DNR wildlife chief expects good spring gobbler season
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's top wildlife official believes turkey hunters are in for a good spring gobbler season.
Curtis Taylor, wildlife resources chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the "weird weather" conditions that plagued recent seasons are mercifully absent this year.
"I was talking with Jim Clay, founder of Perfection Turkey Calls, the other day, and we started comparing notes," Taylor said. "Jim said he thought [hunting conditions] would be spot-on perfect this year.
"That matches up with what I've been seeing. I've been watching a flock for about a month now, and the gobblers are out there strutting and carrying on, and the hens only recently started having anything to do with them."
Taylor predicted that by the time the season begins Monday, more than half the available hens would be on their nests, incubating clutches of eggs and not available to gobblers still eager to mate.
"That's what you want to have. When hens are sitting on eggs, gobblers become easier for hunters to call," he added.
DNR biologists schedule the season's opening on the Monday closest to that "peak of incubation," which usually falls between the third and fourth week of April. Unusual weather can mess with the formula, but Taylor said conditions have remained moderate during the run-up to this year's opener.
"I'm looking for a good season," he said. "Right now, it looks like the only thing that could throw a monkey wrench into it is if a lot of juvenile hens attempt to mate."
Young hens seldom breed successfully. Taylor said only 10 percent manage to bring off a clutch of eggs. Those that do attempt to mate often distract gobblers that might otherwise respond to hunters' calls.
If Taylor's forecast of a productive season proves accurate, hunters will almost certainly be happier than they were last year, when the harvest total for the four-week season dropped to 8,303, the lowest total since 1989.
The average kill for the past five seasons is 9,484. A return to that figure would signal an increase of 14 percent. A return to 2010's total of 10,209 birds would amount to a 23 percent increase.
Frustrated hunters blame the past few years' relatively low harvest totals on two things - the DNR's policy of opening the season in late April, which many believe is too long after the peak of gobbling activity; and on a perceived decline in the state's wild turkey population.
Taylor believes it's simply because there are fewer hunters.
"We don't have as many people out there as we used to," he said. "We're an aging population, one of the oldest in the country. We're gradually losing hunters. For every 10 hunters we lose to old age, we gain only eight young hunters. Compared to other states that's a pretty good rate, but overall we're still losing.
"In addition to that, I don't believe hunters are as fired up about turkey hunting as they were a decade or two ago. When we were releasing turkeys [as part of a trap-and-transplant program] and folks were hearing birds gobble in places they hadn't been before, it got a lot of people excited about hunting.
"Once they got out there hunting, though, they found out that calling and killing turkeys was a whole lot more difficult than killing a doe or a buck. I think a fair number of hunters just got discouraged and quit."
All of the state's 55 counties have thriving turkey populations, but hunters' success rates tend to run highest in the Northern Panhandle and in several Ohio River counties. Taylor said, however, that some hunters' desire for solitude might steer them elsewhere.
"There are two ways to look at 'best bets,'" he explained. "I could go to places like the Northern Panhandle or the western counties and hear more birds gobble, but I'd also have to deal with a lot of other hunters.
"On the other hand, I could go to some of the National Forest counties, maybe not hear as many gobblers, but have the place all to myself."
Often overlooked in the mix are the state's southwestern "coalfield" counties, which Taylor described as "really coming on."
"In some of those counties, we're seeing turkeys in areas where we never had them before," he said.
Regardless of where hunters choose to pursue their favorite pastime, Taylor offers the same advice: The more time spent in the woods, the greater the chance of bagging a big old gobbler.
"And if you don't go, it's guaranteed you won't kill one," he added.
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.