Many West Virginia hunters experienced some great mornings during the 2018 turkey season, as the kill of 12,274 was the best in 15 years. Last year’s take was 6 percent greater than 2017, and more than 10 percent above the 10-year average.
Mike Peters, Game Bird and Small Game Project Leader for the West Virginia DNR, says the excellent harvest was expected because of, among other factors, the 17-year cicada eruption in 2016.
“The 2016 turkey broods were probably bolstered by the emergence of the 17-year cicadas,” Peters says.“Not only did the poults have plenty of protein themselves, but the cicadas also supplied an alternate food source for everything else that may eat poults.”
The good news is that some of those 2016 hatchlings will be around this spring as 3-year-old longbeards. Unfortunately, they won’t be joined by a goodly number of 2-year-old toms — the age group that often does most of the gobbling and accounts for much of any given year’s harvest.
“A total of 120 turkey broods were observed in 2017,” Peters said. “This was 53 percent below 2016 observations and 30 percent below the five-year average.”
The biggest change occurred in the Western Ecological Region (District 3 and parts of District 1), where brood observations decreased by 70 percent from 2016 to 2017. Statewide, the 2017 observations are on par with observations between 2013 to 2015, although the Southern Ecological Region [District 4] has experienced two consecutive years of decreasing observations.
So where does that leave us for this spring?
“Just looking at brood data from two years ago, I would speculate the 2019 harvest to be below the 2018 harvest (the 2018 season was an exceptional year), but more on par with a typical year and the long-term average,” concluded Peters.
Let’s take a closer look at the Mountain State’s six regions, beginning with the northwestern one, District 6. Wildlife biologist Jeff McGrady doesn’t believe 2018 could have produced a good hatch, given the very wet May and June. In May when rainy weather is the norm, nesting females often suffer from wet hen syndrome — meaning that predators can better smell them, causing hens to sometimes abandon a nest. And cold rainy weather in early June many times results in poults suffering hypothermia and a lower survival rate.
In his district, McGrady says he saw very small poults late in the summer, indicating that perhaps hens’ first nesting attempt were failures. McGrady likewise confirmed that the northwestern part of the state will likely have solid numbers of three-year-old toms this spring because of those same cicada hatch Peters mentioned. However, the 2017 hatch in his part of the state was not as good as the one in 2016. Some positive news does exist, however.
“Turkey hunting is good in all 10 counties in this district,” the biologist says. “Jackson and Wood counties usually lead the pack. But that’s because of proximity to Parkersburg. There is no reason to travel to remote parts of the district when there are plenty of turkeys closer to town.
“My favorite WMA for spring gobblers in District 6 is Stumptown. It is predominantly mature hardwood forest with a fair amount of openings due to the oil and gas industry. Also, Stumptown is in an out-of-the-way location and doesn’t get much hunting pressure, especially late in the season.”
Located in Calhoun and Gilmer counties, 1,675-acre Stumptown features the standard oak-hickory-pine forest found in the rolling hills-type countryside, so typical of this part of the state.
Steve Rauch, District 1 wildlife biologist, believes the 2019 harvest could possibly be lower in his part of the state.
“The Western region, in the brood report, covers most of District I, and in 2017 brood production was considerably lower than 2016,” he said. “And thus I would expect a lower spring gobbler harvest in 2019 compared to this past spring.”
Rauch expects Preston, Harrison, and Marshall counties to be especially good destinations this spring. Good public lands in his region include the Lewis Wetzel, Cecil H. Underwood, and Pleasant Creek WMAs. Situated in the mountains of Wetzel County, the Lewis Wetzel WMA covers 13,590 acres. Although the highlands there aren’t as steep as those in Southern West Virginia, they will discourage the casual hunter. Hunters who are willing to do some climbing can often find unpressured birds in oak-hickory forests.
The 2,215-acre Cecil H. Underwood WMA sports similar habitat in Marshall and Wetzel counties. This public land contains a number of streams that often draw spring flocks.
And the 3,030-acre Pleasant Creek WMA in Barbour and Taylor counties offers some of the most interesting habitat in the northern part of the state. Both upland oak-hickory forests exist as do lowland wetlands. Those wetlands green up early and often draw turkeys in a season’s early stages.
The Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties constitute District 2, and, like his fellow biologists, Rich Rogers is worried about the 2018 hatch and its effects on his region’s turkeys.
“Weather was lousy all spring and summer [in 2018],” he said. “The only good point was that we had a good mast year [in 2017] which led to better survival that winter. Hopefully there will be some two-year-old birds this spring.
“In 2016 and 2017, hatches were probably good, but poult survival was poor.Past research has shown that heavy rains result in high poult mortality once they cannot be effectively brooded by hens as they grow in size.”
Rogers adds that traditionally Hampshire, Hardy, Grant, and Pendleton counties have accounted for the best turkey hunting in his district and Short Mountain, Nathaniel Mountain, and Sleepy Creek have ranked as the premier public lands. Of the latter trio, 22,928-acre Sleepy Creek in Berkeley and Morgan counties perhaps offers the most potential. As the largest District 2 public land by far, Sleepy Creek offers true backcountry hunting in the mountains of the Eastern Panhandle. Oak-hickory forests are the norm, and mountain creeks cascading down through the highlands draw spring toms. I’ve turkey hunted on this public land and can recommend it.
At 8,005 acres, Short Mountain has habitat and terrain similar to Sleepy Creek. Several streams, such as the North River, meander through Short Mountain and provide some bottomland habitat. Campsites are available, too.
The 10,265-acre Nathaniel Mountain WMA, also located in Hampshire County, is a viable destination, especially for folks living in the nearby Romney area. Again oak-hickory-pine forests predominate, providing both food and roosting areas. Tributaries of the South Branch of the Potomac add habitat variety.
Lewis County’s 18,289-acre Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA and Lewis County itself definitely rank among the best public and private places to turkey hunt in Central West Virginia. Tommy Cundiff, who operates River Monster Guide Service (844-588-2347) in Bluefield, certainly likes the area.
“Stonewall Jackson WMA and Lewis County have what I call perfect turkey habitat,” he said. “There are wooded rolling hills with no steep mountains like we have in the Southern Coal Fields. There are ravines and creek hollows that draw turkeys in the spring, as well as lots of spring seeps that do the same.
“Mixed in with all that are old farm fields, woodlots, agricultural areas, and openings. Turkeys like a mix of habitats and Lewis County and Stonewall Jackson offer just about every kind of habitat.”
Of course, Lewis County is not the only county in District 3 known for its turkey hunting. Upshur and Nicholas typically rank high in the overall harvest annually and feature similarly diverse habitats.
Southern West Virginia also offers some quality public lands. DNR wildlife biologist Todd Dowdy believes the best ones in his region are the Bluestone Lake, R.D. Bailey and Beury Mountain WMAs. I have hunted and camped in the Bluestone Lake WMA, and it has some of the most impressive and diverse habitat of any public land I’ve been afield on in any state.
At 18,019 acres, Bluestone, situated in Summers, Mercer, and Monroe counties, also offers considerable size and backcountry hunting. The New River courses through the heart of this public land and provides outstanding bottomland habitat.
I have floated through the WMA many times, and it’s not uncommon to spot turkeys feeding along the shorelines or even occasionally flying across the waterway. The DNR has also performed habitat work here, creating wildlife openings and plantings. This is simply an exceptional place to go afield.
Located in the Southern Coalfields in Mingo and Wyoming counties, R.D. Bailey contains some of the steepest mountains in the state. The 17,280-acre public land doesn’t have tall peaks (elevations top out at about 1,200 feet) but the mountainsides themselves are some of the most vertical ones I’ve ever encountered. Oak-hickory forests blanket Bailey.
The Beury Mountain WMA (all 3,061 acres of it is situated in Fayette County) features the sheer mountains that the region is famous for. Some of the best hunting can be found along the highland creeks that flow toward the New River. Spring often comes late to the highlands here, but hollows with bold creeks green up faster. Camping is not available on the WMA, but the adjoining Babcock State Park offers cabins and campsites.
Mason County is the traditional District 5 leader in turkey harvests, and it’s easy to understand why. The rich Ohio River bottomlands form much of the county’s western border, and tributaries of the Ohio crisscross much of the domain, providing rich soil, lush growth, and lots of turkeys. District biologist Kem Shaw says Kanawha and Putnam rank high most years as well.
Given the good turkey habitat in Mason, it’s not surprising that one of the best public-land destinations this spring should be 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk.
“Chief Cornstalk was traditionally the top WMA in the district,” said Shaw.
Cornstalk offers plenty of rolling hills countryside covered in oak-hickory forest. Also in Mason County is one of the most diversely constituted public lands in the state, the 3,655-acre McClintic WMA. Mixed hardwoods, agricultural areas, old fields, and brush land can all be found here. As was true around the state, Shaw says the wet spring last year was detrimental to turkey reproduction in District 5.
This spring, the turkey hunting is likely to be more challenging than it was in 2018, as there likely will be fewer 2-year-old toms and jakes available. It may be one of those years where sportsmen will have to endure some days without hearing any gobbling. All the more reason to scout now the counties and public lands mentioned here.
Turkey Hunt with Game & Fish