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Expanded opportunities for fall turkey hunters

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.

"There is some oak mast up high, above 2,500 feet," he explained. "At lower elevations, it's spotty. It will have some impact on fall hunting, for sure. But at the same time, soft mast and beechnuts are pretty abundant, and that will offset the oak situation somewhat.

"Early in the season, especially if the weather holds and there isn't a hard frost, birds will be in the fields eating insects and grass seeds. After that, they'll be on dogwood, grapes and any blackberries that are still on the vine. They're also going to be hitting beech pretty hard, and also ironwood and ash seeds."

For the second consecutive year, the fall season will have a one-week break built into it. DNR officials in 2012 created a new firearm season for antlerless deer, and they decided to plop it smack in the middle of the turkey season.

There was some concern that punching a hole in the turkey season might reduce the harvest, but Taylor said the gap didn't appear to affect the kill at all, and the numbers bear him out.

The harvest total of 1,272 birds was actually a slight increase from the previous year's harvest of 1,186. Both figures were about average for the past 10 years, during which the autumn kill has ranged between 1,130 and 1,511.

The halcyon days of fall turkey hunting took place in the early 1980s, before bowhunting became all the rage. Today's harvests run about half what they did back then. Taylor believes the drop-off has happened largely because there are fewer fall turkey hunters.

"I think interest in fall turkey hunting has kind of gone by the wayside," he said. "Today's sportsmen look at it with a ho-hum attitude.

"Today, because game is so abundant statewide, people focus on one species a lot more than they did back then. Nowadays people go deer hunting or squirrel hunting or grouse hunting. Back then you just went 'hunting.' A lot of the turkeys killed back then were by guys out hunting for deer or squirrels or whatever. If turkeys happened by, they got shot."

The authors of the DNR's Hunting Outlook expect this year's fall turkey season to produce more birds than last year's.

"Last year 15 counties were open for a one-week season and seven counties were open for a two-week season," they wrote. "[This year] there are still 15 counties open for a one-week season, but there are now 13 counties open for a two-week season.

"Due to the larger number of counties open for a fall season and the poor oak mast conditions, we are predicting a higher fall turkey season harvest."


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