From state forests to wildlife management areas and more, here's where you'll discover fine fall turkey hunting right now in our state. (October 2007)
Photo by D. Toby Thompson.
The three consecutive days when I ranged over hundreds of acres of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in pursuit of turkey flocks will always be among my fondest memories. The first day had been spent trying to locate the source of all the hot scratchings. However, every time I felt the birds were just around the bend on a logging road or mountainside, I came up empty-handed or had made a strategic error.
On the morning of the second day, I heard the birds fly down and ran toward them in an attempt to scatter the gang. However, the bust was a very poor one and most of the turkeys ran off together, instead of flying in different directions. The former circumstance was obviously not the objective for it meant that the flock would be less inclined to respond to my calls. Even though I spent the rest of the day roaming the national forest, I never could find that group of birds again.
The morning of the third day found Dame Fortune being a little kinder. As I was again searching for the flock, I came across a ridge where the scratchings indicated that the birds were using this particular area over a period of days. The scratchings ranged from a day old (where the inside ring showed brown topsoil and no leaves) to as much as a week old (where the forest duff was gray and the ring had leaves within). Adding to the area's appeal were the red oak acorns that lay everywhere on the ridge.
With an abundance of both sign and hard mast, I decided to set up on the ridge side and call periodically. About an hour later, I heard the sounds of turkeys walking and scratching, perhaps 100 yards from me around the bend of the mountain.
I emitted some kee-kee runs, rested the 12 gauge on my knee, and scanned the mountainside ahead. About 20 minutes later, the sounds of the flock became even louder -- though the assemblage was still not within sight -- and I shouldered the shotgun. Shortly afterward, the first bird popped into view at a distance of about 45 yards. The jenny was followed by several more jennies along with the usual assortment of jakes and the flock hen.
Several minutes later, most of the flock was now about 40 yards distant. I decided to shoot the first member that moved within 35 yards and was clear of any other birds, as ethically and legally I did not want to run the risk of killing two turkeys with one shot. My three-day quest for a national forest turkey was almost at an end.
Then Dame Fortune metamorphosed into Ill Fortune. The flock hen putted at my well-camouflaged form, and at that sound, the entire flock turned tail and ran back the way it had come. A few seconds earlier, turkeys had covered the ridge. Now they were gone. I never found the gang again.
Long-time readers of this magazine know that this writer is a big fan of West Virginia's public-land hunting. The combination of national forest land, state wildlife management areas, and state forests gives Mountain State sportsmen a dazzling variety of options to choose from. Moreover, through the funds generated by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Conservation Stamp, the state is always looking to add more public land to its already impressive holdings.
The problem the past few years, though, has been the series of poor hatches that have occurred on both public and private land in most of the state. Last autumn, for instance, hunters only harvested 1,186 turkeys in the Mountain State, up slightly from the 2005 tally of 1,130, but below the 2004 total of 1,357. A point of emphasis here is that West Virginia is not the only state in the region to be experiencing a downturn in its turkey population. Virginia, likewise, has endured the same problem that has caused the Mountain's State's flock to decrease -- poor hatches. In addition, the same phenomenon has occurred in other states as well.
Indeed, to give some historical perspective, not since the 1960s have the fall harvests been so low. During that decade, the wild turkey was at the beginning stages of its comeback in the Northeast and Southeast. For instance, between 1966 and 1968, the West Virginia tallies were 1,334, then 989, and 1,697, respectively.
Of the 2006 total of 1,186, some 1,004 birds came from private land. In the past, many hunters from around West Virginia traveled to the Monongahela and the George Washington and Jefferson national forests to fall hunt. These days (with gas prices so high and harvests so low), they are more likely to stay closer to home, which at least partially accounts for the fact that only 182 turkeys were killed on public land last autumn. Nevertheless, some of the public land destinations are intriguing possibilities for this October.
GREENBRIER STATE FOREST
Mike O'Brien, assistant superintendent of the Greenbrier State Forest, told me that turkeys were scarce on this 5,130-acre tract during the fall of 2006. In fact, only four birds were checked in the entire season. Nevertheless, O'Brien stated that all it would take for the flock to rebound is one solid hatch.
And that, of course, is one of the great things about fall turkey hunting -- an increase in bird numbers is often just one spring away when weather conditions during the nesting and rearing seasons are favorable. Certainly, this public land in Greenbrier County has many positives on its side of the ledger.
Twelve cabins and 16 campsites are available to rent, and there is even a range on site. Kates Mountain looms over the campground and traditionally has hosted several flocks of birds. Another plus, continued O'Brien, is that the public ground has received little fall turkey-hunting pressure the past few years, which is probably another reason the harvests have been low. To further put things in perspective, from 2002 through 2006, the harvest on state WMAs and forests has been 71, 53, 35, 73 and 32, respectively.
Located near White Sulfur Springs, the Greenbrier State Forest consists largely of mature hardwood forests with the red oak clan particularly present. A number of tributaries of the Greenbrier River also course down the mountainside and can draw birds. For more information or reservations, dial (800) CALL-WVA.
CALVIN PRICE STATE FOREST
Mark Wylie, superintendent of Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest, informs that the 10,000-acre tract in Pocahontas and Greenbrier (only about 300 acres are in Greenbrier) counties receives little hunting pressure from fall turkey enthusiasts.
"The Calvin Price State Forest is not an undiscovered secret because we are overrun with hunters during the deer s
easons," he said. "But for whatever reason, not too many people come here to fall turkey hunt. The fall season just is not as big a deal here as the spring season is, so that's a major reason why the pressure is light.
"A real plus for the Calvin Price is a 200-acre tract that has been cut. Terry Jones of the DNR really did a good job in making sure that cut would benefit wildlife. The timber harvest will provide some excellent edge habitat for turkeys and other wildlife and some good nesting areas for turkeys as well. Some people are very much against timber cutting on our state forests, but logging does serve a real purpose for wildlife."
Another plus is that part of the Calvin Price adjoins the Monongahela National Forest, so fall turkey hunters afield in this area won't have to worry about stopping at a boundary if they have found birds. An additional positive is that quite a few tributaries of the Greenbrier exist on the public land, and they provide a variety of habitats. The upper Greenbrier River creates one border of the forest.
Two areas of the Calvin Price State Forest, Wylie continued, stand out as being very isolated. One section on the southern boundary borders the Spice Run area of the Monongahela. This section of woods has been considered as a wilderness area in the past. The other portion of note is the Beaver Lick Mountain region on the east, which has very isolated terrain. Wylie described the "Cal" Price, as a whole, as being fairly mountainous.
The superintendent added that 10 cabins remain open year 'round on the adjoining Watoga State Park and make for convenient bases for sportsmen. Beaver Creek Campground offers 100 campsites and it remains open until the middle of December. For more information and reservations, call the toll-free number listed earlier.
SLEEPY CREEK WMA
Among the WMAs, one of the most consistent producers of fall turkeys the past five years has been the Sleepy Creek WMA and its 22,928 acres in Berkeley and Morgan counties.
I have been afield for fall turkeys on Sleepy Creek and like the variety of options hunters have available to them. For instance, on its eastern side a number of farms border the WMA. Hunters can traverse the relatively flat sections of this boundary (all the while, of course, remaining within the WMA) and take advantage of the number of flocks that will spend their days feeding back and forth between public and private land. The acorns on the former and the fields on the latter attract these birds. One landowner even gave me permission to hunt his land, so I spent the day on both his property and the WMA.
A second option is to venture deep into the tract, which I have also done. The namesake Sleepy Creek provides some back-of-beyond habitat, but it also is not nearly as steep as many public-land mountains in the state. Indeed, the majority of this WMA features elevations of less than 1,500 feet.
WARDENSVILLE & SHENANDOAH WMAs
Among national forest WMAs, state WMAs and state forests, the No. 1 and No. 2 locales for fall turkeys last year were the Wardensville WMA, which led the way with 27 birds checked in, and the Shenandoah WMA, which was second with 15. The former unit of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest encompasses 55,327 acres in Hampshire and Hardy counties and the latter unit of the national forest consists of 49,106 acres in Pendleton County.
Except for 2005, harvests have remained fairly steady on the Wardensville WMA. From 2002 through 2006, the tallies have been 24, 28, 24, 8 and 27, respectively. As one would expect, the terrain is quite mountainous, but 61 miles of highland rills do provide some variety to the landscape. Also, as expected, oak-hickory forests predominate.
For the Shenandoah, the harvests for the same time period have been 13, 8, 9, 12 and 15, likewise being quite consistent. The habitat on this national forest WMA is very similar to that of the Wardensville, except it is even more remote. Elevations top 4,300 feet and oak-hickory forests predominate. Both public lands offer a number of campgrounds.
Mike Donahue, a biological technician for the national forest, is actively involved in habitat improvement projects that benefit turkeys and a host of game and non-game species.
"Looking at the big picture, one of the most beneficial things we are doing for wild turkeys right now is conducting prescribed burns," Donahue said. "One thing a prescribed burn accomplishes is a reduction of fuels. There has been quite a buildup of dead trees because of the gypsy moth infestation, particularly in the northern reaches of the George Washington.
"For turkeys, the benefits of prescribed burns are numerous. They create grassy openings, open forest, and keep an area in the early successional stage longer. Turkeys love to nest and rear their broods in places like these, and these same areas are also attractive for grouse and many edge favoring species of songbirds."
Interestingly, Donahue said that a prescribed burn is something that turkey hunters and bird watchers both can see immediate benefits from. Such songbirds as golden-wing warblers and chats, which are suffering from declining numbers, profit from this activity as well.
To keep the areas that have been burned open longer, Donahue said that Forest Service personnel are conducting such activities as removing locust trees that sprout and eliminating the mile-a-minute plant. The technician described this invasive species as being similar to kudzu in its ability to suffocate wildlife habitat.
Donahue said that in the future the Forest Service wants to create more savannahs on the George Washington. The native warm-season grasses that can grow in this open land are very appealing to turkeys, especially during the summertime when flock hens bring their poults to look for high-protein insects.
For more information on the Wardensville and Shenandoah WMAs, call the forest service at (540) 265-5100 or go online to www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf.
Earlier, I mentioned finding an area on the national forest that contained scratchings of various ages and made the determination to set up there. The point is that West Virginia's fall turkey hunting brigade need not always hear the panic-stricken sounds of jakes and jennies uttering kee-kees to know that birds are in the area.
For example, in addition to scratchings, other solid signs to look for are the J-shaped droppings of jakes and the popcorn-like scat of jennies. Fresh droppings often take on a wet, greenish hue, whereas older ones typically feature a dry, grayish color. As is true with scratchings, if a hunter can locate droppings of various ages on a mountainside, he may have found a place that turkeys are using consistently.
Droppings of differing ages can also indicate a roost site. For instance, last October, I found a grove of chestnut oaks along a sheltered hollow. Beneath the hardwoods were numerous concentrations of both fresh and old droppings -- a strong indicator
that turkeys had been repeatedly using the area as a roosting site. That evening, I listened as the birds flew up to the oaks, and the next morning I scattered the gang. Although I was unsuccessful at calling in and killing any of the birds that morning, sign observation had been helpful in my formulating a game plan.
Another sign that is worthwhile to look for is a dusting bowl. These round areas typically have feathers in or around them. If these feathers are of differing ages, they indicate that birds have been regularly utilizing the area.
Last year, I spent time on both public and private lands pursuing fall turkeys. Having both public and private places to go afield is a plus for any sportsman, but this is especially true for the fall turkey hunter who typically has to range over quite a bit of ground in order to find his quarry. The five public land options mentioned here are just a few of many available for Mountain Staters.