For many West Virginian's, the gobble of a tom turkey issuing from a 'holler' is an annual announcement of spring, one much more welcome than the dandelions that magically appear in the lawn around the same time. There's plenty of reasons to be excited, as this spring's turkey season is likely to be another good one.
According to Mike Peters, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' recently appointed game bird biologist, the overall wild turkey population across the state has been on a general upswing the past several years. Last spring's season was particularly productive.
"2017 saw the largest spring harvest in the past 11 years," noted Peters. "17-year cicadas were available, and there was lots of added protein, which impacted the spring season in a positive way."
Christopher Ryan, WVDNR Wildlife biologist, explained the significance of the 17-year cicada as providing a shot-in-the-arm for last spring's birds.
"The 17-year cicada, which emerged in 2016 across much of the state, increased poult survival in areas of cicada abundance," Ryan noted. "This high-protein food source helped in turkey recruitment, which was noted by an increased number of broods observed throughout much of the state in 2016. In addition, hunters enjoyed the new season format that enabled them to chase this magnificent bird throughout the entire state."
Last spring, hunters harvested 11,539 gobblers, an increase of 11 percent from 2016. It was the largest harvest since 2006, when 11,735 toms were bagged, and was more than 11 percent higher than the 10-year average.
"Weather conditions were variable across the state during last spring's gobbler season, so it was nice to see hunters able to get out and enjoy some successful hunting," Peters said.
According to the WVDNR, five of the six districts in the state reported increased harvests last season. Only District 4, which includes southeastern counties, experienced a drop, from 1,982 in 2016 to 1,858. District 1 again led the state in spring gobbler harvest with 2,578 birds.
While he doesn't expect harvest numbers to be quite as high as last year's exceptional take, Peters is confident that this spring season will be good. There should be plenty of two-year olds from the 2016 nesting season, which are typically the most vocal, even though brood surveys were down 30 percent from 2016.
Peters says that while wet weather is common during that period, for the most part it was in combination with relatively warm weather. It's cold rain that typically impacts negatively newly hatched wild turkeys, which was thankfully absent for the most part.
Winter mortality can take its toll on wildlife, the level of which is naturally influenced by the severity of last winter's weather. In the case of wild turkeys, their physical condition going into winter has much to do with how well they fare during the cold months. Physical condition, in turn, is largely at the mercy of available food sources. Mast production in most cases was up last year, which bodes well for wild turkeys surviving the winter season.
It is also significant to note that the state is coming off its second year with a statewide fall turkey season. According to Peters, the decision to make all counties open for at least a short fall season was to increase hunting opportunities in response to declining numbers.
"Many of the counties that had been closed to fall hunting were just missing the cutoff in terms of wild turkey populations levels for the fall season," Peters explained.
Biologists at the agency felt confident it could provide a short fall season in every county without jeopardizing wild turkey numbers. Even better, Sunday hunting is now permitted on private lands.
While higher populations and harvests are great, most hunters just want to know where they need to hunt for greatest success.
In 2016, the highest harvest counties were Preston (475), Mason (448), Jackson (408), Wood (380) and Harrison (327). Mason County sits in District 5 along the Ohio River in the extreme western edge of the state. It boasts two extensive wildlife management areas, and shares a third with neighboring Cabell County.
One WMA that turkey hunters need to consider is Chief Cornstalk. This extensive state-owned hunting land covers nearly 12,000 acres of moderately steep hills. About 85 percent of the WMA is covered in hardwood forest. Hunters interesting in combining camping with gobbler hunting should note that this tract includes 15 primitive campsites with a vault toilet.
McClintic is another Mason County WMA where hunters can expect a good chance of calling in a tom. This public hunting area is more diverse — habitat-wise — than Chief Cornstalk. McClintic covers 3,655 acres, and includes a blend of farmland, brushland, wetlands and hardwood forest. Camping is also available on this public tract, with 10 primitive sites having vault toilets and drinking water.
Green Bottom WMA, found in southern Mason and northern Cabell counties also sits along the Ohio River. It's thought of more for waterfowl hunting, but the area features hardwood tracts along the river bottomlands. With the expanding wild turkey population in the area, it's likely Green Bottom's wooded areas are pulling in some longbeards.
In contrast to most of West Virginia's public hunting areas, Green Bottom features flat terrain. In addition to forestland, there's a mixture of wetlands and agricultural lands, but no camping facilities are provided.
District 1, which consists of West Virginia's northern panhandle, has a history of producing the most spring gobblers, including last year. In rather diminutive Marshall County, hunters should consider Cecil H. Underwood WMA. Covering 2,215 acres, hunters can expect to find terrain varying from moderate to steep. The tract lies along the valley of the West Virginia Fork of Fish Creek. The elevation of the public hunting grounds runs from 800 to 1,510 feet. The forest is comprised of oak-hickory, with numerous access trails and forest openings being present. Camping is not permitted.
Located along the Pennsylvania border, Dunkard Fork WMA provides another nearly 500 acres of public hunting land in Marshall County. The terrain and forest cover mimic that found on Underwood with the makeup being fairly steep, with oak-hickory forest being common. Both Dunkard Creek and Underwood also feature the unique "cove forests," a type of rich forestland found only in the Appalachian Mountains. Cove forests are found in protected positions in the landscape on low to middle elevations.
Putman County is another consistent producer of spring gobblers, with 268 birds taken last season. One sizeable wildlife area is located in the county — Amherst/Plymouth WMA.
Amherst/Plymouth covers over 7,000 acres, and is made up mostly of younger oak-hickory forest. The terrain is classified as steep, so be prepared for some tough hiking, and camping is not allowed.
Adding to District 5's significant harvest increase last fall was Lincoln County, where 228 spring birds were bagged. Lincoln County boasts three public hunting areas that provide good odds of contacting a gobbler.
Big Ugly WMA covers 6,000 acres, of which 95 percent is covered with mature upland hardwood forest. The terrain is steep.
Camping is not permitted on the state WMA, but camping and accommodations are available at Chief Logan State Park (www.chiefloganstatepark.com) and Chief Logan Lodge Hotel and Conference Center (www.chiefloganlodge.com).
Though limited to 289 acres, turkeys are found on Hilbert WMA. This smaller WMA is steep and heavily forested in oak-hickory cover. Camping is available on nearby Kanawha State Forest (www.kanawhastateforest.com).
Hilbert WMA is found about two miles northwest of Sod, and is accessible from State Route 124 and Jones Creek Road.
Upper Mud River WMA rounds out Lincoln County's state-owned WMAs. It covers nearly 1,500 acres, and like its other county counterparts is heavily forested in oak-hickory cover while featuring steep topography.
While camping is not allowed, hunters might consider combining a spring gobbler hunt with a fishing adventure, as Upper Mud River is a quality musky water. Largemouth bass, bluegills, channel catfish and crappie are also available.
District 1's Harrison County sent 327 bearded birds home with hunters last season. Public hunting is available at Center Branch WMA, which is a good bet for springtime toms.
The terrain on this 1,000-acre tract is considered moderately steep. The area includes strip-bench flats and highwalls, evidence of the surface mining activity that formerly took place. The elevation rises to 1,520 feet. Forest cover includes mixed hardwoods and cove hardwood forests, the age running from pole timber to early saw timber stages. The area is well interspersed with gas wells and access roads, making entrance to the interior of the area convenient.
While these areas have produced some of the highest kills over the past several seasons, wild turkeys are well spread throughout the state, as are state-owned WMAs. In addition to state areas, West Virginia boasts hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife areas on national forest lands, primarily the Monongahela National Forest. While turkey populations aren't the densest on these areas — in part due to the huge size and little timber management in recent years — the experience of hunting such remote areas is a quality one.