I could not believe my change in fortune. West Virginia's spring gobbler season had been a huge disappointment so far, and I had heard few birds and had not seen a tom yet. But as I wended my along a logging road up a Monroe County mountain, I had stopped to mimic the barred owl "who cooks for you" melody, and two birds had gobbled in response.
Desperately looking for a place to set up as dawn was approaching, I ran first one direction then another, before calming my nerves and plopping down against a pitch pine tree next to the tote road. I didn't need to utter another snatch of owl music, as both birds were now wide awake and gobbling back and forth to each other.
Unfortunately, the duo also woke up some nearby hens and soon the mountain was alive with turkey chatter of all kinds. Hoping to pry one of the gobblers away from the assembled multitude, I began to yelp and cut aggressively and the responses were promising. However, when I heard the birds fly down and subsequently answer my pleadings, it was clear they were going in the opposite direction.
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I then made an aggressive loop around the turkeys, set up again, and began calling. The gobbler responded aggressively and soon a turkey emerged directly in front of me. But it was a hen and though the tom continued to talk back to me, he never appeared and then both birds drifted away.
I next made another daring loop around the twosome and once again they responded to my calls and came in, and this time both were visible. But, unfortunately, they were 40 yards directly down a precipitous mountainside. The tom wouldn't stop walking, despite my clucks, making the shot extremely difficult. Although I had the safety off and the gun trained on the gobbler, I knew the shot would have been an iffy one, so I didn't fire.
Thus ended my best chance for a West Virginia gobbler the entire season, though I went out a number of times. I never heard or saw a gobbler again, making it the worst season I experienced in West Virginia since I first started turkey hunting in the mid 1980s.
The 1980s deja vu theme definitely existed for many Mountain State sportsmen last year, as the 2102 kill plummeted to 8,332, the lowest harvest since 1989 when 7,245 were checked in. The 2011 kill of 9,216 was itself a sharp drop from the 2010 total of 10,209. Indicative of the poor season was the fact that only District I in the northern Panhandle and surrounding counties registered a harvest increase, in this case 7 percent, as the harvest rose from 1,892 to 2,021.
Around the state, the news only grows worse. District II in the eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties saw a harvest decline from 717 to 701. District III in the central counties dropped from 1,182 to 1,128. District IV in the south decline from 1,182 to 1,128. District V in the southwest fell off from 1,997 to 1,503. Finally, District VI in the north central counties had a slight decrease from 1,691 to 1,615.
Dishearteningly, the District IV and V harvest drops were by 21 and 25 percent respectively — major nose-dives for sure. A critical part of the reason was that 2010 poult production was poor. Still, no doubt exists that hunting the past few years has not been as good as it was previously.
2012 REVIEW & 2013 OUTLOOK
Curtis Taylor, Wildlife Resources Section Chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, explained why the kill declined in 2012 and what the year ahead looks like.
"When the DNR looked at the 2012 harvest, we realized part of the reason for the decline was that in 2010, brood production was 28 percent lower than it was in 2009," he said. "The 2011 hatch should provide better hunting in 2013. A lot of the kill is based on how many 2-year-old gobblers are in the population, and there should be more 2-year-olds present this spring than last year."
At this time, Taylor was not able to know for sure how the 2013 hatch was, partly because the DNR has a new way of tabulating how successful the hens have been in hatching and rearing their young.
"We've changed our method of collecting data from our observations," he said. "We have reduced the number of observations from what would have been done in past years. Observations are now limited to those from game management personnel while they are working. Based on that, our preliminary results for the 2012 hatch show that turkey numbers are highest in the southern counties, next is the western counties, then the Eastern Panhandle with the fewest birds in the mountains. This is typical of how things are most years."
The northern counties offer some of the best hunting not only in West Virginia, but in the northeastern part of the United States. The problem, though, is the lack of public land, so sportsmen largely have to befriend landowners to gain access.
Taylor stated that the Pleasant Creek WMA at 3,030 acres is a superb destination among the public land options. Located in Barbour and Taylor counties, Pleasant Creek features everything from wetlands to rolling, heavily forested hills.
Regarding private land, District I placed four counties in the top 10. Among them Preston had 330 gobblers take for in second place, Harrison gave up 282 for third and Marshall's 227 was good for seventh. Monongalia rounded out the quartet with 222 for ninth place.
What is just as impressive about Division I is that it has a number of smaller counties that never make the top 10 list, but nevertheless annually produce lots of gobblers relative to these size. Among those small counties with traditional big time numbers are Hancock, Brooke, and Ohio.
The Eastern Panhandle usually does not have counties make the top 10 list in terms of overall harvest as the counties themselves are fairly small and this region's turkey numbers are not as high as in other parts of the state. Still, Taylor rates two public lands quite highly: the Sleepy Creek WMA at 22,928 acres in Berkeley and Morgan counties and the Nathaniel Mountain WMA with 10,675 acres in Hampshire County.
I have turkey hunted in the Sleepy Creek WMA and like its vast size and the ambitious hunter's chances of escaping from other sportsmen and the resultant hunting pressure. The oak-hickory and oak-pine forests attract many of the birds, especially if the latter habitat contains water sources of some kind.
The Nathaniel Mountain WMA is also quite substantial in size for a state WMA. This public land has peaks that soar up to over 3,000 feet and mixed hardwood and pine forests. Like Sleepy Creek, mountain coves with water are where many of the birds congregate in the spring.
Grant, Hampshire, and Hardy traditionally have been the most productive counties in Region II. Don't be surprised if such is the case this year as well.
I would rate two state WMAs as practically legendary among turkey enthusiasts and one of them is in District III. Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA has 18,289 acres in Lewis County. Curtis Taylor also ranks Stonewall highly, praising it as the best in the district and one of the premier ones in the Mountain State. I like the rolling hills type habitat here, mixed in with hardwood forests, old farmlands, and, of course, tributaries to Stonewall Jackson Lake.
Taylor added that the Burnsville Lake WMA with 12,579 acres in Braxton County and the Elk River WMA at 18,225 acres are two more solid bets. Both have more than share of upland ridges, although Burnsville features more diverse habitat overall with some brushy fields and creek bottoms.
District III contains a top 10 county in Upshur, which gave up 224 toms, but the region also offers such stalwarts as Lewis, Nicholas, and Randolph. For sheer public land acreage, Pocahontas is hard to beat, as both the Monongahela National Forest and Calvin Price State Forest have large chunks of real estate. Be aware that spring often comes late to this highland domain.
Curtis Taylor describes Bluestone Lake WMA with 18,019 acres in Summers, Mercer, and Monroe counties as a "perennial" turkey hotspot. I would rank it right up there with Stonewall Jackson, as one of the state's two best WMAs. I have journeyed to this public land on a number of occasions to pursue both spring and fall birds. Nathan Jeffries, a maintenance worker at Bluestone Lake State Park, goes hunts on this public land.
"The DNR has done a lot of quality habitat improvement work on the Bluestone Lake WMA," Jeffries said. "And from my experience, the turkey population has greatly increased over the last four years. The WMA has openings, clearings, timber cutting, and hardwood stands. It also has everything from mountains to bottomlands along the New River.
"I think one of the best ways to hunt Bluestone is to set up near the fields and timbered areas. The gobblers and hens often fly down or move toward these areas."
Taylor added that the 17,280 acres of R.D. Bailey WMA make up another quality destination for southern West Virginia sportsmen. This public land is much steeper than Bluestone and is more heavily forested, mostly in the form of oak-hickory stands.
Division IV had one county to make the top 10 parade. Greenbrier produced 235 toms, which put it in fifth place. Raleigh, Fayette, and Summers counties traditionally are among the other leaders in this part of the state.
Certainly one of the most productive state public lands is the Chief Cornstalk WMA (11,772 acres) in Mason County. Taylor said these 11,772 acres make up is a traditional producer of toms, as the rolling hills and periodic openings seem to draw turkeys in April and May.
Concerning private lands, Mason ranked at the head of the class last spring with 343 gobblers, and I had a chance to hunt this domain for the first time. Mason features a superlative mix of small farms, woodlots, hill and dale countryside, small tributaries, and hardwood forests. There is no wonder why this is such a productive county year after year.
Kanawha County yielded 213 gobblers to hold down the 10th position in overall harvest in 2012 and certainly should be a good bet this spring as well. Taylor added that Mingo and Logan counties are other likely turkey bastions this spring and typically produce high harvests. The mountains are quite steep in this part of the Mountain State, so be prepared.
The north central region, for the most part, features lots of smaller public lands, with several under 1,000 acres. One of the larger ones, relatively speaking, is the Ritchie Mines WMA at 2,300 acres in Ritchie County. This WMA is heavily wooded and fairly mountainous for this part of the state.
District VI landed two counties on the top 10 countdown; Wood for 237 toms and in fourth place and Jackson in sixth for 229 toms. Both of these domains contain numerous tributaries in the Ohio River drainage, and these bottomlands often harbor the biggest concentration of turkeys. These areas often green up quicker in the spring and should be good places to hear gobbling early in the season.
This year our season begins on April 22 and continues through May 18. As always, the daily limit is one bearded bird and the season limit is two. The hours are also the same, running from 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1:00 p.m.
Please consider participating in the annual Spring Gobbler Survey, which supplies the DNR with a wealth of information about what we turkey hunters are experiencing afield. Dr. Randy Tucker of the Elkins office conducts the survey (304-637-0245, Randy.L.Tucker@wv.gov)
Yes, turkey harvests and numbers have been trending downward in recent years, but the problem is occurring not only in West Virginia but also throughout the Southeast. Hopefully, the improved hatch in 2011 and a good hatch in 2012 will reverse this development.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it's showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn't do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It's hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam's in the same state. It doesn't get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven't been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state's current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state's typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000's. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it's also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.