West Virginia's turkey hunters didn't fare well at all this spring.
A poor 2010 brood crop and dismal opening-day weather held the harvest to 8,332 bearded gobblers, a 10 percent drop from 2011 and 15 percent under the previous five-year average.
Those numbers, which came from state Division of Natural Resources biologists, aren't yet official. If past years' counts are any indication, they shouldn't change much.
Headed into the season, DNR officials expected this year's kill to closely parallel last year's, but warned of a possible decline based on the agency's tally of turkey broods during the summer and early fall of 2010. The prediction also assumed good weather during the season's first three days, when most hunters are in the woods.
The 2010 brood count was poor - 28 percent lower than in 2009. And the weather didn't cooperate either. A statewide rainstorm on this year's opening day suppressed hunter turnout and generated far less than ideal hunting conditions.
Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief, said brood counts "pretty accurately" predict the outcome of the spring season two years later.
"The number of 2-year-old birds is a primary factor in the number of birds harvested," he explained. "Those are birds that have reached sexual maturity and are able to interact as adults, but they aren't yet as experienced as the 'longbeards' that have survived a hunting season or two."
Yearling gobblers, known as "jakes," are even less experienced but aren't killed nearly as often as 2-year-olds. Johansen explained why.
"Jakes are really unsure about the whole mating thing," he said. "They don't really know how to gobble to attract hens, and when they do open their mouths they risk getting thrashed by dominant gobblers."
Two-year-old gobblers, on the other hand, are vulnerable to hunters' guns because they think they know what they're doing but lack experience.
"They're fully adult and eager to breed. They're able to gobble, and they're able to fight and compete with older gobblers for access to hens. Their downfall is that they still lack experience with hunters," Johansen explained. "In terms of age, there's a sweet spot of vulnerability, and 2 years is it."
Turkey brood production improved in 2011, which bodes well for the 2013 spring season. Biologists pointed out, however, that the 2011 brood count still fell below the state's long-term average.
This season's top-producing counties were Mason, 343; Preston, 330; Harrison, 282; Wood, 237; Greenbrier, 235; Jackson, 229; Marshall, 227; Upshur, 224; Monongalia, 222; and Kanawha, 213.