Here's the latest on what you can expect to find this fall in your neck of the turkey woods.
Photo by Ralph Hensley
"They don't sleep in conifers. Around here, there just aren't enough pines and hemlocks for them to find a place to spend the night," said Peck Martin of McMechen. It was 7:25 a.m., on opening day of the fall turkey season last October, and Martin, who operates Gobblers Choice Game Calls, and I were standing on the cusp of a Marshall County ridge and listening to the sounds of a mountain slowly waking up.
Somewhere down the ridge, a male Carolina wren emits his call to his mate, followed by a cardinal singing. Then a barred owl launches into its "who cooks for you" chorus one last time before settling in for the day. Those sounds are pleasant to the ear, but they are not the sounds we are listening for.
"I just want to hear one sleepy tree yelp from just one bird and we'll be in business," Peck said. "Since the turkeys won't be roosted in pines, I think they'll probably be up in beeches or wild cherry trees. Both those trees produced mast, and the hollow below us has a lot of beeches and cherry trees. I'm willing to bet that a flock is below us in those trees, having spent the late evening yesterday feeding on beechnuts and wild cherries before flying up for the night."
At 7:40, Martin's prediction comes true, for about 75 yards below, a roosted turkey sends forth a soft "yawk, yawk, yawk" -- the tree yelps that birds make when they first greet the coming dawn. Martin smiles and then poses the question that fall turkey hunters have to consider.
"Do you want to try to call them in or bust them off the roost?" he asks.
I reply with the maxim "When in doubt, always bust them," and at my words, Peck replies that he will move to the other end of the hollow and see if any birds fly his way. I give him five minutes to do so, then careen across the top of the ridge and run screaming into the flock -- sending the birds flying and running in several directions.
Satisfied with the scatter, I set up at the break point. Some 45 minutes later, the birds begin to answer my kee-kees, and some 15 minutes more, I spot a bird marching toward me. As the young turkey moves into shooting range, however, it begins angling above me. And when the bird stops just 12 yards away, it is above me and at an impossible angle at which to shoot. I watch as the turkey scans the woods below it and then the jenny moves above the cusp of the ridge. I try calling it back, but the juvenile hen doesn't even respond.
Martin and I remain on the mountainside for several more hours, but don't hear a peep. He then recommends that we look elsewhere and over the next seven hours, we visit several different Marshall County farms. All of them possess flocks, but none of the turkeys will come to our calls. With just two hours or so before sunset, Peck and I decide to return to the same hollow where we began our day.
After we arrive at the scatter point and set up, Peck strokes out yelps on one of his handcrafted chestnut box calls. The sweet sounds seduce a turkey and soon we see her coming up the hollow toward us. But, unexplainably, the hen hangs up at 75 yards and meanders off. What does it take, I muse out loud, to kill a Marshall County turkey?
Martin and I remain in the hollow and continue to call, but as the shadows lengthen and the sun begins to set, I come to the conclusion that I have made a 5 1/2-hour drive for naught. Then . . .
"Two turkeys at 11 o'clock," Peck whispers.
I slowly turn my head and spot the duo. My body tenses and when the birds move behind some trees, I shoulder the 12 gauge. The lead bird comes into view, the shotgun roars, and the long drive, after all, was well worth it. It is 6 p.m., just 15 minutes or so before the birds would have flown to roost on that cloudy, damp evening.
As excited as I was to harvest a Marshall County turkey, I must report the disappointing news that the unofficial 2004 harvest was just 1,295. The kill was 30 percent lower than the 1,841 reported in 2003 and was the lowest fall harvest since 1987. Last year, only 19 counties were open to fall hunting. Fewer areas were open because two consecutive poor brood years had decreased the base population in many areas of the Mountain State.
Moreover, sportsmen are still seeing the negative effects of poor brood years in 2002 and 2003, as well as overly harsh winters, especially in 2002-03. The high mountain counties of the Monongahela National Forest (a major and traditional destination for fall sportsmen) have been especially hard hit by the weather and poor reproduction.
However, some encouraging news does exist. First, Paul Johansen, assistant chief of game management for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), reports that brood production was better in 2004 than it was in 2002 and 2003. Second, an important reason why the 2004 kill was down from 2003 is that in the latter year, 26 counties were open to fall turkey hunting. When the 2003 and 2004 harvests are compared in the counties that were open both years, the kill decline was just 4 percent. And, third, a relevant reason why the harvest was down was because of an abundant hard mast crop, particularly acorns, last autumn.
When the oaks produce in abundance, the turkeys are more scattered, harder to find, frequent fields much less, and the kill typically drops. More mast being around should also be a positive in terms of the turkeys coming through the winter better and entering the spring breeding season in better shape.
Last autumn, the top 10 counties (with their harvests in parentheses) were Monroe (164), Greenbrier (138), Preston (125), Hampshire (122), Hardy (114), Nicholas (99), Grant (69), Randolph (65), Mineral (56) and Pendleton (50). Four of the six DNR districts possessed counties that were open to hunting. District II (the Eastern Panhandle and other eastern counties) led the way with 485 birds, followed by District IV (southern West Virginia) with 302. District III (the Monongahela National Forest and the mountain counties) came in third with 266. And fourth was District I (northern West Virginia) with 242. It should be reported that some of the counties in District I (like Marshall, Brooke, and Hancock, for example) were only open for a week. Actually, the harvest increased by 15 percent in districts I and II, while declines took place in districts III and IV.
In District I, the actual numbers were the same both years -- 242. And in District II, the tally increased from the 421 recorded in 2003 to the 485 registered this past season. District III saw its harvest drop from 293 to 266, while District IV experienced a precipitous dip from
429 to 302. The drop in District IV is especially important because Greenbrier and Monroe counties have been the only two counties open to fall turkey hunting the past two years.
At press time, wildlife biologists did not have enough data to make a forecast of what the hunting would be like this autumn. As this article is due out in September, later on this month turkey enthusiasts can contact their local DNR offices and request information on summer brood reports and possibly mast information. Also at this time, sportsmen can request information on what counties will be open this autumn. Although the traditional southern West Virginia counties will, of course, be open, whether other counties in other regions will be open will be determined by how good their spring harvests were.
NEW GOBBLER STUDY
Gary Norman is a veteran turkey biologist and hunter. He is currently the forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. This past February, at a state National Wild Turkey Federation fundraiser, Norman told me about an exciting new project underway designed to generate important research of interest to sportsmen in the Mountain State and Old Dominion. The title of the project is "Hunting and environmental effects on gobbler survival and gobbling in Virginia and West Virginia."
According to Norman, the research project will address the following topics. Determine the best harvest strategy for maximum sustained yield. That is, how can seasons and bag limits be structured so as to maintain good numbers of birds? Determine the best harvest strategy for maximum hunter opportunity. That is, how can the two state game departments increase the opportunity for hunters to harvest birds? Determine the influence of harvest strategies on age structure of the male segment of the population. That is, how does hunting affect the numbers of jakes and 2-, 3- and 4-year-old toms? Determine human behavior and hunting impacts on gobbler behavior. That is, how does our hunting gobblers influence their behavior and gobbling rates? Determine quantitative wild turkey gobbling activity. That is, how much do toms actually gobble?
In West Virginia, one study area in the eastern part of the state will be the focus of the project. The study will run for three years, concluding in the summer of 2007. One of the most fascinating aspects of the project is how data will be generated. Annually, 70 males will be captured by means of rocket nets and rocket boxes in September and October and in the January to March trapping periods. Researchers will then equip the males with standard backpack transmitters and necklace data loggers.
The necklace data logger will be configured to record the number of gobbles in two-minute intervals. Those loggers will have a life span of approximately eight months. Hunters who tag these toms should easily be able to spot the reward notices on the leg bands, transmitters and data loggers. Norman expects that hunters will recover most of the data loggers. Still, some toms may have to be recaptured if the transmitter's batteries fail or when the study concludes.
Norman also reports that the toms will be monitored weekly until March, when they will be monitored twice weekly through the hunting season. When a mortality signal is detected, researchers will attempt to recover the carcass as quickly as possible so that the cause of death can be determined.
The study has two major objectives, each with a number of additional goals. The first objective is to determine survival of wild turkey gobblers and the impact of hunting seasons. Additional goals for this objective include the following: Determine annual survival rates and causes of mortality. Annual and seasonal differences between gobbler survival rates by age. Annual and seasonal gobbler survival rates under different fall mast conditions. Annual and seasonal differences among gobbler survival rates by fall season format (West Virginia has a four-week season, while Virginia has a split six-week season). Annual and spring season survival differences between states with different season formats.
All of these goals should engender some fascinating data. For example, I would love to know what percentage of 2-year-old toms survive the spring season. Another piece of data that could be gleaned is do 3-year-old birds have better survival rates than 2-year-olds and jakes? In other words, is a long spurred, old longbeard truly a wary old boy or is that just a myth created by us turkey hunters?
Another tidbit of information that could be gleaned is how do fall mast conditions affect gobbler survival? Virginia's spring gobbler season typically opens several weeks earlier than West Virginia's does. How does that fact affect gobbler survival?
The second objective is to "determine differences in gobbling and gobbler harvests under different spring season formats, and environmental, mast and hunting conditions." Goals under this objective include the following. Determine gobbling patterns and differences in gobbling between different spring season formats (early- start vs. late start; with vs. without Sunday hunting). Virginia is one of the few states that do not allow Sunday hunting, while West Virginia allows Sunday hunting in some of its counties. Determine effects of weather and mast conditions on gobbling rates. Determine effects of pre-season calling on gobbling patterns during hunting seasons. Where possible, contrast harvest, movements, behavior and home ranges of baited vs. other gobblers. Determine effects of hunting pressure on gobbling patterns, behavior and movements. Determine age-specific gobbling rates.
Much fascinating information can possibly be gleaned from this second objective as well. For instance, I would relish knowing how much a cold, blustery late April day in West Virginia can affect gobbling rates. The conventional wisdom is that such weather suppresses gobbling activity. But is that really true?
Like many hunters, I don't like to use turkey calls when I am pre-season scouting, preferring to instead locate birds by finding sign or employing crow calls. I won't even use barred owl calls before the season. But is all this caution really necessary?
Another piece of information that could be gained concerns gobbling rates of different age birds. The conventional wisdom is that jakes gobble fairly sporadically, that 2-year-olds do so a great deal, and that 3-year-old and older toms don't have to gobble as much to attract hens. But are those assumptions really true or just the creation of outdoor scribes and well-meaning, though misinformed, hunters? We shall perhaps find out the answers to those questions.
The 2004 fall turkey season certainly was not an epic one by West Virginia standards. With any luck, better ones are on the way. Maybe the 2005 season will start it off.