West Virginia 2009 Spring Turkey Forecast

West Virginia 2009 Spring Turkey Forecast

Here's a close-up look at how things are shaping up throughout our state for turkey hunters this spring. Is it expected to be another good season? Read on! (March 2009)

The author with a Greenbrier County gobbler taken last May. Greenbrier was the top county in District IV last year. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

In the February issue of this magazine, I covered recent spring gobbler trends and led with an anecdote of calling in two Monroe County gobblers last May, and shooting the first one that arrived. So with one tag still remaining, I did what many other hunters would likely have done -- returned to that same farm the following Saturday to pursue the tom that had come tardy.

I liked my chances for several reasons: Four days had elapsed, so the tom possibly would have recovered from the "unfortunate" event that had occurred to his running mate, the hens would be incubating, and no one else had hunted the farm. When I departed from my car that Saturday morning, the longbeard was already gobbling in the dark.

I ran across the field to the wood lot where the old boy was roosted and quickly set up in the same area where I had on the previous hunt. Laying down a few yelps, I confidently waited for the proverbial déjà vu to happen. After all, why shouldn't it? I was on the same level as the tom, the field where he strutted was 15 yards away, and I already knew he liked that area.

And 20 minutes after fly down and a period of silence, I heard him again. Cautiously, I gradually turned my head and saw him 50 yards up the mountain and in full strut. My body was facing the wrong way, so when he slowly strutted behind a tree, I quickly pivoted to the side of the tree where I now faced him.

My chancy move successfully accomplished, I stared up the mountainside to observe the tom staring back. The gobbler wanted to see the source of those earlier clucks and yelps. I decided to remain silent, and the tom went back into strut, but he began strolling up the mountain away from me. Chancing a few clucks, I was encouraged to see the longbeard turn around and begin heading down the mountain toward me.

But once again, his pace slowed, but he had come within 35 yards. So, pressing my cheek tight to the stock of my 12 gauge, I fired -- and missed. The last time I saw the tom he was ambling up the mountain.

It's never easy to admit in print that I have missed a very makeable shot at a big-game animal. I even went back to the farm the following Tuesday in an attempt to redeem myself, but this time I did not hear him at all. And why should he gobble after two near-death experiences on that little postage stamp of Monroe County?

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that hunters killed 9,895 toms during the 2008 season, just 1 percent fewer than the 2007 harvest of 9,965 turkeys taken in 2007. The top 10 counties (with harvests in parentheses) were Mason (396), Preston (371), Jackson (319), Wood (316), Harrison (291), Greenbrier (290), Upshur (286), Fayette (279), Summers (259) and Mercer (254). Of the state's 55 counties, 35 endured lower harvests, although in many cases the kill was just down by a few birds.

Around the state, three districts enjoyed higher harvests: District I, northern region (2,150 to 2,184); District V, northwestern region (1,624 to 1,705); and District III, central region (1,331 to 1,372). Three districts endured lower tallies: District II, Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties (921 to 822); District IV, southern (1,911 to 1,868); and District VI, north-central (2,028 to 1,944).

"The turkey harvest was down just slightly in 2008," DNR biologist Larry Berry said. "It was obvious that in some counties, turkey numbers were down. The lack of birds may or may not have been because of decreased brood production, but brood numbers being down is likely the cause for a lower harvest in some counties."

Turkey reproduction is often the major factor in turkey hunting success. In the case of the 2008 season, brood numbers had been better than average in 2006. And it is often brood reproduction from two years before a season that determines the number of most aggressive gobblers, as 2-year-old toms are often the ones that constitute most of the huntable males. They are also the ones that typically gobble the most. (Continued)

However, poor weather hit much of the state during the first week of the season, decreasing hunter turnout, the DNR said. And gasoline prices may have caused some individuals to travel less. I know that I did not drive as far last year, foregoing, for example, a usual visit to the Monongahela National Forest, which is 90 miles from home.

"Weather is a major factor in turkey nesting success and also in hunter success rates," confirmed Berry. "And, yes, gas prices may well have caused some hunters not to travel to places they usually hunt."

The encouraging news for the 2009 season is that brood production was good in much of the state in 2007. Berry related that hunters can't do anything about the weather to assist turkey reproduction, but they can work with landowners or make improvements on their own properties in order to improve brood range.

"The quality of brood range is very important," Berry emphasized. "Vegetation needs to be thick enough so that insects can thrive, but not so thick that poults can't move around. Some open areas where birds can create dusting spots are important so that the turkeys can preen. Openings are needed for habitat variety, and some thick nesting habitat like clearcuts are needed nearby, too."

The Northern Panhandle and surrounding counties remain some of the top places in West Virginia to turkey hunt. This will likely be true this spring as well, and in the years to come. The harvest tallies from 2004 through 2006 show the consistent excellence that characterizes the region: 2,384, 2,303 and 2,430, respectively.

Preston not only was second in the state last year, but the county also has topped District I the past five years with harvest totals of 348, 375, 400, 330 and 371 from 2004 through 2008, respectively. And it's no wonder that Preston marches at the head of the parade, as the county's superb mix of fields, cattle concerns, agricultural areas, wood lots and streams add up to marvelous turkey habitat.

But don't forget that a number of other counties are worth hunting, too. These are areas oft overlooked because their diminutive sizes rarely land them on the top 10 lists for overall harvests. For example, this decade I have killed several turkeys in smallish Marshall County, and last year, the area accounted for a very respectable 218 toms.

Harrison County made the top 10 list at position five, but other counties of note include: Wetzel (250), Monongalia (248), Barbour (225), and Marion (178). Northern West Virginia may lie beyond the well-traveled roads of many West Virginians, but goodness gracious, this is one fantastic region to turkey hunt.

The Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties typically rank last among the six districts as far as the turkey harvest. But this region likewise contains a number of smaller counties, and one of them, Jefferson, has seen considerable development this decade as the ever-expanding Washington, D.C., suburbs have to some degree reached this county. The county's harvests from 2004 through 2006 have been 940, 854 and 1,121, respectively.

District II counties infrequently break the top 10 threshold; nevertheless, some of them stand out. For example, Hampshire and Hardy counties boast some tremendous turkey habitat with the former sporting harvests of 200, 192, 220, 163 and 174 and the later totaling tallies of 217, 127, 226, 156, and 145 from 2004 through 2008, respectively.

I have turkey hunted in both counties and relish the fantastic habitat in the form of Potomac Watershed bottomlands, agricultural areas and forested mountains. The George Washington National Forest reaches into both Hampshire and Hardy, adding to their appeal as hunting destinations.

Last March, I obtained permission to hunt a farm in Pendleton County and am still aggravated that I did not take advantage of the landowner's gracious granting of access. Counties such as Pendleton (101), Grant (114) and Mineral (105) are well worth the effort for sportsmen to attempt to gain access.

As noted earlier, the central counties showed an uptick in the turkey harvest from 2007 to 2008 and from 2004 through 2006, accounted for harvests of 1,330, 1,254 and 1,518, respectively. Upshur ranked seventh in the state last year. This county has been a consistent producer in recent years with harvests of 225, 206, 258 and 212 from 2004 through 2007, respectively.

Upshur has the standard mix of farms and agricultural lands, and even a quality public land, the Stonecoal Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which the county shares with Lewis. However, Lewis is the county most associated with turkey hunting in District III, as it contains a superlative public land in the form of the Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA.

Lewis just missed making the top 10 listing last year with 243 birds being checked in. During 2004 through 2007, the harvests were 279, 268, 258 and 245, respectively. These are fairly consistent harvests, especially when you understand that poult production, as Larry Berry noted, has been consistently disappointing around the Mountain State.

The aspect that I like best about turkey hunting in Lewis County, and I have done so in both the spring and fall on both private land and the Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA, is the array of habitat choices. One can go afield in hardwood creek bottoms, agricultural areas with mixed wood lots, cattle farms, or rolling hill country. It's no wonder that Lewis is a consistent producer of birds.

Other District III counties with noteworthy harvests last year -- and solid prospects for this season -- include: Braxton (199), Nicholas (210) and Randolph (162). Randolph features a noteworthy public land in the forms of the Kumbrabow State Forest.

Although District IV experienced a harvest decline in 2008, I want to emphasize that southern West Virginia still harbors solid numbers of turkeys. This needs to be said even when considering the tallies have dropped from 2004 through 2006 with totals of 1,966, 2,215 and 2,134, respectively.

As an example of the quality turkey hunting, please note that five counties of this district recorded harvests of 250 or more toms in 2008. Four of them (Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Mercer) made the top 10 ranking, while the fifth, McDowell, just missed being among this elite assemblage with 250.

Region leader Greenbrier has accomplished a series of solid harvests with tallies of 239, 276, 298 and 264 from 2004 through 2007, respectively. The Greenbrier River Watershed bottomlands remain outstanding places to hunt, and productive hunting exists in the Monongahela National Forest and Greenbrier State Forest. Last year, I hunted one time in Greenbrier County and tagged one longbeard -- so I certainly can't complain about my visit there last May.

Adding to the district's appeal is that truly all of the counties should feature areas of quality hunting this April and May. The three other counties in District IV all had satisfactory harvests: Monroe (141), Raleigh (211) and Wyoming (184). One of those 141 Monroe birds was a tom that I killed and wrote about in the February issue of this magazine. Even though Monroe brings up the rear in the District IV harvest parade, I encountered good numbers of birds there last spring.

District V recorded the largest increase in turkeys tagged from 2007 to 2008 with an uptick of 81. As noted earlier, Mason led the entire state last year, and from 2004 through 2007, the tallies have been 400, 451, 493 and 407, respectively. Mason's luster is further enhanced when we consider that this is not a large county by West Virginia standards. In some places in this agricultural region, the turkeys seem to be so numerous that they have been shoehorned into the entirety of available habitat.

Mason tends to overshadow many of the counties in this region, and that phenomenon is understandable when we consider that the domain has averaged over 400 birds checked in over the past half decade. But we should also understand that fine sport takes place in other counties, too. For instance, Kanawha should be an attractive destination this spring as the tallies have been 260, 297, 263, 254 and 244 from 2004 though 2008, respectively. The Kanawha State Forest adds to this county's appeal.

The third place finisher in the region, Putnam, saw its harvest leap from 178 to 232. So, it could be a real sleeper destination this spring. Generally, the harvests have been trending upward with tallies of 211, 233 and 246 from 2004 through 2006, respectively. Other counties of note include Cabell (139), Lincoln (190) and Logan (158).

Earlier this decade, before West Virginia began to suffer from poor poult production, District VI boasted some stupendous harvests with tallies of 2,106, 2,339 and 2,526 from 2004 through 2006, respectively. Think of it -- harvests were increasing nearly 200 birds per year at that time!

Although the totals have declined over the past two years, sportsmen should not hesitate to come to this region in 2009. Jackson County was the third place finisher in the state last year. This county led the region, but only surpassed by three toms the county's second place finisher (and fourth in the state) Wood.

Indeed, the past five years, these two areas have performed exceptionally. From 2004 through 2007, Jackson recorded kills of 250,

333, 353 and 332, respectively, while Wood accounted for harvests of 229, 284, 409 and 337, respectively. Readers should consider visiting these counties right now and attempt to gain access to private land farms.

Roane County finished third in the region and by a considerable number as well, with a total of 231. But this largely rural county has enjoyed consistently good harvests from 2004 through 2007 with tallies of 294, 297, 293 and 268, respectively. Roane is my choice for the sleeper county of District VI.

In addition to Roane, there are a whole host of other counties in this region that deserve consideration. Ritchie is the most prominent with a tally of 208, following totals of 291, 341, 317 and 244, respectively. Obviously, those totals indicate a steep downward trend in the turkey harvest, but those declining harvests are more a result of poor reproduction instead of a lack of available habitat. Don't discount this domain in 2009.

Sportsmen in the north-central part of the state should also ponder visiting Calhoun (141), Doddridge (144), Gilmer (139), Tyler (175) and Wirt (186). All of these counties have solid credentials and should offer satisfying sport this spring.

This year, West Virginia's spring gobbler season kicks off with the youth hunt on April 25 with the regular season running from April 27 through May 23. As usual, the daily limit is one bearded bird and the season limit is two. I'll be somewhere in Monroe County on opening morning -- so I hope to see you at a check station. For more information on Mountain State turkeys, consult the DNR's Web site at www.wvdnr. gov.

Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com

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