If this year’s spring turkey season were like those in the past, state wildlife officials would be predicting a poorer-than-normal gobbler kill.
But this will be no ordinary spring season; it will be five weeks long instead of four.
Last year, members of the state Natural Resources Commission approved a proposal to tack another week onto the end of what, historically, had been a four-week event. As a result, the 2021 season will open on April 19 and close on May 23.
Mike Peters, turkey project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, believes that extra week might help prevent this year’s harvest from falling below last year’s total of 11,320.
“With that fifth week, we might have a harvest that’s pretty similar to last year’s,” Peters said. “Otherwise, we’d be looking at a bit of a ‘down’ year.”
Peters bases that assessment on data DNR officials traditionally use to predict fluctuations in the state’s turkey population — turkey brood reports from two summers ago. The reports give biologists an idea of how many 2-year-old gobblers will be roaming the woods in any given spring.
“Two years ago, we had a relatively low production year compared to 2018,” Peters said. “In 2018, we observed 220 broods. In 2019, we saw 125. If brood reports were the only variable we were taking into account for this year, we’d be predicting a lower harvest.”
He believes the season’s fifth week will help offset the relative shortage of 2-year-old toms.
“Historically, the last two weeks of the [4-week] season each account for about 12% of the harvest,” he said. “I expect the fifth week to produce a little less than that, which might be enough to bring the harvest total up close to average.”
West Virginia has a relatively stable turkey population. For the past 10 years, spring-season hunters have killed an average of 10,355 birds. Year-to-year fluctuations have been relatively small.
Peters said DNR officials didn’t know what to expect last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages. Some thought the sheer number of people idled from work might cause hunter participation to skyrocket. Others thought fear of the disease might keep people cloistered inside their houses.
“As it turned out, we did have a slightly higher harvest by resident hunters, but that was largely offset by a slightly lower harvest by non-residents,” Peters said. “So, on balance, we had a pretty normal year.”
In addition to the regular spring season, West Virginia also offers a two-day youth season. Last year, the youth hunt accounted for 6% of the overall harvest. Peters expects something similar to happen during this year’s hunt, scheduled for April 17-18.
As always, DNR officials expect most of the 2021 spring gobbler kill to take place early in the season. Traditionally, one-half the harvest takes place during the season’s first week, one-fourth during the second week, and one-eighth each during the third and fourth week.
However, any number of natural factors could affect how the season turns out. A recently published study out of North Carolina revealed that gobbling activity can vary widely from year to year. Weather conditions can affect nesting success, gobbling activity and hunter participation.
Peters said hunters shouldn’t be surprised if surprises crop up.
“As much as we would like for them to, turkey seasons don’t often play out the way we think they’re going to,” he said.