the top five is Hardy County with a harvest of 114 turkeys last fall. Hardy was one of the few counties that displayed a major increase last autumn, as the 2003 harvest was 89. This District II area could be a real sleeper destination this autumn. The harvest totals from 2000 to 2002 were 79, 140 and 119, respectively.

Moorefield is the county seat for Hardy, but the Moorefield area is known more for its chicken growing and processing concerns rather than its beef and dairy farms. In my opinion, nothing beats a dairy farm in its ability to draw turkeys, as the birds seem to flock to the requisite grain fields and pastures. Other communities include Fisher, Old Fields, Mathias, Lost City and Lost River. Cruise such routes as 259, 220, 55, 28 and 59 if you are looking for places to go afield.

If you are searching for unpressured places to hunt, many of the farms that lie along the Virginia border to the east certainly qualify. I hunted one such farm several years ago and was amazed at how many birds I encountered. This same area also offers the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres), which is part of the George Washington National Forest.

I have visited Wardensville WMA and it is very typical of national forest lands in the Mountain State. Unbroken expanses of oak-hickory forest are the norm and the terrain is very steep. Hike a mile or so back into the forest before dawn and you likely will have this public land -- and the turkeys -- to yourself. A good strategy is to walk and call along the ridgetops early in the day and then follow the logging roads the rest of the day. Veer off these travel ways from time to time and look for sign.

QUICK TIPS

If you want to add spice to your fall turkey hunting trips, consider going with someone who owns a turkey dog. Over the years, I have done so several times in Monroe, Greenbrier and other counties and have immensely enjoyed the experience, as well as being able to tag a bird on a Greenbrier County expedition.

About a dozen states allow fall turkey hunting with dogs and West Virginia has a long tradition of human and canine going afield together. One great advantage of having a pooch, especially in

this state, is that a hunter can send his dog up the many mountains and hillsides, thus allowing the dog to accomplish much of the legwork and hard work.

Another important point to keep in mind is that sitting still for long periods of time is a real plus. For instance, the Marshall County bird I tagged last October came after I had remained on one hardwood flat for several hours. My buddy and I only called every 15 or 20 minutes or so. When the topic is turkeys, patience is the proverbial virtue.

West Virginia's turkey numbers and harvest have not been what the state's sportsmen would have liked in recent years. And the inclement spring weather has been the major reason for that situation. With any luck, this autumn will see more birds ambling through the state's woods and fields -- a sight that would be most welcome indeed.

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