As the mountains wake from their winter slumber and turn green with new growth, many Mountain State hunters’ thoughts turn to the coming spring gobbler season, providing an opportunity to shake off that cabin fever.
Turkeys are feeling it too, as warming days have gobblers stretching fans and sounding off in anticipation of the upcoming mating season.
This spring, turkey hunters have a lot to look forward to in West Virginia, according to Keith Krantz, Wild Turkey and Upland Game biologist for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. In fact, hunters should expect a few more birds roaming the hollows and hills this spring.
In recent years, brood count numbers have continued to rise, meaning that there should be more birds to hunt in the coming season. Biologists generally use the brood count from two years prior to the season as a major indicator of the harvest to come.
Krantz pointed out that the brood counts were higher in 2014 than in the previous year, which should translate into a few more birds for the 2016 season. The 2014 numbers were approximately 30 percent higher than the brood counts for 2013, and slightly above the five-year average. Numbers like these are always encouraging and point to an increasing turkey population.
Hopefully, this will also be reflected in lonesome toms ready to come to the call. The southern and western regions of the state lead the charge in brood numbers in 2014, and that is where hunters may want to look for the best odds for success.
Krantz hesitates to single out any specific WMAs, urging hunters to look into the southern and western areas of the state that show the best growth in population numbers, because he doesn’t’ want to focus hunting pressure on a few singled out WMAs when the state plays host to a healthy population of birds from border to border.
He is confident that there are plenty of turkeys on all public areas around the state and encourages hunters to pick one they like and see for themselves.
All it takes to prove how widespread opportunities to find a longbeard are this spring is to take a quick look at the counties that topped the harvest for the last few seasons. The top 10 counties for spring gobbler harvest in 2015 were Preston (333), Mason (313), Jackson (264), Wyoming (257), Harrison (247), Wood (247), Greenbrier (242), Fayette (239), Raleigh (231) and Upsher (231).
The counties at the top of the list have been nearly identical for the past couple of seasons showing the populations are sustaining and spread from the top of the state to the bottom and from corner to corner. So, it is pretty safe to say that there are plenty of gobblers across the state and plenty of public land on which to hunt.
MONONGAHELA NATIONAL FOREST
The Monongahela National Forest offers 921,000 acres of room to roam while spring gobbler hunting. The MNF covers many of the highest ridges of the Allegheny Mountains on the east-central side of the state. The national forest contains 10 individual WMAs, and almost 100,000 acres of wilderness areas providing walk-in access for hunters looking to get away from the crowds.
Couple these assets with the fact that the forest covers parts of several of the perennial top 10 counties for turkey harvests and it is certainly a good bet that hunters can find some good gobbling in some of the most diversified terrain in the state.
BLUESTONE LAKE WMA
A little south on the eastern side of the state is another hot spot — Bluestone Lake WMA. This 18,019-acre area is centered on the state’s second largest body of water and offers some unique hunting opportunities. Terrain on the management area ranges from bottomlands along the scenic Bluestone River to rolling uplands and steep ridges to sheer rock cliffs.
Much of the area is covered in oak and hickory ridges and with last fall’s bumper crop of hickory nuts, it should yield some great turkey hunting. For those hunters willing to go the extra mile the lake offers some secluded access to lesser hunted areas that can only be easily reached by boat. Those up for a pre-dawn boat ride might get into turkeys that are call ready even late in the season.
RD BAILEY LAKE WMA
With the greatest increase in turkey brood production in recent years in the southern part of the state, RD Bailey Lake WMA should be considered. However, hunting the rugged terrain of the southern coalfields can present a new set of challenges with steep ridges and narrow valleys. With more than 17,000 acres, filled with hickory and oak forests, this WMA provides plenty of room to roam.
To sweeten the pot, just in the last couple of years the WVDNR, in conjunction with the National Wild Turkey Federation, has been working to improve the early successional habitat on the area and create brood openings for turkey and grouse. This should mean great things for turkeys and hunters. Watch out though, crafty gobblers will fly across the ridges, and ruin a day’s walk.
STONEWALL JACKSON WMA
Stonewall Jackson WMA is located smack in the middle of the state and is just a short drive from almost anywhere within the borders. With 18,289 acres there are plenty of hotspots for turkeys to search for a mate.
Stonewall has a lot of farmland that is reverting back into woodlands and offers a rolling landscape covered in a good mix of hardwoods, providing a golden opportunity to reach some less pressured birds late in the season from the water.
It doesn’t hurt that in recent years there hasn’t been a shortage of gobblers coming out of the heart of the state.
CHIEF CORNSTALK WMA
Folks looking to hunt the turkey rich western side of the state should consider Chief Cornstalk WMA. Situated between the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, this 11,772 acres of prime turkey real estate is in the epicenter of the blossoming brood numbers and turkey harvests. The gentle rolling hills to moderately steep slopes of the fertile river valleys always produce an ample crop of turkeys.
With the western side of the state producing several years of good hatches in a row, these hardwood forests might just hold a bunch of big toms. Chief Cornstalk is just one of several WMAs in this turkey strong hold in the Mountain State. So, if the turkeys aren’t playing fair, another hunting spot is always just a few miles away.
Now on average, according to Krantz, almost 60 percent of the harvest occurs during the first week of the season, which almost always corresponds with the reported peak in gobbling intensity as well.
Krantz attributes this to the fact that this is the week that the most hunters are in the woods. With the earlier season, there will be less leaf cover thus allowing hunters to better see their quarry, but it also provides less concealment for hunters.
This will most likely be a double-edged sword, but one that has had years of outcry from hunters; they will get their chance at gobblers earlier in the year. As for overall harvest numbers, Krantz doesn’t expect much change due to the earlier opening day. He simply expects that most of the harvest will occur one week earlier.
Krantz doesn’t expect to see a big change in gobbling reports either. Gobbling intensity often goes down as the season progresses due to the gobblers being pressured. Of course, as the season wears on, more and more hens will be going to nest, leaving gobblers lonely. Even though they may not be as vocal, they will be getting lonely and that can be the hunter’s best weapon.
The best piece of advice offered by Krantz is to not give up. Just because birds aren’t gobbling as hot and heavy as earlier in the season, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t still out there looking for love.
Although he doesn’t expect a record kill, or one that would rival the top kill of 17, 874 birds back in 2001, he does expect a good harvest and another great season. Judging from the brood counts, previous season carry over birds and recent good mast production, the harvest in 2016 should be even better than the last couple of years.
If the weather cooperates and the birds are lonely, hunters in the Mountain State might just pull off another banner year in the turkey woods. A few things hunters can definitely count on this spring, there will be plenty of birds and plenty of public land on which to hunt.
In fact, more areas can be easily found on a new website run by the WVDNR (www.mapwv.gov/huntfish). The interactive map shows every public hunting area across the state, with all details and links to more information on each area.
From the website hunters can not only find directions, but can zoom in to see topographic relief and drainage courses to help zero in on roosting and strutting zones in each area. This can be a huge asset when venturing into a new area to chase birds.
Hunting Map is for hunters looking to find a new place to hunt or learn more about favorite public hunting grounds anywhere in the state. It, also, has links to the current hunting regulations and to the electronic license purchasing and game check system.
This will be the second spring for the electronic check in system. It was rolled out in 2015 with the spring gobbler season and it worked flawlessly. It not only makes checking in harvests quick and easy, even from the woods, but it also, allows state biologists to have access to almost real time harvest numbers.
That is something that biologists across the state really like and are making use of on a regular basis. For hunters, the new electronic check system is a great way to not only purchase any and all licenses and stamps, but it also tracks every harvest and provides a running total of the game a hunter checks. This is just another plus for taking hunting into the electronic age.