West Virginians are seeing lots of wild turkeys this spring, and that bodes well for hunters when the state’s spring gobbler season opens Monday morning.
“I’m expecting a good harvest,” said Gary Foster, assistant wildlife chief for the Division of Natural Resources. “Typically, our spring harvest runs in the 9,000-to-10,000 range. Last year, it was 10,369. I anticipate, with decent weather, we should be able to top 10,000 again this spring.”
Foster bases his prediction on one factor: The state has more turkeys now than it has for the past few seasons.
“There are a lot of turkeys on the landscape,” he said. “In 2015 and in 2016, our turkey brood counts came in above the five-year average. In 2015, we saw an abundance of broods in the southern part of the state; last year, we had an exceptional number of broods observed in the northern and western parts of the state.”
Based on those numbers, Foster believes the next two to three seasons “will be pretty productive for spring gobbler hunters.”
Turkeys can be found in all 55 Mountain State counties. It wasn’t always that way. During the 20th century, deforestation and overhunting eliminated wild birds from all but 16 mountain and Eastern Panhandle counties.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, DNR biologists trapped flocks of turkeys from those counties and relocated the birds to reestablish populations in counties where there were none. The last stocking took place in Logan County in 1989. By the late 1990s, those stocked birds had expanded into just about every bit of habitat the state had to offer.
Since then, fluctuations in the population have followed the success or failure of the birds’ springtime mating season. Mortality in newly hatched turkeys runs high when the weather is cold and wet. Drought and starvation also kill young birds.
Last year, a once-in-a-generation natural phenomenon sparked phenomenal breeding success. Seventeen-year periodical cicadas emerged in the state’s northern and western counties, and the big insects gave turkey poults all the food and moisture they could possibly hope for. In areas where cicadas hatched, turkey brood reports went up 323 percent.
Foster expects hunters in cicada-fueled areas to benefit from the abundance of year-old birds, but only a little.
“Young gobblers, or ‘jakes,’ don’t gobble much and they don’t really respond well to hunters’ calls,” he explained. “The sheer volume of available birds will help some, but not much. I expect the full effect of the cicada hatch to show up next spring when those birds hatched last spring are two years old. That’s the age at which they tend to gobble most and are most vulnerable to hunters.”
This spring, Foster advises hunters to head for the state’s southern counties.
“Those counties enjoyed super breeding success in 2015, and those birds will be two years old this spring,” he explained.
Hunters in the southern counties will more places to hunt than ever before. To support the state’s elk-restoration effort, DNR officials purchased more than 32,000 acres in Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Lincoln counties. Those lands, mostly timberlands and reclaimed surface mines, are now open to hunting.
This will be the second year that the spring season will open on the third Monday in April instead of the fourth Monday. Foster said last year’s inaugural third-Monday opener “didn’t appear to have much effect” on the harvest.
“Hunters favored moving it up a week because it would allow them to hear more gobbling,” he explained. “But that backside of that is that more gobblers are with hens. Last year’s spring kill was pretty much in line with the five-year average. There really wasn’t much change in harvest numbers.”
Last fall, DNR officials opened all 55 counties to fall turkey hunting for the first time in decades. Some hunters worried that a statewide fall-season hunting might diminish the quality of the spring season, but agency biologists said the fall hunt has no effect on hunter success during the spring season.
Last fall’s kill came in at 2,066, up 82 percent from the previous year. Agency sources attributed the increase to the additional open counties and to the cicada-influenced population bump.
This year’s spring season will last four weeks and will close on May 13. Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. Hunters are allowed to take up to two bearded turkeys, but not on the same day.