Last Chance Mountain State Toms

Last Chance Mountain State Toms

May is still a terrific time to seek gobblers in our state! Here are five public-land picks where you can do just that now and right through to the end of the season. (May 2009)

It was the morning of May 23, the next to last day of West Virginia's spring gobbler season and the last day I could go hunting. My mood was decidedly glum, as I had seemed to resolve to end the 2008 season by committing a series of blunders.

The late season had started promisingly enough, as I had called in and killed a Monroe County bird earlier in the month. But a few days later while hunting on the same farm, I had blown a 30-yard shot at a gobbler. This snafu had been followed by my receiving a tip from a friend on the location of a hot gobbler in the Jefferson National Forest, a tom reputed to be wedded to a certain mountainside for roosting and strutting purposes.

But in my desire to move in close to the roosted longbeard, I had walked under his bedtime tree, sending him flapping off into the darkness. Several days later, I went after the old boy again, only to have to leave for work while he was gobbling and likely on his way in. I also returned to the farm where I had missed the tom, and, predictably, he was silent.

So last May 23, I drove to a Greenbrier County farm outside of Lewisburg, a locale I had hunted a number of times over the years -- and one that the landowner had told me had only been hunted a few times all season with no one pulling a trigger on a bird.

At dawn, I heard several gobbles ring out, but the source for them was an adjoining farm where the landowner kept three domestic gobblers in his barnyard -- mouthy males that gobbled over and over all the time. I must confess that the first time I heard them, I tried to call them across the boundary between the two farms. Only later did I learn that they were not likely to leave their comfortable surroundings and grain.

Moving to the far edge of the landowner's property (so as to escape from the racket of the barnyard boys), I gave a few short yelps at 6:30 a.m. To my temporary joy, a gobbler rang out. As I ran toward him, I heard a second outburst, but then realized that he was located on another farm -- and that he had a hen (which had begun yelping) with him. So, all I would have to do to kill the bird was call him away from his hen, across a pasture, under a fence that separated the properties, and up a hill where I would set up. None of these events was likely to occur, especially not all four.

By 6:45, I was situated on the hill, and the tom had bellowed out a total of four times. My experience is that late-season West Virginia birds gobble far less than earlier in the spring, so I resolved to sit still. At 7:34 -- and with the tom having not gobbled for over 45 minutes -- I saw a red, white and blue head bobbling along, looking for the "hen" that had earlier called. I shouldered my 12 gauge and fired.

The shot was only a 15-yard one, and when I arrived on the scene, I found my best-ever West Virginia gobbler flopping his last. The tom only had a 7 1/2-inch beard, but featured 1 3/8-inch spurs and weighed 19 pounds!

The moral of the story obviously is that outstanding late-season turkey hunting exists, for those who want to punch that second tag or even their first. Just as obviously, two keys exist to succeeding during the waning days of the season -- persistence and knowing where to go.

Numerous superlative late-season public land destinations exist in the Mountain State, and certainly one of them is the 18,526-acre Potts Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which is part of the Jefferson National Forest and lies in Monroe County. Carol Croy, a forest wildlife biologist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF), relates that the Potts Creek unit has plenty of backcountry that holds late-season toms.

"Where people who hunt the Potts Creek WMAs, as well as the Wardensville and Shenandoah units of the George Washington, go wrong is that they only hunt the outer fringes of the public land," said Croy. "In fact, our user studies show that most hunters fail to walk more than a half mile away from their vehicles or up a trail for more than a half mile.

"Carrying out a turkey is a lot easier than dragging out a deer. So, I would encourage turkey hunters to park at the front of a gated road and walk a mile or more back into the forest. Roads are often gated because a timber cut has taken place somewhere back on that road. And that habitat manipulation is often where some of the best turkey hunting will occur, especially if the cut is a mile or so back. I really believe that turkey hunters who are willing to walk can have a very positive experience."

Croy says that the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the GWJNF differently than Virginia does, as the two states share this public land. One way this is different is that the DNR assigns WMA managers to work on units of the GWJNF, as well as the Monongahela's WMAs.

For example, Croy informs that the DNR has assigned Jim Craft to manage the Potts Creek WMA, and that Craft has done habitat improvement projects, such as creating savannahs. These are grasslands that have been fashioned and serve as sort of a public land "food plot" for game and non-game animals. I have hunted savannahs and have seen turkeys and deer use them.

The 49,106-acre Shenandoah WMA is a cornerstone for the George Washington part of the GWJNF, and Croy emphasizes that this unit offers even more backcountry hunting than the Potts Creek WMA does. Located in Pendleton County, the Shenandoah is known for its oak-hickory forests, as well as elevations that range from 1,250 to 4,397 feet.

"One of the most exciting things that is taking place on the Shenandoah WMA, as well as on other units of the national forest, is the planting of nuts from disease-resistant chestnut trees," reveals Croy. "These nuts are being supplied by the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation (ACCF). This is a very positive happening for wildlife of all kinds."

Croy states that the ACCF and GWJNF are working together to make this project a success. As some readers of the magazine may know, the American chestnut was virtually eliminated from Eastern forests because of an Asia blight that devastated these trees beginning in the early 1900s.

Of course, no one is going to kill a gobbler under the proverbial "spreading chestnut tree" this spring, but such may be the case in the future.

The Wardensville WMA hosts 55,327 acres in Hampshire and Hardy counties and is a convenient destination for sportsmen living in much of the Eastern Panhandle. This is extremely

mountainous terrain and is yet another example of oak-hickory forest. Given its rugged makeup, the Wardensville unit of the George Washington experiences relatively little hunting pressure not just in the late period but throughout the spring gobbler season.

I asked Croy for tips to share with readers on how to hunt these three WMAs of the GWJNF.

  • Go to the forest services Web site:, or call (540) 265-5100.
  • '‚Click on "Contact Us" and look for the Ranger District in which you wish to hunt.
  • '‚Call staff at that district and request information on such topics as the following: locations of gated roads, locations of where prescribed burns have taken place, and names of field personnel who might have suggestions on where to go.
  • '‚Also, ask to be steered to locations that might make for good places to hike, bike or horseback ride into. These places are especially good late-season bets. Croy says from her experience that more national forest turkey hunters are using mountain bikes and even horses to access the backcountry.
  • '‚Click on "Maps and Brochures." Maps, especially, can aid a turkey hunter in analyzing the terrain and in selecting potential places to hunt.

The Panther State Forest sprawls over 7,810 acres in McDowell County in southern West Virginia. This is one of the least populated parts of the state and Panther is one of the most isolated public lands, as well. But those are not the main reasons that this state forest receives little hunting pressure. The terrain here is monstrously steep, the state forest is heavily forested, and flatland is at a premium.

Nathan Hanshaw is the assistant superintendent of Twin Falls State Park in neighboring Wyoming County and is also an avid turkey hunter who has killed numerous longbeards on Panther.

"Panther State Forest is absolutely an excellent late-season turkey hunting destination," confirms Hanshaw. "Look, there's a reason why Panther's deer grow so big, and there's a reason why few people turkey hunt there. Saying that this state forest's terrain is rough is truly an understatement. Few people go there because this is country that just wears you out. The average person goes to Panther once and doesn't come back."

Hanshaw relates that nine out of every 10 mountainsides on Panther feature a vertical climb to their tops and then very narrow flats along the peaks. The 10th mountainside is just like the other nine, except that no level ground exists at the summit of it. Attempting to hike up these inclines will cause even in-shape sportsmen to sweat and swear -- perspire because of the labor involved and curse because of the insanity of trying to conquer such a mountain -- let alone call in and kill a gobbler.

The assistant superintendent says that one key for being successful at Panther is to locate fertile coves. This often means hollows that have mountain rills coursing down them, which allow vegetation to flourish because of the presence of water. These are the coves that are likely to have richer soil as well and that will draw flocks of turkeys throughout the season.

Hanshaw also offers another interesting how-to tidbit.

"Some of the best places to hunt on Panther are where old homesteads used to be located," he explains. "Now you wouldn't think that people would build houses on and attempt to farm those steep mountainsides, but they did. Look for places that have piled-up rocks, old cornerstones of home places, and maybe remains of an old chimney.

"One time on Panther, I called in and killed a gobbler that was strutting near an old house site. It was probably the only little patch of open land on the entire mountainside."

Hanshaw adds another useful tip is for perspective hunters to arise extremely early and ascend to a mountaintop that runs relatively evenly for many hundreds of yards. Then as the individual walks along the top, he should cast calls down into the hollows below. To reach those pinnacles, however, requires, as noted earlier, a great deal of effort.

Finally, Hanshaw says that some hunters may want to consider staying at the campsites available at Panther State Forest. A number of the hiking trails lead away from the campground and toward quality hunting areas.

Situated in Mingo and Wyoming counties, the R.D. Bailey Lake WMA encompasses 17,280 acres and features the standard oak-hickory forest that is so common in southern West Virginia. Nathan Hanshaw says that R.D. Bailey is only about a 45-minute drive from Twin Falls, so sportsmen may want to combine a sojourn at the park with an outing on the public land.

"The terrain on R.D. Bailey is not as bad as that on Panther, but then again how could it be?" laughs Hanshaw. "Still, the WMA has its share of isolated, steep ridges, which is where some of the best late-season hunting is likely to take place. R.D. definitely deserves its reputation as being very rugged, but the same could be said for a lot of places in the southern part of the state."

Hanshaw says the same keys to success on Panther are relevant to tagging a tom on R.D. Bailey. Hunters should understand that they will have to trek into the backcountry to experience the best hunting, but individuals who make that commitment are also the ones who are the most successful.

The WMA does not have any cabins, but it does boast numerous campsites. These are available to rent from May 1 through Nov. 1.

Every year, I give turkey-hunting seminars and participants often ask what are my favorite calls, strategies, guns, shells and other similar questions. They also sometimes ask what are some of the hot new gear items that I have tried and can recommend.

I hate to disappoint these folks, but the truth is that I have been using the same Remington 1100, 12 gauge for 20 years, have been employing the same Remington No. 4 shot for about 15 years, and that I have no idea whether the same gun and load would work for them. And I haven't bought any new turkey hunting gear in many years. There are no shortcuts to being a successful late-season hunter, but I can offer one very valuable how-to tip.

Go every day of the season that you are able until you either tag your two-tom limit or the season ends. Some years I punch those two tags and some years I don't, but I go every day of the season that I can, even if that means arising early and driving a long way just to be able to hunt 45 minutes before work.

I also think that hunters should consider changing their calling styles as the season wears on. Generally, soft infrequent calling will trump loud, constant calling, but this is especially true later in the season. The real hens yelp and cluck less now, and so should we.

Ken Freel, editor of this magazine, asked me how I reacted to killing a nice tom on the next to last day of the season. The truth is that I giggled like a schoolgirl when I kneeled next to the bird and giggled some more when I showed the Greenbrier County landowner my prize.

Later, when I arrived at a White Sulfur Springs check station, the bouts of giggling had ceased, but the smile on my face was still there and remained so until I arrived home and finished telling my wife, Elaine, about the morning. Perhaps some of these public land destinations can put a spring in your step and a smile on your face this May as the season winds down.

American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation:

American Chestnut Foundation:, or call (802) 447-0110.

Panther State Forest: (304) 938-2252, or

Twin Falls State Park:, or call (800) CALL-WVA or (304) 294-4000.

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