Here's where hunter success rates are greatest in the Mountain State. Is a top gobbler county near you? Read on!
By John McCoy
West Virginia's turkey hunters could find little solace in last year's decent-but-not-great spring gobbler harvest. Once you've been to the mountaintop, it's hard to come back down. Sportsmen bagged 13,374 toms during the four-week season - the sixth highest total on record, and respectable by any estimation. Coming, though, on the heels of 2001's record harvest of 17,875, it seemed downright puny.
Curtis Taylor, chief of wildlife resources for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), says the sub-par season resulted from an unfortunate mishmash of natural conditions.
"The decline was likely due to a number of factors, including wet and windy weather that affected hunter participation and success: lower numbers of 2-year-old gobblers, which are the easiest birds to call; and an abundance of hens with gobblers, which made gobblers more difficult to call," Taylor said.
Perhaps the worst news to come out of the 2001 season, however, was that the cold, wet weather hunters experienced then will likely have a lingering effect on this spring's upcoming hunt.
Jim Pack, the DNR's principal turkey biologist, says turkeys' nesting success suffered in the damp chill. "Poult production was down significantly from the previous year's. That means there will be fewer young birds to hunt next spring."
Fortunately for sportsmen, the nesting season previous to last spring's wasn't nearly as dismal. That means reasonable numbers of aggressive 2-year-old toms will be present to respond to hunters' calls.
Always be sure of your target (and what's beyond it) when you're afield this spring. Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The presence of those "suicide jockey" gobblers, combined with better hunting weather, could allow sportsmen to enjoy reasonable success. Pack says the season has the potential to be good, but probably won't be spectacular.
Even in a sub-par season such as last year's, hunters inevitably find counties where gobbler numbers are good and the birds are talkative. Last year was no exception. Fourteen of the state's 55 counties yielded kills of at least one gobbler per square mile, the measuring stick that DNR officials use to designate the state's prime turkey-hunting counties.
A few of those counties, however, are not considered blue-ribbon hunting destinations because they are small in area or contain very little public land. Brooke County, for example, produced an eye-popping 2.05 gobblers per square mile, the state's highest average per unit of area. But is Brooke truly the state's most productive turkey county? Technically, yes. But when one considers that the county encompasses only 76 square miles and has but a handful of acres open to public hunting, its luster diminishes quite a bit.
The same goes for Hancock and Ohio, two other small Northern Panhandle counties. These counties ranked second and third in productivity, respectively, but suffer from the same handicaps as Hancock.
Hunters would be much better off to try their luck in Mason County, where 407 square miles of prime turkey habitat beckon to sportsmen.
Mason's rolling hills contain a gobbler-friendly combination of mature oak-hickory forestland, working farms and old family farmsteads reverting to pole timber. Small wonder, then, that Mason produced a state-leading 562 toms last spring. Its productivity ratio of 1.38 gobblers per square mile was the state's sixth highest.
Two sizable tracts of public land call enticingly to would-be turkey hunters. The Chief Cornstalk Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located south of the Kanawha River near the town of Southside, offers 11,772 acres of tall, mature hardwoods and a fine turkey flock. Farther north, near Point Pleasant, the 3,655-acre McClintic WMA is a patchwork quilt of half-grown wood lots, wildlife plantings and agricultural fields. Interestingly enough, McClintic produced more turkeys than Cornstalk last season - a little-known factoid that seems to dispel the notion that turkeys always prefer big timber.
Another likely spot for hunters to try is Monongalia County, tucked up against the Pennsylvania border in the state's north-central region. As a turkey producer, Monongalia proved remarkably consistent last spring. Its overall harvest of 380 birds ranked seventh in the state. So did its productivity ratio of 1.22 gobblers per square mile.
The county's habitat is remarkably varied. From the Monongahela River bottoms to the westernmost ridges of the Allegheny Range, the county encompasses a scenic mix of rolling foothills and soaring mountains.
The 12,698-acre Coopers Rock State Forest (SF), located less than 10 miles outside the Morgantown city limits off Interstate 68, is by far the county's best public-hunting possibility. The forest straddles the broad shoulders of Chestnut Ridge on the Alleghenies' flank. The ridge's namesake chestnut trees are gone, but oaks and hickories compensate handsomely for their loss. Every year, Coopers Rock ranks among the state's most productive public tracts for spring-gobbler hunting.
Third on any hunter's list of top 10 turkey producers would be Lewis County. Located just north of the state's geographic center and bisected by Interstate 79, it provides sportsmen easy access to its riches.
Historically, hunters have responded eagerly to Lewis' hospitality. Last spring, for example, sportsmen bagged 442 toms within the county's borders - the state's third-highest total. Lewis' productivity ratio of 1.16 gobblers per square mile ranked 10th.
Like most of the state's best turkey counties, Lewis combines dense, mature hardwood forests with a smattering of working farms and an abundance of old farms being swallowed by surrounding wood lots.
The Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA sprawls over 18,289 acres of such diverse habitat, and has justifiably established a reputation as a gobbler-hunting destination. For the past two seasons, Stonewall has led the state in public-land harvest. No wonder Gov. Bob Wise hosts his annual Governor's Youth Turkey Challenge hunt at Stonewall, and no wonder the Division of Tourism officials showcase the WMA to visiting outdoor writers.
Though it doesn't have nearly as much public hunting as the aforementioned counties, Wi
rt County nevertheless belongs among the state's top 10 turkey producers. Its performance during last year's spring season established its bona fides.
Sportsmen bagged 276 toms within the county's borders. The overall kill didn't rank in the top 20, but the total pushed Wirt's productivity ratio to 1.19 gobblers per square mile - eighth-best in the Mountain State.
Old farmsteads and wood lots dominate the county's landscape, and the steeply rolling hills contain untold thousands of coves where turkey flocks can go about their business relatively unmolested.
A sizable portion of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA spills over into Wirt County from neighboring Ritchie County. The sprawling tract is timber company property on long-term lease to the DNR, and contains the sort of patchwork habitat that creates ideal growing and living conditions for turkeys.
Though Upshur County ranked just 14th with a productivity ratio of 1.02 birds per square mile last year, it ranked 11th in overall harvest at 346.
Like Monongalia a few miles to the northeast, Upshur's landscape rises from river-bottom lowlands to the high foothills of the Alleghenies. The county was extensively farmed during the 1800s, timbered in the early 1900s and strip-mined during the first half of the 20th century.
Man's handiwork has created some pretty impressive turkey habitat. Nowhere is that habitat more apparent than on the 3,000-acre Stonecoal Lake WMA. Hardwood forests cover 80 percent of the tract, which is privately owned by a power company and leased to the DNR.
Upshur is easy to get to, but not terribly easy to get around inside. U.S. Hwy. 33 bisects the county from west to east, but from there a twisting labyrinth of country roads makes access to the hinterlands excruciatingly slow. Fortunately, slow-moving farm traffic is virtually nonexistent during the pre-dawn hours when gobbler hunters tend to travel.
Up to this point, our rankings have concentrated on counties with sizable tracts of public land. However, it would be irresponsible to continue without mentioning two relatively large counties where public land is scarce but turkeys are extraordinarily abundant.
The first is Wood County. At 309 square miles, it's almost as large as Monongalia and Upshur, but it contains only a portion of the 967-acre Sand Hill WMA for hunters to use. Since the area was recently timbered, and its forests haven't yet reached a stage at which they can be considered prime turkey habitat, Sand Hill has yet to yield the first bird to sportsmen. The rest of the county, however, is contributing nicely to West Virginia's reputation as a gobbler-hunting mecca.
Sportsmen bagged 433 toms on the county's private lands last year, the state's fourth-highest total. Wood's productivity ratio of 1.40 birds per square mile ranked fifth.
For those sportsmen fortunate enough to secure access to some of the county's prime turkey woods, access is a snap. Interstate 77 brings traffic from Charleston and north-central Ohio, and U.S. Hwy. 50 delivers motorists from Clarksburg and points east.
The second ultra-productive private-land county is Marshall. Located at the base of the state's Northern Panhandle, it encompasses considerably more area and contains much less urban and industrial sprawl than its Lilliputian neighbor counties.
Marshall's steep-sided, rolling hills encompass roughly 270 square miles, and most of that area is private. The 54-acre Burches Run Lake WMA is essentially too small to hunt. Only Marshall County's share of the 2,072-acre Cecil H. Underwood WMA, located south of Cameron, provides enough elbowroom for more than a few hunters at a time.
The tract's oak-hickory woods and classic Appalachian hardwood cove habitat create an enticing destination for sportsmen because the knowledgeable ones among them realize that the surrounding countryside virtually teems with turkeys.
Hunters had no trouble confirming that fact last spring. Marshall's harvest of 422 birds ranked fifth in the state, and the county's productivity ratio of 1.56 gobblers per square mile ranked fourth.
Just to the south, Wetzel County's hunters fared quite well at the same time. They bagged 327 toms, good enough for 15th in overall harvest and 17th in gobblers killed per square mile. Not only does Wetzel boast a turkey population equal to that of its neighbors, Marshall and Monongalia, it also contains sizable chunks of public land.
Part of the aforementioned Cecil H. Underwood WMA spills over into the county's northern reaches, and the 13,388-acre Lewis Wetzel WMA dominates the Buffalo Run, Piney Fork and Slabcamp Run drainages south of Jacksonburg.
The Wetzel WMA's hills, which rise nearly 800 feet from the adjacent hollows, are covered with mature oak, hickory and beech. It comes as no surprise, then, that the sprawling property ranks among the top public-land producers each spring.
Though its name doesn't indicate it, the 540-acre Lantz Farm and Nature Preserve is open to hunters. Owned by Wheeling Jesuit University and managed by the DNR, the Jacksonburg tract's old-growth oak-hickory forest harbors a fine turkey flock.
To get to the final pair of stops on this year's top 10 list, hunters must travel almost as far south as it's possible to go and still remain in West Virginia.
Summers County has long been legendary among Mountain State turkey enthusiasts. Back in the days before the DNR's trap-and-transplant program spread birds throughout the rest of the southern counties, Summers cranked out topnotch gobbler harvests every spring.
Part of that success can be traced to the Bluestone Lake WMA, which encompasses the 17,632 acres that surround the lake as well as a sizable chunk of the lower Bluestone River watershed. Only Lewis County's Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA outstrips Bluestone's output.
Small wonder, then, that Summers accounted for last spring's 18th-highest overall harvest, 303; and the 20th-ranked productivity ratio of .88 birds per square mile.
Not especially renowned as a premier gobbler producer in the past, neighboring Mercer County ran stride for stride with Summers last spring. Mercer's hunters bagged 337 toms to rank 14th in overall harvest. The county's productivity ratio of .92 ranked 18th.
Though its public land doesn't match that of its neighbor, Mercer isn't exactly impaired in that department. The long arm of the Bluestone Lake WMA that reaches up the Bluestone watershed crosses the border into Mercer near the mouth of Mountain Creek.
Roughly five miles due west, the 5,987-acre Camp Creek SF provides dependable turkey hunting for sportsmen who enjoy a physical challenge. Its rugged terrain, punctuated by massive sandstone outcroppings, is overlain by oak-hickory forest in several stages of regene
Farther south, near the town of Oakvale, the 500-acre Tate Lohr WMA also provides hunting opportunities, though limited somewhat by the property's relatively small size.
Three other counties didn't make the top 10 because they offered so little in the way of public land, but they merit recognition alongside the others because they were so doggoned productive.
Marion County, for example, ranked ninth in productivity with an impressive 1.17 gobblers per square mile. The county's overall harvest of 319 birds ranked 16th. All those birds were taken on private land, however, because Marion has no public land to speak of.
Harrison County yielded 415 toms and ranked sixth in overall harvest. Its productivity ratio of 1.06 birds per square mile ranked 13th. But with only the 976-acre Center Branch WMA open to the public, Harrison simply lacks enough sportsman access to merit a place among the state's elite gobbler counties.
The same can be said for neighboring Doddridge County. Private-land hunters had a grand time in Doddridge last year. They ranked 13th in overall harvest with 340 toms, and took 12th in productivity ratio with 1.10 birds per square mile. But without a single acre of public land for hunters to travel to, Doddridge simply lacked one of the three criteria these top 10 rankings were based upon.
Two other "close, but no cigar" counties ranked well up in the overall-harvest standings and contained a wealth of public property, yet failed to make the final list because they weren't especially productive.
Ritchie County, once a fixture in the top 10 rankings, fell out because its overall harvest of 343 birds was good only for 12th place and its productivity ratio plummeted to a mere .78, a dismal 23rd in the standings.
Still, Ritchie is home to two of the state's finest public hunting areas, and both merit at least a passing mention. About 40 percent of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA spills over into the county's southwestern corner near Petroleum, and the Ritchie Mines WMA encompasses a productive 2,300 acres near Mellin.
The final county on the runner-up list is Jackson. Its overall harvest of 350 gobblers tied for ninth in the state, but its productivity ratio of .77 ranked a mediocre 24th.
Two productive public tracts should ensure Jackson's place as a favored hunting spot, however. The 2,735-acre Frozen Camp WMA near Marshall is a patchwork of hardwoods and old fields, and the 1,700-acre Woodrum WMA near Romance features dense stands of mature oak-hickory and oak-pine forest.
The bottom line, overall, is that West Virginia teems with turkeys and abounds with high-quality places to hunt them.
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