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."