West Virginia WILD Turkey, Trout and Ramps
By Frank Jezioro Director, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
West Virginia – It is that time of year again that West Virginians wait for with their shotguns, fishing rods and little mattocks. It is time to head for the mountains in search of spring gobblers, trout and ramps.
It is one of the most beautiful of all seasons in the mountains. Soon the redbuds and dogwoods will be in full bloom. The warm rays of spring sunshine will be glistening on the backs of our wild mountain gobblers and the water of our trout streams will reflect a brilliant blue sky.
While we talk abut heading for the mountains in search of wild gobblers, it isn’t really necessary unless you also want to have the full experience of the trout fishing and the digging of a few ramps. The total experience comes when you are able to catch a few trout, dig some fresh ramps and throw the whole mess into a cast iron skillet with potatoes and a little bacon. Sitting around a little campfire with the soft wind whispering through the hemlocks is about as good as it gets.
The fact of the matter is that we really have better spring gobbler hunting outside of the traditional mountain turkey counties. Now you can hunt turkeys in every West Virginia County and have a real chance at success. We have greater numbers of turkeys per square mile outside of the mountain counties than we do in the high country. One example is Mason County in the western part of the state. This county, like many of the western counties, boasts good numbers of gobblers. The difference, once you leave the mountains, is that it becomes a little harder to get permission to hunt. While the mountain counties hold vast amounts of National Forest and Wildlife Management areas open to hunting, most of the hunting in the rest of the state is on private land. But we have found that many grant permission to the hunter who approaches the landowner with respect.
While we can hunt gobblers in every county now with a good chance of success, it wasn’t always that way. For many years turkey hunting meant going into the mountains. There simply weren’t any turkeys outside of the mountain counties. First attempts to reestablish huntable populations in other parts of the state were done with what we call “farm raised turkeys.” I remember when they were first stocked in Marion County around 1960. This attempt failed as the birds raised in captivity, even though they were raised in semi-secluded areas, simply didn’t become wild enough to survive on their own. The real success took hold when the West Virginia DNR started trapping truly wild birds on places like Cheat Mountain, Becky’s Creek, and Kumbrabow State Forest. These were the truly wild strain of the Eastern Wild Turkey and when they were released from their boxes they hit the ground running and flying and were wild enough to survive their transplant. In a few years, the birds had spread throughout the state and now provide excellent hunting opportunities without having to drive hours into the mountains.
Spring gobbler season becomes popular
The change from fall hunting to hunting spring gobblers was also a transformation of hunting traditions. Until the early or mid-sixties, the only turkey hunting in West Virginia was in the traditional fall season. Then, in the 60s, the first spring gobbler seasons were held and a new tradition was born. We lived in Elkins in 1966 and that was my first experience of spring gobbler hunting. At that time there were a few local hunters who knew something about spring gobbler hunting as they had been hunting for a few years during the Virginia spring gobbler season. For the rest of us it was more of learning by trial and error. We read some and talked to those who had actually hunted in the spring.
Funny how the human mind works. I can recall the first spring gobbler I killed in 1967 as it were last weekend, even though I can’t remember everything I did last weekend! I had done some scouting on Cheat Mountain, out on the Fish-For-Fun Road. Spending a few mornings on a high point at daylight, I had located what I thought were three different gobblers. When the first morning rolled around I was walking out an old logging road in complete darkness. Reaching the designated spot I had marked the day before with a fallen limb, I sat down on a huge old log and waited for that magical hour when the woods come alive. Soon, the birds were singing, the squirrels and chipmunks were scurrying around but not a single gobble did I hear. I just assumed that the turkey gobbled every morning and figured that for some reason they had left the mountain.
But I was there with nothing to do but start calling. First I let out a few soft clucks, followed by some yelps. But still not a sound. I waited for a few minutes and did the same thing over again and again the same result. By then, the sun was starting to climb high in the sky and still not a gobble did I hear. I sat for another 15 minutes and hit the old Lynch box call again. When not a gobble came forward after another five minutes I decided it was over for the morning and stood to gather my call and start back up the logging road. I got up from the old log and started to turn when I heard something in the leaves. At first I thought it was one of the squirrels, but it was too heavy and made measured steps as if someone walking. Then I heard one raspy yelp and realized a turkey was just around the bend in the road and coming straight toward me.
There was nothing to do but dive behind the old log. As soon as I got behind the log I realized I had made a major mistake. I was lying down to stay hidden but was lying on my left side with the gun under me. With the sound getting closer every second, I dared not move. Quickly, I decided I would let the turkey come as close as possible and then jump up and try to get a shot. I figured he was only 20 yards away when he shook the ground with a mighty gobble. It seemed clear that he was trying to locate the hen he thought was there from the calling I had been doing. I couldn’t move and just lay there. Again I heard the footsteps coming closer. When the steps ceased, I figured the turkey had to be just on the other side of the log I was lying behind. It was now or never! In one motion I rolled onto my knees and sprang into a standing position. Back then I could spring! As I guessed, the turkey was so close that when he jumped into the air I could feel the air from his wings.
By the time I got to a standing position and flipped the safety off of the Old Browning Five Shot, the gobbler was in the air and starting out over the mountain. But he was in the clear and a very big target. At the crack of the 12 gauge the gobbler folded and came crashing down through the limbs of a dead snag. I was on him in a flash and stood there as he flopped his last. That first gobbler was one of the most beautiful I have ever killed. He had 1 ¼ inch spurs, a 10 1/2inch beard and weighed 20 ¼ pounds. His colors were brilliant in the morning sun and I was now a Spring Gobbler Hunter.
There have been many gobblers since that first one in the 60s and each and every one has been an exciting hunt to remember, but none is remembered in such detail as that first one. With the season fast approaching, now is the time to do that initial scouting. Locate a bird or two, get out early and above all, be careful. Never raise your gun until you have clearly identified the target as a turkey with a very visible beard.