West Virginia's '˜Sleeper' Turkey Counties

West Virginia's '˜Sleeper' Turkey Counties

Some counties don't receive the hunting pressure they deserve! Find out where these areas are. One or more may be near where you live. (April 2007)

Photo by John Ford

Over the past 30 years, turkey populations have dramatically changed here in the Mountain State. It was not all that long ago when the southern counties south of Interstate 64 contained but a few turkeys. Looking at the spring gobbler harvest data from 1976 is pretty revealing as to how far we have come. In the spring of '76, there were four gobblers checked in McDowell Country versus 276 birds checked in for the 2006 season. Fayette County tallied two birds versus 267 birds in 2006. Moving just slightly north, Mason County had one bird checked in '76 versus 495 in 2006, which incidentally led the state in spring gobbler harvest.

At that time, the Northern Panhandle counties were just starting to get their initial transplants of wild birds through a trap-and-transfer program. In 1977, I was working and living in Roane County and that spring there were two birds checked in for the entire county. In 2006, there were 294 birds checked in. The bottom line is that finding an area where there are turkeys in the Mountain State is no longer the problem; the problem now is finding an area to hunt where you will encounter a minimal amount of interference from other sportsmen.

It used to be that most of your die- hard spring gobbler hunters would head for the mountain or Eastern Panhandle counties to pursue longbeards. Most of the older turkey hunters remember how it used to be a matter of being able to find a few turkeys. That has changed over the past 30 years to looking for places that have low numbers of hunters.

These days, chances are good you can roll out your front door just about anywhere in the state and find decent numbers of turkeys to hunt. Nonetheless, there are now places in the state that would be fitting of the "sleeper" classification. Those would be areas that have an excellent kill per square mile of area but due to their size probably will not jump off the page at you. Another type of area that I would qualify with this designation would be counties whose turkey population has declined somewhat, as have many of the counties for the past seasons. Despite these declines, these counties may still have good to excellent gobbler kill densities per square mile of area.

Recently retired turkey biologist, Jim Pack's base line criteria for good gobbler densities is one gobbler killed per square mile of area. That base line criterion is still a good starting point, although with the downward shift in populations due to poor brood survival over the last several seasons, now I would probably drop back to .7 to .9 gobblers killed per square mile of area. In addition, I would look for areas that had excellent harvests four or five years ago, but are starting to rebound rather well from their downward population spiral.

A number of counties out of each district within the state could possibly meet the criteria for "sleeper" counties. Most of the Northern Panhandle counties could all be potential candidates, as they are small in total acreages but still have had decent to excellent harvests even recently. Brooke (1.31 gobblers killed per square mile of area), Hancock (1.56), Marshall (.97) and Ohio (1.26) would all fit the base line criteria. In addition, all four counties have experienced a mild rebound in turkey numbers over the past season.

A couple of other counties that merit consideration are Wirt and Jackson counties in District 6. Wirt is a relatively small county of just 234 square miles. Like a number of other counties in this district, it is starting to rebound rather nicely from its lower-than-normal harvests of recent spring seasons.

Wirt produced a harvest of 271 birds in 2006, which works out to 1.16 toms killed per square mile of area. Jackson is a county that in the late '90s and first couple years of the new millennium put up some rather impressive harvests, only to nosedive to 250 birds taken in 2004. However, since then, it has climbed back to 353 gobblers harvested in 2006, which gives it a respectable .84 gobblers killed per square mile of area.

Based on what I have heard from several friends over the past six months, both of these counties would merit serious consideration as places to head for in 2007, especially after the initial madness of the first three or four days of the new season drops off. Both of these counties are easy to get to and have decent accommodations from a standpoint of motels and restaurants (in Parkersburg and Ripley).

There are two wildlife management areas (WMAs) that produce decent turkey hunting. Frozen Camp WMA is 1,667 acres and is approximately eight miles east of Ripley, just south of state Route (SR) 33 east. Woodrum WMA is 1,700 acres and is situated just off Interstate 77 at the Kenna exit. You can access it by heading east on county Route (CR) 19 toward Kentuck. The wildlife management area surrounds the lake and can be accessed off CR 42 north and CR 19-9 south coming out of the village of Fletcher.

Another county that does not immediately jump out at you but has been a steady producer of good turkey hunting over the past five years is Roane County. As mentioned earlier, I was living in Roane County years ago when the turkey population was just beginning to expand. Even with the slight downturn the past couple of seasons, the hunting is still very good and ultra consistent.

Given that much of the state has had to deal with cooler and wetter early summer brood weather over the past several seasons, it does not seem like this county has experienced the dramatic brood losses that a number of counties across the state were hit with. Over the past five seasons, the harvests in Roane County have been 298 in 2002, 326 in '03, 294 in '04, 297 in '05 and 294 in '06.

If there is a major drawback to this county, it is that it is not readily accessible. There is not really any easy way to Roane County other than via U.S. Route 33/119 north, and SR 14 south. All three roads are two-lane highways that meander like the proverbial lazy snake! However, you can also look at this from the standpoint that this keeps the hunting pressure to a minimum.

There are two public hunting areas in the county with the Wallback WMA (9,872 acres) being the largest. Wallback is located in the southeastern corner of the county and is broken up into four tracts all of which can be accessed off Interstate 79 at the Amma, Newton or Wallback exits. The spring gobbler kill on this WMA has been low the last two seasons. I suspect that this is mostly due to minimal amounts of hunting pressure.

One county that I always enjoy turkey hunting in is Lewis. Although the spring gobbler kill has dropped off fairly dramatically over the past four years

, this is a county (given the habitat it has), when it does rebound, will probably increase rather substantially. Even with several years of poor brood success, the kill per square mile in Lewis is .65 for 2006.

The county is easily accessed via Interstate 79 and U.S. Route 33. There are restaurants, lodging and other amenities readily available at Weston, Buckhannon and Burnsville. In addition, there are two excellent public-hunting areas in the Stonecoal (3,000 acres) and Stonewall Jackson Lake (18,289 acres) wildlife management areas. The spring gobbler hunting at both of these WMAs is good to excellent.

If you are looking for somewhere to combine a little gobbler hunting with some afternoon bass or crappie fishing and a round of golf, Stonewall Jackson WMA is a great choice. One pretty effective way to hunt both of these areas is by using a boat to get you into one of the numerous coves that splinter off the primary course of both of these impoundments.

I know of several friends who, when they are done hunting for the morning, will fish their way back to the campground or marina. Another way to hunt both of these areas is by use of a mountain bike. There are old logging roads that circumvent much of the area that surrounds both of these lakes. Any healthy gobbler hunter can get himself/herself back into the more remote areas of both public-hunting areas.

Another county that has had good to super hunting for many years, but does not get much publicity, is Summers. This is a county that had a kill of 387 in 2004, which works out to 1.05 gobblers killed per square mile but dropped back off to 289 birds (.78 gobblers per square mile) in 2005. This is a county that has had stellar turkey hunting going clear back into the mid- to late '80s.

This county offers some rugged areas to hunt. For those hunters who are willing to put in a little time in their scouting efforts, the gobbler hunting can be just this side of extraordinary. Summers County also is home to the Bluestone WMA, which contains a whopping 17,632 acres of prime turkey habitat.

Much like Stonewall Jackson, which is described above, Bluestone WMA surrounds the lake of the same name and the fishing for five different species of bass (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, white and striped) is phenomenal to say the least. Bluestone has a lodge and several public campgrounds at Bull Falls, Indian Creek, Shanklins Ferry and others.

It is somewhat of a tossup in trying to pick my last candidate for inclusion as a "sleeper" county. Finally, I decided to go with Putnam, as it meets my criteria of having the minimum necessary kill per square mile, .7, plus it has produced fairly consistent results for the past five years. Putnam bottomed out at 211 birds checked in 2004 and climbed back to 233 in '05 and to 246 for this past spring season. This is a county that could very easily produce 275 to 300 birds for the upcoming spring season, especially if the hatch had a little luck with some drier early summer weather last year.

As you can see from the harvest data, I included two counties: Roane and Lewis whose kill per square mile figures were slightly below my base line criteria of .7 gobblers killed per square mile of total land area. If you were to back out the total area in fields and urban areas for both counties and just use the total forestland area for both of these counties, both would handily surpass the minimum criteria.

Lewis County has a total forest land area of 211 square miles. Using last year's spring harvest of 258 gobblers, this would push the kill to 1.22 gobblers per square mile of forestland area. Roane County has a forestland area of 311 square miles, and using last year's spring harvest of 294, the gobblers killed per square mile of forestland area would be .95

There were a number of other counties that could have been given the "sleeper" designation. A few of these meriting consideration include Taylor, Mineral, Upshur, McDowell, Calhoun, Gilmer and Monongalia counties. All of these counties have been showing an upward trend in harvest over the past season or so. However, a good many of these possibilities have weathered a poorer than normal season in 2004.

What you really have to consider, when looking at any of these possibilities, is whether you plan to try to hunt one of these areas during the week or on the weekend. Most folks striking off to try a new area will usually try to make a two- or three-day trip out of it. If you only go for a day and the weather turns sour for you, then you are out of luck.

Most of the folks who I know that get a case of gobbler "wanderlust" usually try to incorporate a little fishing, camping, canoeing, golf or mushroom hunting into this type of adventure.

Here is where places like Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal and Bluestone really shine. I have a close friend who goes somewhere different in West Virginia to hunt each season -- places that he has never visited before. He uses the "dart board" method of selection. He pins a West Virginia state highway map up on a wall and he and his two hunting partners each throw a dart at the map. Whichever area has the two closest darts to it is how they arrive at their tentative destination! Overall, he would rate their efforts at about a seven out of 10 with a 10 being a great trip. This is definitely just a little off the wall, but it has worked well for them.

No matter how you approach trying a new spot or two, one thing is for certain, all of the above "sleeper" counties have the potential to provide for super spring gobbler hunting regardless of the method you use to select one!

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