Not all of the state's public land is created equal when it comes to finding a gobbler. Here's a look at some of the better tracts for turkeys.
The author prefers to hunt near the edge of national forest land to take advantage of open spaces on adjoining private tracts that hold the birds in the area. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.
Last May 5, I had started the day on an 85-acre tract I own in Monroe County, desperately wanting to tag my first tom of West Virginia's spring season. But after striking out on my own land, plus visiting two other farmer's properties in quick succession, I headed for the mountains and the Jefferson National Forest.
Crossing some private land where I had permission to be, I stepped into the national forest, made two yelps, and waited for a response. To my surprise, a gobbler immediately popped into view, saw me, then putted and flew. Once again I had to relearn the lesson that when one talks turkey, he had better be prepared to actually meet the bird!
Since I had committed the above blunder more than a few times over the past quarter century, at least this time I knew what to do as far as implementing a bail out strategy. The bird had appeared to fly about a 100 yards to my right and into a hollow, so I walked 50 yards in that direction and sat silently for about 30 minutes.
Then I began to utter soft hen yelps and followed with some slightly louder kee-kee runs (the lost call of young birds). Five minutes later, the gobbler -- and I do believe it was the same one that I had spooked earlier -- appeared over the lip of the cove, marching directly toward me. At a distance of 30 yards, the tom disappeared behind a massive red oak that was between him and me.
The move was nothing but a random act by the bird, but it put me in a real quandary. On which side of the hardwood would the turkey materialize? If I guessed wrong, almost certainly the tom would see me before I got a bead on him. Given the latter's quicker reflexes, my outing would end in frustrating failure.
Guessing the turkey would appear around the left side of the tree, I shifted my body and 12-gauge in that direction. Seconds later the bird emerged on that side of the oak and just 7 yards away. The tom still managed to make a loud putt before the shotgun boomed, but it was the last sound he ever uttered.
That gobbler is one of five that I have killed in West Virginia's George Washington and Jefferson National Forest since 2002. This tract of public land remains one of my favorite places to go afield, public or private land, in the Mountain State. Let's look at this and other public hunting options in the state.
Created in 1920, the Monongahela National Forest sports over 919,000 acres in 10 counties. The "Mon" has averaged around 200 gobblers harvested annually for the past half decade or so, which, given the size of this domain, is not that many.
Shawn Head, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, has been the liaison biologist between the agency and the state's three national forests for the past 20 odd years.
Head said that the actions of preservationist groups, which protest nearly all timber cuts, have scaled back the forest management program, and reduced biodiversity. The result has been a substantial decrease in the number of wild turkeys and the harvest figures for the birds.
Rob Tallman, ornithologist for the WVDNR, agreed with Head.
"Professionally as an ornithologist, and personally as a hunter, I take every opportunity to inform people about the benefits of early successional forest habitat," he stated. "Timber harvesting, if done right, is not bad for wildlife. Timber harvesting creates habitat diversity and habitat diversity is the key to healthy forests and to stable populations of wildlife species."
Several decades ago when I first started hunting the Washington, Jefferson, and Monongahela forests, my standard plan was to rise well before dawn, hike deep into the forest and far away from other hunters, and then wait for the first gobble of the morning before deciding what to do next. Today, I hunt these national forests in a different way. The reason is that I simply can't find turkeys in the hinterlands, probably because of the lack of diversity that Head and Tallman refer to.
Now, I gain permission to cross private land that adjoins national forest land and hunt the first several hundred yards that borders these public lands. One landowner whose land I cross has told me that I can't even have shells in my shotgun when I traverse his property, and I follow his decree. The point is to take advantage of the presence of open fields and farmland on the private tracts, which draw turkeys. But those birds use the national forest woodlands for roosting. This combination offers ideal habitat and excellent hunting prospects.
GEORGE WASHINGTON & JEFFERSON NFS
Over the last half decade, this pair of national forests has averaged about 60 gobblers harvested per year. Again, that's not a very impressive number given the fact that the property is contained in three state-operated wildlife management areas -- the Shenandoah, Wardensville, and Potts Creek WMAs -- and covers more than 120,000 acres.
But there are some positive habitat management activities underway that may improve turkey hunting in the years to come. Dr. Carol Croy, forest wildlife biologist for the NF, provided an overview of these projects.
"We're trying to create a mosaic of habitat conditions that turkeys and other wildlife prefer," Dr. Croy said. "For example, by conducting clear-cuts we hope to facilitate future oak regeneration and create open woodland where forbs, shrubs, and grasses can thrive. This type of activity makes for very good brood habitat as insect life can become very abundant."
Dr. Croy also related that another major habitat improvement project involves prescribed burning. In 2009 the forest service burned 15,649 acres in the Washington and Jefferson woodlands and in 2010, that figure was approximately 21,000 acres. Those figures, however, are for the portions of the forest located in both West Virginia and Virginia.
"A really good spring hunting strategy is to set up within a section of mature national forest that borders an area that recently had a prescribed burn," Dr. Croy continued. "Prescribed burning opens up the understory and gives gobblers a good place to strut and also offers turkeys many places to feed."
Another activity Dr. Cr
oy pointed to is the maintenance of wildlife openings. She stated that this is an extremely effective management tool, as it encourages native wild grasses to thrive, as well as assisting legumes, forbs, and berry producing plants to maximize their potential. A single forest service employee astride a bush hog can work wonders, according to the biologist.
Although many preservationist groups and even some hunters mistakenly believe that timber cutting is harmful to forests and wildlife. Because of such opposition, the Washington and Jefferson NFs only cut 1,092 acres in 2009. That included cutting done by such methods as clear-cutting, shelter cuts, and salvage operations.
"It would be good for turkeys and other wildlife if we could do more cutting," Dr. Croy emphasized.
Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service was able to conduct timber stand improvement operations on 2,461 acres in 2009. According to Dr. Croy, this thinning operation is an excellent management tool, as it usually involves removing non-mast bearing trees, such as poplars and maples from an area. That allows oaks, hickories, beeches, and cherries to spread their crowns and produce more mast.
"The uses of fire and timber cutting are appropriate ways to improve wildlife habitat," stated Jobeth Brown, public affairs officer for these national forests. "These are tools that both create and improve habitat for turkeys and other wildlife."
CALVIN PRICE STATE FOREST
Keith Davis, assistant superintendent of Watoga State Park and an avid turkey hunter, said that the Calvin Price State Forest, which borders the state park, is an underrated destination this spring. The 9,482-acre public land in Pocahontas County has averaged only about five toms harvested annually in recent years. But that is at least partly because of a lack of hunting pressure Davis said.
"I enjoy hunting Calvin Price, and I would have to say the hunting is pretty good," Davis continued. "I didn't see much hunting pressure in 2010, and I saw quite a few flocks the fall of that year. Calvin Price has some very mountainous sections and a lot of ridges, but it's still not as steep as a lot of places in West Virginia.
"Calvin Price also has quite a few drainages, and those are good places to look for turkeys, too. In years past, the WVDNR has created some quality habitat, mostly in the form of food plots and a savannah or two. Obviously, those types of places are good areas to set up in.
"My favorite way to hunt Calvin Price is to go to the higher ridges and use them as listening posts. Then I wait to let the gobblers tell me where to go next."
Traditionally, the Bluestone WMA has been one of the premier turkey hunting destinations in the Mountain State. This 18,019-acre public land in Monroe, Summers, and Mercer counties has averaged about 30 birds harvested annually over the past half-decade. Jason Brown, assistant superintendent at the adjoining Bluestone Lake State Park, raved about the habitat there.
"Bluestone offers great diversity of habitat," Brown affirmed. "It has many fields, the WVDNR has created openings, and there are plenty of old logging roads throughout the property. From what I understand, the WMA does not receive a lot of hunting pressure."
Brown related that he has two different approaches for hunting the Bluestone WMA.
"If I have a day off, I'll get up extra early and go high up into the mountains to a listening post," the assistant superintendent explained. "If I only have a little time before work, I'll go sit a field. Either approach is a good way to take a gobbler here."
STONEWALL JACKSON LAKE WMA
The Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA and its 18,289 acres lie near the center of the Mountain State, making it one of the more popular public lands. The WMA in Lewis County typically averages some 20 gobblers tagged annually. Sam England is both a veteran hunter and the superintendent of the adjoining Stonewall Resort State Park.
"One of the reasons Stonewall is a good place to turkey hunt is the habitat diversity we have here," England stated. "At one time, there was a lot of abandoned farmland on the WMA, and though that land is in the process of growing back, it remains a good place for gobblers to come to feed and strut.
"A really interesting thing about Stonewall is that the Horner Game Refuge was here before the WMA was," he added. "So managing habitat for wildlife was a big part of the focus before the property became a WMA.
"Stonewall also has a lot of fields and the WVDNR does a good job of maintaining them in early succession habitat. Mature forests, lots of old logging roads, and gas well right of ways also add to the variety."
England believes that despite its central location, Stonewall does not receive heavy hunting pressure, especially during the Monday through Friday time frame.
"Let me give you an inside tip on how to hunt this place," England said. "Use a boat, a canoe, johnboat, anything, to travel across Stonewall Jackson Lake and access remote areas of the WMA. A hunter with a boat can gain access to places that someone on foot would take hours to reach."