CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's fall turkey hunters have some new territory to explore this year.
Division of Natural Resources officials have opened six more counties, which means 42 of the state's 55 counties will be open for at least one week during the Oct. 12-Nov. 16 season. Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief, said he's eager to see if hunters decide to take advantage of the expanded opportunity, or if they'll opt instead to bowhunt for deer.
"We're opening some counties that haven't been open [during the fall] since the 1940s," he said. "We'll see whether people want to hunt turkeys or want to continue pursuing deer with a bow."
He has good reason to wonder. Four of those counties - Lincoln, Logan, McDowell and Wyoming - have been popular with bowhunters since the 1980s, but only in the past few years have become turkey-hunting destinations.
"Those counties used to have very rich fall turkey-hunting traditions, but at that time the only turkeys were up in the eastern mountains," Taylor explained. "People from the southern counties had to travel if they wanted to hunt turkeys. Is there a rich turkey hunting tradition in the southern counties now? I'd say no."
Taylor believes southern hunters will probably treat turkeys more as targets of opportunity.
"If a turkey walks under a bowhunter in a tree stand, I figure the hunter won't hesitate to use an arrow on it," he said.
With 46 counties open, there's a chance that this year's fall harvest might top 2012's total of 1,272 birds. Open counties, however, are only one factor in the equation. Others include weather, food and the number of hunters who participate.
Because the bulk of fall-season counties are open only for one or two weeks, weather could play a role in the season's success - or lack of it.
"A little bit of rain isn't bad if you're a turkey hunter, because birds congregate in fields and walk on roads. They don't like to get any wetter than they have to," Taylor said. "But if we get a stretch of really bad weather, it could affect the harvest. When you have a season that's only a week long, weather could play a huge role. If people only have one Saturday to hunt, and if weather is really bad on that Saturday, fewer turkeys are going to get killed."
At first blush, turkeys' food supply appears to have taken a hit. The DNR's annual Mast Report and Hunting Outlook, published three weeks ago, said this year's acorn crop failed. Turkeys usually rely heavily on acorns.
Taylor said, however, that the situation might not be quite that bad.