I have said it before and I will say it again, I defy anyone to show me a place where it is harder to kill a wild turkey than in West Virginia.
Don’t tell me about gobblers in Mississippi and Alabama that are so crafty because “they have been hunted and pressured for many years.” Those turkeys do not have one bit more gray matter than the mountain denizens in West Virginia. The gobblers in the mountain state have an ancient force on their side that their southern cousins know little about — gravity.
That’s right, if you hunt turkeys in the Mountain State with regularity, gravity is the most difficult thing that you have to deal with. The minute you step out of the truck you are headed uphill or downhill, (usually up).
The instant you start uphill old man gravity gets on your back and says, “let’s just see how bad you want to climb this mountain.” Many times you literally have an uphill climb to your goal.
Add to all of this the tactical aspects that must be considered when dueling with that 20-pound bird with a brain the size of a large peanut. You know, that bird that more often than not outwits us. It is not just the bird, my brothers in camo; he has the mountain on his side.
To boil it down to its simplest terms, calling in a turkey is just plain easier on flat ground than it is in the mountains, but take heart, as dedicated gobbler chasers are not without their own bag of tricks. If you are new to this game or you just want to improve your average, you can learn from those that have tramped many a mile in the Appalachians.
James “Peck” Martin is no stranger to those who live in the turkey hunting world. Peck resides in northern West Virginia in the town of McMechen. He may tell you that some of the country he hunts is somewhat gentler than most of the state, but don’t be deceived; it is still West Virginia. There is plenty of steep ground to go around. Martin has been chasing gobblers for more years than he wants to recall, and has probably forgotten more about turkey hunting than most will ever know. He is also a renowned callmaker and his company, Martin Brothers Wild Game Calls, has been in business for many years.
“This part of the state is what some folks refer to as the “foothills” to the Appalachian Mountains.” Peck said. “The ridges are high and very steep. The hollows in some areas up here, which encompasses the Ohio Valley and the Ohio River Basin, are long and remind us of canyons. A hunting strategy we often employ is having several areas to hunt within a short drive from one hunting site to another.
“This technique gives you the opportunity to perhaps get on a bird that is hot and wants to play the game. If we don’t have a bird gobbling in one area within a reasonable time frame, we pack it up and move to another area. If the toms are not gobbling in one area, there is a chance they might be on fire in a different location. This tactic has worked for me numerous times over the years.”
Knowing the area in which you hunt is key to being successful. If you are hunting new areas, topographical maps are very useful to exploring new locales, especially in mountainous country. Topo maps show elevation, land contours and road access on WMAs, such as Cecil H. Underwood, which has 2,215 acres in the southeastern section of Marshall County, with turkey numbers in the good to excellent range. The Castleman Run Lake WMA has 486 acres and is located in the northeast section of Ohio County and also has good turkey numbers. Of course, details on these WMAs and more around the state can be found on the West Virginia DNR website.
I have always thought that spring turkey hunters, maybe more than any other group, are very much concerned with the “how to” of the whole game. Most have some very entrenched ideas on how it is to be done. We want to employ all the tricks and tactics that we have learned over time (some painfully), to bring a gobbler into shotgun range. One of the best tacticians in the turkey woods that I know is Jim Clay.
Jim was born and raised in Boone County, where he got his basic training in hunting mountainous terrain. He now lives in Winchester, Va., but frequently hunts the eastern panhandle of the Mountain State in the Hardy and Hampshire county areas. Jim had a career in the turkey call business and his company, Perfection Turkey Calls, was a favorite of turkey hunters in the Mountain State and across the country for many years. Jim sold the company, but is now back in business with the Perfection Turkey Calls name.
“The first thing the turkey hunter needs to do is take the high ground,” Clay said. “This is especially important in the mountains; if at all possible, get up high to start the morning. The gobbler wants to come off the roost and fly down to where he wants to be. He is not going to fly uphill.”
Of course, positioning is 75 percent of closing the deal. Hunters must set up in a place that a gobbler will naturally approach, especially in the mountains. It makes no difference in the level of calling if the hunter is sitting in a place that a gobbler doesn’t want to go.
“When you are actually getting into position, and as you get closer, never go directly toward the turkey,” said Clay. “Go to the right or to the left, even back up if you have to; just be careful advancing directly toward the gobbler. Keep in mind that ideally, this position is a little above or on the same level of the turkey you are calling to.”
Clay typically starts calling softly, as it is always difficult to determine what a bird needs to come in. Hunters can always get more aggressive if soft calling doesn’t work, but the reverse doesn’t always work. Hunters need to take the “temperature” of each gobbler to see how he is going to act.
There are also several good WMAs and national forest areas in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
Nathaniel Mountain WMA has 10,675 acres to chase gobblers. It is located east of Romney, off Rt. 10 on the Grassy Lick Road. Sleepy Creek WMA is located southeast of Berkley Springs in Berkeley and Morgan counties, and has almost 23,000 acres.
Colin Carpenter, from Beckley, is another dedicated spring gobbler hunter. Colin is a wildlife biologist with the WVDNR in charge of the state’s black bear program. Colin readily admits that Bluestone Lake WMA in Summers and Monroe counties (18,000 acres) is his favorite public land for turkey hunting.
“I prefer to start the morning on a ridgetop so I can hear a long distance and so that I am above or on the same level as the turkeys,” said Carpenter. “This often means that I have a long climb in the dark to get to the top before daylight. I prefer to call to gobblers that are on my level or below me, but that is not always possible and I’ve called gobblers downhill on occasion.
According to Carpenter, steep terrain is hard on hunters, but it often allows hunters to get closer to birds without being spotted. He also says that the biggest lesson he has learned is to be more patient. While he would prefer to give up on a bird that is not coming and move off to another bird, he has found that if he stays in the general area, he can often get that bird to come in later in the day. Also, birds will often come in silent, so patience is a virtue.
“The other thing that I’ve learned is to not let rain keep me at the house,” said Carpenter. “Most people know that turkeys head to openings when it’s raining, and doing this in the comfort of a ground blind can make you successful. I don’t like to hunt turkeys like deer (sitting and waiting), but if you have limited time to hunt, you have to make an effort rain or shine.”
Probably the absolute steepest and roughest terrain in the state is in southern West Virginia. As vertically challenging as this area is, it often calls for some specialized techniques, according to Jim Simpkins, longtime turkey hunter and wingbone callmaker from Matewan.
“You have to get up on the mountain and in the area of the roosted gobbler early and do it quietly,” said Simpkins. “Sometimes this means making most of your ascent on an ATV (this is on coal or timber company land where ATVs are legal), but the machine is shut off and left far back from the location of the gobbler. Having the turkey roosted from the evening before really helps here.”
Simpkins has also learned to not underestimate how far a gobbler may travel to find a hen. Hunters often doubt that a turkey will come a great distance, but he has called in birds from over a mile away. He also recommends that hunters don’t give up on a bird that has been bumped or spooked, as he likes to back off and relocate to call from a different area. He claims this often works.
For public land opportunities in this part of the state, look at Laurel Lake WMA in Mingo County, with 12,856 acres. Elk Creek WMA in Logan and Mingo counties is 6,000 acres, both with steep, rugged terrain and a good population of turkeys.
Col. Tom Kelly reminds us that spring gobbler hunting is war. Keeping this in mind, here is a checklist for preparing to do battle with the king of game birds this spring.
Do your preseason scouting. Two days spent listening and scouting on a WMA will put you far ahead of the pack for opening day. This is especially true in mountain country. Knowing where to go to, where the gobbler will roost and where he is headed to when he comes off the limb provides a big advantage.
Allow time to make the ascent. In West Virginia, getting to the initial listening post at daylight almost always means a climb, usually a strenuous one. Figure how long this is going to take and add 20 minutes. I would much rather be there a few minutes early than late and maybe not work so hard getting there.
In calling, less is more. This is especially true on public land, where gobblers get hammered by a lot of loud, aggressive calling. Start out with soft calling and even limit those. If the turkey responds, he heard you. There is no need to come on like in a calling contest if he is advancing to whispered yelps.
Wait him out. If the turkey does not come running right off the roost, play it cool and stay put. Unless you have somewhere to go or you can hear another gobbler choking on a distant ridge, get comfortable and wait. Turkeys can be too hard to get to in this country. If you haven’t spooked this gobbler, he heard your calling and will likely come back later in the morning. I like to take a nap and then be ready to welcome him when he returns, with a load of No. 6’s.
Now hunting mountain turkeys can be difficult, but not impossible. Dealing with the terrain is just part of hunting in the Mountain State. Think about hunting smarter instead of harder. A little planning and preseason scouting goes a long way, if it was easy, everyone could do it.