How will sportsmen fare this season when seeking gobblers throughout our wild and wonderful state? Read on for the latest news on turkey hunting. (March 2007)
Photo By Philip Jordan
It was a cool and dreary mid-season morning with a stiff breeze. Not the best of spring gobbler hunting conditions, mind you, but certainly not bad enough to keep me from going. It made for kind of a solemn Sunday, no less, at one of the few Mountain State counties that still afford the option. A long pre- and post-dawn traipse atop a Logan County ridge was met with nary a gobble.
Sure, the habitat is roughed up a bit by surface coal mining, logging, gas lines and ATV trails so typical of the state's southwestern coalfields. However, this 2006 hunt began to play the sweet-sounding Golden Oldie music of a distant gobble that barely penetrated the stiff breeze.
Knowing this country more so than having turkey scouted it, time was of the essence for the somewhat distant bird. For folks who hunt these rugged hills, many such a "heard bird" is flat out impossible to get to. This one was within realm. I had his location estimated to be near a fairly new gas well site where he could openly strut his stuff for the hens.
I all but ran the horseshoe-shaped gas well service road to get above and around to him, but my guess may have been a little too good. I almost busted a turkey while closing the distance to make my calling setup. Luckily, the bird crept out of sight in the opposite direction. With waning hope, I set a hen decoy in the gas well service road and plopped down in a stump-backed foxhole just aside of it.
I yelped with a diaphragm call, receiving a decent if not immediate response. While I played hard to get, the infrequent gobbles seemed to be going in the other direction as the wind picked up. At least that's what they were telling me. That in mind, I called back a little louder and more aggressively.
A bobbing white head soon appeared over the mini-horizon right at the gas well, and as if to say "ah-ha there you are," he instantaneously made eye contact with the decoy from some 100 yards distant!
The gobbler then began a slow but steady, head half-high, zigzag walking strut of an approach. I had flubbed just such an "open" bird the year before and was doing the best I could to wait for the proper shot through the weeds.
The Mossberg model 835 boomed and the turkey fell dead in its tracks. The dandy gobbler lay goose-necked on the ground, first ever for a Sunday bird as well as for the scattergun, a National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) 30th Anniversary version, which I'd won at a local fundraising banquet.
Just as my luck had quickly changed for the better that morning, the West Virginia turkey flock could use a little bit of a good run, too. Speaking of runs, there was nothing like that meteoric restoration-era ride of 17 straight state-record spring gobbler kills between 1979 and 1995, topping out at the then-record kill of 16,770.
The DNR's in-state trap-and-transplant program ended in January 1989 and the 1995 record reflects a "saturated" statewide population for all 55 of its counties. Nature has a way of keeping some sort of balance and the flock came back down to earth, mostly declining between 1996 and 2000.
The 2001 season brought back some pleasant memories of those modern-era good old days via the current reigning record kill of 17,875 gobblers. After 2001, it encountered another downslide sequel as bad winter, multiple mast failures and some cold and wet brood-rearing years occurred.
The aforementioned problems are decidedly and uncontrollably weather related. We can't do much about them. The 2005 and 2006 seasons were a bit more normal weather-wise. Though last year's spring gobbler kill of almost 12,000 is a stretch off the record 2001 mark of 17,875, it was still a decent comeback year. Last year produced a modest increase over the past (2005) year's 11,000-bird tally.
Unfortunately for 2007, another upward notch toward that elusive record level may not be in the cards. It would pay to take a hard look back at that reigning record kill year of 2001 to gain insight into this spring's forecast. That's because that record year was preceded by a likewise reigning record brood count year of 1999!
Now remember that two-year lag time in between brood counts and harvest levels. The DNR's erstwhile turkey guru and present chief of Wildlife Resources Curtis Taylor said, "Our biologists have found that the level of brood production accurately forecasts spring turkey harvests two years later."
Reason being, the bulk of gobblers bagged are those lovelorn 2-year-olds. The older birds dominate the jakes or young-of-the-year birds when it comes to breeding rights. Older gobblers are experts at eluding hunters.
Taylor, by the way, was recently awarded the NWTF's highest honor, the Mosby Award for his lifelong professional efforts in the turkey arena. He has already hinted that the 2007 kill may be down a notch from last year's 11,879.
Why? Recalling that two-year lag effect, the brood report summary for 2005 was roughly 20 percent lower than that of 2004. That being the case, a gobbler kill in the vicinity of 10,000 birds may be pushing it for this spring. Regretfully, there are other negative factors linked to this modest forecast.
The DNR's Bowhunter Survey confirms a declining number of turkey observations. Furthermore, the fall 2005 harvest was the lowest in nearly 40 years! Sorry for the lack of good news, but hunters must also put things in perspective. The first-ever spring gobbler season of 1966 yielded only 12 birds and averaged a few hundred per annum the decade after!
Most professionals concede that a run of consecutive or nearly consecutive good brood years would be the ticket for our turkeys. In addition to the DNR's ongoing radio telemetry survival study of gobblers, three nearby states are studying banded gobblers all with the financial help of the NWTF. These efforts are geared to keeping the best management strategies going.
There is another bad boy on the block that folks don't like to hear about. Let's call it habitat, habitat and habitat. On the landscape level, West Virginia may not have the turkey potential it had just five or 10 years back. Housing developments, highways and shopping malls along with coal, natural gas and timbering activities are all occurring at a substantial pace.
Permanent losses of habitat are rapidly occurring. Other large-scale though temporary habi
tat changes are occurring. Logging of mature timber stands is oft selected for the highly valuable and acorn-producing oak segment. Log trucks in northern parts of the state are now as common as coal carriers in the south. Large tracts of the million acres of national forest here are being managed increasingly for wilderness and roadless areas.
Huntable wildlife species are not getting the attention they used to get in that arena. A major national forest effort is for restoration of a red spruce climax forest on a sizeable (landscape) chunk of it. Red spruce is not a very turkey friendly feature.
Lest anybody get confused here, not all mining and logging is bad for turkeys. In fact, in the example of my own Logan County bird, gas wells provided much-needed brood-rearing areas, while log slash provides nesting habitat.
Unlike shopping malls and highways, logging, mining and natural gas are at least temporary incursions. All that being said, we can only hope that turkeys have a few more tricks up their sleeves and that they defy our predictions just as much as they fool us in the spring woods. If anything, that's the only surefire prediction for turkeys.
Another certainty for 2007 is that some mighty fine gobbler hunting awaits this year's hunters. The season and bag limit setups are along traditional lines. For starters, we have the youth hunt slated for April 21. Last year's second-ever youth hunt was doused a bit by rain, but that's a part of the game.
Unlike for deer, the spring turkey seasons and bag limits are as simple as it gets, and they are the same for the entire state. The regular season opens just after the youth Saturday and traditional fourth Monday of April and closes out Saturday May 19. The daily bag limit remains as one and the season limit is two bearded birds. Your second bird comes free, so to speak, with the normal license package.
For hunting success prospects, it always helps to examine the DNR's Big Game Bulletin, which recaps the past five years worth of kills. For relatively short-lived wild turkeys, examining the prior year's bag can be extra helpful. Even more specifically, the best index may be the prior year's bag on a kill-per-square-mile basis.
And, on that basis, the Northern Panhandle and the Ohio River Valley provide some of our state's richest turkey habitats. These areas have just the right interspersion of hardwood lots, hay and crop fields that produce the best turkey densities. The top 10 counties in this regard are: Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Wood, Mason, Wirt, Marshall, Monongalia, Harrison and Mercer.
Mercer and Summers counties are perennial turkey hotspots on the southern front. Note that the tiny counties of the Northern Panhandle (Hancock, Ohio, Marshall and Brooke) may be skewed somewhat by turkeys wandering in from Pennsylvania and Ohio, but rest assured there is no border patrol trying to stop them! These counties are also skewed due to each being relatively small areas with a lot of birds.
If you haven't seen your favorite county yet, how's about the top 10 in sheer numbers alone? On harvest numbers alone, the following rate as the top 10: Mason, Wood, Preston, Jackson, Ritchie, Mercer, Monongalia, Marshall, Greenbrier and Hardy.
Hardy County's turkey kill astoundingly more than doubled last year over the prior season. Folks who have written it (and many other national forest counties) off may be missing out.
After all, turkeys are rebounding in the eastern national forest front. That may be one of the best-bet tips going into 2007 barring a severe turkey-killing winter.
No one needs to look any farther than the nearest filling station to check on gas prices. Everyone's been staying a little closer to home in that regard. Good thing that there is at least good hunting within a short drive to just about everywhere in West Virginia. For distant hunts, car-pooling and more overnight stays can be employed to cut down on expenses.
On another issue, the Sunday hunting thing has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for West Virginia hunters. It has stabilized for the time being. And, yes, you can Sunday hunt in 14 counties on private lands -- only with written permission of the landowner. The 14 counties have a coal connection where many of the miners work a mandatory six-day week.
For those miners, Sunday hunting is the only chance they get. The 14 Sunday hunting option counties are: Boone, Brooke, Clay, Hancock, Jefferson, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Marshall, Mingo, Ohio, Wayne Wetzel and Wyoming.
Here are some public options by DNR district that hunters can consider. Rest assured they harbor good numbers of the big birds with plenty of elbowroom to operate. For District I, the 13,000-acre-plus Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area (WMA) produced 17 gobblers last year.
Moving over to the Eastern Panhandle's District II, Sleepy Creek WMA's sprawling 23,000 acres offered up 13 gobblers. This huge area will likely contain plenty of carryover birds this year. If you think the carryover thing is hogwash, out of the DNR's 74 radio-harnessed gobblers just before last season, only 11 birds were harvested.
Think about that as we travel to the central part of the state's District III. Braxton County offers the Elk River WMA and its vast 18,000 acres. Bass boat owners can slip in through Sutton Lake, which is at the heart of this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project. Braxton County afforded my first West Virginia gobbler, so it's near and dear (and turkey) to my heart.
The southeastern segment's District IV boasts McDowell County's 18,000-acre Berwind Lake WMA. The bass boats won't help your access from this small lake, but there's still plenty of walking turf. Berwind Land Corporation has graciously kept this parcel open to the public.
Getting down to the southwestern coalfields District V, Mingo County's 13,000-acre Laurel Lake WMA is a big woods amid a smattering of nearby surface coal mines, a hunting tip that can pay dividends in those parts. Don't let Mingo County's relatively low turkey kill numbers fool you. Why? They likely reflect a lack of hunting pressure. For the ATV riders, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail is nearby in the event you get your gobbler early in the hunt. But note that ATVs are not permitted on WMAs.
Last but not least is west-central West Virginia's District VI. The popular Hughes River WMA is in the heart of that Ohio River and turkey bounteous country mentioned earlier. It lies in Ritchie and Wirt counties, perennial blockbusters in the turkey kill per square mile business.
DeLorme or West Virginia state maps show all these WMAs. The DNR Web page at WVDNR.gov offers additional information and basic maps for some WMAs.
That's the wrap on the 2007 spring gobbler situation. It looks like no one is predicting a new state record. However, our state still has many turkeys and plenty of place
s to hunt them!
Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com.