Here's the latest as far as turkey numbers in our wild and wonderful state. Is good hunting near you? (March 2006)
With wild turkey numbers supposedly down, they certainly aren't out! At least I couldn't tell from a couple of last year's close encounters I had with gobblers. As I nonchalantly followed a gas line back to my truck from a mostly uneventful late-season hunt, a thunderous gobble all but caught me in mid-stride.
The bird was close (as in less than 100 yards) and downhill somewhere. I quickly set up a hen decoy and moved to the nearest suitable tree along the perimeter of the cleared right-of-way. This put the decoy slightly above me with the turkey below.
The bird was a coy boss, gobbling only another time or two over the next half hour, which seemed like a millennium to my season-worn body. But I wasn't going to make the greenhorn mistake of calling too much. With the perfect full-camouflage setup, the gun in shooting position and all the other accoutrements that turkey-hunting dreams are made of, the cherry red stationary periscope of a gobbler head appeared at the predetermined shooting lane.
It was literally in the line of my sights! Why wait for the bird to get closer revealing its full self, I mused. This bird was as good as in the bag. It was late in the season and I had worked many a hard morning. The blast of the shotgun abruptly ended that thought process.
Just one problem, however, the gobbler flew off leaving me in disbelief! There was nary a feather cut from this Jackson County bird. As I counted the paces to its "wide-open" position, I quickly realized the mistakes of both underestimating the range and not waiting a few more minutes for a more exposed shot.
After all these years and turkeys later, you'd think I would have learned. Yet, it's precisely such meltdowns that keep us youthful and returning back to the spring woods for more. You really do remember the ones that got away.
At this time, I'm not prepared to divulge any further fretting of the 2004 season, which was supposed to be a "silent spring" to quote a fellow spring gobbler hunter survey participant. The moral here is that just because we're not breaking annual state harvest records like clockwork does not mean the hunting's for naught.
For some, however, that must be the case. I can't ever remember experiencing as little hunting pressure as I did last year. That's just a further "plus" side reason to go per the increased quality of the less-crowded hunting. Without others to blame, you can flub gobblers all on your own! All kidding aside, just what the heck is going on with our wild turkeys?
Once seemingly ever on the increase, the 17-year consecutive string of annual spring turkey records ended in 1995. For that stunning sequence that began circa 1979, the record harvests grew from a meager 873 turkeys to an astounding 16,770 birds! We may have, in fact, gotten a little spoiled. As much as we hate to see it happen, natural populations eventually must top out, saturate, or reach carrying capacity as the professionals say.
So what's the story here and now a decade later for this grand game bird? Is there a glimmer of hope? Will the big birds throw us a bone every now and again, even if only for an occasional kill record? Sure, and yes is the answer. They did so with the reigning harvest record or 17,875 birds in 2001. What's more, spring turkey kills have averaged around 13,500 birds per annum since that string-ending year of 1995.
Though last year's relatively low bag of 10,573 turkeys is a bit of a below-average bummer, a good brood year or two is all it would take to rebuild and perhaps muster another record-setting season once again.
The past few years have brought flooding rains, cold and wet brood-rearing springs and mast failures that have dealt a terrible hand of cards to our birds. The high-elevation national forest counties of Tucker, Randolph, Pocahontas, Webster and Greenbrier have been particularly affected.
Ironically, these counties were the bastions for the birds that provided much of the Division of Natural Resource's (DNR) trap-and-transfer stock. These stockings helped to replenish the rest of the state, which now harbors better bird populations per unit area than where the birds were originally gathered.
In testament, an opening day Logan-Mingo county line gobbler shot by yours truly back in 1990 was a banded bird transplanted there from Tucker County a year or two earlier. Better turkey news may be on the horizon for 2006. At this point, most hunters would settle for just that in lieu of a new state-record season, which is not in the forecast.
The winter of 2005 was no slouch, but snowfalls were spread out as opposed to all at once. Major winterkills of deer or turkeys did not happen. And the brood-rearing month of June was not a cold, wet one.
The brood counts of last summer as received from the DNR's new compiler, Jim Evans, shows those numbers hovering around the five-year average. Considering the relatively low number of hens out there, this is great news.
Another plus is that the preliminary statewide mast survey reports for fall 2005 are decent. We do know that the fall 2004 harvest was the lowest on record since all but the first Mountain State spring gobbler season of 1966.
Other unknowns that can affect the harvest are last winter's severity and the number of birds that survived it, hunting weather in-season as well as hunter participation and interest, otherwise known as hunting pressure.
There is another factor we should not underestimate. And that's the first-ever youth spring turkey hunt of last year. Youngsters from 8 to 14 years old will get that same great opportunity this year with the help of a licensed adult. That is, a first crack at gobblers on their very own day, the Saturday (April 22) before the traditional fourth Monday of (April 24) the regular opening day.
Biologist Evans and his associate Bill Igo are taking on some of the varying research duties from their recently retired and senior turkey project leader Jim Pack. Other positive notes are the ongoing study of radio-harnessed gobblers.
Per the DNR staff, early results indicate that survival has been fairly decent in that many marked birds were not bagged last year (as well as a hopefully similar proportion of their unmarked brethren) and should be available for the 2006 hunt.
In a pre-retirement conversation with Pack, he was saddened by the poaching loss of marked turkeys during last year's firearms deer season. Poachers are, in fact, kicking our turkeys while they
are down. Sportsmen should utilize the 1-800-NetGame to report the inexcusable poaching of turkeys.
For that ongoing turkey study that neighboring Virginia is nicely paralleling, Evans and Bill Igo are aided by a host of statewide staff. The state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has pitched in nicely with dollars or as Pack would say, "put their money where their mouth is time after time."
The goal of this three-year turkey study is to keep roughly 70 or so turkeys statewide wearing shoulder harness "backpack" radio transmitters. Mortality rates and cause of death are the key data being tallied. Speaking of those tallies, just which counties are chalking up the best turkey numbers?
The Mountain State's narrow Northern Panhandle is a perennial leader in turkeys killed per square mile. Just a stone's throw east to Pennsylvania and west to Ohio, the region's four counties precisely dominate the same slots of the leading kills per square mile every year.
The four county leaders with their turkey kills per square mile following in parentheses are Hancock (2.98), Brooke (1.89), Ohio (1.40) and Marshall (1.03). Their relatively high human population and small county size make them a turkey colossus of sorts. They may, in fact, be over exalted comparing the tiny size in relation to the big home range of wild turkeys. The state's tiniest area, Hancock County at only 61 square miles, pales in contrast to top-rated Randolph County's 1,015 square miles.
Finding a gobbler is not nearly as difficult as finding a place to hunt at this turkey-rich turf. Nevertheless, several wildlife management areas (WMAs) are available to hunt with some room to roam. One is the Cecil H. Underwood WMA (2,097 acres) in Marshall County, which is a relatively new kid on the WMA block. Hillcrest WMA in Hancock County offers 2,212 acres, and Brooke County's Cross Creek WMA affords 2,080 acres, though a coal mining operation has temporarily closed off a portion of the WMA to hunters for safety reasons.
For additional details on these and other public-hunting areas, the regulations pamphlets provide contact details for writing or calling the DNR and other agencies. Also, check out the DNR's Web page at www. wvdnr.gov. Recently, the DNR has started posting some basic maps for some of the WMAs.
These maps, in concert with a DeLorme atlas and gazetteer, are accurate enough to get your feet on the ground and heading in the right direction.
If a computer isn't your thing, pick up or contact the DNR from the regulations brochure information for the nearest regional office and ask for a copy of A Guide to Wildlife Management Areas in West Virginia. At last check, it was a bit dated in the transition era between hard copy and computers. However, it does feature narrative directions but not maps to the WMAs.
You can quickly develop more places to go than you have the time and gasoline! Fortunately, every one of the state's 55 counties harbors huntable populations of birds for backyard hunts, which allow for more sleep. In addition, a host of turkey veterans like these sleep-in hunts. These backyard hunts allow more time for hens to get back to their nest-tending duties. This leaves gobblers alone and more susceptible to calling.
Though you surely can bag or flub a late-morning gobbler like I did, the DNR's long-standing survey of spring turkey hunters reveal that the "early birds get their birds" based upon actual kill times reported.
As well, turkey hunters must put in their time in the turkey woods. The season is four weeks long, but at times, you would never know it for the lack of hunting pressure during the latter three weeks.
As one who has bagged birds on both the last Thursday and Saturday of the season, I can tell you that you have until late May to bag a turkey. Even if you don't get a late-season bird, those you do hear may be pre-season tip-offs for the following year's hunt.
Getting back to those top 10 counties after having left off with the four of the Northern Panhandle, their turkey bounteous brethren seem to have common denominators of habitat. That is, they support a well-smattered proportion of wood lots and hay fields with approximately one-third to one-half in hay fields.
Some experts have even gone as far as calling a 60 to 40 proportion of hardwoods to hay and crop field mixture as the magical percentage for both deer and turkeys. Top turkey counties are invariably top deer producers as well. And Mason, Monongalia, Wirt and Pleasants are top turkey counties bordering the Ohio River Valley.
Public options in Mason County include the well-known McClintic and Chief Cornstalk WMAs. Northern Wirt County features significant portions of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA. This WMA has been graciously kept a public option through the hospitality of Mead-Westvaco Corporation.
Monongalia County prospects include a new sleeper that hasn't even yet made the printed regulations brochure! What's more, the new 765-acre Pedlar WMA is just seven miles west of downtown Morgantown nearby to West Virginia University. University students may take note of this, especially in view of current gasoline prices. Pedlar WMA is accessible via state Route 7 and county Route 41. Consol Energy, better known to West Virginians as Consolidation Coal Company, made the gracious gift deed.
Rounding out the top 10 counties are Summers and Mercer, a southeastern West Virginia dynamic duo of the Bluestone and New river valleys. Summers County contains the 18,000-acre Bluestone Lake WMA. Mercer features the 6,000-acre Camp Creek State Forest, in addition to the 600-acre Tate Lohr WMA.
If that doesn't get you started, there are the million acres of national forest land along the eastern Appalachian front and spine of West Virginia running generally north and south along the state's long axis. Though the "big-woods" birds are down, there's plenty of elbowroom to have that gobbler all to yourself.
The many counties of the southwestern coalfields still afford plenty of unposted open range in the form of major company holdings. Active coalmining operations are usually well marked and protected by security gates and guard shacks. Once the mining moves through, the grasslands reclaim those Ohio River hay fields quite nicely.
A lot of coalfield hunting is thus geared to within a mile or so of surface coalmine reclaims. The bowhunting-only counties of Logan, Mingo, Wyoming and McDowell are seeing more posting to leases for trophy deer hunting. However, exceptions can be made for spring turkey hunting by asking permission. I even got an extra bonus of winter grouse hunting by approaching such a leaseholder just last year.
Though the Eastern Panhandle is rapidly being lost to suburbanization, there is still a nice assemblage of WMAs and good proximity to the national forest spine just to the west. If you were contemplating writing off this Panhandle altogether, you could just be making more elbowroom for the thousand or so others that annually bag th
eir bird in what the DNR calls District 2.
The price of gas shouldn't be a hindrance to the flock of West Virginia spring gobbler hunters. Good hunting is as close as where you can go when you can go. For many Mountaineers, it's out in their very own back yards and up the nearest mountain.
Though West Virginia's turkeys have been worked over a bit by the forces of nature, they are as proud and positioned to stage a rebound as we are humbled by their prowess. Recent tsunamis, floods and hurricanes help put these dealings in perspective.
In my wildest dreams as a boy, I never thought that we would have such good hunting for turkeys as we do now, even if at a notch or two down from record proportions.
When the big boys of 2006 get to gobblin', you'll have things that are more pressing on your mind. I guarantee it.