West Virginia turkey forecast: There’s good news for turkey hunters in the Mountain State.
From my many previous visits to the Monroe County mountaintop property, I had learned that the turkeys almost always roosted in a spring-fed hollow below a cow pasture. And on that spring Saturday as dawn was breaking, I stood at that part of the field where it adjoins the top of the cove. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard six toms begin to sound off at the very top of the mountain on the opposite side of the opening.
I scudded across the pasture as quickly as I could and sat down just inside the tree line. Breathing hard, I inserted a diaphragm into my mouth and emitted a few soft yelps. This sent the sextet into a frenzy and not long after fly down, the assemblage charged down the slope toward me, resulting in one of the toms leaving over my shoulder.
Of course, not every hunter had this kind of luck, but last season was better than the previous year.
In 2016, hunters checked in 10,369 birds with every district flaunting an uptick from the 2015 tally. Indeed, the harvest was 14 percent higher than 2015 (9,037) and significantly higher than 2014 (9,128). The top 10 counties were Mason (379), Preston (372), Nicholas (330), Wood (326), Wyoming (320), Greenbrier (309), Jackson (305), Fayette (293), Harrison (286) and Kanawha (284).
And more good news exists. According to Keith Krantz, wild turkey and upland game biologist for the DNR, the 2015 reports were 22 percent higher than 2014, and 14 percent higher than the five-year average.
Krantz says the 2016 season went about as expected, meaning the earlier season simply moved the harvest up a week. Compared to 2015, the first week harvest increased 3.5 percent, much less than many proponents anticipated. The 5,565 birds checked the first week accounted for 54 percent of the total harvest, which was down a bit from the typical contribution of 58 percent. The second week of the season, which was week one in 2015, saw a harvest 17 percent higher. The greatest increase in harvest percentage occurred in weeks 3 and 4, which were 35 and 85 percent, respectively, higher than 2015.
For many years, Mountain State hunters have clamored for an earlier season. Krantz say it’s biologically important to recognize that hens spend significant time with gobblers and are bred during the first three weeks of April in West Virginia. After breeding, the behavior of hens changes and they become more isolated as they begin egg laying. The DNR must minimize the number of days that dip into the breeding period to reduce hen/hunter interactions and insure that hens are bred.
“We received many compliments and notes of appreciation for listening to our clientele and bringing the season in earlier,” said Krantz. “The only negative feedback I heard was from a few hunters who observed that gobblers were henned up, which is what they should be a week earlier in their breeding cycle.”
PLEASANT CREEK WMA
At 3,030 acres, the Pleasant Creek WMA is average in size for a District 1 public land. What makes Pleasant Creek (in Barbour and Taylor counties near Grafton) particularly intriguing is that it adjoins 391-acre Tygart Lake State Park and its namesake 1,750-acre lake. That means that the non-hunting zone adjacent should have turkeys that filter back and forth between the park and public land.
“Hunters who come here from the southern or central parts of the state will be glad to find that we don’t have steep mountains like they do,” said Jim Browning, Tygart Lake State Park superintendent. “This is a very user friendly WMA, compared to some of those steep mountainous ones in other parts of the state. Another interesting thing is that hunters can access the WMA by launching here from Tygart Lake and then running up the lake to the WMA.”
This provides hunters the option of using a boat to find gobblers, as well as setting up quick and silent. Those woods mostly consist of mixed hardwoods, typical of much of the state.
Browning adds that Pleasant Creek, as one might expect, is the major stream flowing through the public land, so hunters may also want to check out the bottomland hardwoods that envelope the creek. During years of good acorn production, turkey numbers along the tributary may be especially high.
KUMBRABOW STATE FOREST
The 9,474 acres of Kumbrabow State Forest (www.kumbrabow.com) rank as one of the most fascinating destinations because this central West Virginia public land, located in Randolph County, has both undergone a number of habitat improvement projects in recent years, and features a truly unique lodging experience.
Kevin Snodgrass, state forest superintendent for the establishment, relates that the DNR and the West Virginia Division of Forestry have been working cooperatively in recent years to improve the habitat at Kumbrabow.
“The past three or four years, the DNR and forestry folks have just done a super job here,” Snodgrass said. “They have created a number of food plots scattered over the forest, and many of those plots are clover based, which turkeys love. The time, effort, and results have been very impressive.”
Snodgrass relates that typically the first step toward habitat improvement is the DNR and DOF personnel identifying specific areas as being good candidates for a clearcut or timber thinning. Then after one or both of those projects have been completed, personnel create food plots in the midst of where the forest was altered. If a clearcut has been done, the second growth provides excellent places for hens to nest, and the resultant edge becomes an ideal place for the hen and poults to forage for bugs and soft mast.
Interestingly and importantly, Snodgrass cautions for turkey hunters not to come to Kumbrabow when the season first begins this year, as in 2016, the area had 18 inches of snow the second week of April. Instead, the superintendent recommends that sportsmen come in early to mid May, basically the last two weeks of the season, when the harsh cold and deep snow in these highlands have disappeared.
The toms gobble much better then, and the weather is much more conducive to hunting. Snodgrass adds that the turkeys at Kumbrabow in May are much more likely to be active and respond more aggressively to calls than the birds in the lower reaches of the state.
Finally, continues Snodgrass, hunters should take advantage of Kumbrabow’s numerous fire trail roads. Once again, habitat projects are underway as personnel are both widening the fire trails and looking for places for food plots to be placed.
MONCOVE LAKE STATE PARK
The 500-acre Moncove Lake WMA (www.moncovelakeestatepark.com) in Monroe County is obviously not a public ground that can take a lot of hunting pressure, but it is a viable option for sportsmen who live nearby and need a place to hunt. Alan Shipley, DNR biologist who has hunted and hiked there, says a major goal has been to increase the diversity of wildlife habitat on the WMA. Therefore, the focus has been to create a mosaic of habitats to benefit the greatest number of game and nongame species as possible. According to Shipley, staff members have worked to create a locale that contains fields and a variety of forest ages, from young forest to mature stands of mast-producing trees. The area also have beaver dams, wetlands ands stands of mature pines.
Another important point is that the DNR has worked to reclaim/create early successional habitat at Moncove. There are several acres that are field habitat, where trees such as hawthorns and crab apples thrive, as do patches of ladino clover, which draws in bugs high in the protein that turkey poults need.
A major pathway through the WMA is the Roxalia Springs Trail, which winds some five miles and eventually skirts the end of the property on Middle Mountain. Boulders pock the mountainside, specifically where the trail begins to grow steep. This section of the WMA also features older age timber, especially mature chestnut and Northern red oaks. The trail tops out at around 3,000 feet, so hunters should be in relatively good shape before attempting the trek.
Sportsmen can stay at Moncove Lake State Park, which offers 25 campsites with electric hookups and 23 without. Also, hunters should note that when entering the WMA from the park, firearms should be unloaded and cased.