West Virginia Turkey Trends
September 29, 2010
Here are the prospects for our soon-to-arrive gobbler season, no matter where you live in our wild and wonderful state. (February 2006)
The author bagged this two-bearded gobbler while hunting in the Jefferson National Forest in Monroe County last spring. One of the turkey's beards measured 10 1/4 inches.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram
The tom was not going to shut up, but he was not going to come in, either. It was 7:30 a.m. last spring in Monroe County. I had been working this bird ever since he had greeted the coming of dawn. But the problem was that I was sitting against a red oak in the Jefferson National Forest, and the bird was 125 yards away on private land -- land that was across a road and a creek.
I thought about implementing brilliant strategies that I had read about in magazines, but I chose a more mundane game plan. I gave up. I ran down the mountain to my vehicle and took off down the highway. On the way down the highway, I saw "my" gobbler in the middle of a field and in the company of a hen.
I had made the right decision to leave the longbeard, for convincing him to have left a field with hens and to cross a stream and road would have been pretty nigh futile. However, would my follow-up gambit be successful? One of the things I like best about hunting the George Washington and Jefferson and the Monongahela national forests is that if the turkeys in one area of these public lands are not cooperative, it is a very simple matter to either drive or walk to somewhere else.
And so it was that I quickly drove to another parcel of the Jefferson in Monroe County. At 8:05 a.m., I parked my vehicle and uttered a hard cutt. A longbeard boomed back just 100 yards away and straight up the mountainside. I knew that if I ran up the mountain, the bird would see me, so I got back into the car and drove up the mountain until I was 100 yards or so above the old boy.
This time, I used a crow call to help me locate the tom and, cooperatively, he responded with a gobble. I ran 40 yards toward the sound and then hit the crow call again. Once more, a gobble rang out. The next time I employed the call, the turkey was just 75 yards away and directly below me and on the other side of a hump. It was time to set up.
Quickly sitting against a chestnut oak, I softly yelped. The tom again gobbled and a few seconds later sounded much closer -- he was on his way. Seconds later, a longbeard bobbed up over the hill so quickly that I did not have a chance to shoot -- even though I had shouldered the 12 gauge beforehand. A few seconds later, another tom crested the ridge, and I touched off the shotgun. The beautiful bird sported twin beards -- 10 1/4 inches and 3 1/2 inches.
Was the first tom the one that had been gobbling and the dominant bird? I'll never know and frankly didn't care. Proudly, I was on my way to a Monroe County check station.
In 2005, West Virginians checked in 10,804 birds, a tad higher than the 2004 tally of 10,573. The slight increase follows three years where the harvest declined each year, as the figures from 2001 to 2003 were 17,875, 13,385 and 12,535, respectively.
The top 10 counties (with totals in parentheses) were Mason (447), Summers (388), Preston (375), Ritchie (340), Jackson (333), Raleigh (325), Roane (297), Wood (283), Mercer (282) and Greenbrier (275). Overall, 29 of the Mountain State's 55 counties showed a harvest increase, with the southern counties being the trendsetters in that regard. District VI (2,337) led the regional brigade, followed by District I (2,298), District IV (2,102), District V (1,993), District III (1,228) and District II (846).
This spring, West Virginians will have the opportunity to take a youngster at least 8 years of age and no more than 14 on a youth hunt, scheduled for Saturday, April 22. These youngsters must be accompanied by a licensed adult of at least 21 years of age. The adult may not carry a firearm or bow of any kind. As is true for the regular season, the hours will be one-half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m.
Princeton's Kevin Graham raves about the joys he experienced during a 2005 youth hunt when he took his 9-year-old daughter, Taylor Jo, afield on a farm near their home.
"I have never had a day like we had," Graham exulted. "We got too close to one on the roost and Taylor Jo had a cough. Guess how that one ended. We then set up a decoy about 25 yards into a field. About 20 minutes after daylight, a bird gobbled 300 yards away in a deep hollow across the field. I made a hard cutt and he answered. The next time, two birds answered and were closer. I waited and yelped a few times and could tell they were about 150 yards out on the other side of the field.
"I cackled and both turkeys gobbled again. Taylor had her gun across her knees pointed at the decoy and she started to shake. The birds gobbled at 75 yards and I told her she had better get ready. They came across a rise in the field running at us until they saw the decoy. They broke into a strut as they veered toward it.
"Taylor's breathing was labored to say the least. I told her to shoot when she was ready. She said, 'Daddy, I'm not ready.' I said she'd better get ready. 'Take your time and shoot that turkey.' "
Alas, little Taylor Jo was too mesmerized to shoot. Then another turkey gobbled behind the father-daughter duo, and the first two birds left. Kevin then called in three more toms, but once again, his daughter couldn't bring herself to shoot one, as she seemed to be just fascinated with the goings-on.
"We kept them around us for over half an hour," Graham continued. "They would leave over the rise and I would call them back. I gave her the box call and she would call to them. We had a ball. I got them about 15 yards out and shocked them with my crow call and all three gobbled at once. While we were playing with them, three jakes came into the decoy and two big gobblers and about seven hens came out about 125 yards away in the field.
"The youth hunt is a grand idea," Graham said. "Although my daughter did not harvest a turkey, she and her daddy harvested some memories that can never be taken away. It brought back the days when my dad was bending down and pointing out to me scratchings or turkey droppings in the leaves."
The regular spring gobbler season begins on Monday, April 24, and continues through Saturday, May 20. The limit is one bearded bird per day, two for the season. For more information on Youth Day and the regular season, consult the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Web site at
SPRING GOBBLER SURVEY
The DNR needs more sportsmen to participate in its annual Spring Gobbler Survey. I have participated for many years and enjoy recording info from outings, such as my pre-season scouting efforts, counties and hours where hunted, gobblers and hens seen and called in, and ruffed grouse flushed or heard drumming. The DNR uses data gathered to form an overall picture of what hunters are experiencing.
Individuals wishing to participate may contact the West Virginia DNR, P.O. Box 67, Elkins, WV 26241; call (304) 637-0245 or fax (304) 637-0250. An added bonus of participating is that you will receive a copy of the annual Spring Gobbler Survey report.
JOINT GOBBLER SURVEY
The West Virginia DNR and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries are in the midst of conducting a joint gobbler survey. The West Virginia Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has donated money toward helping the DNR purchase radio transmitters and telemetry tracking devices. Gobblers have been trapped and outfitted in each of the state's six districts.
Among the objectives are learning the causes of gobbler mortality and how well toms survive. West Virginia will also compare its season with Virginia's, as the latter state begins its season considerably earlier in April (the second Saturday) and allows all-day hunting the last two weeks of its season.
Toward these objectives, Virginia biologist Gary Norman told me that a prototype data logger has been tested at the West Virginia Wildlife Center. The unit has proved to be 100 percent accurate in detecting gobbling of males wearing the unit. However, personnel have noticed some errors occurring in the unit when a nearby tom gobbles, and the bird wearing the device does not gobble. This "false positive" event may be correctable. If the system cannot be improved, it still may be useful, as it would offer a measure of gobbling intensity.
In 2005, District I, which covers northern West Virginia and the Northern Panhandle, ranked second in the turkey harvest category. As noted earlier, Preston County finished third in the state and, as usual, led the district. The harvest was down 86 toms from the 2004 tally of 2,384.
The decrease was not unexpected. Curtis Taylor, chief of the wildlife resources division for the DNR, noted that recent harvest declines, not only in District I but also statewide, have been related to poor wild turkey brood production. During the crucial brooding and nesting periods, Taylor said, cold, wet weather was sadly too common. We simply need to have warm, dry weather during the brooding period and especially when the poults first hatch.
District I features several counties that just missed the top 10 harvest list. Adding to their appeal is that they were much smaller in size than the majority of counties that made the list. This should give you an idea of how good the hunting can be there this spring. Harrison (269), Marshall (264), and Wetzel (242) counties are certainly in this category.
District II usually finishes last in the turkey harvest race, and this is partly because of the development that is going on in the Eastern Panhandle but also because many of the eight counties there are on the small side. However, the harvest has also declined for the past four years, decreasing 94 toms from the 2004 kill of 940. Hampshire County (183) led the way and is a dandy destination.
Hampshire features the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres), which it shares with Hardy County, within the George Washington National Forest. This county also contains the Nathaniel Mountain WMA (8,875 acres). Other counties of note include Hardy (127), Mineral (110) and Pendleton (108).
The central mountain counties of District III offer some of the best public-land hunting in the East. The Monongahela National Forest and such well-known public lands as the Burnsville (12,579 acres) and Elk River WMAs (18,225 acres) in Braxton County, Morris Creek WMA (9,874 acres) in Clay and Kanawha counties, Stonewall Jackson WMA (18,289 acres) in Lewis County, and Wallback WMA (11,757 acres) in Clay, Kanawha and Roane counties, are worth checking out during scouting forays.
Lewis County (267) led the way in District III, which finished fifth overall, and was followed by Braxton (224), Upshur (206), Nicholas (173) and Randolph (118). Interestingly, DNR biologist Chris Ryan told me that he saw "a bunch of broods" while trapping bears in Randolph County in August and that the mountain counties "appear" to have had a good hatch.
However, Ryan cautions that such observations do not necessarily proclaim that Randolph and the District III counties experienced a good hatch. With turkey poults, all hatch results are local. A cold, poult-killing rain may occur in one part of a county and wipe out most of a year-class, while five miles away, a hollow that escaped that precipitation may contain many birds come next spring.
District IV, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, finished third in the turkey harvest. As noted earlier, Summers, Raleigh, Mercer and Greenbrier all landed in the top 10 and Fayette (260) and Monroe (216) had very respectable harvests. Overall, the harvest was up 136 birds from the 2004 tally of 1,966.
Southern West Virginia also hosts a number of quality public lands. Among them are Berwind Lake WMA (18,000 acres) in McDowell County, Bluestone Lake WMA (18,019 acres) in Summers, Mercer, and Monroe counties, and R.D. Bailey (17,280 acres) in Mingo and Wyoming counties.
Biologist Colin Carpenter said that Summers County is a real up-and- comer as a spring gobbler destination. From 2001 to 2005, the tallies have been 368, 302, 254, 316 and 388, respectively. While many counties have been experiencing harvest declines, Summers' turkey flock seems to be consistently increasing.
District V, which covers part of southern West Virginia and most of the western part of the state, held down place No. 4. Top 10 counties Mason and Kanawha led the way, but impressive harvests also took place in Wayne (244), Putnam (239) and Lincoln (229). Overall, the district's kill increased 156 birds from the 2004 tally of 1,847.
Biologist Chris Ryan said that during 19 days of fieldwork in June and July, he only saw one brood in Boone, Kanawha and Fayette counties. Fayette, of course, lies in District IV, but the other two counties are in District V. Again, as noted earlier, all poult results are local and preliminary.
District V features some fetching WMAs. Among the possibilities are Amherst/Plymouth (7,061 acres) in Putnam County, Beech Fork Lake (7,531 acres) in Cabell and Wayne, Big Ugly (6,421) in Lincoln, Chief Cornstalk (11,772 acres) in Mason, East Lynn Lake (22, 928 acres) in Wayne, Fork Creek (7,000 acres) in Boone, and Laurel Lake (12,854 acres) in Mingo.
Finishing this story with District VI could be definitely a case of saving the best for last. This northern West Virginia domain paced the state with
a harvest that was up 231 toms from the 2004 tally of 2,106. Top 10 finishers Ritchie, Jackson, Roane and Wood, of course, led the pack, but Wirt (234), Doddridge (214), Tyler (199) and Gilmer (183) boasted solid harvests as well.
District VI contains a few quality public-land options. Now is the time to scout out the Hughes River WMA (10,000 acres) in Ritchie and Wirt counties, Ritchie Mines (2,300) in its namesake county, and The Jug (2,065 acres) in Tyler. Except for Hughes River, these public lands are not overly large, so the least pressured hunting is likely to take place during the week. Obviously, the majority of turkey hunting in District VI takes place on private land.
In the fall, if someone asks me when my favorite time to turkey hunt is, I always say the autumn. Come early spring, if someone asks me the same question, I always say the spring. West Virginia's turkey hunting enthusiasts will soon be able to partake of the latter pastime.