Though gobbler harvests have fallen of late, good to excellent shooting is still possible in many areas of West Virginia. Read on for some of the best!
West Virginia's spring gobbler hunters can't seem to catch a break. For three years in a row now, sportsmen have sat silently in the woods and listened in dismay to the sound of fewer and fewer turkeys gobbling.
This year doesn't promise to be much better. A moderate uptick in breeding success should put more gobblers in the woods, but most of them will be jakes. Hunters who prefer longbeards may be in for a long, challenging season.
"Things could definitely be better," said Jim Pack, principal turkey biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). "We had three bad breeding seasons in a row before last spring, and the success we had last year wasn't nearly enough to make up the difference."
Pack said what turkeys really need is a change in the weather.
"Turkeys are ground-nesting birds," he said. "When the weather is wet and cold, their breeding success falls off sharply. Until we get a dry, relatively warm spring, that's going to continue to be the case."
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
In fact, he added, hunters shouldn't limit their wishes to just one year.
"There's nothing wrong with our turkey population that some good breeding conditions wouldn't cure," he said. "Two or three above-average breeding seasons would put us right back on track."
According to the DNR's annual Brood Survey, the number of turkey poults rose 46 percent as a result of 2004's relatively dry spring weather. That will be great news in 2006, when all those young birds reach sexual maturity and the toms begin gobbling their heads off. In the meantime, however, hunters can expect to encounter long-bearded turkeys about as often as they encounter mossy-racked 10-point bucks.
That's certainly unwelcome news for the 125,000 sportsmen expected to participate in the April 25-May 21 season. Coming off three seasons in which the harvest plunged from a record 17,875 to a disappointing 13,385, an alarming 12,535 and a horrifying 10,461, one can understand their disappointment.
Last year's dismal harvest statistics make it difficult to predict what counties might yield good hunting this season. For years, DNR officials have used a fixed benchmark to separate the exceptional counties from the also-rans: If a county yields at least one gobbler per square mile of habitat, it's considered an upper-tier turkey producer.
Last spring, only four counties met that criterion. Unfortunately for sportsmen, all four are located in the Northern Panhandle and three of them are too small to be considered statistically significant.
To calculate which counties are truly worth looking at, West Virginia Game & Fish considered three criteria -- the counties' 2004 harvest ranking, the counties' 2004 ranking in gobblers killed per square mile, and the counties' relative abundance of public hunting land.
Mason County tops this year's list. Mason's hunters killed 393 turkeys last spring, the most in the state. The county's average of 0.97 birds per square mile ranked fifth. A first-place finish in one category and a fifth-place finish in the other gives Mason an average ranking of 2.5, best among any of West Virginia's 55 counties.
Two large and highly productive public hunting tracts also contribute to Mason's lofty ranking.
The 3,066-acre McClintic Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Point Pleasant isn't exactly classic turkey territory, but this WMA manages to contain a fine turkey population nevertheless. Only a minor portion of the McClintic property contains the big-woods habitat gobblers seem to prefer. Most of the tract consists of wetlands, grown-over farmsteads and brushy lowlands. The main access roads to McClintic are off state Route (SR) 62, approximately two miles north of Point Pleasant.
Sportsmen can find more traditional turkey habitat at the 10,938-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA, about 15 miles southeast of Point Pleasant near Southside. Chief Cornstalk is heavily wooded, mostly with hardwoods, and contains dozens of clearings. Some of the clearings are pastures from the many farms that used to dot the countryside. Others are wildlife clearings specially created by DNR workers.
Hunters who plan to head toward Cornstalk should be aware that some of its gobblers are wearing radio transmitters as part of an ongoing DNR study. All of the radio-equipped birds were poults last fall when they were trapped and outfitted with their transmitters. Hunting the radio-equipped birds is legal, but hunters should return the transmitter to DNR personnel and be prepared to describe precisely where the bird was killed.
In any ranking of West Virginia's prime turkey areas, Summers County always tops the list of southern counties.
Summers was one of the first areas biologists targeted when they began trapping wild turkeys from the state's mountain highlands and transplanting them to other parts of the state. As early as the mid-1960s, the birds transplanted to Summers had spread to almost every corner of the county's rugged, hardwood-covered terrain.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Summers ranks consistently high among the state's best spring gobbler counties. Last year was a case in point. Hunters bagged 344 toms, the state's third-highest total. Summers finished eighth in birds killed per square mile at 0.91.
Part of the reason Summers produces so well is because its birds are so difficult to get to. Although Interstate 64 cuts across the county's northern corner and I-77 skirts its western border, most of the highways that lead to the best hunting spots are twisting secondary roads.
The good news is that those tortuous thoroughfares lead to some terrific public-hunting areas. Of those, the 17,632-acre Bluestone Lake WMA justifiably attracts the most attention. Year in and year out, it ranks among the state's best public-land gobbler producers. Most of the tract encompasses the hills that surround its namesake lake; the rest surrounds the Bluestone River downstream of Pipestem State Park. SR 20 provides access to the property about two miles south of Hinton.
North of the town, the New River Gorge National River beckons to sportsmen. Administered by the National Park Service, the lands that surround the river are open to hunting. The river's proclamation boundaries include more than 50,000 acres. Not all of that lan
d is in Park Service hands yet, but several large areas are open to the public near Meadow Creek and on the mountainside between Brooks and Sandstone.
Though it's the smallest of the state's best-bet counties, the Northern Panhandle's Marshall County came up big last year. Sportsmen took 1.04 gobblers per square mile from its rugged, rolling hills. That was the state's fourth-best productivity ratio -- which, combined with the county's eighth-best harvest of 280 birds, elevated little Marshall to elite status.
The lion's share of those turkeys was taken on private land because the county's public-hunting opportunities are rather limited. The 2,000-acre Cecil H. Underwood WMA is just about the only game in town because the 56-acre Burches Run Lake WMA simply isn't big enough to produce many turkeys.
Oak-hickory and cove hardwood habitat dominate the Underwood tract, and the timber stands are interspersed with wildlife clearings. Access trails are numerous, but camping isn't allowed on the property.
U.S. Route 250 and SR 2 bracket the county along its eastern and western boundaries. Between the two arteries lie miles and miles of hilly, twisting secondary roads. Motel rooms are abundant along SR 2 near Moundsville, the county seat.
Perhaps the state's most hunter-friendly county, at least in terms of ease of access and places to stay, is Monongalia County.
Monongalia's county seat of Morgantown has hundreds of motel rooms. Interstate 68 skirts the town's southern edge and I-79 grazes its western boundary, so getting there is no problem from any direction.
Like many of the state's best spring gobbler counties, Monongalia offers a variety of turkey habitats. Depending on their whims, hunters can hunt fertile river bottoms one day, rolling farmlands the next day and heavily timbered mountain ridges the day after that.
Given the varied terrain, it's not surprising that the county harbors a fine turkey flock. Hunters took 0.94 birds for every square mile of habitat last year, the state's sixth-highest average. The county's total harvest of 292 gobblers was good for seventh in the statewide rankings.
Monongalia's public hunting is found at Cooper's Rock SF and Snake Hill WMA. Most of the 12,698-acre forest is located just outside of Morgantown on the west slope of Chestnut Ridge. Some of the best hunting can be found on the north side of the rugged Cheat River canyon, but only for hunters who are in good enough shape to traverse its steeply sloping walls.
The 2,000-acre Snake Hill WMA near Dellslow lies on the south side of the Cheat canyon and is just as rugged. Fifty miles away to the south, Upshur County is another easy-to-reach turkey destination.
U.S. routes 33 and 119 meet with SR 20 in the county seat, Buckhannon, and roughly divide the county into quarters. Getting to prime hunting land isn't very difficult. Gaining permission to hunt on it is the trick.
A small corner of the 3,000-acre Stonecoal WMA constitutes the only public hunting in the entire county. For outsiders, the best place to find hunter-friendly private land is in the upper reaches of the Buckhannon River watershed. Much of the land belongs to mining companies, whose absentee owners sometimes don't post their properties.
The lack of access didn't seem to discourage hunters last spring. They bagged 271 toms within the county's borders, good for 11th place in the state rankings. The county's average of 0.81 turkeys per square mile ranked ninth statewide.
Upshur's next-door neighbor, Lewis County, ranks next on the best-bet list. It yielded 279 gobblers last season, good for ninth in that category; and it yielded a respectable 0.73 birds per square mile, 13th in the state.
Were it not for the intense hunting pressure Lewis receives, it might well be the state's best spring-gobbler county. Its low, rolling hills are a deer-attracting blend of oak-hickory hardwood forests interspersed with old, mostly abandoned farmsteads.
What's more, Lewis is home to two of the state's most productive public hunting areas. The Stonewall Jackson Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Roanoke encompasses more than 18,000 acres of prime turkey habitat. Barely a shotgun blast away to the northeast, the aforementioned Stonecoal WMA beckons to sportsmen.
Both WMAs surround good-sized lakes, and savvy hunters have learned to cruise the lakes in boats, calling and roosting gobblers before returning the next morning to hunt them.
Both areas are easily accessible by car. Interstate 79 passes within two miles of Stonewall, and U.S. Route 33 passes within a similar distance of Stonecoal. Stonewall Jackson Lake Resort State Park, nestled inside the Stonewall WMA, is the local center for accommodations with a luxury lodge, rental cabins, a first-class campground and boat rentals.
Of all this year's best-bet gobbler areas, Mercer County would have to be classed as the real "up-and-comer."
Mercer's hunters were models of consistency in 2004, ranking 12th in turkey harvest at 269, and 12th in productivity at 0.73 birds per square mile.
Despite the county's rugged topography, getting around isn't terribly difficult. Interstate 77 bisects the Mercer countryside from north to south, and U.S. Route 460 traverses its southern limits. Routes 19 and 52 and SR 20 also cut well-paved paths through the steep-sided hills.
Two sizable towns, Bluefield and Princeton, offer plenty of places to eat and to hole up for the night. They provide a fine jumping-off point for hunters headed for the surrounding turkey woods.
The county's only true public hunting area is the 5,200-acre Camp Creek SF, located just off I-77 near the forest's namesake town. Coal and timber companies own large parcels of land west of I-77, and many of those tracts have never been posted against hunting. Local sportsmen have treated them as public lands for decades.
Ritchie County has been one of West Virginia's most reliable turkey-hunting spots for more than 10 years, and last spring's performance only enhanced its already sterling reputation.
Ritchie's rolling landscape yielded 293 gobblers, the state's sixth-best total. Productivity had always been one of Ritchie's strong suits, so its 18th-best average of 0.67 birds per square mile came as a bit of a disappointment.
Two large public tracts lie within the county's borders, and both are popular when the dogwoods start blooming and the turkeys start gobbling. About one-third of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA sprawls across the county's western end near Elizabeth. Leased by the state from a timber company, the tract's habitat is a patchwork of mature oak-hickory forest interspersed with young pine stands of pines and hardwoods. The other piece of public land, the 2,300-acre Ritchie Mines WMA
near Macfarlan, includes a patch of low, rugged hills once mined for asphalt.
Access is mostly along twisting country roads, but U.S. Route 50 provides a four-lane east-west corridor for hunters heading into Ritchie from the population centers of Parkersburg and Clarksburg.
Though some distance away, both cities offer plenty of motel rooms and dining opportunities. Hunters who like to stay a little closer to the action should check out North Bend State Park near Cairo.
Harrison County is heavily populated and heavily industrialized, but it nevertheless ranks among the state's best turkey producers.
Gobbler hunters fared well there last spring, ranking 10th in harvest with 276 toms and 16th in productivity with 0.71 birds per square mile.
About the only thing keeping Harrison from jumping into the same class as nearby Lewis and Monongalia counties is its relative lack of public hunting. The 974-acre Center Branch WMA near Stonewood is the county's only designated public tract. The reclaimed strip mine is covered with oak-hickory forest that ranges from pole-timber to early saw-timber stage. Hunters who venture onto the property need to look for the many strip-mine high walls that interrupt the terrain. A fall from one of those manmade cliffs can quickly ruin anyone's day.
One of the biggest surprise entries to last year's list of top gobbler producers was Roane County. Though it's always been considered a fine place to hunt, last year it leaped into the ranks of the elite.
Roane's hunters bagged 294 birds, the state's fifth-highest total. The county's productivity ratio of 0.62 gobblers per square mile ranked 21st statewide.
Interstate 79 provides the best jumping-off spot to reach the county's public hunting spots. All three units of the 11,757-acre Wallback WMA lie within a mile or two of the four-lane superhighway, and the B.J. Taylor WMA is just a stone's throw from the pavement's edge.
About three-fifths of the Wallback tract lies within Roane County. Its hilly topography is mostly mature hardwood forest with a few grown-over farmsteads and wildlife clearings.
The Taylor WMA encompasses just 141 heavily wooded acres, but is usually good for at least a couple of turkeys.
So there you have it, a look at many of our state's best places to seek turkeys this spring. Remember to always be sure of your target before shooting and never assume another hunter knows you're there. It's always better to be safe than sorry. Good hunting this season in our wild and wonderful state!