West Virginia Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014
March 11, 2014
If you're looking to do some West Virginia turkey hunting this spring, this is your one-stop shop for population numbers, harvest info, and hunting opportunities.
In 2013, 10,974 birds were checked in — a total 32 percent greater than the 2012 tally, and 13 percent over the five-year average. Favorable weather, good 2011 poult production, and a low kill in 2012 (which caused more carry over birds to exist) all contributed to the upward thrust of the harvest. Indeed, every district and 52 out of 55 counties reported higher harvests, and the overall harvest was the highest since 2006.
A bountiful acorn and soft mast crop in the fall often leads to more turkeys in the upcoming spring as the hens make it through the winter in better shape to reproduce. On that front, some bad news exists.
Last autumn, acorn production was well below the 42-year average. Personally in Monroe County where I own two properties, I noted far fewer acorns than in the three previous years. However, according to the 2013 Mast Survey, beechnuts, an important wild turkey food but certainly not an equal to acorns, were above average as were two soft mast foods: crabapples and hawthorns. The bottom line, though, is no single hard or soft mast food is as critical for turkeys as acorns, and the news was definitely unfavorable on that front.
Keith Krantz, West Virginia DNR upland game biologist, gave me this update.
"The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Section is currently expanding its development of early successional habitat improvement projects on many of the WMAs under its control across the state," he told me. "A number of our WMAs have active timber harvests underway and many more are or have units that have been cruised, marked and are awaiting administrative approval. Because this habitat is relatively short lived, a mosaic of these units is distributed across these areas.
"Timber management units range in size from 10 to 200 acres depending on the age of the stand, the deer herd, and the management prescription. Mother Nature assisted us with our early successional habitat management last year when a tornado severely impacted 3,200 acres on East Lynn WMA in southern Wayne County. A number of salvage cuts have been implemented with more planned for this area."
Krantz says that this increase in early successional habitat obviously and positively impacts local grouse and woodcock populations and many non-game species as well. But hunters should also know that turkeys benefit from early succession habitat as "young forests" are superb places for turkeys to build nests and for hens and poults to bug and feed. Indeed, this habitat manipulation is very good for turkeys.
Krantz, who is out of the Elkins office, encourages hunters to contact the DNR District offices around the state. Personnel there can either assist hunters in contacting wildlife managers on the public lands they would like to go afield on or have the information themselves concerning where to go.
District I (the Northern Panhandle and surrounding counties) enjoyed a 15-percent uptick in the harvest as 2,459 were checked in, up from the 2012 tally of 2,020. The top five counties were Preston (403), Harrison (355), Marshall (301), Monongalia (261), and Wetzel (256). Twice I have driven across the state in an 11-hour round trip for the privilege of pursuing spring gobblers in Preston and Marshall counties.
And make no mistake, it is a privilege to hunt in many District I counties. This is rolling hill country with a fetching mix of scattered woodlots, pastures, stream bottoms, cow pastures, and agriculture. Northern West Virginia has long been a traditional bastion for the wild turkey as species and this situation certainly continues this season.
For public land hunting, consider Coopers Rock State Forest (12,713 acres) in Preston and Monongalia counties. These counties have high turkey populations anyway, and Coopers Rock and its mountainous terrain give hunters the option of escaping the crowds. I have hunted Coopers Rock and much of it is quite steep, so be prepared for some arduous hiking.
District II, which encompasses the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding domains, experienced a harvest that basically equaled its five-year average. Last spring, 786 birds were checked in compared to the 2012 tally of 703. The top five counties were Grant (129), Hardy (121), Hampshire (120), Pendleton (117), and Mineral (86).
When I think of my times hunting in this district, the terrain features that most stand out are that this is mountain and stream bottom country. Tributaries of the Potomac course through District II either as mountain rills or valley streams such as the South Branch of the Potomac. The best hunting often takes place in hardwood hollows and bottomlands that envelop these tributaries.
One of the public lands that characterizes District II is the George Washington National Forest. JoBeth Brown, public affairs officer for the national forest, states that the best way for hunters to find a place to hunt on the public land is to access the agency's website, select the ranger district that they would like to hunt or is closest to their homes, and then call that district and speak to a staff member familiar with hunting opportunities.
Brown instructs individuals to ask about where hunting traditionally has been good and where recent clear cuts, water sources, prescribed burning, and various habitat improvement projects exist. A very helpful publication, she says, is the Trails Illustrated maps, which are constantly updated.
If a ranger district does not have those maps, a staffer can direct the caller to where they can be purchased locally. Of course, U.S. Geologic Survey maps can be quite helpful as well. Brown further encourages sportsmen to scout out these prospective areas before the season begins. For more information visit www.fs.usda.gov/r8/.
District III consists of the central mountain counties and surrounding environs. The harvest here increased almost 21 percent over the five-year average from 1,049 to 1,584. Top counties were Upshur (262), Braxton (239), Lewis (222), Nicholas (221), and Randolph (215).
District III features a number of WMAs in the Monongahela National Forest, and much of the private land in the highlands of Randolph County is equally steep and difficult to hunt. When turkey hunting on private land in Randolph and Pocahontas counties, I seek out benches below mountain crests. These are where toms often come after fly down to strut and gobble.
One of the premier public lands in District III is the Stonewall Jackson WMA. On my visits to this 18,289-acre WMA in Lewis County, I have always been pleased with the number of turkeys encountered. Unlike most of the public lands in this district, Stonewall offers gently rolling topography with old-field and stream bottom habitat. Keep in mind that given its location in central West Virginia and widespread acclaim, that Stonewall can receive considerable hunting pressure.
District IV that covers much of the southern part of the state enjoyed a 15-percent uptick in its turkey harvest from 1,366 to 1,979. Leading the way were Greenbrier (309), McDowell (305), Fayette (282), Summers (253), and Wyoming (249). Southern West Virginia, and this is an oversimplification of course, can be defined as having counties with steep mountainsides and those with ultra-steep mountainsides.
Actually, domains such as Monroe, Greenbrier, and Summers also feature plenty of cattle farms, and one of my favorite places to hunt is one such farm in Monroe. McDowell and Wyoming are brutally hard to hunt, given their vertical mountainsides. In fact, of all the places I have hunted in all the states I have been to, I would rate the gobblers in McDowell as the most difficult to kill. Many times I have been within 20 yards of a tom and not even seen him because of the forbidding terrain.
My favorite public land to hunt in District IV is the Jefferson National Forest. My first gobbler came from this public land and over the past decade or so, I have tagged a half dozen toms there — and should have killed one last May as noted earlier. I don't enjoy hunting the Jefferson on Saturdays or at the start of the season as almost invariably I have competition. Wait until later in the season to visit this public land.
District V, covering much of the southwestern and western part of the state, registered a major upsurge in the harvest from 1,500 to 2,044. The leading counties were Mason (360), Kanawha (327), Logan (245), Boone (224), and Putnam (221).
Last spring, I was supposed to have gone hunting in Mason County and was exceedingly frustrated when my hosts cancelled the junket. Frankly, what turkey enthusiast wouldn't want to go afield in Mason with its agricultural areas, cattle concerns, and Ohio River tributaries with their stream bottom habitat. Mason boasts just about ideal turkey surroundings.
Upland Game Biologist Keith Krantz' mention of 22,928-acre East Lynn Lake and its tornado damage leads to this WMA being an intriguing possibility as a turkey destination this spring. The habitat variety created by the high winds — and the fact that much of this heavily forested WMA remained unscathed by the high winds — should result in some super edge-type habitat. And turkey hunters know how birds like to feed along this type of food and cover.
Much of this public land is very steep and combined with its large size, gives hunters plenty of opportunity to escape their peers. For more information go to www.wvdnr.gov/Hunting/D5WMAareas.
District VI is basically the north central part of the state and tallied an impressive harvest increase from 1,665 to 2,162. The leading quintet consisted of Ritchie (325), Jackson (312), Wood (308), Roane (235), and Tyler (211). This region consists of some steep terrain and some solid mixes of farmland and rolling hills. Turkey numbers are traditionally high here, especially in counties like Ritchie, Jackson, and Wood, which are perennially among the harvest leaders.
For public land, consider the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA in Ritchie and Wirt counties. Quite a bit of timber cutting has been done here over the years leading to timber stands of multiple ages — something very good for turkeys. For more information visit www.wvdnr.gov/Hunting/D6WMAareas.
Curtis Taylor, Wildlife Resources Section Chief for the Division of Natural Resources, offers his thoughts on the season to come, including the all-important 2012 hatch.
"The hatch in 2012 appeared to be sufficient to produce good gobbler hunting this spring," he told me. "The Southern Counties produced the greatest number of broods seen in 2012, followed by the Western Counties, the Eastern Panhandle and lastly the Mountain Counties. The number of poults per hen varied in 2012 from 5.9 to 3.7 with a statewide average of 4.1, which would be considered about average.
"Brood production in 2013 was led by the Western and Southern Counties, followed by the Mountain and Eastern Panhandle. Although we had dry, warm weather early in the brood year, the state later saw significant rainfall that may have caused higher than normal mortality in young turkeys. If these losses occurred statewide, then we will see the results in the 2015 gobbler harvest.
"Statewide, wild turkeys are doing well. West Virginia is now at the point where populations depend upon weather conditions and mast availability. The areas of the state that are showing the best populations are the Western and Southern regions followed by the Mountains, then the Eastern Panhandle."
I can hardly wait for opening day April 28, and I bet many readers feel the same way.
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