Our State's National Forest Turkeys: Part 2
September 29, 2010
Now's the time to go high (in the mountains) and deep (in the woods) for West Virginia gobblers, especially on the expansive public lands of the Monongahela National Forest.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The drive up state Route (SR) 92 in Greenbrier County was as it always is, a pleasant sojourn in beautiful rural southern West Virginia. Twenty minutes before sunset I pulled off the main highway, parked and went walking through the Neola Wildlife Management Area (WMA) of the Monongahela National Forest. Coming to a hollow below a pine-covered mountainside, I pulled out a box call and cutted loudly three times. About 100 yards above me in the pines, a gobble rang out.
I then walked back to my vehicle where I found my hunting partner for the next day, Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) from the Charleston office. Ryan apologized for being late because of traffic and the long drive from the state capitol. He then bemoaned the fact that he hadn't been able to scout the Neola or the nearby Rimel WMA in order to find a gobbler or two to pursue. I responded that we were all set in that area.
The following morning, Ryan and I climbed up the steep mountainside on the opposite side of where the gobbler was roosted and then skulked down a logging road to where we were about 75 yards from the roosted bird. Setting up in the far end of the same pine grove where the tom was perched and just off the logging road, I was very confident of our chances.
Just before dawn, the wildlife biologist emitted some soft tree yelps and I followed with some sleepy clucks. Our tom responded enthusiastically, but so did several hens. Fifteen minutes later, we heard the assemblage fly down, and the tom began to gobble nonstop. Some 45 minutes later, he was still at it, but the hens were just as vocal, as the old boy seemed rooted in the logging road just 60 yards from our position.
While the racket was going on, Chris and I heard footsteps in the leaves -- a turkey was on its way, not along the logging road, but through the thicket. To our surprise, a hen appeared and continued walking toward us. When the bird was about 10 yards from us, she started putting and then flew into a tree.
Suddenly, all members of the choir ceased their racket and for 20 minutes we heard nothing. A half-hour later, we decided to inch our way through the forest to where the birds were, but all we found was a lonesome hen standing in the tote road. The old monarch and his harem had departed for parts unknown to us.
The 97,928-acre Neola WMA in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties is one of my favorite destinations for spring gobblers in the Mountain State. Ryan said that this public land, and the Monongahela National Forest as a whole, is an outstanding destination. In fact, many readers of this magazine might be surprised about how little hunting pressure the Monongahela actually receives.
"The Monongahela National Forest does not receive nearly as much hunting pressure during the spring gobbler season as it used to," Ryan said. "The turkey population is now abundant around the state (even though slightly down because of a couple of bad brood years). This makes individuals more likely to hunt around their own house instead of having to travel to the mountains like they used to."
Ryan is especially familiar with the Neola WMA; the biologist even lived in a DNR cabin on this public land when he was working on a grouse research project. His knowledge of the steep terrain that is typical of the WMA was on display after our initial gobbler departed. For example, Ryan and I first walked to a ridge that overlooked a hardwood grove. There we cast calls to a hollow below. Hearing a tom respond, we moved into a pine thicket adjacent to the hollow, but we could not convince the longbeard to move off his strutting ground.
Later, we used two logging roads to access different parts of the WMA, but by then, the prime gobbling hours of morning were over, and the late-morning period was unseasonably warm. Our last attempt to locate a bird was spent by ambling along a creek bottom looking for turkey sign.
The procedure that Chris initiated goes well when hunting the Neola or any of the WMAs that constitute the Monongahela. First, as was true for our first gobbler of the morning, look for the birds to be roosted in the Virginia or pitch pine groves that blanket many mountainsides, especially those that lie adjacent to oak-hickory or oak-pine groves. Second, expect to do some serious climbing before you set up on a roosted bird (as was the case that morning) or after you hear one sound off.
Third, if you fail to call in your first bird of the morning, walk the Monongahela's logging roads and ridgetops while sending calls into the hollows below. That was how we located our second longbeard of the morning. And, last, if all else fails, move along a WMA's creeks and their tributaries and attempt to locate feeding birds. On the Neola, that typically means hunters should trek along the North Fork of Anthony Creek, Meadow Creek, Laurel Run and their tributaries.
About 10 days later, I took a half-day of vacation time from the school where I teach and drove to the Rimel WMA (67,251 acres) in Pocahontas County, once again using SR 92 to access the Monongahela. (The Rimel also can be accessed via SRs 39, 28 and 84; the same routes will take you to the Neola as well.) Several years ago, the WMA manager for the Rimel, Cully McCurdy, had spent two days showing me around a 500-acre tract of this public land. Since then, I have made regular visits back to this one specific area and each time have worked mature gobblers.
The advice that Cully gave me on how to hunt the Rimel holds true on the national forest as a whole. That is, that sportsmen shouldn't let the massive size of these national forest units intimidate them. Don't try to learn multiple parcels of a WMA; instead get to know well just one small segment of the public land and claim it as your own.
For instance, "my" 500-acre tract of the Rimel features two parallel ridges with a sizable creek flowing between them. The eastern ridge features four finger ridges, and each of them has a small cove. During the pre-dawn period, I always walk in on the western ridge, as I have learned that gobblers infrequently roost there. When I hear birds on the eastern ridge, which has always been the case, I then dash down the mountainside, run quickly along the creek, then move up the eastern ridge until I surmise that I am about 100 yards from the gobbling turkey.
At dawn, I then decide whether to move closer along the main ridge after the birds fly down, sneak onto one of the finger ridges or wait where I am. For instance, last May while on the west ridge, I heard a gobbler on the fourth of the fou
r eastern finger ridges. I had worked a tom on that same point the previous spring, and I guessed the tom (perhaps even the same one) would use the saddles on that finger to access the coves on either side.
After scudding down the western ridge and up its eastern counterpart, I ran along the ridge until I came to the fourth finger. By then, I could tell that the gobbler was only about 150 yards away. So I walked quickly but quietly down the fourth finger ridge until I came to a saddle. I then began to call and soon glimpsed a turkey marching toward me. Unfortunately, the bird was a hen, which moved to within only a few yards of me before putting and flying away.
Over the next two hours, I made numerous moves on the still gobbling tom and tried a variety of setups, but the old boy would simply not commit. Instead, he continually made wide circles around my various positions, gobbling constantly but never coming to within shooting range. I finally had to leave the still gobbling bird and head for school. Interestingly, I lost a three-hour-plus duel to an ever-circling gobbler two years ago on that same finger ridge; perhaps the male from this past spring was indeed the same bird.
Sportsmen have two camping facilities to choose from on Rimel: Pocahontas and Bird Run. They also may find accommodations at the Seneca State Forest and Watoga State Park. I have spent a number of pleasant nights at Watoga. This state park also offers cabin rental. For the Neola WMA, camping is available at the Lake Sherwood Recreation complex and the Blue Bend Recreation area.
Visitors to the Rimel also should know that Cully McCurdy has been hard at work in recent years creating savannas. These grasslands offer essential nesting and bugging areas for wild turkeys and are excellent places to duel with longbeards in the spring, as well. The Rimel also features an extensive network of old logging roads that make for great travel ways for humans and turkeys.
OTHER MONONGAHELA MANAGEMENT UNITS
I have also hunted turkeys in the Cranberry WMA (158,147 acres) in Nicholas, Webster, Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties. I usually use SR 39 to access this public land, but sportsmen can also reach it by means of SRs 150, 7, 48 and 46. Sportsmen who relish a backcountry experience should also know that the Cranberry Wilderness Area (35,864 acres) lies within the WMA. No motorized vehicles are allowed. I know hunters who walk or horseback ride into the Cranberry backcountry.
The Cranberry is famous, or infamous, for its upper altitude hunting. Elevations range from 1,900 to 4,600 feet. And if you are at elevations closer to the latter than the former in the spring, be prepared. Snowstorms have been known to happen in April and even in May. Camping areas are situated at Summit Lake, Bishop Knob, Big Rock and Cranberry.
As is typical of many hunters, the reason I have hunted the most in the Neola and Rimel WMAs is not because they offer better turkey hunting than the other Monongahela units. It's simply because the duo is closer to my home. And the reason I have gone afield in the Cranberry WMA is that every sportsman should experience this high-country hunting at least once. My point is that the other seven Monongahela WMAs all can offer excellent spring gobbler hunting.
"West Virginia hunters can't go wrong with visiting any of the Monongahela's WMAs," Chris Ryan said. "If a turkey hunter has a good pair of boots, is in shape and is willing to walk, he will find turkeys. You probably won't find a gobbler at the first place you stop at and call. But, again, if you do some walking, you will encounter a gobbler and sometimes multiple birds.
"I also think that after the first week of the season, your chances of seeing another hunter really decreases. And by the late season, a hunter could well have large portions of the Monongahela to himself."
That said, Ryan also emphasized that on the hunt he and I took last May, it was still the first week of the season and we didn't encounter any other hunters nor saw cars parked at pull-off sites. Of course, to be fair, on other visits to the Mon during the first week of the season, I have come across other individuals. Still, on most of my expeditions into the Monongahela, I have had the woods to myself.
Ryan also said that several management activities are currently taking place on the Monongahela's units.
"The DNR personnel in charge of the WMAs do an outstanding job managing the national forest. One of the things wildlife managers do that really benefit turkeys is creating and maintaining brood habitat. A major way this is accomplished is by mowing or bushwhacking openings. Our goal is to prevent woody stems, which are trees or shrubs, to take over an opening."
Every year or so, DNR personnel will mow an opening. Or they'll mow part of an opening one year and the rest the next year in order to create more variety in the habitat. Another advantage of the mowing process is that it creates new growth.
Ryan relates that each WMA within the state has a primary species for which it is managed. Interestingly, the species that is most often the primary one in the Mountain State is the wild turkey. The biologist said this emphasis on the turkey makes sense, as management activities that benefit turkeys the most also promote the well-being of other game and non-game species.
Another management activity involves foresting.
"Timber cutting is based on a forest management plan," Ryan said. "Each component within the forest service, small or large, has an individual prescription or objective. An area in the Monongahela could be listed as wilderness and thus would have no cutting or management practices, for example. Or a component could be listed as being possibly suited to have a certain number of acres timbered.
"I urge hunters to go to meetings when forest management plans are discussed. After all, the Monongahela National Forest is as much their land as anyone else's. And other user groups certainly make their presence known at these meetings."
Generally, a variety of timbering practices are implemented. These include the cutting of single trees to clear cutting blocks of forest up to 25 acres in size. Approximately 1,300 acres are cut yearly out of more than 909,000 acres that the Monongahela encompasses.
Ryan informs that a major wild turkey project is going on right now in conjunction with Virginia. In each of West Virginia's six districts, and the Monongahela is an important part of the land mass in several of these districts, personnel are trapping 12 gobblers per district and outfitting each tom with a transmitter. This project features several goals.
"A major objective is to learn more about gobbler survival. We also want to develop a better understanding of gobbling intensity and behavior. The two states are attempting to develop a transmitter that can tell how many times a bird gobbles."
The other units within the Monongahela are: the Beaver Dam WMA (37,674 acres) in Randolph County; B
lackwater WMA (58,978 acres) in Tucker and Preston counties; Cheat WMA (80,771 acres) in Randolph County; Little River WMA (124,483 acres) in Pocahontas County; Otter Creek WMA (68,782 acres) in Randolph and Tucker counties; Potomac WMA (139,786 acres) in Randolph, Pendleton, Grant and Tucker counties; and the Tea Creek WMA (67,919 acres) in Pocahontas, Randolph and Webster counties.
For more information on the Mon, contact the Monongahela National Forest, Forest Supervisor, P.O. Box 1548, Elkins, WV 26241; or call (304) 636-1800. The Web site is
www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf. Statewide, the daily limit is one bearded bird, two per season. The season begins April 25 and ends May 21.