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DNR hoping changes boost interest in fall turkey season

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With a new two-part season and more counties open to hunting, state wildlife officials are hoping sportsmen will show renewed interest in the fall turkey season.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wildlife officials hope West Virginia's new two-part fall hunt for wild turkeys will boost hunters' enthusiasm for the once-popular season.

Earlier this year, members of the state Natural Resources Commission split the season apart to make room for a new three-day October firearm hunt for antlerless deer. Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, believes the presence of firearm-oriented deer hunters in the woods might revive sportsmen's interest in autumn turkey hunting.

"I'm hoping it generates a little more hunter interest," Taylor said. "The [new late-September] start to the archery season should give sportsmen ample time to harvest a deer with a bow and then go turkey hunting, and the split season should allow hunters in traditional turkey-hunting counties to harvest an antlerless deer with a gun and return to turkey hunting."

The new fall turkey hunt opens a week earlier than it had in past years. This year's season will begin on Oct. 13, remain open for one week, take a one-week break and resume on Oct. 29.

The Oct. 13-20 segment of the season will include the 14 traditional and all 22 non-traditional turkey counties. The Oct. 29-Nov. 3 segment will include the traditional counties and seven non-traditional counties. From Nov. 5 to Nov. 17, the season will be open only in the traditional counties.

Long-time observers of the fall season should notice that 36 open counties is a higher total than usual. That's because the guidelines for fall-season inclusion are more liberal than they used to be.

Previously, counties' eligibility had been determined by the number of turkeys killed during the preceding spring season. Counties that produced more than one bird per square mile got a fall season.

In 2011, DNR officials set up a two-tiered system designed to increase the number of counties eligible for the autumn hunt. Those that produced more than 0.5 gobblers per square mile would get a one-week season, and those that produced more than 0.75 birds per square mile would get a two-week season.

"What that essentially did was to increase the number of counties with two-week seasons," Taylor said.

Though early reports seemed to indicate poor turkey reproduction last spring, Taylor said subsequent reports have been more encouraging.

"What I'm hearing and what I'm seeing is that we had good reproduction," he said. "Now will our brood report reflect that? I don't know."

Taylor's uncertainty stems from his agency's 2011 decision to reduce the number of people who report turkey brood sightings. Previous reports had been taken from hunters, from mining reclamation inspectors, from Natural Resources Police officers and from DNR biologists or game managers.

Now, only DNR personnel are allowed to report brood sightings, and only sightings made during working hours. Taylor said the new system "might take years" to become a reliable indicator of turkey reproductive success.

"It will take a while before we can look at the new brood-report numbers and know for sure whether they indicate a rise or drop in reproduction," he said.

Whether there are more or fewer turkeys, Taylor said one thing is for sure - hunters' ability to find them will depend on mast conditions in the areas the hunters choose to hunt.

"This year, it seems like mast is either abundant or it's nonexistent," he explained. "In some areas it will remind you of 2010, when we had a record-breaking mast crop. In other areas it will remind you of 2009, when we had a complete mast failure. The secret will be finding areas where mast is abundant.

"In places of abundance, the availability of food will concentrate [turkey flocks] for quite some time. For example, if you find grapes late in the season and find turkey sign there, you can bet the turkeys will be there until all the grapes are gone."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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