Our State's 2008 Turkey Forecast

Our State's 2008 Turkey Forecast

Another spring season is just around the corner. Read on for the latest on where to find West Virginia's best turkey hunting this year. (March 2008).

Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

The day began in a puzzling fashion, as I hadn't heard any gobblers sound off at dawn across the Greenbrier County mountainside. The landowner had said that he was hearing and seeing turkeys and he even encouraged me to come hunt on his property. So, shortly after daybreak on that early May morning last spring, I decided to traverse the ridgetops, sending calls into the hollows below.

At the third cove I came to, a tom greeted my yelps with a gobble; I immediately ran down the mountainside about 20 yards and set up. But after doing so, I noted that a tangle of downed trees lay between the turkey and me, making it unlikely that he would ascend my way.

I quickly decided to make a move, ran back up the mountain, and then made a long loop to my left, eventually setting up about 15 yards off a logging road that I guessed the tom was walking to and fro on. Settled, I emitted a few cautious yelps and was pleased to hear two toms sound off, one about 75 yards to my left and the other a similar distance to my right.

It was then that I realized that all I had to do was resist the urge to call too much, sit tight, and wait for one of the birds to come around the respective bends between them and me. Because when either one of them did, both toms would be within 30 yards. A kill was a sure thing -- or so I thought.

For it was at that moment that I heard the roar of an ATV and soon saw the landowner approaching my position. The gentleman had thought I was afield on another part of his property and felt quite badly that he had spooked not one, but two gobblers. But I was heartsick because for the umpteenth time in my turkey-hunting career, a sure thing had not been so sure after all.

After the landowner had sincerely and profusely apologized, I reasoned that the twin toms wouldn't stay alarmed forever and that I merely needed to reposition myself. I then moved about 75 yards to the edge of a second and lower road that borders a wood lot and a field.

Sure enough, my logic was sound. About 90 minutes later, in came three turkeys, one of them a nice gobbler that could have been the bird to my right that had been alarmed earlier. However, although my logic had been sound, my choice of a setup was not so wise. Because for the next 45 minutes, the gobbler continued to strut back and forth in front of me, never coming closer than 55 yards -- well out of range for my 12 gauge. Eventually, the trio strolled away.

Three hours later after haplessly and hopelessly trying to call the threesome back and failing to elicit a response at any other setups on the farm, the 1 p.m. closing time came and I sullenly drove home. Unfortunately, many West Virginia turkey chasers drove home in a melancholy mood last spring.

That's because the 2007 harvest of 9,976 turkeys declined from the 2006 tally of 11,735, making the former figure 15 percent lower. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) had predicted a downturn well before the season began because of poor wild turkey brood production in 2005.

Veteran Mountain State sportsmen know that a major factor whether a season will be a good one or not concerns the status of the hatch from two years previously. Two-year-old toms are often the males that gobble the most and are most likely to venture into calls. When their numbers are low, hunters are left to deal with 3-year-olds (which often are notoriously hard to lure in) and jakes from the previous year's hatch (which are notoriously unpredictable).

The good news for this season is that Curtis Taylor, chief of wildlife resources section for the DNR, reports that the 2006 hatch has been rated as good. That could well mean more toms available to sound off this coming spring. Also, on a positive note, the early indicators are that the 2007 hatch may have been a good one, although at press time it was too early to definitely know for sure.

This spring, the special one-day youth season will be held on Saturday, April 26. The statewide season will run from April 28 through May 24. As always, shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m., and the bag limit is one bearded bird per day and two per season. With all that in mind, let's take a district-by-district overview of the state.

District I includes the Northern Panhandle and much of the state's northern reaches. As was true for 47 of the state's 55 counties, the domains of District I likewise experienced a harvest drop, as the number of birds taken declined from 2,430 in 2006 to 2,142 in 2007. As is the norm, Preston County led the region with a harvest of 400, but even this turkey-rich county saw its tally decline.

Nevertheless, District I should be a very good destination in 2008, and as I pen this, I am strongly considering making a 5 1/2-hour drive to hunt there this spring. The reason for both statements is that the district as a whole sports marvelous turkey habitat with its mixed wood lots, farms and Ohio River tributaries. And despite the recent harvest decline, the tallies from 2003 through 2005 have been quite respectable with totals of 2,850, 2,384 and 2,303, respectively, for this district.

Other counties that should be excellent destinations this spring (with 2006 and 2007 harvest figures in parentheses) include Barbour (176 and 176), Harrison (254 and 237), Marion, which was one of the few counties to experience an increase (190 and 201), Marshall (306 and 279), Monongalia (310 and 260) and Wetzel, which also recorded an uptick (200 and 204).

Also, please note that although the harvests in these counties may be well below those of other state areas, that is often primarily due to the size of this district's counties. District I contains some of the smallest counties in West Virginia, so the lower harvests are often a reflection of nothing more than fewer square miles of wildlife habitat -- not a lack of quality turkey hunting.

District II, which contains the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties, endured a substantial drop from 1,121 in 2006 to 920 in 2007. Part of this decline is because of the suburbanization of counties such as Jefferson, but most of the drop is because of the poor 2005 hatch. The district harvests from 2003 through 2005 were 992, 940 and 854, respectively.

Hampshire and Hardy counties often jockey back and forth for the top spot in District II and the past two years have seen a continuation of that contest. Hampshire holds the current upper hand with a total of 163, althou

gh that figure was a considerable drop from the 2006 harvest of 220. Hardy recorded a mark of 157, a major slippage from the 2006 kill of 226.

Other counties of note include Grant (130 and 144), Mineral (135 and 115), Morgan (116 and 86) and Pendleton (136 and 141). The latter county may be a particularly intriguing destination this spring because of its mountain farms and national forest land. I have gained permission to hunt two farms in Pendleton County and am eager to try them out.

District III encompasses many of the central mountain counties and contains some of the most rugged, high mountain ranges in the Southeast. Continuing the trend across the Mountain State, the district saw its turkey harvest decline from 1,518 in 2006 to 1,326 last spring. The harvest figures from 2003 through 2005 have been 1,685, 1,330 and 1,254, respectively.

Lewis County, as has been the case for the past five years, led the district with 240 birds checked in, down a little from the 2006 mark of 258. Quite simply, Lewis is one of the most turkey-rich counties I have ever been afield in with its rolling hills, checkerboard pattern of wood lots, fields, farms and small streams. Lewis is well worth a visit by any District III sportsman, and given its location in central West Virginia, any state hunter for that matter.

Other counties of note include Braxton (282 and 210), Nicholas (226 and 187) and Upshur (258 and 216). Two counties, Pocahontas and Randolph, stand out in a disappointing sense. Both are extremely large counties and contain massive chunks of public land in the form of the Monongahela National Forest. Yet, both areas recorded poor harvests based on their large sizes, with Pocahontas declining from 128 to 126 and Randolph showing a slight increase from 176 to 180. As the truism states, size matters and for sheer acreage, those harvests are uninspiring.

District IV hosts much of southern West Virginia, as well as counties in the southeastern reaches. Throughout this decade, a constant theme in this region has been that no one county has held sway as the dominant place to go. That's good news for residents of this region because it means that many domains offer consistent high-quality hunting. The harvest experienced a drop from 2006 to 2007 with marks of 2,134 and 1,906, respectively. From 2003 through 2005, the harvests were 2,050, 1,966 and 2,215.

Summers County led the way in 2007 with a mark of 289, just a pair of birds above the 2006 total. Summers County features a number of mountain cattle concerns, as well as farming operations in the coves below. This is definitely a county where District IV residents should try to gain permission to hunt on private land.

But other counties offer just as much potential for the coming season. These include Fayette (261 and 232), Greenbrier (298 and 265), McDowell (270 and 214), Mercer (311 and 269), Monroe (200 and 170), Raleigh (264 and 272) and Wyoming (243 and 195). Indeed, every county in this region should be a good destination this spring.

For this spring, I plan to hunt often on my land in Monroe as well as in the surrounding national forest. And I have made plans to go afield on the Greenbrier County tract mentioned earlier as well, and I have arranged for a weekend to be spent hunting in Mercer and McDowell counties, the latter because it offers Sunday hunting. As the 2006 hatch has improved over the hatch of 2005, look for this to be a good year in District IV.

District V includes counties in the southern coalfields as well as domains in the southwestern part of the state. In 2007, the harvest experienced a considerable decline with a mark of 1,630 as compared with the 2006 figure of 2,006. The harvests between 2003 and 2005 have been 2,036, 1,847 and 1,992, respectively.

Mason County has been by far the premier destination throughout this decade, not only in District V but also in the entire state. In fact, I would emphasize that this county is one of the top turkey destinations in the Southeast. In 2007, Mason recorded a tally of 403 turkeys taken, which was down from the 2006 total of 493. Yet, Mason still led the state, well ahead of Jackson (361), Wood (337), Preston (330) and Summers (289).

Mason County sports numerous bottomland farms with tributaries of the Ohio River drainage intermixed with cattle concerns and wood lots. This is classic wild turkey habitat and the harvests reflect that. With all of the food and ideal habitat available, Mason County's turkeys often do well even during harsh winters and poor hard mast years. Cold winters and lack of food often are the reasons that highland West Virginia counties experience a drop in turkey numbers, especially when poor hatches also occur.

Although Mason stands well above the rest of the district, other domains are worth recognition, too. These counties include Kanawha (263 and 249), Lincoln (223 and 175), Putnam (246 and 178) and Wayne (207 and 165). Boone is an interesting District V county for 2008. The harvests were not large the past two years (159 and 150), but this county does not have a large human population and hunting is often difficult in the rugged mountains. Yet, that same isolated nature means that the birds there often don't receive a great deal of hunting pressure. If an individual is willing to take on these steep, forbidding mountains, he or she may experience some outstanding sport.

District VI consists of the Mountain State's western reaches, as well as areas in the north-central part of the state. The harvest dropped from 2,526 in 2006 to 2,052 in 2007, again reflecting the disappointing 2005 hatch. From 2003 through 2005, the tallies have been 2,922, then 2,106 and 2,339, respectively.

Last year, Jackson County led the district with a figure of 361 turkeys bagged. Indeed, Jackson was one of the few counties to experience an increase from the 2006 total of 353. Jackson features quite a bit of rolling hills style habitat with farms in the coves and wood lots and cattle operations on the hillsides. Springs dot the hillsides and creeks flow through the valleys, both increasing the habitat variety and turkey potential.

Although Jackson led the district last year, Wood County has also spent time at the top of the leader board, as the latter paced the field in 2006 with 409 turkeys being harvested before dropping to 337 birds in 2007. Wood County's habitat is a mirror image of that of Jackson's, and both areas should be excellent destinations this spring. I have not hunted Jackson County for several years and need to try to go there this spring -- fellow hunters should consider doing the same for both Jackson and Wood.

These two counties are not the only ones that should be productive this spring. Worth checking out are Calhoun (193 and 147), Gilmer (195 and 151), Ritchie (317 and 245), Roane (293 and 269), Tyler (198 and 153) and Wirt (272 and 216).

All of these counties had high harvests late in the 1990s and early 2000s, as West Virginia was in the midst of a turkey boom. But all these areas experienced a series of poor hatches in the early part of this decade, something that was true not only

in all of West Virginia but also in neighboring states, such as Virginia and Kentucky. With favorable weather in late May and early June, these counties will see their turkey populations rebound.

It's true that West Virginia's turkey hunters have had to work harder to locate turkeys in both the spring and fall seasons over the past few years. The reason why has been poor reproduction -- pure and simple. In my travels, I often hear all kinds of reasons for the downturn, from coyotes to raptors to even those few individuals who blame the DNR for their turkey-hunting woes.

The truth is that coyotes mostly eat groundhogs, mice and rabbits, and raptors are no threats to full-grown turkeys. And the DNR has been doing an outstanding job managing our wildlife. Again, with a few good hatches, West Virginia's turkey numbers will quickly rebound. When that happens, you need to be in your favorite hunting hotspot! I know I will be.

Find more about West Virginiafishing and hunting at:WVgameandfish.com

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