Strutting their stuff?
State wildlife officials expect hunters to have a more difficult time hearing turkeys gobble when the state's four-week spring gobbler season opens Monday.
"Trees 'greened up' about two weeks earlier than usual," said Chris Ryan, the Division of Natural Resources' game management services supervisor. "Hunters won't be able to hear as far as usual because the leaves will keep sounds from traveling as far."
Ryan said an extraordinarily mild winter led to an extraordinarily early spring.
"Usually we wouldn't have this much foliage until about three weeks from now," he added. "In southern West Virginia, we're almost at full leaf-out."
When foliage is that dense, hunters have to move more often, both to make their calls heard and to hear gobblers answering their calls.
"To be successful, hunters are going to have to do a lot more walking this year," Ryan said.
The early spring has also amplified hunters' perennial complaint that DNR officials start the season after tom turkeys have stopped gobbling or are paired up with hens. Ryan acknowledged that conditions might have shifted the birds' mating habits a bit, but not nearly as much as they shifted the trees' green-up cycle.
"The weather can have some effect on turkeys' mating season," he said.
"I have heard that this was the mildest winter we've had in West Virginia since 1895. The extraordinarily mild winter allowed turkeys to enter the mating season in really good condition. When they're in that good a condition, they tend to start breeding earlier."
Some sportsmen reported turkeys actively breeding in late March. Ryan doesn't doubt them, but he said it isn't all that unusual.
"Some turkeys breed early every year. Some breed late, too; but the peak of breeding activity seldom varies by more than three or four days," he explained.
DNR officials deliberately time West Virginia's opening day to come just before the peak of incubation and not at the peak of gobbling or breeding. The peak of incubation occurs when most hens have been bred, have laid their eggs and are sitting on their nests. The purpose of starting the season at the peak of incubation is to protect hens from would-be poachers.
"The peak of incubation typically comes around May 1," Ryan said. "Right after then is one of the very best times to go hunting. When I get to go spring gobbler hunting, I like to go between May 3 and May 8."
A second peak of gobbling generally occurs during the third week of West Virginia's four-week season. The peak occurs because gobblers are still in the mood to breed but most hens are nesting. Unable to easily find hens to mate with, gobblers become more vocal.
Fewer hunters take advantage of the second gobbling peak because mid-May temperatures can be uncomfortably warm, because mid-spring greenery makes turkeys more difficult to hear and locate, or because they've already filled their two-bird limits.
Even with the drawbacks, Ryan said the second peak arguably affords hunters their very best bet for bagging a nice tom.
"It's a shame more hunters don't take advantage of it," he added. "[Gobblers] are very active during that time, and there are a lot fewer hunters to contend with."
DNR officials expect hunters to bag between 9,000 and 10,000 gobblers this spring. In fact, Ryan said they expect this season to closely resemble last year's.
If that prediction holds true, the counties that yielded the most turkeys per square mile in 2011 should make good showings again in 2012.
The top tier of counties, ones that produced at least 0.75 gobblers per square mile, includes, in alphabetical order: Cabell, Harrison, Jackson, Lewis, Mercer, Monongalia, Pleasants, Putnam, Summers, Tyler, Wirt and Upshur.
The second tier, which produced at least 0.50 birds per square mile, includes Brooke, Hancock, Marshall, Mason, Ohio, Preston and Wood.
DNR officials have issued a reminder that baiting turkeys is illegal. The West Virginia Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation offers rewards to hunters who report baiting and poaching violations.
The reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction for illegally killing a turkey is $200; for hunting turkeys over bait is $100; and for willfully destroying a turkey nest or eggs is $100.
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.